Strengthening the Jewish state’s future

"It is a matter of shame that the Chief Rabbinate is in the business of discouraging, rather than encouraging would-be converts."

JEWS IMMIGRATE to the Land of Israel, 1947. Today there are some 400,000 Israeli citizens who came from the former Soviet Union and are not recognized as Jews. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
JEWS IMMIGRATE to the Land of Israel, 1947. Today there are some 400,000 Israeli citizens who came from the former Soviet Union and are not recognized as Jews.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Listening to the moving and powerful rendering of the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur prayers always reminds me of my childhood.
My grandfather lived with us. Zaide came to Britain from Bialystok, at the time in Russia but today in Poland. Our home was in northeast London, around the corner from the Biala rebbe’s shtiebel; it was natural that Zaide chose this as his house of prayer. His strong and sweet voice made him a popular leader of the services. He loved chazanut (cantorial music) and was an avid collector of recordings by the late eminent cantors Yossele Rosenblatt and Moshe Koussevitzky. I would often sit by his side, helping him turn the handle of his gramophone, listening to these great cantors sing the prayers with deep emotion. It was here with my zaide that I learned to love and appreciate the synagogue’s unique liturgy.
My father intensified those early feelings. He would take me to shul, where I loved participating in the service conducted by the cantor and choir. Music is a unifier, bringing together the congregation in the singing of the beautiful and stirring Shabbat and yom tov (festival) melodies.
Looking back, I consider myself exceedingly fortunate that I was part of a family where being Jewish was positive and meaningful. How different things appear now. Grandfathers like my zaide no longer exist. What formed an essential part of my growing up is “ancient” history for today’s generation. I remember a world without Israel, and therefore rejoiced at its rebirth in 1948. Being married to a Holocaust survivor whose close family were murdered at Auschwitz and Theresienstadt has given me vivid insight into the barbaric annihilation of six million Jews simply because they were Jews.
Today’s parents are unable to pass on something that they personally have never experienced. Could this be a contributing factor in the increasing turning away from Judaism?
The United States, with its 5,700,000 Jews, has the second-largest Jewish population after Israel. A Jewish People Policy Institute study in 2017 noted that only half of American Jews aged 25 to 54 (excluding ultra-Orthodox and haredi Jews) are married – and most of those who are married wedded non-Jews. Particularly disturbing is that only 17% of the children of mixed marriages marry Jews. With an ever-increasing rate of intermarriage plus the consequence of the children of this union marrying non-Jews, the future of American Jewry’s survival is threatened.
With the reality of a diminishing Jewish identity in the US, it should not be surprising that there is a turning away from Israel, exasperated by an Israel that rejects the majority of American Jewry who belong to the Conservative and Reform branches of Judaism or to no branch at all.
In my pre-aliyah days (some 20 years ago), when participating in the annual gatherings of the World Zionist Organization and the Jewish Agency meetings held in Jerusalem, a prime factor to encourage our children to remain Jewish was to encourage them to go to Israel on various youth programs, both short-term and long-term. The World Union of Jewish Students encouraged English-speaking college graduates to participate in a yearlong program in Israel. Some 90% of its graduates made aliyah, as did our son through his WUJS experience.
IS DECIDING to live in Israel a guarantee that we will remain Jewish? Unfortunately, at this challenging time, the very ones who should be concerned with the Jewish people’s continuity in the sole Jewish country are the ones contributing to its demise. I refer to Israel’s Chief Rabbinate.
Between 1989 and 2006, a million immigrants arrived in Israel from the former Soviet Union. They were permitted entry if they had either a paternal or maternal Jewish grandparent. Many non-Jews arrived among them as spouses or relatives. Today there are some 400,000 Israeli citizens from the FSU who are not recognized as Jews. It is a matter of shame that the Chief Rabbinate is in the business of discouraging, rather than encouraging, these would-be converts.
One example is a prerequisite demand of the Chief Rabbinate to have the right (virtually forever) to check on a convert as to whether or not he is 100% Shabbat observant, with the threat of negating the conversion if found to be wanting.
There is one spark of hope on the horizon: the coming into being of Giyur K’Halacha, whose president, Rabbi Nahum Rabinovich, is one of the most respected arbiters of Jewish law in the religious Zionist movement. Giyur K’Halacha, founded three years ago, has 55 rabbis serving on its courts, including the highly respected Shlomo Riskin of Efrat. More than 6,000 individuals have turned to these courts since 2015. Giyur K’Halacha’s website states that it “offers a compassionate conversion court network that is consistent with Jewish law and free of government bureaucracy.”
The High Court of Justice recently ruled that a woman converted in 2016 by Giyur K’Halacha must now be registered as Jewish. While at this time the Chief Rabbinate continues to disallow these converts from marrying in Israel, there is hope that this High Court ruling will pave the way for full recognition.
It is equally disturbing that halachically Jewish couples choose to marry in Cyprus rather than in Israel, because of the manner in which the Chief Rabbinate operates. It should be a matter of deep concern that Jews prefer a civil marriage abroad rather than marry under a huppah here.
Similarly, we must assume it is the Chief Rabbinate plus the Arye Deri-controlled Interior Ministry that has contributed to the delayed arrival of 8,000 Ethiopian Falash Mura languishing in the camps of Gondor and Addis Ababa. Isaac Herzog, head of the Jewish Agency, says the agency is ready to absorb these potential olim and would ensure their undergoing a conversion process.
Our country has spent 70 years fighting outside enemies in order to survive as a Jewish state. The time is long overdue for us to ensure that we Jews remain Jewish and encourage, rather than discourage, those who wish to return to their roots. We should be in the business of outreach, both internally and externally.
This is an aspect of survival that Israel and its successive governments have consistently ignored. To continue to do so is to actively contribute toward our demise as a people.
The writer is public relations chair of ESRA, which promotes integration into Israeli society.