Shifting the Jewish balance

After a visit to Ukraine, former Mossad chief Efraim Halevy is adamant that Israel must change its conversion policy

At the Babi Yaar Memorial: Shalom Norman, Rabbi Shmuel Kaminezki, Efraim and Hadassah Halevy   (photo credit: TRIGUBOFF INSTITUTE)
At the Babi Yaar Memorial: Shalom Norman, Rabbi Shmuel Kaminezki, Efraim and Hadassah Halevy
Efraim Halevy, a former Mossad director and the current chairman of the Harry Oscar Triguboff Institute, returned from a trip to Ukraine in June buoyed by what he reports is a revival of the Jewish community in major cities, but more convinced than ever that Israel must change the rabbinate’s conservative policy on converting Jews.
“The number of people who are getting conversions in Israel is rapidly decreasing year by year,” he says. “If you have the odd 5,000 or so conversions by the rabbinate in Israel every year, the number of people from Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union is going down all the time, and this should be a major concern of the highest authorities in Israel, because they represent over a million people, and if this problem is not solved at a national level in relation to the basic strategic interests of the State of Israel, we are going to be in a very difficult position when we come to carrying out a headcount of who is a Jew in this country.
“You have a dysfunctional approach to the whole issue here [in Israel]. On the one hand, in order to claim that we have a majority, we include these people as Jews, and when it comes to their personal status, the organs of the state, and the rabbinate by the way is an organ of the State of Israel, ignore the Law of Return and in effect nullifies some of the basic moral and national reasons for people coming to Israel.”
Halevy visited Ukraine together with his wife, Hadassah, on a trip organized by Shalom Norman, CEO of the Triguboff Institute, as part of Maslul’s third educational weekend event in Kiev.
Among other things, they attended a conversion study class in Kiev, spent Shabbat with two Israeli rabbis Chaim Iram and Yehuda Gilad, visited a Jewish school in Dnipro, an Israeli fair and the Babi Yar Memorial, the scene of the worst Jewish shooting massacre during the Holocaust.
Halevy says he encountered a community that the World Jewish Congress estimates is the fifth largest in the world, and which is flourishing in big cities such as Kiev, Dnipro, Kharkov and Odessa.
“I learned that there has been a remarkable revival of the Jewish community in some parts of Ukraine, as opposed to the majority of Jewish communities which are in the final stages of their existence,” he says. “In those places where there is a revival, this includes all aspects of the Jewish community, which means communal structures, educational institutions, synagogues, restaurants etc. and so on, and this is something which one has to factor into the picture of the Diaspora the way it is today.”
Halevy, 83, was born in the UK, served in the Mossad for 28 years (including his term as director from 1998 to 2002), and now heads the Jerusalem-based Triguboff Institute, which conducts conversion classes in Ukraine and elsewhere.
The Triguboff Institute was established by the now 85-year-old Sydney-based Jewish billionaire real estate developer, Harry Triguboff, in 2011 to promote Jewish identity and conversion among immigrants to Israel from the former Soviet Union, Eastern Europe and Latin America.
Founded in 2016 as a joint initiative of the Triguboff Institute, the Jewish Agency and the Australian branch of United Jewish Appeal, Maslul provides Jewish educational and cultural classes, seeking to pave a smoother path for those inspired to make aliya.
“We travelled through the killing fields of Babi Yar and visited towns once flourishing with Jewish life, such as Lviv and Brody,” says Halevy about his tour of Jewish Ukraine. ““We also encountered the other side of the story: the
vibrant Ukraine of today.”
Estimates of the number of Jews living in Ukraine today range from 60,000 to 400,000.
“Any effort to get a firm statistical figure is doomed to failure,” Halevy says. “In addition to those communities that are reviving, there are a lot of people in other places I visited where on the face of it, the community was moving toward extinction, such as Vinnytsia, but when we happened to be there on the same day that an event was organized celebrating the 70th anniversary of Israel, several hundred people arrived and filled an auditorium. Their status varies from full Halachic Jews to some who aren’t, and some who are mixed couples, so it’s very difficult to reach a clear statistic.”
During his visit to Chabad’s Menorah school in Dnipro, the vision of “a unique and heroic figure” named Rabbi Shmuel Kaminezki, Halevy says, he realized that Jewish life in Ukraine might be much more dynamic than he had previously thought
“I saw this upfront. You see a picture of communities which are on the verge of extinction, and struggling to survive and establish themselves with a degree of permanence, like in Dnipro,” he says. “One morning, I addressed several hundred schoolchildren dressed in blue and white and waving the flags of Israel. I spoke for about 10 minutes with a translator into Ukrainian, and I was stopped several times for applause. In the end, they sang Israeli songs and I visited them in their classes. As a result of the reports that they took home to their parents, in the evening, when I was scheduled to address a relatively small group of grown-ups, I found myself in a hall facing several hundreds of people. This is something which was a surprise to me, because it was not billed in advance, at my request. I didn’t want my visit to be a sensation; that was not my purpose in going there, but it evolved into that within a few hours. Here I could see that Zionism is still alive and kicking in Ukraine.”
Halevy was most impressed by a study class for conversion in Kiev being funded by the Triguboff Institute. “The Triguboff Institute is facilitating the preparation of candidates for aliya, to prepare themselves for examinations on conversion, and we have classes attended by a variety of people with a variety of statuses which necessitate individual solutions, but the common denominator of these people is that they have to familiarize themselves with the basic tenets of Jewish practice,” he says.
Asked how many people have studied in the Triguboff Institute’s conversion classes, Halevy says, “All in all, we are already in the three-digit bracket, in Ukraine and elsewhere, but the going is very difficult because it entails a considerable effort on behalf of the potential candidates. It’s very difficult to put together a group of people all of whom have the same level of knowledge and approach to Judaism.”
Asked if he thinks there might be be a significant increase in immigration to Israel from Ukraine, he says: “I think yes. One of the things that arose from our visit, certainly in Kiev, is that there is a substantial group of youngsters, high school and university level, who are interested in taking the first steps of aliya. 
“At the time we were there by pure coincidence there was a fair organized by the World Zionist Organization, at which a variety of institutes in Israel send representatives who tried to convince the youngsters who came to come to Israel for several month, and spend time in educational institutes, some of them academic and some of them religious, and there were candidates for all these options. It was heartwarming to see a very busy scene of people sitting behind tables interviewing candidates.”
Despite his optimism, Halevy remains critical of the Israeli government’s conservative conversion policy. “The question of ‘Who is a Jew?’ has not been solved, even in Ukraine. Israel’s Law of Return includes categories that enable people to come to Israel who do not conform to the Halachic law, and there’s a reason for that,” he says. “One of the main problems that we are contending with is an effort to find a formula in which the number of people who would ultimately be able to live a full life in Israel should be on the ascent, where in practical terms it’s on the descent.”
Liberalizing the conversion of people who want to be Jews, he believes, is critical for Israel’s demographic future.
“Already today, in the official Central Bureau of Statistics in Israel, when it comes to counting the heads, you have a category called ‘Others,’ who number over 400,000,” he says. “This could be the swing number when you’re counting the heads of how many Muslims there are between the sea and the Jordan River, and how many Jews there are between the sea and the Jordan River.”
He concludes by sounding an alarm. “I don’t really know how important my work is, because in the end, the powers that be in this country [Israel] are determined not to bite the bullet, and face the difficult decision of how to treat the Diaspora and finally resolve the issue of ‘Who is a Jew?’”