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Orthodox Jew reads at a lake in Uman, Ukrainian.(Photo by: REUTERS)
Time for conversion reform
Like almost all Israelis, I want my children and grandchildren to marry Jews. The establishment of independent conversion courts is one way to help make that happen.
Intermarriage, while previously present in Diaspora Jewish communities but virtually unknown in Israel, has taken hold in Israeli society. In today’s Israel, one in every 20 marriages is between a Jew and Gentile. As such, intermarriage will touch virtually every Jewish family in Israel, if not in our children’s generation then in our grandchildren’s.

The tenfold growth of intermarriage has derived from two primary factors. Hundreds of thousands of olim who are not halachically Jewish came to Israel legally under the Law of Return, as one who has at least one Jewish grandparent. These olim brought tremendous benefit to the country in the economic, military, cultural and other arenas.

Ironically, as a result of their highly successful integration into Israel society, the vast majority of those who arrived at a young age, or who were born here, are inseparable from the rest of the Israeli population, being together with them in school, the army, universities and the workforce. It is entirely natural that they and native-born Israelis will fall in love and marry.

In addition, the majority of these olim and their children (who are also not halachically Jewish) are not interested in converting through the Israeli government’s Conversion Authority. Each year the number of these non-Jewish Israelis grows by the thousands.

While legislation has been proposed to address the issue, a non-legislative approach may be yet more effective. The primary issue preventing larger numbers of conversions is the gap between the nature of the target population on the one hand, and the demands of the Conversion Authority on the other.

The majority of the olim and their children wish to be Jewish in a manner similar to their Israeli cohorts who, while not Orthodox, are traditional in one form or another, as expressed through basic Jewish practices such as Passover seder, fasting on Yom Kippur, and the like. However, the Conversion Authority demands that the convert formally commit to an Orthodox lifestyle once converted.

Interestingly, in practice the Conversion Authority defines “kabbalat mizvot” (the commitment to mitzvot) as an understanding by the convert that he is joining the Jewish religion, while demonstrating that he wishes to join the Jewish religion, knowing full well the demanding nature of Judaism. From the moment he completes the conversion by immersing in a mikveh, what he does with that understanding is from that point forward between him and his Creator, just like a Jew from birth.

However, while the Conversion Authority relies on this approach, it does not do so openly.

In fact, the preparatory course demands that converts study the minutiae of halacha, knowing the vast majority of which will not be practiced. Further, when the convert appears before the conversion court, he is forced to lie outright by formally declaring, “I accept upon myself to observe and fulfill all of the mitzvot of the Torah, all of the rabbinic enactments, and all of the Jewish customs.”

In reality, the Conversion Authority has created a situation which runs contrary to Jewish tradition, a tradition which places greater emphasis on morality and ethics than on ritual.

The solution lies in the establishment of Orthodox conversion courts independent of the Conversion Authority and Chief Rabbinate.

These independent conversion courts will adopt the exact same halachic position as the Conversion Authority regarding “kabbalat mizvot,” only openly, without encouraging dishonesty.

These conversions will not be accepted by the Chief Rabbinate but the benefits of independent conversion courts are clear. Most importantly, they will give the olim and their children the opportunity to sort out their Jewish identity first and foremost for themselves. In addition, the majority of Israelis will recognize them as Jewish if converted by Orthodox rabbis.

Unfortunately, the Chief Rabbinate holds a near monopoly on marriage in Israel. But the hope is that a growing number of converts through independent conversion courts will eventually lead to the Chief Rabbinate agreeing to marry them. In the meantime, converts through independent conversion courts can marry in civil ceremonies outside of Israel. Afterwards, they can be married in a Jewish ceremony by a rabbi of the couple’s choice.

While the Chief Rabbinate will not recognize the couple as married, the State of Israel will, in fact, recognize their civil marriage and afford them full civilian rights as a married couple.

Neither the Conversion Authority nor the Chief Rabbinate holds a monopoly on halacha, and certainly not on Jewish tradition. Independent conversion courts can convert the olim and their children in accordance with halacha and thus address the challenge which the Conversion Authority and Chief Rabbinate have failed to address successfully.

Like almost all Israelis, I want my children and grandchildren to marry Jews. The establishment of independent conversion courts is one way to help make that happen.

The author is a social activist in the field of conversion who has volunteered over a thousand hours in the past six years in working to address this issue.

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