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Israel: Overhaul The Conversion Process
Mon, 07/12/2010 - 20:00

The leadership of organized Jewry, from the Jewish Federations of North America to the Jewish Agency for Israel, is expressing frustration, anger and a sense of betrayal — understandably — with the Netanyahu government for allowing a controversial conversion bill to go forward in the Knesset, even though it would alienate the vast majority of diaspora Jewry.

The bill proposed by David Rotem of the Yisrael Beiteinu party, many of whose constituents are Russian immigrants, is designed to make the conversion process more accessible to the approximately 350,000 former Russians who are citizens of Israel, many serving in the army, but who are not Jewish. That goal is admirable, and necessary, but the bill, which would allow city rabbis in Israel to perform conversions, gives full and final authority to the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate. Such legislation not only makes the great majority of world Jewry feel like second-class citizens, risking further distancing from Israel, but is largely ineffectual, since it would only have a practical impact on a relative handful of conversions.

Rotem visited the U.S. last spring and heard from a variety of Jewish leaders here, who warned that the legislation would be deeply harmful to the sense of Jewish unity and peoplehood. He assured them he would not go forward with such a bill. What’s more, Prime Minister Netanyahu issued a statement several months ago, asserting that “any legislative arrangement [on conversion] will have to ensure the unity of the entire Jewish people.”

But he did not prevent the Rotem bill from passing a Knesset committee — a first step toward legislation — this week, giving the impression that the prime minister is more concerned about domestic politics than Jewish peoplehood. (Yisrael Beiteinu, led by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, is a key party in the government coalition.)

The controversy over religious identity in Israel, from Who is a Jew to conversion, is a perennial lightning rod that heats up every few years. Squaring the circle by maintaining halachic tradition without offending 85 percent of world Jewry has proven elusive. But a path carved by Rabbi Haim Amsalem, a Shas member of Knesset and religious authority, could be significant. He has published a scholarly book of rabbinic responsa with a more welcoming attitude toward potential converts. And he has written that the willingness of soldiers from Russian immigrant families to risk their lives to defend the Jewish state proves their sincere intention to be part of the Jewish people. For this he has been criticized sharply from charedi colleagues and called heroic by supporters searching for halachic flexibility toward potential converts.

What is required is an overhaul of the current ineffective system in Israel and strong political support for an approach like that of Rabbi Amsalem, one that could lead to welcoming tens of thousands of Russian immigrants and their Israeli-born children into the Jewish people. It requires goodwill, and placing Jewish unity over domestic politics. That sounds all too naïve at the moment, but until it happens, the divisions among us will only fester and grow, and potentially weaken diaspora support for the State of Israel.


Avigdor Lieberman, conversion, David Rotem, Israel, Judaism, who is a Jew, Yisrael Beiteinu

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American Jews might not like it, but orthodox Judaism is the only form of authentic Judaism, i.e., before the reform and conservative forms were introduced by the "enlightened". Most of the Jews in the world follow the orthodox form, even if they do not actively observe it. Reform movement is basically the "death" branch as the Jews of this flavor eventually assimilate, as shown statically. So, alienating American Jews in this case is a good thing. We need unity in Israel. The problems that a reform conversion would cause down the generations is immense and leads to a break down of society.
It seems to me that Jewish people have NO survival instinct to rely upon. If this article is correct and Jewish people are insulted over this conversion decision in Israel, it only proves my point. I hope Jewish people of all walks of life will not take offense and will continue to support our Jewish Israelis and each other. Statistically speaking the only group that almost never intermarries are the orthodox, and those who believe in the Halacha. The other streams lose as much as 50% of their Jewish children out of Judaism. As a TINY and shrinking minority facing the wrath of the world we cannot afford to also have internal struggles over everything. The main point is that anyone can convert into Judaism and even if they must go through the orthodox version, it only means that they will gain knowledge and understanding. I realize that the process in not easy especially in Israel, but how will Jews stay united if as much as 50% may leave Judaism down the road and in Israel? It may be disappointing not to have other options of conversion into Judaism in Israel, but it’s not necessarily just a political maneuver on the part of the Israeli government. The practical side of the old fashioned way of One Torah and Halacha was that it kept Jewish people unified. The proof is in the statistics I mention. In the old fashioned way, even if a Jew did not adhere to every part of the Halacha, (traditional Jewish law) the central glue was one UNIFYING idea, one Halacha and that Jew coexisted equally within the Jewish community according to his/her level of adherence. Unfortunately we are scattering our unity to the winds of change.
The author of this post is defficient in not mentioning that there is a significant portion of Jewish Leadership (both in Israel and America) supports this bill, provided that the conversions are recognized as valid only within the state of Israel.
In addition, with the current PR condition of the Israeli Government, and the complete and neccesary overhaul of that image, this is the last topic that needs to divide us all even further. If people want to be jewish (in a respectful, spirtual, meaningful way) and are willing to support and live and pay taxes within the context of the jewish state, let them in! And hey in time with a little more learning, and little more knowledge, maybe they will interested in becoming Orthodox or more observant in a variety of ways. Lets not alienate them at the start!