It happened to my family. It can happen to yours.

“It’s sad and so unfair. Did you see how proud she was tonight? But unless someone figures out how to fix things she’s going to wake up one day and find out...”

The Rabbinical Court of Tel Aviv (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
The Rabbinical Court of Tel Aviv
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Friday evening at the in-laws. As relatives gather, our five-year old granddaughter struggles to be heard over the commotion. She’s clutching the two loaves of challah she baked at nursery school earlier in the day and is trying to get everyone to the Shabbat table.
“Don’t sit down yet,” she scolds those too anxious to eat. “Stand up. First kiddush.”
That completed, she beams over her handiwork, waiting for hamotzi, the blessing over bread. My wife, who should also be beaming, barely manages to hold back her tears.
Back home she tells me why she nearly started to cry.
“Twenty-some years from now she’s going to have the same problem her mother did,” she blurts out with a mixture of pain, anger and frustration.
“It’s sad and so unfair. Did you see how proud she was tonight? But unless someone figures out how to fix things she’s going to wake up one day and find out...”
What she’s going to find out is that she and her mother suffer from what was once a very rare genetic abnormality in this Jewish state of ours, but one that is becoming increasingly common and that threatens to have grave consequences for us all. What’s amiss is that they were born to Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers, or to mothers whose conversions are not recognized by the state – not only those conducted under the auspices of the Conservative and Reform movements, but also those sanctioned by Orthodox rabbinical courts operating outside the jurisdiction of the Chief Rabbinate.
Our daughter-in-law, who arrived here from Moscow at the age of 12, is one of them, and thus our granddaughter is as well. Having undergone a Conservative conversion following a year of study, she and the more than 400,000 like her have no way to legally wed in this country and find themselves ostracized in various ways, even – may they all live to 120 – in the matter of finding a cemetery to be buried in. It’s no wonder that a third of the Israelis leaving each year are of families with at least one such member, and that they cite the lack of being fully accepted as fundamental to their decision to go.
Things needn’t be this way, and particularly in light of the ultra-Orthodox rejection this week of the newly formulated conversion law proposed by Moshe Nissim, it’s time to encourage public discourse on the matter. I’ve got some eminently practical suggestions to get us going, but first an additional bit of background.
Last June, the haredi parties introduced legislation that would ensure that the only conversions recognized in Israel would be those conducted through the courts of the Chief Rabbinate. Barely 1,800 individuals undergo such conversions each year. Many others are rejected, often humiliated in the process, discouraging countless more from even trying. Were the conversion process more reasonable, there are surveys suggesting that 25% of the estimated 420,000 trapped in an identity-less twilight zone would avail themselves of the opportunity.
Ideological arguments aside, then, the legislation proposed a year ago would have done nothing to resolve the problem.
It would only have guaranteed a sociological explosion, with an ever-growing percentage of Israelis not registered as Jews and marrying Jewish Israelis in civil ceremonies abroad.
World Jewry, the Reform and Conservative movements, and the more inclusive elements of Modern Orthodoxy reacted with outrage, and the prime minister froze the legislation until such time as a special committee he agreed to establish would return with its recommendations as to how to resolve the problem. That finally happened this week.
While those recommendations include a welcome proposal to transfer the administrative authority for overseeing conversions from the office of the Chief Rabbinate to that of the prime minister, they also call for all conversions in Israel to take place before a rabbinical court comprised exclusively of Orthodox rabbis essentially approved by the Chief Rabbinate, even if formally appointed by an 11-member committee that would likely include non-Orthodox figures as well. Theoretically two of them might even be appointed as representatives of the Reform and Conservative movements, but that is nowhere mentioned in the law. What is stated is that Reform and Conservative converts abroad would be eligible to immigrate to Israel under the Law of Return but would not be entitled to marry or receive religious services here.
Adoption of the recommendations would also preclude any possibility of gaining recognition for Reform, Conservative or liberal Orthodox conversions in Israel.
But before the merits of the proposals could even be discussed, the haredi members of Knesset rushed to nix them in their entirety, railing against any suggestion that the Chief Rabbinate not be the sole arbiter in matters of conversion.
Which brings us back to the need to weigh alternatives.
Here are five: E pluribus unum Let’s start with the most radical – and heretofore taboo – possibility of encouraging conversions by any bona fide Jewish movement. For many that conjures up the dreaded specter of social disintegration.
But it works in the Diaspora and there’s no reason it shouldn’t work here as well.
No one would be forced to marry anyone else, and if two people were to fall in love and one of them wasn’t “kosher” in the eyes of the other, the option of a more stringent conversion would always be there. In the meantime, with the doors to conversion wide open, and converts of all stripes embraced by society even if not by the Chief Rabbinate, no one would have reason to feel themselves second- class citizens. “We are one” clearly isn’t working.
Maybe it’s time to try, “One, out of many.”
Children first Virtually all halachic authorities agree that the requirements for conversion for those under the age of bar/bat mitzva are exceedingly more lenient than they are for those who are older. What about a campaign encouraging parents to bring their children into the fold in a welcoming and caring manner? The right address Everything you wanted to know about conversion but were too intimidated to ask: There’s virtually no address in this country for those interested in examining the possibility of conversion without registering for a lengthy course that ultimately leads exclusively to the option of conversion through the Chief Rabbinate.
What would happen if our community centers were to host sessions where potential converts could ask all their questions in a supportive and nonjudgmental atmosphere, with representatives of all those performing conversions invited to respond – even if on different days of the week.
Couples at the crossroads Conventional wisdom and sociologists converge in their assessment that those most prone to convert are couples about to get married and married couples about to have children. Support groups specifically aimed at guiding them through an exploration of the possibilities could result in fuller programs tailored to their specific circumstances.
With an outstretched arm Tens of thousands of Jewish converts overseas are not entitled to move here, nor even to participate in Birthright or long-term gap-year programs, nor receive a student visa to study in a yeshiva. Might we consider the establishment of an international rabbinical court, expert in the nuances of Jewish life overseas and accepted by the various streams of Judaism, empowered to ratify conversions performed in the Diaspora? Admittedly adoption of these proposals would not impact on the rights of those who would utilize them to convert outside the auspices of the Chief Rabbinate. Not at first. But, if embraced by large segments of society, they would give the convert an enhanced sense of belonging while stemming assimilation and intermarriage. They would also contribute to the creation of a critical mass that would inevitably bring about significant social change.
That, too, is important if we are indeed to fashion Israeli society as one in which Jews of every hue will feel at home – including my granddaughter, who should never have to hear that she really isn’t Jewish.
The writer is deputy chairman of the Jewish Agency Executive and represents the worldwide Masorti/Conservative movement within Israel’s national institutions.
The views expressed herein are his own. [email protected]