What about the Russians?

Many say they were 'Jewish enough' to be persecuted, so why should the rabbinate make further demands?

pork 224.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
pork 224.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
It is generally agreed that roughly 300,000 of the 1.5 million olim from the former Soviet Union are not, according to Halacha, Jewish; that all but a minuscule number of these olim have not converted here and are not likely to, and that this situation is unacceptable to everyone. To be certain, claims of insensitivity and unnecessary stringency on the part of the Chief Rabbinate's conversion courts have been frequent. Also, many FSU immigrants say, they were "Jewish enough" to be persecuted in their birth countries, and "Jewish enough" to qualify for aliya. Why should the Chief Rabbinate make further demands on them? However, hundreds of Bnei Anusim - and tens of thousands of Ethiopians, as well - have accepted the obligation to convert, and to do so according to the standards of the Chief Rabbinate. Why is the Russian community not following suit? "I asked our guides this exact question," said Angela Levine, lifestyle facilitator director at Itim, a non-profit organization that offers information and counseling about Judaism, and creator of the conversion course at the Hebrew University. "Some ask why they, as converts, have to keep kosher and observe Shabbat, while born Jews who are secular routinely violate these laws. It doesn't seem fair. "Also, because circumcision is a necessary step for male converts, some people have the impression that mitzvot in general are physically demanding. Others say the studies are too hard. Some say the process should be as easy as converting to Christianity. One woman actually suggested a mass conversion ceremony where everyone would simply be declared Jewish." Levine, who immigrated from Ukraine in 1992, said many responses revealed what she called the typical perspective of someone from a communist society. "Some said that conversion was just like switching political parties - you used to be in one party, now you're in another one. Why make such a big deal? Some said that Judaism was just a culture (and therefore no formal conversion process should be required). Others said, 'Why bother? Converting won't bring me a living.'" Often, the rabbinate is portrayed as being unreasonably strict with prospective converts, especially Russian immigrants. According to Levine, however, that is not an accurate portrayal today. "The rabbinate is actually more flexible today than it was before," she says. "It knows that people aren't going to be haredi, and it tries to be sensitive to Russian immigrants. I think they demand the minimum they can. The approach of the beit din has definitely changed - toward the lenient." About 80 percent of prospective converts who open a file with the Chief Rabbinate pass their tests on either the first or second try, according to Itim. But with only several hundred Russian olim converting each year (plus a few hundred more through the army's conversion programs), that means most of the immigrants are not even applying. "The truth is," Levine says, "there are a whole lot of people who don't want to take on a religious Jewish lifestyle." A survey of Russian immigrants carried out by the Tzomet Institute in 2003 showed that the primary motive for conversion was not a religious one. For these respondents, the religious motive was only half as strong as the desire to integrate socially, and it was barely stronger than nationalistic or familial reasons. "Sometimes it boils down to the fact that people just don't want to change their lifestyle," Levine says, "and conversion demands changes." Levine knows what it's like to change. "In Ukraine, other children in school would bother me for being Jewish. They would say, 'You Jewess! Go to Israel!'" Once she moved here, the shoe was on the other foot. "There were several girls in my school who were not halachically Jewish. One particular student in class really didn't want to be here, in a Jewish country. Every day in class, this student would draw a cross next to her name on the attendance sheet. It bothered me terribly. I said to myself, 'There's no place here for people like this; they should go back to Russia.' "But now," says Levine, who became religious during high school, "I've changed my approach. I deal with lots of Russian immigrants who aren't Jewish, but who serve in combat units in the army, who want to stay here, who want to marry. Why not help them?" Ever since finishing high school, she has been helping explain the ins and outs of Jewish life - first as part of her National Service stint, then with the Jewish Agency and now at Itim. "We deal with all kinds of people," she says, rattling off a list of people who have approached the organization - which does not run a conversion class of its own - for help in navigating through the conversion process. "There are also more than a few people who have trouble producing all the necessary documents [from their birth country, attesting to their Jewishness for marriages, etc.]. Why not make an effort to resolve their situation? We make calls to whomever we can, to help them find whatever they can." Going out of one's way, rather than telling the potential convert, "It's your problem," is a courtesy that too few receive, Levine says. "There are those who, although they are open to it at first, despair along the way to conversion," she laments. "Personally, I think Israeli society - and religious society in particular - does not do enough to welcome prospective converts, to show them warmth and compassion and to help them on their way to Judaism." -