Fundamentally Freund: The stranger in our midst

Judaism is not a missionary religion, but these people are already here and rapidly becoming intertwined in the fabric of our society.

michael freund 88 (photo credit: )
michael freund 88
(photo credit: )
As talks to form a new governing coalition intensify, an issue that has nothing to do with territory, boundaries or security has abruptly taken center stage in the public debate. Questions such as the future of the Golan Heights, construction in Judea and Samaria and how to address the economic downturn seem to have been put on the back-burner, as Israel's airwaves and newspapers focus instead on civil marriage. This sudden interest in nuptials has nothing to do with Valentine's Day, of course. Instead, it was triggered by Israel Beiteinu's proposal to create a "partnership covenant" for immigrants from the former Soviet Union who are unable to marry in a Jewish religious ceremony. Since the start of the mass aliya from Russia in the 1990s, it is estimated that some 300,000 non-Jews have immigrated to Israel under the Law of Return. They were able to do so because they are spouses, children or grandchildren of Jews. With only religious marriages performed and recognized in Israel, many are now finding it impossible for themselves or their children to settle down and get married because of their individual personal status. In addition to Israel Beiteinu's plan, Meretz MK Nitzan Horowitz has said that he will submit a bill to the Knesset this week which would legalize civil unions, prompting outrage from religious parties and their supporters. IN REALITY, the clash over civil ceremonies is but a sideshow, one that obscures a larger and far more compelling issue which the State of Israel has studiously avoided addressing for decades: what to do about integrating the hundreds of thousands of non-Jewish immigrants living in our midst. Some prefer to ignore the situation by sticking their heads in the sand, but that won't make the problem go away. Like it or not, with every passing day masses of non-Jewish immigrants are integrating into Israeli society, becoming Israeli in every respect. They don the uniform of the IDF, attend universities and can be found throughout the length and breadth of the country. Yet, at the same time, they cannot marry Jews, be buried in a Jewish cemetery, or participate in any of the Jewish life-cycle events that are the essential building blocks of our national and cultural life. Left unaddressed, this situation will only continue to fester and grow more acute, inevitably resulting in intermarriage, social alienation and the creation of a hostile minority that does not identify with the state or people of Israel. Its ramifications won't be limited to just one sector or class, and it will generate still more fissures in our already riven society. This is very much a social time-bomb, ticking away loudly and clearly, that can and must be defused. Finding a legal mechanism for non-Jewish immigrants to walk down the aisle may be important, but it pales in comparison to the need to resolve their personal status. THUS FAR, only half-hearted attempts have been made to do so. From 1999 to 2007, a mere 8,411 immigrants from the former Soviet Union successfully underwent conversion in Israel's rabbinical courts. That's an average of just 935 per year. At that rate, it would take more than three centuries for all of them to undergo conversion. And while the IDF has a much-touted conversion program for non-Jewish soldiers, it too has only reached several hundred people each year. It is therefore essential that the new government take steps to reach out to the large numbers of non-Jewish Russians living in our midst, and make a concerted and determined effort to significantly boost the numbers undergoing conversion. It is in our national and Jewish interest to draw them closer to Judaism, and there is plenty of halachic sanction for such an undertaking. The Ibn Ezra, for example, in his commentary on Deuteronomy (31:12), notes that the commandment of Hakhel, according to which the Jewish people were to assemble once every seven years to hear the reading of the Torah by the king of Israel, also includes "the stranger who lives within your gates." This, said the great Spanish Jewish scholar, was because their participation might encourage them to consider converting to Judaism. Similary, Rabbi Meir Simcha HaCohen of Dvinsk, in his biblical commentary Meshech Chochma, writes that under ideal circumstances, it is a mitzvah to reach out to gerei toshav (resident non-Jews who accept the Noahide laws) and to assist them. "For if they see the positive traits of God's nation, they will attach themselves to it and consider conversion," he said. Hence, the government should make it a priority to devote more resources to tackling this problem head-on. These include hiring Russian-speaking rabbinic conversion judges, funding outreach seminars and symposiums on Judaism in Russian and aggressively seeking to streamline the conversion process for new immigrants and tailor it to their specific needs. It isn't about cutting corners. Compromising on halacha or its standards is in no one's best interests. It is simply a matter of bringing together disparate forces and looking for solutions, with an eye on resolving the larger problem. Sure, Judaism is not a missionary religion. But this is not a question of setting up tables on street corners around the globe and attempting to entice non-Jews to join the Jewish people. These people are here already, living in our midst, and they are rapidly becoming intertwined in the fabric of our society. They are being absorbed into the Jewish people, even if they are not Jewish. Anyone who cares about halacha, and about the Jewish future, can no longer ignore this reality.