A charged committee meeting discusses ‘ticking bomb’ of 350,000 FSU immigrants who can’t convert to Judaism through state religious authority
Born in Moldova, David immigrated to Israel with his family as a child in 1997, where they qualified for citizenship under the Law of Return. But not as Jews.
“There, we were Jews,” David said Tuesday at the Knesset, referring to the country of his birth. In many ways, his family spans Eastern European Jewish geography: He was born in Moldova, his parents in Romania, and his grandparents, two of whom were Jewish, in Russia.
The Law of Return offers Israeli citizenship to people with at least one Jewish grandparent. But Jewish law has a different criterion for who is a Jew: a Jewish mother or a recognized conversion.
At the Aliya, Absorption and Diaspora Committee meeting, David related that only as a teen did he begin to question his identity vis a vis Judaism and the Jewish state.
“I began to slowly understand I’m not Jewish, slowly ask why did we come here, to Israel? Are we Jews? Why don’t we have holidays at home? Not everyone asks these questions — and parents don’t always have the answers,” said David.
‘My mother doesn’t light Shabbat candles, but my daughter will. I didn’t have a bar mitzva, but my son will’
David spent a year at Yemin Orde, a pre-military youth village which helps immigrant youth streamline into Israeli society, where he learned to put his halachic status into a Jewish historical perspective. When he joined the IDF the following year in the elite Duvdevan unit, he also entered Nativ, its conversion program, with the mindset that, “My mother doesn’t light Shabbat candles, but my daughter will. I didn’t have a bar mitzva, but my son will.”
David said the Nativ program was very inclusive, and that the message he was given was: “You are Jews, but must correct something. We’re all in the same boat.”
After four years of study, during which he told his mother he could no longer eat from her kitchen, studied, and performed a required post-army stint at a yeshiva, he was rejected at what was meant to be his final appearance in front of the rabbinical court. From the stress of the occasion, David says he mis-answered a few questions about halacha, or Jewish religious law.
“They looked at me like I was the last person alive who should be a Jew,” David said. He was told that he “definitely” would pass the next time. David said that the majority of his Nativ class didn’t pass, even after three or four appearances.
Currently, only 30 to 40 percent of those who begin the state conversion authority’s program stay with it until conversion. Only 50% make it past the first interview with the rabbinical court, “and it is because of the rabbinical courts’ approach,” said Prof. Binyamin Ish Shalom, a longtime conversion activist.
With 350,000 non-Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union in Israel and an additional 100,000 second-generation non-Jewish children, the Knesset committee meeting on Tuesday discussed this “ticking bomb” — the systemic inability of the established religious authority to bring its cohorts through conversion, and the resultant disenfranchisement of thousands of Israeli citizens.
With widespread acrimonious finger pointing, Tuesday’s charged Knesset meeting was attended by politicians pushing for a solution for Israeli citizens of Jewish background, and rabbis who said the current conversion authority was the best solution — or the biggest obstacle.
‘I know people who left the country after their failure at the rabbinic court’
After the rabbinical court’s rejection, David said, he felt “distanced” from Judaism, emotionally and spiritually. “I know people who left the country after their failure at the rabbinic court,” he said.
David, however, did end up undergoing a halachic conversion to Judaism — although he is still not considered a Jew by the civil State of Israel nor by its religious authority.
With increasingly inflexible requirements from the state authorities, the past few years has seen the advent of unrecognized independent but halachic conversion courts, such as the controversial ultra-Orthodox court in Bnei Brak under Rabbi Nissim Kurelitz, and the Modern Orthodox new kid on the block, the network of Giyur Kahalacha courts.
Established six months ago by luminaries of Israel’s National Zionist religious world, Giyur Kahalacha sees itself as a halachic answer to immigrants — especially those with Jewish ancestry — who are not able to complete the state’s stringent conversion programs.
Although their converts must acknowledge that the program is currently not recognized by the State of Israel for Jewish status purposes, nor by the chief rabbinate for lifecycle events, Giyur Kahalacha has already converted 150 out of 600 people who have approached the organization so far.
At the Knesset meeting, Giyur Kahalacha representatives projected that it would soon be the largest converting court in the world. (The state religious authority annually converts some 3,600.)
The number of those reaching out to Giyur Kahalacha shows the frustration of potential converts with the religious authorities, said Eli Cohen, a former IAF pilot and high-tech businessman who now works with the movement.
Why this matter is pressing for discussion at the Knesset, Cohen said, is that for FSU immigrants with Jewish heritage, beyond the religious authority, it is the state recognition of their Jewishness that is of utmost importance to their identities as Israeli citizens.
It is clear, however, that there is already concern among Knesset members and rabbis that these new converts present facts on the ground that will soon cause a cataclysm.
Opposition leader Isaac Herzog (Zionist Union) said, “We are coming to the point at which we say in this situation, there should be a parallel conversion system because the current system doesn’t answer the need.”
But the head of the conversion authority, Rabbi Yitzhak Peretz, said Tuesday that his institution does not recognize the Giyur Kahalacha converts and, with some 2,000 FSU converts a year, he does not foresee a need.
“If someone has a problem with the Knesset, should he make a new Knesset? Soon there will be a state in which everyone will make their own synagogue; everyone will do their own kashrut,” said Peretz.
There are currently some 15 independent conversion courts across the country, said Peretz. If they were all to be recognized, “then there won’t be one people, there will be 100 peoples… There will be chaos,” said Peretz.
MK Moti Yogev of the Jewish Home party echoed Peretz’s concerns, but said that while the chief rabbinate should be the sole religious authority, especially in cases of conversion and divorce, “there must be an effort for leniency, with faith and responsibility, to keep the Jewish people together.”
‘There won’t be one people, there will be 100 peoples… There will be chaos’
With a rich family history and constituency of voters with similar backgrounds to support her, Zionist Camp MK Ksenia Svetlova dismissed the notion that the state conversion authority is a force for cohesion within the Jewish people.
“The rabbinate has turned into the lords of the people, not its servants,” said Svetlova. She said that many immigrants from the former Soviet Union had lived their entire lives believing they were Jews.
“They suffered anti-Semitism as Jews,” she said, and suffered in many other ways as Jews, “and here — oops! [They are asked by officials,] ‘Who are you, goyim?’ We must stop the torture,” she said.
Svetlova said the situation is so ludicrous that even the Biblical prototype of Jewish conversion would not have taken place in today’s strict rabbinical courts.
“Ruth the Moabite would not have been converted today. She wouldn’t have been accepted into the Jewish people,” said Svetlova. “People want to be Jews — so let them!”
After trying to reform the system from within both the rabbinic authority and the Knesset, former Shas MK Rabbi Haim Amsalem said that he doesn’t see any hope of meeting the need presented by the hundreds of thousands of Israeli citizens with Jewish heritage. Furthermore, he said, by disenfranchising potential converts from Judaism through its refusal to recognize these independent conversion courts, the state establishment is “supporting assimilation.”
“Who are those who knock on our doors? Ninety-seven percent are those with Jewish roots, who have bound their fates with the Jewish people. We are rejecting them,” he said. Quoting other rabbinic sources, Amsalem said it is worse to reject one who wants to become a Jew than to “mistakenly” convert someone.
“We must give government recognition to the independent courts and the converts,” said Amsalem.
The head of the committee, Likud MK Avraham Neguise, an Ethiopian immigrant, is also no stranger to the political and emotional struggle involved in conversion. In concluding the discussion, Neguise called for the conversion authority to begin talks with Giyur Kahalacha. More importantly, he called on the Interior Ministry to recognize these halachic converts as Jews.
Until then, David, like the other Giyur Kahalacha converts, understands that their Jewish identities only go so far.
“I am not registered as a Jew anywhere in Israel, even though I went through a halachic conversion,” he said.
And so, ahead of his upcoming marriage, David also knows that the only ways for him to have a halachic marriage is to leave the Jewish state — or be wed illegally by a Giyur Kahalacha rabbi.