Orthodoxy isn't a viable option for us

Let immigrants from the former Soviet Union who want to convert do so.

The vast majority of the most recent wave of immigrants from the former Soviet Union have patrilineal descent, or no Jewish lineage at all. For these people one of the most burning issues of the day is religious conversion. There are perhaps over 300,000 such immigrants now in Israel. Political and religious leaders are locked in bureaucratic struggles trying to ease or restrict criteria for converts, pushing exclusivist or inclusive arguments. The exclusivists argue that haredi conversion is the universally accepted standard, and thus the only option. The inclusivists argue that, if the state continues to demand stringent Orthodox observance from potential converts, this unrealistic expectation will result in the growth of an alienated class of citizens, endangering Israeli society. Remember that in Israel, Orthodoxy is the "official church." Reform and Conservative rabbis are not recognized by the state. Most Israelis don't care much about this definitive struggle because they have not bothered to think through the long-term effects on Israel's future. And average Israelis (most of who are secular) do not experience the lives we do as a less-than-accepted citizens. LET'S BEGIN with the fact that most immigrants from the former Soviet Union were officially registered - under the Law of Return - as Jewish in the FSU. They eagerly accepted the right to make aliya, only to discover upon arrival that they were in fact not Jewish according to Orthodox Halacha - which is the law of the land. Many immigrants experience discrimination because there are those - both Orthodox and non-religious - who consider them "unworthy non-Jews." Some 15,000 are denied civil status, categorized as illegal aliens with limited civil rights, and are under threat of deportation. The worst example of discrimination concerns marriage. Israelis must marry through the clergy - there is no civil marriage option. Secular Israelis who choose to marry abroad are proud to buck the chief rabbinate. But most Russian immigrants don't share this attitude; they are not Christians and don't want to go abroad to get married in a civil ceremony. THEY FEEL disgraced and disgusted by the attitude of the chief rabbinate and the state bureaucrats and politicians who have facilitated this hardship. Ethnic Russian immigrants have lived here for decades, trying to be Israelis; raising families, sending children to fight and die in Israel's wars, and remaining hopeful that Israeli society will someday allow them - or at least their children - to integrate into mainstream Israeli society as equals. Xenophobic elements of Israeli society, particularly haredim, see blocking our successful absorption as a mission, maintaining we are an erev rav - a mixed multitude - that should never have been allowed to enter the state. In "Rabbis are not pooper-scoopers," Jerusalem Post columnist Jonathan Rosenblum went so far as to liken Russian immigrants to dogs whose feces need removal from the state (Jerusalem Post April 20). That's rich coming from Rosenblum, who often flaks for the haredi world since many haredim do not recognize the legitimacy of the state in the first place - not even the haredi-influenced Chief Rabbinate. What bothers these haredi "patriots" most is that accepting less-than-haredi converts as Israelis may foil their enforcing theocratic laws and norms, and lower the government allocations to their institutions. The Association for the Protection of Mixed Families' Rights (AMF) strives to help FSU immigrants achieve their dreams of integrating into Israeli society. FSU immigrants are like the rest of Israelis with nothing left in their countries of origin; many struggle just to make ends meet in Israel, and many have more respect for Jewish tradition than their secular Israeli counterparts do. AMF protects the rights of mixed families by promoting legislation and public policy, providing legal consultation and advocacy and operating community-based Jewish identity projects. A main goal is to introduce whole families to our beautiful Jewish heritage that was denied to us in our former homelands, and which remains foreign in our Israeli secular communities. If conversion to Judaism continues to remain an ultra-Orthodox monopoly run by rejectionists, then FSU immigrants will have little incentive to consider becoming Jewish. The fact is that their population is growing, and many want to live in dignity and equality as converted Jews. However, the exclusivists have chosen to denigrate potential FSU immigrant converts in favor of preserving a lemahadrin standard of conversion. No wonder that so many FSU immigrants develop hostile, secular attitudes about religious leaders. It needn't be this way. The writer, a sociologist, is founder and executive director of the Association for the Protection of Mixed Families' Rights.