Conversion Politics

The status of Jews with dubious halakhic credentials remains hostage to coalition politics

non-kosher haven311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
non-kosher haven311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
LARION VYBORG (“PEOPLE CALL ME LARRY”) stands at the cash register of his specialty food shop in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Beit Hakerem and describes some of the products he sells.
“Over there are boxes of top-of-the-line cookies filled with the best berries from the Belarus forests,” he tells The Jerusalem Report, pointing to a shelf at eye level, where, supermarket psychologists say, customers tend to look first. In no particular order, he runs down a memorized list of other products, much of them in Cyrillic labeling, such as tins of smoked fish, bottles of plum and cherry brandy, canned oysters and, in the refrigerated display case at the rear of the store, smoked meats and salamis rubbing up against exotic cheeses.
The last few items are a giveaway to what the place really is, namely a non-kosher haven, one of hundreds that appeared virtually overnight throughout Israel following the massive influx of olim from the former Soviet Union (FSU) that began at the beginning of the 1990s. While the store is not particularly busy at this hour, there is a steady traffic of customers, many apparently regulars who enter, give a curt nod to Vyborg or his assistant, Hana Shaulov, and exit a few minutes later with a beloved taste or two from the old country, much of it decidedly treif (non-kosher).
Someone asks Vyborg what he thinks about the Rotem Bill. He looks back at his interlocutor quizzically. “What’s that?” It’s the legislation ostensibly aimed at easing the conversion process for as many as a third of a million immigrants from the former Soviet Union, but which, even before reaching the full Knesset plenum, has, like a howling Kansas tornado, left behind it a swath of political, diplomatic, social and Diaspora debris – although apparently not much of it has fallen in Vyborg’s shop.
“Oh, that,” replies the stocky, balding, 53-year-old former hockey player, who came to Israel in 1990 from Bobruisk in Belarus, and who apparently is unfamiliar with the man behind the bill. “It’s not an issue for me. My father died when I was a little boy and I was raised by my maternal grandmother, and though we didn’t advertise it, we were quite Jewish. Lots of others in the neighborhood were, too.”
But what about other olim from the FSU, non-Jews eligible for citizenship in Israel under the Law of Return because of a Jew in the family, but unable to marry a Jew without going abroad, or be buried next to a Jewish relative in a cemetery overseen by the stateauthorized hevra kadisha burial society? “There has to be some kind of order,” Vyborg states. “There are some real anti-Semites who slipped in with this aliya and not everyone looking for a better life should be allowed to convert, to be one of us. On the other hand, though, the religious people shouldn’t be able to force everyone to be like them.”
His last point is a major bone of contention for opponents of the bill, which is sponsored by MK David Rotem of Yisrael Beiteinu, a right-wing party widely seen as representing olim from the FSU that sits at the coalition table with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s Likud.
Rotem’s legislation started life with the goal of decentralizing a conversion process that had in recent years become far more a barrier than a welcome wagon to membership in the Jewish people. Its basic tenet gives local rabbis the authority not only to prepare potential converts, but to perform the conversion ritual itself, thereby undoing a logjam that’s backed up outside the Chief Rabbinate’s door.
The logjam is full of olim and their offspring – in short, Israelis who are made to feel they’re on the outside looking in, even though many of them are native-born and speak Hebrew better than some of the MKs who support the bill. The general perception is that the situation has created a social time bomb.
YET ROTEM HAD TO RESORT TO NO SMALLAMOUNT of horse trading to make the bill more palatable to his ultra- Orthodox Knesset colleagues, who feared they’d be made irrelevant in an issue so central to Judaism. And while any political observer knows that this is part and parcel of just about all legislation, one who used to play the game feels Rotem is merely going through the conversion motions in order to ensure his party’s very survival.
“This,” former MK Roman Bronfman tells The Report, “is a government of ‘anti.’ It’s anti-peace, anti-gay, anti-everything. And Yisrael Beiteinu fits right in. The only thing it’s ‘for’ is itself.”
The Soviet-born Bronfman, 56, made aliya in 1980 and began his Israeli political career with the nowdefunct Yisrael B’aliya, a party for Russian immigrants founded in the late 1990s and led by the most famous of them all, Natan Sharansky (former government minister and now head of the Jewish Agency). Right now, Bronfman explains, “being for itself” means that Yisrael Beiteinu is seeking to ensure its continued viability should party leader and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman be indicted, as police have recommended, for a litany of corruption charges that include suspected bribery, fraud, obstruction of justice and even money laundering.
“The interests behind the [Rotem] bill are political,” Bronfman insists. “Yisrael Beiteinu wants to solidify its relationship with potential coalition partners as a bargaining chip should Lieberman go down, because without him, the party loses its coalition clout. But conversion is not popular among olim because they’re generally secular, no matter what religion they are. And for those who seek it, the bill won’t be much help. It may even hurt. So it’s a bad bill.”
The amendments Rotem allowed to be tacked on along the way would give the Chief Rabbinate final authority over conversions – in effect, keeping the local rabbis in line – and remove any say from the secular court system, giving sole responsibility to the Knesset.
“THAT’S WRONG,” VYBORG SAYS, REFERRING to the Chief Rabbinate, which in recent years has come under the influence of ultra-Orthodox streams, even those considered anti-Zionist, which fear that easing restrictions on conversions would ultimately dilute the Jewishness not only of the country, but of its Jews. “But frankly, I’ve never heard anyone complaining.
People who can’t get married here simply go abroad, come back and live like everyone else.”
His remarks draw into the conversation a thirty-ish, ponytailed man who’s been waiting quietly for his order of pork-based salami and identifies himself as Leon.
“I’ve been married and divorced twice since I came here in 1991,” Leon says. “The only advice I have is to either marry somewhere else or stay single. It’s just not worth putting up with the rabbis.”
Someone asks him whether he and his former wives are Jewish, to which he nods, reaches into his back pocket and brings out his stateissued identity card – the all-important te’udat zehut – which indeed has the word “Jewish” on it.
But in the eyes of Israel’s official rabbinate, even that’s not enough.
Several years ago, the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism, the local Reform movement, went all the way to the Supreme Court to force the Interior Ministry to grant Israelis who undergo IMPJ conversions ID cards with “Jewish” on it – and it’s no secret what the country’s chief rabbis think about Reform Judaism.
Nevertheless, the court victory was an important step for the IMPJ, whose beit din (religious court) converts some 200 people each year, even though few outside the movement – and certainly no one in the official rabbinate – recognize them as Jews.
“A person wants to feel he belongs,” Rabbi Gregory Kotlyar, who heads the IMPJ’s immigrant services division, tells The Report over the phone. “Having ‘Jewish’ written in your te’udat zehut goes a long way toward that.”
In mid-July, the movement hired Mina Tzemach, one of the country’s most respected pollsters, to conduct a telephone survey of attitudes toward the Rotem bill. One of the questions was whether it would help or hinder the conversion process. According to Kotlyar, 32 percent of the Jewish population said it would help, while 42 percent said it would hinder. But among Russian-speaking olim who arrived since the beginning of the 1990s – the very people targeted by the legislation – only 20 percent said it would help, while almost half (46 percent) said it would hinder.
“Rotem says his bill will make it easier for olim to convert, but the survey shows that olim disagree,” Kotlyar says. “If that’s the case – if the bill won’t help – why upset the balance? Why ruin relations with Diaspora Jews?” The IMPJ survey also asked the Russian speakers whether the Chief Rabbinate, which, under the Rotem legislation, would have the final word on conversions, was truly interested in easing the plight of the non-Jews among them. According to Kotlyar, only 19 percent believed it was, while 68 percent said it wasn’t.
“How,” Kotlyar rhetorically asks, “can something like this be shoved down their throats?” Perhaps the most interesting take on events comes from a young Russian-speaker who walks into Vyborg’s store and appears concerned about an even weightier matter, apparently influenced by another high-profile issue, that of the threatened deportation of migrant workers and their Israeli-born children.
“The Chief Rabbinate is now a slave to the haredim [ultra- Orthodox],” the man explains,“and the haredim and the rest of the Orthodox – as anyone who follows Israeli politics knows – have the Knesset by the balls. Today they can tell me I’m not Jewish. Tomorrow they might be able to tell me to leave the country. So I won’t give you even my first name.”
He is asked whether he’s Jewish. He curtly says no and then turns to Hana, standing behind the refrigerated display case – where the milk and meat products, and their proximity, might make your average Jewish Israeli blanch – and asks whether she has any of those “good kosher pickles.”