In Ruth’s footsteps: Israeli converts tell their stories

The Magazine and Giyur K’Halacha, Israel’s leading nongovernmental conversion court, present personal stories of Israelis who have recently converted to Judaism.

FORMER JEWISH Agency chairmain Natan Sharansky speaks at an ITIM Annual Conversion Conference with Rabbi Nahum Rabinovitch (to his right) and Farber (to his far right). (photo credit: ITIM)
FORMER JEWISH Agency chairmain Natan Sharansky speaks at an ITIM Annual Conversion Conference with Rabbi Nahum Rabinovitch (to his right) and Farber (to his far right).
(photo credit: ITIM)
In honor of Shavuot, the festival that celebrates Ruth, the most famous convert to Judaism, the Magazine and Giyur K’Halacha, Israel’s leading nongovernmental conversion court, present personal stories of Israelis who have recently converted to Judaism. These individuals represent some of the thousands of Israelis who convert each year. Most are immigrants or children of immigrants from the former Soviet Union. Some are adopted children or children of surrogacy. All have moving stories to tell about reclaiming their Jewish heritage, embracing their Jewish identities and ensuring the Jewish future.
Michael, Orly & family
I was born in the former Soviet Union to a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother, and was raised by my Jewish grandmother. I married Orly, then Svetlana, who does not have Jewish roots, but who celebrated the Jewish holidays with me in the Jewish community. We decided to convert, and began our studies before immigrating to Israel under the Law of Return.
I served in the Israeli Army, though officially I was not Jewish. We had two sons. Quite naturally, we found ourselves drawn to Jewish tradition. We starting keeping kosher and observing Shabbat.
MICHAEL, ORLY and their two sons recite the Shema prayer before a Giyur K’Halacha conversion court (Credit: Giyur K’Halacha)MICHAEL, ORLY and their two sons recite the Shema prayer before a Giyur K’Halacha conversion court (Credit: Giyur K’Halacha)
When my father passed away, and we realized there was no family member to say kaddish (mourner’s prayer), we decided it was time to fully embrace and formalize our family’s Jewish identity. We tried to convert through the State conversion system, but our children attend secular schools. We explained that we were prevented from doing otherwise. One of our sons a that time could not be switched to a religious school, because he attends a special needs school that has no religious equivalent in our area. Nonetheless, the State refused to let us convert. We were devastated, and nearly gave up on the idea of conversion altogether.
But then we saw an advertisement for Giyur K’Halacha. We contacted them and enrolled in a conversion course. When we completed it, all four of us – Orly and I, and our two sons – stood before a conversion court, and completed the process of converting to Judaism. Orly and I remarried as Jews, under a huppah, with a rabbi and with our two sons present in the Giyur K’Halacha offices in Jerusalem.
Mark
My parents immigrated to Israel from the former Soviet Union. My mother’s father was Jewish, and my father’s mother is Jewish. I was born here. I grew up and have spent all my life living as a Jew, quite a traditional one.
When I was in kindergarten, my grandmother became haredi (ultra-Orthodox), and I began spending Shabbat and holidays with her. My mother is a secularist and my father is an atheist, but they have never interfered in my religious pursuits. We always have kiddush and havdalah with my grandmother, and, in fact, my parents insist on being present for it.
When I reached the age of bar mitzvah, I was told I was not Jewish according to Halacha (Jewish Law), but it didn’t bother me much, because I knew, deep down, I was Jewish. I have always loved the Jewish holidays. Every Yom Kippur, I pray during the day at a Chabad synagogue, and attend the Moroccan community’s Ne’ilah service. Each year, I help build a sukkah for a friend’s father. I often host seder on Pesach.
MARK: I knew, deep down, I was JewishMARK: I knew, deep down, I was Jewish
During my Army service, I began the Nativ conversion process. I was introduced to great teachers and lovely rabbis. I was exposed to different streams of Judaism, and deep religious concepts. I read the Torah, kept kosher, and laid tefillin.
But I was not ready to complete the conversion process without learning more. I studied Talmud and read Maimonides and Yehuda Halevi. Each night, before I went to bed, I read Psalms. I was exposed to Modern Orthodoxy through the teachings of Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, and learned about religious Zionism from Rabbi Benny Lau and Yochi Brandes. I have even become something of a teacher. When a friend who was living abroad was missing Jewish content in his life, I began sharing my thoughts on the weekly Torah portion with him every Friday via WhatsApp.
When I felt ready to move forward with my conversion, I contacted Giyur K’Halacha, which I had learned about via social media. I did not consider converting through the State, because I am all too aware of the way the Chief Rabbinate of Israel treats children of immigrants from the former Soviet Union when they try to marry or convert. I feel the Rabbinate is more political than religious.
The staff and rabbis of Giyur K’Halacha were amazing. From our initial meeting to my “to-do list,” dozens of emails, and my appearance before the beit din (rabbinical court), every person involved treated me with respect and understanding. It is not easy, but they do it. It is inspiring.
I am pleased with myself for having converted. I feel I have always been Jewish, but now I have the satisfaction of knowing I can be part of a minyan, or I can open a bottle of kosher wine for my grandmother.
Seth & family
I am a single father of three children, all nine years old. How is this possible? Well, it’s complicated.
When I turned 40, and hadn’t yet found the woman I wanted to share my life with, I decided to have children through surrogacy. I had always wanted to have a family, and this was the best way to do it, given the circumstances. I was blessed with a daughter and twin sons, just seven months apart.
In Chicago, where we lived, I sent the children to an immersive Hebrew-language school with Israeli teachers, and we were deeply connected to the Orthodox community. The laws and rituals of Judaism guided my parenting, and reinforced my belief in the centrality of family and community. I raised my children as Jews, and they felt they were Jewish.
But, technically, they were not Jewish, because the women who helped bring them into the world were not Jewish (surrogates rarely are). I began the process of converting them to Judaism. Rabbi David Wolkenfeld, who knew I was considering making aliyah, recommended that I contact Rabbi Seth Farber, which I did.
SETH: NOW my children can unequivocally say they are Jewish.SETH: NOW my children can unequivocally say they are Jewish.
In 2018, we made aliyah. We hadn’t yet completed the children’s conversions. We settled in Zichron Ya’akov, where we joined the Ohel Ya’akov Synagogue, and became part of the Orthodox community. According to the Chief Rabbinate, I was Jewish, but my children officially had “no religion.” Given our commitment to Orthodox Judaism and to Israel, this was confusing to them, and painful for me. To make matters worse, I could not convert the children to Judaism through the State, because the Rabbinate will not convert children of single fathers.
I followed up with Rabbi Farber, and began the process of converting my children through Giyur K’Halacha. Our Zichron Ya’akov community supported us completely. I was nervous about bringing the children before the Giyur K’Halacha beit din, but the rabbis were warm and accepting. The kids actually enjoyed it.
I can’t thank Rabbi Farber and Giyur K’Halacha enough. Now my children can say, unequivocally, they are Jewish, and I can feel that this chapter of my life’s journey has reached a happy ending.
For further information about converting to Judaism through Giyur K’Halacha: giyur.co.il or (02) 547-0591.