Rethinking conversion

A conversation with Chuck Davidson, a religious activist who fights to find a better way for conversions and marriages in Israel.

A bride and groom kiss under the chuppah at their wedding (photo credit: NIR ELIAS / REUTERS)
A bride and groom kiss under the chuppah at their wedding
(photo credit: NIR ELIAS / REUTERS)
Recently, I had budgeted an hour to meet with Chuck Davidson, the well-known Bet Shemesh religious activist – especially in the field of conversions and marriage – to discuss his work.
Some three hours later, I emerged, a bit worn out from a nonstop frenzy of ideas, but nevertheless energized from his passion and enthusiasm. Davidson is unafraid to speak his mind, and doesn’t mince words, even about himself.
“I’m a little bit nuts,” he admits. “I don’t know how to quit.”
Interestingly, the path to his current passion came about by accident, altering the course of his life. In the fall of 1979, Davidson, then a premed student at the University of Maryland, had a theological discussion with an Evangelical Christian friend. As his friend marshaled what he saw as proofs in support of Christianity from the Hebrew Bible, Davidson sat mute, frustrated and ashamed at his lack of knowledge about the specific subject, and about Judaism in general. The next day, he went to a Jewish bookstore, purchased a book about the subject, and began to read.
Shortly thereafter, he began attending classes in Judaism at the University of Maryland Hillel. Eventually, he changed his major to Jewish Studies.
Davidson grew more interested in Judaism, and became fully observant. He studied in Israel in his junior year of college at Yeshivat Hamivtar in Jerusalem, and through intensive self-study, became fully conversant in rabbinic Judaism.
In 1991, Davidson moved to Israel with his wife and children, first to an immigrant absorption center in Mevaseret Zion before settling in Beit Shemesh in 1993. He began his career in Israel as a foreign securities trader, switched to hi-tech, and eventually arrived at the Jewish Agency, where he became director of marketing. It was there that the second great change in his life occurred.
As an employee with the Jewish Agency, Davidson was exposed to the world of Russian immigrants, and saw firsthand the difficulties that accompanied the conversion process.
“Working for the Jewish Agency changed my entire worldview,” says Davidson.
“My sense of how religion and state worked changed.”
He grew to understand the frustrations that Russian immigrants felt when coming to Israel.
“There is a bitter joke among the Russians,” he says. “We boarded the plane in Russia as Jews, and landed in Israel as non-Jews.”
“I view the entire conversion crisis as a marketing issue,” says Davidson, who also used to work at Citibank while still in the US.
“Marketing begins long before the product exists. The rabbis sat in a closed room and came up with a conversion system. Did they ask any Russians? No. And when the Russian immigrants didn’t come in droves to convert, the rabbis were shocked.”
In May 2008, Rabbi Avraham Sherman, then a member of Israel’s Supreme Rabbinical Court, invalidated the conversions that had been conducted under the supervision of Rabbi Haim Druckman, a respected member of the Israeli rabbinate, and head of the State Conversion Authority.
After years of effort and lobbying, he came to the conclusion that it would be impossible to resolve the issue through conversions done by the Chief Rabbinate.
He became convinced that the rabbinate would remain in the hands of hard-line rabbis, most of whom take and will continue to take excessively stringent positions, in his view, on the halachic issues of conversion for many years to come.
WORKING BEHIND the scenes, Davidson conceived a strategic plan to begin a different conversion process outside the framework of the official state rabbinate.
He cajoled, convinced and pushed leading rabbis and organizations to set up a conversion court that would be an alternative to those of the Rabbinate. In August 2015, Giyur Ke’Halacha (Conversion According to Jewish Law), Davidson’s brainchild, came into existence.
Giyur Ke’Halacha is an alternative rabbinical court that is headed by Rabbi Nachum Rabinovich of Ma’aleh Adumim, one of the most respected halachic authorities in Israel. To date, more than 20 rabbis are members of the court, which has conducted over 200 conversions.
The Giyur Ke’Halacha courts adopt a friendlier, less rigid method, yet one that in their view is fully compliant with Jewish law.
According to Davidson, the issue hinges on a primary condition for conversion – the convert’s “acceptance of the mitzvot.” According to the approach of the Israeli rabbinate, the convert must commit to fulfilling all of the mitzvot and other halachic obligations in practice. But Davidson asserts that the vast majority of converts who pass through the rabbinate system do not end up fully observant. The rabbinic court judges compel the convert to learn the details of Halacha that a fully observant Jew follows. The convert must then convince the court that he or she will be completely observant. Yet, says Davidson, the judges know full well that the vast majority of converts do not intend to be fully observant following their conversion.
By contrast, the Giyur Ke’Halacha courts that Davidson helped establish view the “acceptance of mitzvot” as the converts’ accepting that from the moment they take the final step in the conversion process – immersion in the mikve (ritual bath) – all of the mitzvot and other halachic obligations will be binding upon them. What they observe in practice is between them and God, just as is the case for those born Jewish.
Further, the courts of Giyur Ke’Halacha view conversion as the beginning of a lifelong process, not the end, in the same way that a newly born Jew begins a lifelong process of religious exploration.
The convert needs to know some basics of Judaism and show a sincere interest in pursuing a lifelong journey, just like every other Jew.
In March of this year, Davidson left the Jewish Agency and now spends most of his waking hours advocating for converts around the world. He delights in his work, and speaks with great enthusiasm and passion.
“I have found a truly unique niche. I found my calling.”
IN DAVIDSON’S view, an Orthodox conversion crisis exists for converts worldwide, not just in Israel. Much of this stems from the decision of the Chief Rabbinate, with the agreement of the Rabbinical Council of America, to require a special set of standards for Orthodox conversion in America, known as the Geirut (Conversion) Policies and Standards (GPS).
Davidson argues that this centralized form of conversion was never required, or even desired, by Jewish law. Conversions conducted by local rabbinic courts were always accepted, unless there was some specific cause for denying their validity.
The GPS, says Davidson, has changed this reality, and in fact, he says, even GPS converts cannot feel assured that their conversions will be unquestionably accepted in Israel or abroad. And frequently, conversions supervised by reputable Orthodox rabbis who may not work through the GPS system are called into question, as famously occurred recently with Rabbi Haskell Lookstein’s convert – Ivanka Kushner, daughter of US Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump. Davidson feels that the vulnerability of converts, whose Jewish identity is largely dependent on the rabbinic establishment, is not understood or appreciated.
“You have no idea how people suffer. Born Jews will never understand the vulnerability that many converts experience.”
Davidson is attempting to stem the tide by educating and informing rabbis and the community at large that historically Judaism has always had decentralized conversion, a system that is intended to treat each potential convert kindly and gently, rather than with excessive stringency. He is attempting to educate the public by giving classes, publishing (his source-book on conversion has been downloaded more than 1,600 times) and advocating tirelessly.
Davidson believes a separation between church and state in Israel is essential.
The Chief Rabbinate, he says, should not have a monopoly on religion, and it is for that reason that he has officiated at nearly 100 wedding ceremonies outside the framework of the Rabbinate.
The vast majority of couples are secular Israelis who are eligible to be married by the Rabbinate, but who find the process coercive. Weddings officiated by Davidson are halachically identical to those conducted by the Chief Rabbinate. Davidson, however, will work with couples to be as flexible as possible within the boundaries of Jewish law, and he insists that a prenuptial agreement designed to protect each partner from using religious law in a power struggle in the event of divorce be signed and notarized before the ceremony.
To be sure, there are many rabbinic authorities who do not agree with conversion courts and weddings outside the framework of the Chief Rabbinate.
They view such activities as creating a split within the Orthodox community.
Yet Davidson insists that the advantages for the Jewish people at large of breaking the monopoly of Israel’s Chief Rabbinate far outweigh the interests of a segment of the Orthodox community.
AS WE conclude our interview, Davidson considers all that he has told me over the past three hours – his achievements in helping converts, and the chutzpah that he has displayed in challenging rabbis and Knesset members alike. He grins, and says, “I have a slightly rebellious personality. Maybe more than slightly.”