Integration of mixed families

Why are foreign Reform converts more Jewish than children born to Jewish families in Israel?

family 88 (photo credit: )
family 88
(photo credit: )
Fighting assimilation has always been a major issue for American Jewry, and now more than ever. At the Conference on the Future of the Jewish People, organized by the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute, in July 2007, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert declared, "I'm Jewish first, then Israeli." The conference passed a resolution to invest $200 million-$300 million to fight assimilation. This commitment was welcomed by NGOs like ours working on behalf of immigrants from the former Soviet Union in Israel. While not widely recognized, the biggest problem for many immigrants from the former Soviet Union is not assimilation, but rather preventing them from "assimilating." Members of mixed families, wherein at least one member is not recognized as Jewish according to Orthodox/state law, understand assimilation not out of the Jewish fold, but as assimilation into mainstream Israeli society. Approximately 320,000 immigrants are from mixed families, wherein at least one member is not registered as Jewish, even though everyone came to Israel under the Law of Return, and identifies as inseparable from the Jewish people. This was proven again this year in a survey conducted by the Association for the Rights of Mixed Families (AMF): 64 percent perceive themselves as Jewish Israelis, and 50% report that their connection to the Jewish people has become significantly stronger since their aliya. Moreover, they want their children to be Jewish Israeli, to talk, to behave, to serve in the army and even to dress as Israelis. Anyone who expects them to convert within the existing Orthodox channels in effect condemns this group to the exclusivist policies of the Chief Rabbinate and the Interior Ministry, and supports the establishment of a legally and culturally separate class. Who is a Jew, or who has the right to be a Jew? Eighty percent of children of mixed families are Jewish by patrilineal descent. Why are foreign Reform converts more Jewish than a child born and brought up by a Jewish family in Israel? Second-generation children assimilate into Jewish Israeli culture even more than their parents. Nevertheless, the state forces this generation to feel alienated by requiring them to marry abroad and by obliging children to save face by lying about their status to their classmates, when they know that they are "others." Is the Jewish state betraying the Jewish people by ostracizing those who are already united with them culturally and under the law? AMF WAS founded to improve the integration of mixed families into Israeli society. All our community projects strengthen their sense of belonging to the Jewish people. Some of our students have already celebrated bar and bat mitzva in Reform synagogues, and many serve in IDF combat units. We celebrate in communal Pessah and Shavuot Sedarim, and are now preparing for Hanukka and Purim. No one can tell these children that they are not Jewish. Some parents have enrolled in non-Orthodox conversion courses. The way to fight assimilation is to let these people be Jewish. Hundreds of thousands of young Jewish adults who have never been on an organized trip to Israel have taken part in birthright programs. For many, it is their first exposure to Israel and their first serious look at their Jewish identity. The impact is universally praised for nurturing devotion to Jewish values and unity. We recommend that leading organizations, like birthright, the Jewish Agency and the United Jewish Communities, develop similar programs for Israeli children from mixed families as a means to make them feel secure with Jewish culture and welcome in Israeli society and universal Jewry. Israel has become their homeland, and they are not going to emigrate. Their sense of alienation is often severe, as manifested in the outrage of the neo-Nazi youth gang in Petah Tikva. So, those who scorn or just don't care about this population should realize that it's more important to resolve the problems of mixed families for the sake of clal Yisrael than for the sake of these individuals. There is a growing awareness and willingness to help mixed families. Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said at the recent UJC General Assembly that "Orthodox rabbis do not have a monopoly. Israel is the Jewish state, but not a religious state. We must not forget that our ultimate goal is that Israel be a Jewish and democratic state." This week she added her support along with other MKs to promote Jewish education and conversion for children of mixed families within a state sponsored framework. Organizations like AMF need everyone's help to infuse a little more Judaism and democracy into Israel's cultural and religious ethos. Ludmilla Oigenblick is the founder and CEO of the Association for the Rights of Mixed Families, has a PhD in sociology and has conducted research on mixed families for nine years. Yona Triestman is resource developer for AMF.