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Israel Doesn’t Want Me

A convert -- also a Reform rabbi -- is saddened, but not surprised that Israel is questioning Orthodox conversions.

Mon, 02/25/2013 - 19:00
Special To The Jewish Week
Rabbi Heidi Hoover
Rabbi Heidi Hoover

I read with concern and sadness about some American Jews who want to make aliyah, and whose Orthodox conversions, performed years ago in the U.S., are now being questioned by Israel’s Chief Rabbinate and its Ministry of Interior (“New Convert Snub By Israel Fuels Fresh Anger Here,” Feb. 8).

Concern and sadness, yes. Shock, no. Rabbi Seth Farber of ITIM, an advocacy organization based in Jerusalem that helps people with personal-status issues in Israel, was quoted in the article saying this is just the “latest round of disenfranchisement.”

Of course, this is true. In the 1980s, the interior ministry denied Jews who had converted under the auspices of the Reform movement identity cards designating them as “Jewish.” In 1989, the Israeli Supreme Court mandated that Reform and Conservative conversions had to be recognized by the ministry. This left a loophole, because it was assumed the Orthodox conversions would not be questioned. But now they are being questioned.

For Jews by choice whose conversions were carried out through the progressive movements, and now for some others who have converted under Orthodox auspices, Jewish life in Israel continues to be under the control of the Chief Rabbinate, even for those manage to make aliyah. Though they are Jews living in Israel, they cannot be married to other Jews in Israel or buried as Jews there, and, if they are women, neither can their children be, because the Chief Rabbinate does not recognize their conversions.

These issues hit me viscerally, because while I have devoted my life to Judaism, I studied for conversion with a Reform rabbi, and was examined and taken to the mikveh by a Reform beit din. That is how I became a Jew.

Israel doesn’t want me.

One of the messages that American Jews receive relentlessly is that we need to support Israel. There is much hand wringing over the perceived lessening of American Jewish connection to Israel among teens and young adults, and even among rabbinical students. I believe this lessening of connection is in part due to a growing number of American Jews who cannot fully live as Jews in Israel because their status as Jews is not recognized by the Chief Rabbinate, and in some cases not by the interior ministry.

I am deeply conflicted about my own connection to Israel for this reason. I do feel connected, and I do support Israel’s right to exist safely. Some Israeli policies make me cringe and some criticisms of Israel make me bristle. But it is difficult for me to think of the State of Israel as my homeland, and that hurts.

People I like and respect have said to me, “You don’t have any interest in making aliyah. Why do you care if you’re considered Jewish in Israel?” To me, this is an astonishing argument. It’s like saying, “This country club doesn’t want to give you membership, but that’s OK, because you don’t want to be a member anyway. It’s really important, though, that you support the country club, defend it, and send it your money.” As an American Jew, there is both explicit and implicit pressure to support Israel, because it is the homeland of all Jews. Therefore, as a Jew, it’s supposed to be my homeland too. And yet, here we are.

As a rabbi, I consider it part of my responsibility to teach my congregants that not everyone’s Judaism is universally recognized. This applies to conversion students, adopted children whose families are having them converted, children of non-Jewish others, and children of mothers who converted to Judaism. There are a lot of these people in my congregation.

I emphasize to them that they are, in fact, Jewish, but that there are those who will not recognize them as such for ritual and life-cycle purposes. “I’m in the same situation you are,” I tell them.

These conversations are painful and difficult, but it would be worse for them to, for example, make aliyah, meet someone and decide to marry, and be told at that point that the Chief Rabbinate doesn’t consider them Jewish and they need to convert. That surprise can be devastating. I want my congregants, and my daughters, with whom I am having the same conversation, to be prepared. Then I also need to find a way to help them feel connected to the Land of Israel, even though Israel doesn’t seem to want them. Being Jewish isn’t supposed to be easy, but does it have to be hard like this?

It is crucial that American Jews of all denominations join to support religious pluralism in Israel, and in the United States as well. We need to find ways to respect and recognize each other’s conversions and life-cycle rituals. There are not so many of us that we can afford to be divided, and if Israel continues to disenfranchise American Jews, she cannot expect their support to continue indefinitely.

Rabbi Heidi Hoover leads Temple Beth Emeth v’Ohr Progressive Shaari Zedek in Brooklyn.


converts, Israel

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I too recently discovered my Jewishness through my maternal line. The matriarch of our family along with her sister was sent here in the late 1850's to avoid religious persecution, Shortly after arriving her sister passed and the rest of the family never made it out of Poland alive. She is buried outside of the city, behind a cemetery with other Jews and immigrants who were considered not allowed in the cemeteries during that time in our countries history. My mother's DNA also proves our Jewish roots of Ashkenazi, but the Bet Din and Orthodoxy will not accept us without conversion. When I read things like this on how even with what proof I am have, even if I go through conversion, they will never accept us as Jewish nor allow my children to marry other Jews.

It is heart-breaking to see such prejudice within the Rabbinate and its Ministry of Interior. I was to restore my families roots and heritage and be the light to the nations that Hashem has commanded, but it is very difficult when they refuse to acknowledge me and my children for who we are, Jews!

I discovered my Jewishness, first through finding my father's family and the genealogical paper trail and then through DNA where I am listed as predominantly Ashkenazi Jewish. Today, an Orthodox Jew told me that I am not a Jew because my mother is not Jewish (although she also has trace amounts of Jewish DNA). I can't even begin to describe the hurt that this mindset has caused me. What about adoptees who do not know their birth parents, but learn through DNA that they are predominantly Jewish? Why are we rejected?

If being Jewish is along the matrilineal line, one of those matriarchs and grandmother of David goes back to Ruth, a convert. Ruth only spoke the words, your people will be my people, where you go, I will go. She affirmed her loyalty to the Jewish people and was accepted. Tamar was another matriarch who was not Jewish and her twins became the sons of Judah, so that Judah's offspring's matriarchal line is gentile. If Gentiles could learn what Judaism is, they would be Jewish.

So much hate, so much anger... So sad to see this, nothing has been learned after the holocaust. Hate kills, hate, hate, hate.... The orthodox are wrong, and I can tell you one thing, none of these 'Born' Jews accomplish 613 mitzvot (Orthodox).

Torah, is only a game for them, and they use it against "Goyim" all the time.

My Heart is Jew, my soul is Jew... No human can tell me what I am, only G-d !

The Jewish world is lucky to have Rabbis like you. As a born Jew, I am embarrassed by the attitudes shown towards people who have chosen Judaism. It seems some people are more obsessed with judging whether others are Jewish enough, rather than demonstrating yiddishkeit, and worrying about observing minutiae of Jewish law rather than loving and caring about other people. To me, religious observance is useless unless it leads to love and connection with others. The religious establishment in Israel has all but forgotten this. Ultimately the situation in Israel is about power and dominance and nothing about religion. Let us not forget the Nazis were obessed with race and blood. We should all know better.

Our teachings make it clear that people who have converted occupy a particularly special place since they chose to be part of the Jewish people, and they too were at Sinai with the rest of the tribe.

Best wishes Rabbi and I hope you ignore many of the insensitive comments that follow your excellent article.

I was so happy when I converted to Christianity from Reform Judaism and got out of this mess; it took all of 15 minutes. The Orthodox Jews are nothing more than taliban and fanatics; they can all go to Israel. Logically, why would I want my child to be part of religion in which they will be persecuted by both Jews and non Jews.

Some religions are worth putting up with the garbage for. I converted to Reform Judaism from Christianity years ago and do not regret a minute of it. Sure a minority thinks I'm not "really a Jew" but I know I am, G-d knows I am, and the Jewish people that really matter to me know I am. Sure, the Christians never doubted I was Christian but they made my life hell in much more painful ways than the Jewish people ever have.

Wow... you converted to christianity after being a reform jew? And "Orthodox Jews are nothing more than taliban..."? I'm really grateful that you left Judaism, though from your obvious internal anger toward Jews, it's likely that you never were actually a Jew. I'm glad - we're all glad - you found a home, other than ours.

I am a convert who waited 50 years and finally at age 65 sat before a beit din and waded into a mikvah. I could care less that some rabbi in Israel or anywhere else may not consider me Jewish - or Jewish enough. My Jewishness is between G-d and myself and my Jewish soul was there at Sinai just as theirs was. With all the talk of converts and rejection, one wonders how Ruth managed to remain an example of a Jew all these centuries. Isn't ist strange, the Nazi regime seemed to have understood who was a Jew, but the rabbinate of Israel can't figure it out.

This is exactly the. Problem with the reform movement. Your essay shows you have limited knowledge of Torah and Halacha- you only know what has been fed to you by those who have decided to create their own religion. Take the time to study the Torah and the Torah way of life with an Orthodox family for one year-experience real Shaabas and Yom Tov then you will understand the importance of protecting and upholding 5,000 years of tradition and not replacing it with a religion created 150 years ago and designed to encourage assimilation and rejection of Torah and the Rabbis.

Quote for me a single verse in all of Tanach where the criteria for converting to Judaism is only valid according to Orthodox criteria. When you can't find it, go back and read Ruth.

Halacha does not work by randomly quoting verses from Tanach, using their simple meaning. The halacha of the generation you live in is decided by the rabbis of that generation, using established methods for the development of halacha . Furthermore there is no such thing as Orthodox Judaism. There is Judaism, with the Written and Oral Torahs given at Sinai over 3000 years ago. The term "Orthodox Judaism" was coined by the Reform movement about 150 years ago as a derogatory term to describe Jews who keep Torah. Thus of course, there is no such verse as you suggest.

It's quite idiotic and insipid how you blatantly insult without even making one single point... If you honestly knew anything about the situation at hand, you would know that orthodox conversions have also been rejected. The reason has more to do with the beurocrats and hypocrites in the chief rabbinate as opposed to any actual level of observancy.... Wake up and while you're at it start connverting that misplaced bitterness and elitism to promote Torah values instead of more of the same old same old ....

What would Hillel do?

Probably the opposite of Shammai ! Your name is presumably a coincidence?
Shabbat Shalom

It's not what particular type of Judaism you were born to that is an issue here,it is conversions.The fact is there are missionaries and others that "convert" just to be able to move to Israel and far to many representatives of the different "sects" that will do it for anyone without any problem.There is even become Jewish online sites,where they never even lay eyes on the person.
This is what it says in Humanist Judaism Faq:10. "Can someone convert to Humanistic Judaism?
We define a Jew as someone who identifies with the history, culture and fate of the Jewish people. If a person would like to participate in the Jewish experience, they can adopt Judaism and a Humanistic Jewish community or the Society for Humanistic Judaism can adopt the person wanting to be part of the Humanistic Jewish family. It’s a mutual experience. Because being Jewish is defined as the historical and cultural experience of the Jewish people an individual does not have to “give up” who they are to add Jewish identity to their self-definition."

To the "igs" out there, Moses' wife was indeed Jewish.

Joshke was a shmad.

She was a Black Hebrew woman who loved HaShem.

I can't understand why gentiles want to convert to judaism in the first place.
orld Jewry for the past 2,000 has witnessed persecution, wholesale-slaughter, torture, being kicked out of so many lands, being forced to convert to either christainity or Islam by the point of the sword, culminating in the greatest butchering to death by shootings, gassings, hangings all aimed at one specific people in the whole history of mankind. I now think that we the Jewish people should only be concerned with our own welfare, now is not the time for people of other cultures, denominations and ethnicity to co-join with us. I don't trust any outsiders after what their ancestors perpetrated against our nation. Unfortunately many of our own brethren who chose Jewish-reformity over orthodoxy are guilty of watering down 5,773 years of Hashem, not only that many have chosen to side with the gentiles in criticizing all aspects of modern-Israel's political thinking. There are many good gentiles also working for the good of the Jewish-state, I salute these people and wish them well, so allow them carry on their good work without the need to convert to Judaism.

No convert, no matter the denomination, walks into a conversion without knowing the history of the Jewish people. We know and we choose it anyways. I'm sure there's some shady characters, and I can't speak for everyone. The fears when a rabbi is attacked an hour from where we live, I'm sure, does not strike us as hard as it does the grandchildren of Shoah survivor but we'd be just as dead as you.

Would you turn away Ruth?

This just means you actually have very limited understanding of Jewish history...not surprising by the way... Judaism would never have survived without accepting converts... As it says in the talmud that Jews were exiled to make converts of the nations... Maybe you should try reading a book about Jewish history and conversion in the past... I think you'll be surprised.... Honestly, from your comments you would be surprised on what the shulchan aruch has to say about a possible convert!! Lol since most orthodox Jews just take their religion at face value instead of actually checking the source.

I agree. With out converts, Judaism may not have pass through time. Even today we need converts to grow the Children of Israel. To many are departing the family. Maybe the Chief Rabbi does not know this is the way to move the people forward. After all, a Jew by choice is the highest honor. They went to be, and he was born to Judaism.

It is not your choice to make if somebody joins themselves through the established means to Judaism. These gateways are open, despite the facts of what has and continues to happen to Jews born or converted. Unless for material gain, or some other incorrect motive, your arguments are your personal feelings, not the position of Judaism or the rabbis.

It is time to face this issue head-on: What are they so afraid of that they would exclude so many?

My maternal grandparents were Reform Jews in Berlin, Germany. But When in 1943 they were pulled out off their beds in the middle of the night by the Nazi thugs and ended up in Auschwitz, no one asked them if they were Orthodox, Conservative, or Reform Jews. They were "Jewish enough" for the Nazi to be murdered, but apparently they are not "Jewish enough" for the Orthodox, Ultra-Orthodox, Haredi community, and the chief rabbinate in Israel to include them in K'lal Yisrael. Such shame has befallen my people!

Said so brilliantly! Thank you! Sadly, the numbers of American Jews will continue to decrease because of this new acknowledgement that they are not Jewish enough! Myself included! Adopted by Jewish parents, raised Jewish, married a Jewish man (99.8% Ashkenazi confirmed by 23 and Me), raised my 3 children Jewish (all were Bar & Bat) but my children and I are not considered Jewish in Isreal! In fact, just days before before our wedding at a conservative temple the Rabbi refused to marry us because I was adopted! Even though my parents had performed the conversion process! We did get married in that temple but by a reformed Rabbi. 23 years later, I no longer push Jewish agenda, celebrate Jewish holidays, and told my children to marry who you want because it doesn't matter anyway! My husband completely understands and is furious at Isreals protocol!

I'm happy to use my real name since I'm perfectly willing to stand behind what I say.

Don't worry all or you "pure ones" or so called "real Jews". G-d forbid when the next progrom or holacost comes the perparatrators will make so such disctintions. Then where will we all be. I'm the child of Jewish parents and ALL of my grand parents and great grand pasrents were Jewish. It pains me to see some of the so called leaders of our faith act in such a mean sprited manner. Thre aren't that many Jews in the world so we ALL need to stick together

Yiddishkeit, Judaism can’t be “made-over” or “reformed” or changed. Hashem’s word has not changed - that is the eternal promise of Judaism.

It is not a matter of trying to be “nasty’ by saying so – it is an inalienable truth that Judaism may not be changed because Hashem(G-d) has said so.

We go with Hashem. Others go with their ignorant buddies. It makes the world of a difference. Not to be taken lightly.

You do realise though, that while the Jews were the "chosen people" they were not the first to that G-d chose. They were the first to say "yes" to G-d though. So why is my conversion any different then that? G-d has spoken to me since I was a kid, my earliest memory asking my mom to bring me to the synagogue was around 13, 10 years ago. I still feel this way today. My mom would not bring me then, then when I was finally able to bring myself, my mom was dying of cancer so out of respect to her I did not convert. She passed away a year ago and I have moved out for the first time in my life not living with my parents at 23, what better time to make a life changing decision?

My point is that I CHOSE G-d just like Avraham chose G-d and G-d's law. I do not go to an Orthodox synagogue, we do not have an Orthodox synagogue where I live. We have two, Reform and Conservative. Yes I go to the reform, but it isn't any less Jewish or holy than any other. The first day I walked in there five months ago, my Rabbi welcomed me with open arms. Everyday since then, G-d has made it clear to me that it is the right choice for me to be making, that I am following his plan for me. That I was, am, and always will, be Jewish.

I was also adopted, my birthmom is not Jewish and no one in her family is however I do not know what my sperm donors heritage is in all honesty. He has never told the truth and I don't know if he is about that. I could have Jewish family on his side but I don't know, and yes I know that it is through the mother, but I chose JUST LIKE Avraham chose. So how am I any different?

Hear, hear. I'm a gentile but I can't for the life of me understand why people have such a hard time grasping that religious Jews aren't willing to throw out 5000 year-old rules of defining who a Jew is to accommodate the ever-evolving rules of people who doubt the Torah.

It's not that they doubt the Torah, they just interpret it differently. And reform and conservative jews are also religious, otherwise they'd say they're secular jews... Plus matrilinearity isn't 5000-years-old (yeah, and you're considered jewish even if you don't do any mitzvah.)
I'm orthodox, a born jewish baal teshuva, and support reform and conservative jews. Judaism ALWAYS evolved, changed, there's no reason for it to stop now. Even orthodox judaism is still evolving!

As a gentile, you have no idea of what you speak on. With our Jewish history, there is no purity in Jewish blood, regardless of what some of our Orthodoxy might wish to lay claim to. The idea that one can trace purely back to the Kohenim, is an abuse and transgression against our own people. The people that this hurts most of all is those of us Jews by patrilineal ties and full fledged Jewish beliefs. Also, know nothing, nobody's asking anybody to throw out anything. Case in point the rules regarding who is a Jew are not from the time of the temple, in fact that kicked in way later and are adhered to through rabbinical commentaries. How about grasping the idea that maybe you should speak on a subject that you have at least some grasp on?

I was born to Jewish parents, whose parents also were Jewish. (my maternal grandparents were from the Ukraine and my paternal grandparents were from Poland). I was bar mitzvahed here in Brooklyn at a Conservative synagogue. There weren't any reform congregations in my neighborhood in the 1950's. Both my sons were bar mitzvahed at Temple Beth Emeth. I was not raised religious. However, we observed the holidays. I am past president of my Reform Congregation and proud of it. Our congregation was formed in 1911 as a Reform Temple by mostly German immigrants. Now in our 102nd year, we are growing. Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, we are all Jewish.

I'm very proud that Heidi Hoover is my rabbi...she is more Jewish than many of us 'born' Jews..and certainly more spiritual than the people who claim to know God's wishes and have the nerve to claim to know who God would or wouldn't consider a Jew

There is greater danger from within.

How seriously are we to take reform Judaism when Union of Reform Judaism came out AGAINST Jews building homes for Jews in the E-1 section of Jerusalem. Even Rabin and Olmert said E-I will always be part of the Jewish State. NEVER, ever has ANY part of Jerusaelm been the capitol of ANY Arab/islamic/Palestinian state - NEVER. The first Temple was built 1500 years BEFORE the advent of Islam. Yet, URJ has no difficulty in advocating for a divided jerusalem. If URJ will not even stand up for our history, how can we trust it with standing up for any aspect of our tradiciton? URJ has SELF delegtimized, casting doubt on the entire Reform movement. I sent my (now adult) children to URJ schools. Would not do so today.

Sorry. You are not a rabbi, you are not jewish & neither will your children be. Our laws have been in existance for thousands of years & have served us well as a guideline to banning interlopers. How do you compare yourself & your peers to the chachamim who made & enforced these laws. Lines have to be drawn somwhere and they are.

I guess according to you Moses' children and decendents aren't Jewish, since his wife was not Jewish. And that means Jesus wasn't Jewish, either, since Naomi wasn't Jewish. All through the Bible Jews married non-Jews, and their children were Jews. It is only relatively recently that bigots like you have turned away true Jews. It's amazing to me that any Reform, Conservative or Jews by choice send money to Israel. Since we aren't recognized by Israel, I have no desire to send any money or go there.

Israel's crimes against women should also be pointed out as inhumane by the UN. Israel is not a democracy, as the US claims. I do not believe the US should continue to support Israel until it treats its own citizens, including women, Reform, Conservative and Jews by choice with respect and legal equality.

interesting that you believe humans (rabbis) can interpret God's words....and know more than God. I'm pretty sure that when the time comes, God will decide who is a Jew and who, more importantly, who has been a good Jew...we believe that having a good loving heart is more important to God than just following rules (which have been interpreted and re-interpred by humans). Since no one since biblical times has claimed to hear from God directly...or to have spoken to God to get God's views on who is a Jew..I guess we'll all find out when we're dead. Until then, I think you should stop trying to be the one who decides who is or isn't a Jew

You are not a Rabbi, and you are not a Jew.

You might be Jewish if your mother was Jewish but was unaware of it- but you would still have to undergo proper Orthodox Jewish conversion to be considered Jewish by the community.

The misinformation about Judaism you and others are giving to the world and to some very misguided Jewish people is a criminal offence by Jewish Law.

We have two synagogues where I live, one Reform and one Conservative. How am I suppose to have, what you call, a proper conversion then? There is no Orthodox synagogue here. We barely have enough Jews in this area to keep the two synagogues open and running.

Abraham and Sarah were converts. Where in the Torah does it delineate Orthodox, Conservative, or Reform?

Rabbi Hoover, he current Rabbanut seems to do everything to keep Jews, converted or not, out of the fold. Try getting a marriage license even if you converted here! I hear it can be nearly impossible. That said, I think it's also important to see that Reform and Conservative Judaism means almost nothing to Israelis. Yes, there are some synagogues and some Israelis seem to attend, but in the big scheme of things their impact is minimal. Why is that? In part, because the state and the Rabbanut seem to do whatever they can to keep liberal Judaism out, think funding, salaries etc. But, beyond that particularly Reform Judaism has done a lot to discredit itself,i.e. how many conversions are performed according to the halachic requirements? Yes, every sect sets its own standards regarding conversion, but the Reform Movement should not expect other sects to embrace converts that converted to Judaism through a movement that doesn't even see itself as halachic movement. How many Reform rabbis are qualified to issue a get (if they believed in the practice)? My sense is that, as a result of these inherent weaknesses, Reform is not really taken seriously and it is not seen as authentic. How many RJs light candles Erev Shabbat or make kiddush? How many know how to do it? How many find it essential? The first step toward gaining recognition would be to raise your movements standards of observance and your members commitment to basic Jewish practice and then perhaps then acceptance will come.

"Try getting a marriage license even if you converted here!"""I hear it can be nearly impossible." I am a convert and it took me two days to get my marriage license. I guess hearing and doing are very different things..

Action is the only way of changing the status quo! Join IRAC in their work and/or send them money.

Thank you for your honesty. I think your wonderful essay stems from not putting avoidance of Lashon Harah at the beginning of the thought process. Disenfranchising a person is probably the number one cause of great conflicts and in my view the greatest sin that one can commit.

Rabbi Hoover, Israel's demographic trends are moving against you, as the Haredi population continues to grow much faster than the rest of the Jewish population there. One news report I read a few months ago estimated that 25% of the Jewish grade 1 cohort was Haredi, more than double its percentage in the overall Jewish population. As Israel moves towards becoming a theocratic state, your status there would become less and less comfortable. Don't go looking for trouble.

The Haredi are more likely to not even do military service but not anymore. Since you left this comment the Knesset passed a law requiring Haredi to serve in the military. The Haredi community head threatens to immigrate and guess where to. The United States of America. The USA has not had required military service since 1973 in which many in this country find as a mistake that is going to take to convince lawmakers to repeal the Nixon Commission of Military Service reform that said all volunteer. The only reason the experiment proved successful because of a nasty recession that resulted from an Oil Embargo. Even when the USA had required Military service either you sign up or be drafted into the Marines or Army their were religious exemptions beginning in the 1950's and lasting until the end of the draft in 1973.

This is what happens when a country is a theocracy. Does anyone remember when the ultra-Orthodox considered Zionism to be a sin? Some still do. As a Jew who converted in the Reform movement, I felt an obligation to go to Israel, and I still do in a biblical sense. The times I was there, my biggest problem with it was how Jews treat other Jews. Just as America (largely) leaves religion out of government (don't start with the exceptions, I know), Israel should leave religion to the shuls.

A beautifully written and thought-provoking article. Thank you.