We need an answer

The problem of conversion is an unprecedented national issue, and it requires an audacious solution, especially if we continue to bring thousands of immigrants from the FSU who might not meet the Chief Rabbinate’s standard of Jewishness.

Conversion 311 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Conversion 311
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
According to a press release from the Central Bureau of Statistics, 7,700 people made aliya from the former Soviet Union this past year. This is remarkable, and highlights the fact that the chants many of us grew up screaming (“One, two, three, four, open up the iron door. Five, six, seven, eight, let our people emigrate”) continue to resonate more than 20 years after the dismantling of the Berlin Wall.
But the CBS withheld another statistic, more troubling and certainly more dramatic. If the trend of the past three years continues, then more than 50 percent of those who made aliya from the FSU don’t meet the Chief Rabbinate’s standard of Jewishness, and thus will need to convert if they seek to marry. The more than 3,000 individuals who are now citizens join more than 330,000 who are not recognized as full members of society.
WHILE THE Knesset debates the IDF conversion bill, the problem of conversion continues to snowball.
Last year, less than 2,000 Russians converted.
This year, more than 3,000 non-Jews (according to Orthodox Halacha) immigrated.
It is simple to call for the repeal of the Law of Return, thus preventing anyone without a Jewish mother from immigrating. But this would counter the Zionist thrust that has characterized the government since the early 1950s. It is similarly easy to say “Who cares?” since these immigrants will ultimately blend into society one way or another, as many of those who came before them already have.
But the real solution doesn’t compromise our Zionist vision or our Jewish aspirations. Instead, it demands a new, creative approach toward conversion – one that will stop the eternal politicization of this religious act.
The first stage of such an approach is to remove all political voices from the equation. The moral obligation the State of Israel has to convert those individuals who came on aliya under the Law or Return should trump any political interests. This means that Knesset decisions related to conversion shouldn’t be part of the usual barter that is so typical of today’s politicians.
But more importantly, the power to convert or support conversions should be taken away from any institution which cannot demonstrate a capacity to rise above politics. After more than six years of experience, I believe strongly that the Chief Rabbinate – in its current configuration – has not demonstrated clearly that it is capable of being apolitical. In fact, the consistent postponement of decisions related to certifying conversions already performed highlights the powerlessness of the rabbinate to move this issue forward.
The problem of conversion is an unprecedented national issue, and one that requires an audacious and national solution.
If the rabbinate cannot provide an answer – and all indications are that it cannot – then someone else should. If not for the sake of those who came 20 years ago, then for the sake of those who just arrived.
The writer is director of ITIM (www.itim.org.il), which maintains a hot line for converts and those seeking conversion.