A message to Ehud Olmert

What is the suffering of foreign converts compared with the expansion of the haredi elite's power?

rabbi amar 298.88 AJ (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
rabbi amar 298.88 AJ
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Why must American Jews tolerate repeated insults from the politician-rabbis of the Chief Rabbinate? The latest came from Rabbi Shlomo Amar, the Sephardi chief rabbi. His proposal is to alter the Law of Return to delegitimize aliya for all overseas converts, pending approval by an Israeli Orthodox beit din. He presented it to the Prime Minister's Office some weeks ago, and is now conducting a personal lobbying campaign. In how many ways is this a very bad idea? First, Rabbi Amar's proposal is extraordinarily cruel toward converts and their descendants. In the real world, Israeli rabbinical courts would review the conversions of very few people, but their empowerment to do so would raise a permanent question of Jewish status for hundreds of thousands of gerim (converts) living overseas, over a quarter million in the United States alone. How are they to live full Jewish lives with this hanging over their heads? Second, it would create a social problem of staggering proportions. Converts can have children and grandchildren. Rabbi Amar's proposal would create specious doubts about the Jewish status of perhaps as many as a half million to a million Diaspora Jews, mostly in the US. Many of these would be Jews from the active core of the community. In a recent research publication of the American Jewish Committee, "Choosing Jewish," Professor Sylvia Barack Fishman points out that "research data unequivocally demonstrate that converts bring energetic Jewish commitments, not only to the Jewish families they help to create, but also to the Jewish communities in which they live." Converts and their families figure well beyond their absolute numbers in the approximately one-half of the Jewish community that is actively committed. THIRD, FISHMAN shows that conversion can be one of our most effective tools in coping with rising rates of intermarriage. Fishman's findings confirm our intuitive understanding that having two Jewish parents is one of the best predictors of in-marriage in the next generation: "Of American Jews ages 25-49, those with two Jewish parents had a 28 percent mixed-marriage rate, whereas those with only one Jewish parent had a 77 percent mixed-marriage rate." Rabbi Amar's proposal, permanently denigrating the Jewish status of Diaspora converts, flies in the face of a profound Jewish public policy interest in encouraging the creation of Jewish homes through conversion of the non-Jewish spouse. Fourth, Rabbi Amar's proposal is a bald attempt to delegitimize the non-Orthodox movements in Judaism whose educational and rabbinical institutions answer the needs of most foreign converts and their families. Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist Jews are the demographic heart and much of the soul of the American Jewish community, our most important international ally. FIFTH, THE proposal is a power grab directed against Israel's Supreme Court. The long-overdue Supreme Court recognition of non-Orthodox conversions for purposes of aliya generated this proposal. If undermining verdicts through legislation succeeds, we will no doubt see other interested parties taking similar legislative initiatives. Sixth, even though it presumes to supervise recognition of Orthodox overseas conversions alongside the others, it is paradoxically an expression of the weakness of the Chief Rabbinate in the world Orthodox community. The gentlemen who carry the title "chief rabbi" are not really the chiefs of anything. They are obedient servants of two haredi rabbis; Rabbi Metzger serves Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv; Rabbi Amar serves Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. Those learned scholars, in turn, serve the limited needs of the communities they lead. The haredi community converts few people and takes little interest in meeting the needs of converts and their families. Rabbis Yosef and Elyashiv politically control the staffing of the rabbinical courts that would pronounce on foreign conversions. What is the suffering of foreign converts and their families, perhaps as many as a million Jews, compared to this expansion of the power of the elite haredi leadership? More to the point, why have a chief rabbinate under these conditions? The spectacular success of Orthodox Judaism in America shows that it flowers in a disestablished environment, without government-appointed bureaucrats as its titular heads, without politicians interfering at every turn, and without government salaries for religious functionaries of good connection but dubious qualification. MANY IN the American Jewish community are outraged that this proposal has not been summarily rejected. There are deep concerns about the damage Rabbi Amar's proposal could inflict on American-Jewish relations with Israel. It gets personal, very quickly. Perhaps nobody in Rabbi Amar's immediate circle is a convert, but with a quarter of a million converts in a Jewish community now estimated at 5.2 - 6.4 million, there are few American Jewish extended families that do not include at least one convert, and fewer active American Jews who do not number at least one among their friends and fellow activist members of the community. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert: Reject this proposal quickly and publicly before it does any further damage. The writer is associate director of the Israel/Middle East office of the American Jewish Committee.