Commentary: The conversion challenge

A solution is needed before Israel turns into two states – one housing a Jewish people and the other, those who are not Jewish according to halakha.

An Israeli woman and a Palestinian woman gesture at one another during a protest  (photo credit: REUTERS)
An Israeli woman and a Palestinian woman gesture at one another during a protest
(photo credit: REUTERS)
NOT A few eyebrows have been raised over the sudden storm in Israel over conversions to Judaism. The whole world is focused on the Iranian nuclear agreement, but here the religious establishment is seething over the conversion issue.
What prompted 87-year-old Rabbi Nahum Rabinovitch, a renowned Torah scholar and head of the Birkat Moshe Yeshiva in Ma’aleh Adumim, to take time off from his studies and devote himself to the establishment of independent rabbinical courts for conversion? The short answer: the urgent need to find a solution for close to 400,000 immigrants mainly from the former Soviet Union, who consider themselves Jews, but are not Jewish according to halakha.
Traditionally Jews have never tried to appeal to other peoples to encourage them to convert. Although we have had many converts in our history, from Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, to Ruth, King David’s great-grandmother, the traditional attitude toward would-be converts was complex and somewhat suspicious.
Alongside the command to love the image of God in all people, attempts were made to distance candidates for conversion on all kinds of pretexts. They would be asked persistently why they wanted to join a suffering and oppressed people.
Why get themselves into that kind of trouble? This is certainly not our attitude to the would-be converts from the former Soviet Union. Here we are talking about brothers and sisters returning to the fold after decades of Communism, during which the break from Jewish tradition was almost absolute. As a result there were many mixed marriages.
That, in turn, led to the fact that among the millions of Jews we are absorbing in “the ingathering of the exiles,” hundreds of thousands of sons and daughters of Jewish families are not Jewish according to halakha (that is, not born to Jewish mothers), but see themselves as Jews in every way – their own self-perception as well as their social and national affiliation.
In order to better understand the problematics of this complex reality, here are some numbers: Of the nearly 400,000 immigrants living in Israel who are not Jewish according to halakha, close to 100,000 are under 18. Every year around 5,000 children who are not halakhically Jewish are born, and around another 5,000 make aliya. Yet we convert less than 2,000 a year. You don’t have to be a mathematical genius to realize that the number of non- Jews in Israeli society is constantly rising.
The children of these immigrants are well integrated in Israeli society. They serve in the IDF with other Israelis, study in the same schools and universities, and work in the same jobs. For most Israelis, these people are Jews for all intents and purposes. They even celebrate Jewish festivals together.
Marriage to these people is the most natural thing. It does not entail any decision to leave the Jewish fold, as say a marriage between a Jew and a foreigner might. It is a natural progression of the common life they have been living for years in all fields of Israeli endeavor.
Against this background, we Orthodox rabbis have been increasingly concerned at the growing rate of assimilation in Israel.
Thousands of couples get married every year in Cyprus or Prague because one of the partners is not Jewish. These numbers will only grow. Therefore, we desperately need to find a solution before Israel turns into two states – one housing a Jewish people and the other, a people who are not Jewish according to halakha.
We don’t have the luxury of choosing or not choosing to deal with it; it’s an existential threat.
Even in the early days of the state, past chief rabbis were aware of the problem, among them Rabbi Ben-Zion Uziel (1948- 1953) and Rabbi Isser Yehuda Unterman, (1964-1972), and specifically ruled that every effort must be made to increase the rate of conversion among the immigrants.
Unterman acknowledged that in England he had been very strict about conversions, but that from the moment he arrived in Israel and understood what was about to happen with the huge waves of immigration, he realized that a different attitude to conversion was essential.
REGRETTABLY, THE Chief Rabbinate today does not share this awareness and does not do enough to bring immigrants closer to the various conversion channels.
One of the prime examples is the issue of converting minors.
On the halakhic level, this is a less complicated process than for adults. This is based on the assumption that minors have a right to convert even if the degree to which they intend to keep the commandments in future is not clear. That was the ruling of the great Torah sage Rabbi Moshe Feinstein and supported by other important rabbis. But in today’s Israel, the Chief Rabbinate refuses to convert children, even those who study in religious schools, unless the mother also converts.
Rabinovitch and many others realized the extent to which we have been losing the immigrants and with them their Jewish spouses, who are often alienated from any trace of Judaism because of the refusal to convert their immigrant partners.
We tried to establish more amenable conversion channels within the Chief Rabbinate’s remit by empowering municipal rabbis to perform conversions.
A government ruling to this effect was passed last year. It could have been made law, which is what we initially wanted.
But after persistent entreaties from the government we complied and accepted a government edict, which could more easily be overturned.
And that is precisely what happened.
After the March elections the composition of the government changed, and following pressure from the Haredi parties, now members of the coalition, the edict was abrogated, so that municipal rabbis no longer have the authority to convert.
When they realized they would no longer be able to leverage the conversion of minors as they had been trying to do, like-minded municipal rabbis decided to set up a system of independent rabbinical courts subject to Rabinovitch’s oversight and concentrating on the conversion of minors.
It is important to note that the law in Israel does not stipulate who is authorized to convert. Consequently, the activities of these courts are in no way a breach of the law. True, the state does not have to recognize their conversions. Nor does the Chief Rabbinate.
The question, therefore, arises as to the fate of those conversions if the Chief Rabbinate refuses to recognize their validity.
The special courts inform the parents of the risk, and the parents sign a declaration that they are aware that this is the case.
Nevertheless, large numbers still want to participate in this process because it is important to them to know that their children are halakhically Jewish. I am convinced that if thousands of children convert through the independent courts, the state and the Chief Rabbinate will have no choice but to recognize the validity of the process.
There is also a possible precedent. Today there are several petitions to the Supreme Court pending against the state and the Chief Rabbinate over their refusal to recognize conversions performed in Rabbi Shmaryahu Karelitz’s court in Bnei Brak. It is reasonable to assume that if the court orders recognition of those conversions, it will open a large crack toward recognition of conversions by the independent courts under Rabbi Rabinovitch.
We have no interest in undermining the status of the Chief Rabbinate. On the contrary, we believe it has a key role in leading the spiritual life of the nation.
But we are convinced that it is missing a historic opportunity to bring lost children back to the Jewish people.
We will do all we can to assist the ingathering of the exiles. We are going through a difficult period. The defamatory attacks by Haredi politicians and media outlets have long since gone beyond the bounds of reasonable and legitimate discourse.
But we are determined to remain strong, to follow the path of Torah and to bring all Israel closer to our father in heaven. ■  
Rabbi David Stav, a co-founder of Tzohar, a liberal, outward-looking association of national religious rabbis, is rabbi of the town of Shoham and a former candidate for Ashkenazi chief rabbi