Will secret conversion course go on?

Conversion Authority denies knowledge of Shevach Mofet School program.

conversion class 248.88 (photo credit: Hilary Leila Krieger [file])
conversion class 248.88
(photo credit: Hilary Leila Krieger [file])
Shevach Mofet High School on south Tel Aviv's Rehov Hamasger is a living example of what many Israelis perceive to be a danger to the Jewish state's religious-cultural unity. Perhaps no other high school better embodies the effect of the absorption of hundreds of thousands of non-Jews from the former Soviet Union as part of the waves of immigration in the 1980s and 1990s. Of the elite math and science school's 1,600-strong student body, hundreds are gentiles by Orthodox Jewish standards. True, the vast majority of Israelis might not consider themselves Orthodox. But most would grudgingly say Orthodoxy is the most legitimate expression of Judaism. As a result, the gentile students at Shevach Mofet, part of group of about 300,000 non-Jewish immigrants from the FSU, have to cope with the gnawing feeling that they are not full-fledged citizens of a state that defines itself as both democratic and Jewish - especially the females, since matrilineal descent determines whether the next generation is Jewish or not. So it comes as no surprise that it was at Shevach Mofet that the Immigrant Absorption Ministry, together with the Education Ministry, the IDF and a few maverick Orthodox rabbis launched a pilot program to instill non-Jewish students with the requisite knowledge and religious experience to prepare for conversion to Judaism. "The demand came from the students," Avigdor Leviatan, head of the Absorption Ministry's Conversion Division, said on Thursday. "School psychologists were confronted with dozens of cases of students who were concerned about their lack of Jewishness and how that affected their feeling of belonging to the Jewish people. "So we decided to set up a curriculum that would prepare high school students for an Orthodox conversion. The first group of seven or eight girls will appear before the conversion court in the coming month." Participants devote six hours a week for a year to the studies and take part in Shabbatot during which they are immersed in a Orthodox environment on religious kibbutzim. In the coming year, the program will be expanded to schools in five cities and will include 300 students, Leviatan said. The program, which was started nearly two years ago, was kept secret to prevent the Ashkenazi haredi establishment from attacking it. Chief Sephardi Rabbi Shlomo Amar, who is in charge of conversions, defers to the Ashkenazi haredi rabbis. In the past Amar has backed down to haredi pressure. Many Orthodox rabbis, especially in haredi circles, oppose accepting as converts teenage girls enrolled in a totally secular, coed high school and living in an irreligious household. An integral part of conversion to Judaism is embracing an Orthodox lifestyle, including maintaining a kosher diet, adhering to the restrictions against work on Shabbat and accepting sexual abstinence until marriage. Conservative-minded rabbis, with a predisposition to being suspect of the purity of potential converts' intentions, doubt young women who are in a totally secular environment can faithfully embrace Orthodoxy. Perhaps out of concern that the Shevach Mofet program will encounter stiff rabbinic opposition, more moderate rabbis within the National Conversion Authority, the body approved by the Chief Rabbinate to perform conversions, are denying any knowledge of and trying to downplay the issue. For instance, the deputy head of the Conversion Authority, Rabbi Moshe Klein, told The Jerusalem Post that he was not familiar with the conversion program at Shevach Mofet. "I know nothing about the program," Klein said. "I don't know how many students are learning in the program. I don't know what the educational content is and I have not set up a panel of judges to convert anyone." Klein's comments contradicted statements made by Leviatan, who said that both Klein and Rabbi Haim Druckman, the outgoing head of the authority, knew all about the program and wholeheartedly supported it. "They are afraid of hurting the chances of its success," said Leviatan. "That's why they do not want to comment right now." Leviatan said that several conversion judges have already agreed to cooperate with the program. One of the judges named by Leviatan is a well respected rabbi who is not considered particularly lenient. The judge denied that he was involved. Rabbi Sefi Sherman, who heads Tel Aviv's Beit Midrash Tair, an educational program that brings together secular and religious teenagers, is the educational director of the Shevach Mofet initiative. Beit Midrash Tair provided young, dynamic rabbis who could teach the young women at Shevach Mofet in an interesting, nonthreatening atmosphere. Sherman, who is also the principal of a high school in Tel Aviv, declined to comment. Leviatan said that he agreed to an interview with the Post only after the story was revealed by Tel Aviv, a local weekly. Tel Aviv's breaking of the story also led to coverage on Israel Radio. "Media exposure will only hurt the chances that this program will succeed," Leviatan said.