'Now I feel 100% Jewish'

Thousands of halachicly non-Jewish olim undergo friendly IDF conversion.

igor lermont 248.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
igor lermont 248.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Like thousands of other young immigrants from the former Soviet Union, Ukrainian-born Igor Lermont always considered himself Jewish, even though his mother is not Jewish. "When I was young, I thought I was Jewish," the 22-year-old IAF technician told a small delegation of North American Jews attending the General Assembly of the United Jewish Communities in Jerusalem on Tuesday. "I thought it did not matter that my father is Jewish and mother is not." When he arrived in Israel four-and-a-half years ago, Lermont soon discovered that according to Jewish law, a person's religion is determined by the mother - regulations that are strictly followed by the government, as the Orthodox have a monopoly on religious affairs. After enlisting in the army, Lermont heard of an educational Jewish-Zionist educational program, offered in conjunction with his military service, which culminates with official conversion performed by the IDF Rabbinate. The program, called Nativ, offers soldiers and officers who are not Jewish according to Halacha a seven- or 11-week intensive course in Judaism to prepare them for conversion. After completing the course and being sent back to their bases, soldiers interested in proceeding with the conversion process are then invited to two two-week seminars, with a month off between them, before undergoing the official conversion by three rabbis of the IDF Chaplaincy. The programs, which are a joint project of the IDF Education Corps and the Joint Institute for Jewish Studies, are made possible with the support of the Immigrant Absorption Ministry and the Jewish Agency for Israel. They offer thousands of IDF soldiers an opportunity to convert in an Orthodox-recognized process with like-minded peers in a friendly environment, bypassing the rigid civilian conversion system. "I enlisted in the army specifically to take this course," said Cpl. Sophie Shapira, 19, who immigrated to Israel as a baby from Moscow, never knowing she was not considered Jewish by her adoptive country. She is now nearing the end of the course. "Back in Lithuania, I knew that I would not be considered Jewish in Israel, and I thought it was a joke," said Lt. Dalia Desiatnik, 21, a basic training platoon commander. "When I got here, I understood it was no joke." One million Jews from the former Soviet Union have immigrated to Israel over the last decade and a half, but about a third of them are not Jewish according to Halacha. Today one out of every five soldiers is a new immigrant, with one of four new immigrants serving in a combat unit. To date, 7,000 soldiers have completed the program, including 3,100 who have received conversion certification since its inception seven years ago, said Institute for Jewish Studies director Nehemia Citroen. He noted that some of the soldiers stop in the middle of the course or decide not to go to the rabbinical court, while others are asked to come back for a second interview. None are told they cannot become Jewish, Citroen said. About 85 percent of the soldiers attending the courses are not halachicly Jewish; most of them are from the former Soviet Union. The remaining 15% do not need to convert but take the course to learn more about Judaism. "What's going on here is marvelous," said former Canadian Jewish Congress president Keith Landy, who was at the GA session. "It is wonderful that the army and the Jewish Agency provide soldiers this opportunity, to these young adults who contribute to Israel not only as Israeli but as Jews." Lermont, who just completed his conversion process and has changed his first name from Igor to Yigal, said the decision had not been difficult for him. "Now I feel 100% Jewish," he said. "It's not willpower, it is belief." In two weeks, he will complete the process by undergoing circumcision in outpatient surgery at a Haifa Hospital. He just hopes he won't have to take the bus back to his Ramat Gan home. After the operation, he will bathe himself in a mikva, ahead of his official discharge from the army in two months. "If you really want it, it is not hard," he said. "It gives me pride to be Jewish," Shapira concluded.