Stony Brook Film Festival
view counter
Fresh Anger From Diaspora Over Bill On Conversions

Politics trumps unity as leaders here, Sharansky express sense of betrayal.

Wed, 07/14/2010
Editor And Publisher
Gary Rosenblatt
Gary Rosenblatt

 It’s hard not to be cynical about the latest conversion controversy in Jerusalem that threatens to further divide an already fragmented Jewish People for no reason but one: internal Israeli politics.

Indeed, just about every seemingly illogical legislation or decision in the Jewish state comes down to a matter of gaining, or in this case holding onto, political power.

That’s why the Netanyahu government risks further alienating an American Jewish community whose support it needs more than ever, and only days after a fence-mending White House meeting between the Prime Minister and President Obama.

If the Knesset continues to move ahead, as indicated this week, and pass legislation giving the Orthodox rabbinate a monopoly on conversions in Israel, the great majority of American Jews — as well as their establishment charitable organizations, most notably the leadership and supporters of Jewish federations — will consider themselves second-class citizens officially in the eyes of the Jewish State. As a result, their support could well diminish.

Make no mistake, the non-Orthodox American Jewish leadership is angry, and feeling betrayed, after being assured they would be consulted and their concerns addressed before action was taken on this Knesset bill. Jerry Silverman, the professional head of the Jewish Federations of North America, wrote an unusually blunt and irate letter to Prime Minister Netanyahu this week, expressing “deep shock” and urging him to block the bill sponsored by David Rotem, a member of Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s hard-line Yisrael Beiteinu party.

In addition, Jewish Agency for Israel Chairman Natan Sharansky expressed deep disappointment in Rotem’s legislation. “We cannot divide the Jewish people with legislation which many in the Jewish world view as defining them as second-class Jews,” he said in a statement that noted “the proposed bill was supposed to have been discussed in detail with world Jewry.”

Sharanksy implied in the statement that diaspora support could be adversely affected should the bill pass.

Rotem visited the U.S. this spring, seeking to assure American Jewish leaders that his legislation would not affect their status, and that their fears the bill would be harmful to Jewish unity were ungrounded. And Netanyahu issued a statement at the time assuring Reform and Conservative religious leaders that any legislation “will have to ensure the unity of the entire Jewish people.”

But Netanyahu, who appointed a commission that included representatives of the various religious streams in America to resolve the dispute, appears motivated more by keeping his coalition together today than keeping world Jewry united down the road. He may not relish upsetting the majority of American Jewry, but he certainly doesn’t want to jeopardize his hold on office. That means placating Lieberman, an outspoken advocate for immigrants from the former Soviet Union and whose party is key to the governing coalition. (It finished third to Likud and Kadima in the last elections.)

Rotem, Lieberman’s point man in the Knesset on the conversion bill, insists his motive is to pave the way to conversion for more of the approximately 350,000 Russian immigrants living in Israel, speaking Hebrew, integrated into the society and serving in the army, but who are not themselves Jewish. Just about everyone recognizes the severity and immediacy of the problem. 

There is a whole new generation of youngsters — about 90,000 under the age of 18 — born in Israel to immigrant parents, most of them from the former Soviet Union, who are not halachically Jewish. 

“We must accept and welcome them as they are an integral part of the Jewish people,” says Benny Ish Shalom, president of Beit Morasha of Jerusalem, an academic and leadership institute that runs a conversion course for non-Jewish soldiers, most of them Russian or Ethiopian, in the Israeli army.

But while Rotem’s bill would give city rabbis in Israel the authority to conduct conversions, presumably widening the circle and making the ritual more available, the final authority would be the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate. The Knesset legislation would codify and further solidify the religious monopoly that upsets most diaspora Jews, about 85 percent of whom are not Orthodox.

Ish Shalom, who is Orthodox and part of the government-appointed commission attempting to resolve the dispute, cautions that “creating new legal conditions without a previous agreement among all the parties will significantly damage Jewish unity.”

He points to the “courageous” efforts of Rabbi Haim Amsalem, a Shas Knesset member and respected rabbinic authority, who has played a pivotal role in seeking a solution to the crisis. The rabbi recently published a scholarly book calling for a more welcoming attitude toward potential converts, especially zera Yisrael [children of Jewish grandparents], citing numerous cases of rabbinic responsa indicating flexibility in setting conversion policy. He has also written that the criteria for conversion for those who serve in the Israeli army should be more lenient than for other prospective converts. The willingness of the soldiers, most from Russian families, to risk their lives to defend the Jewish state proves their sincere intention to be part of the Jewish people, he believes.

As a result of such views, critics within the haredi, or ultra-Orthodox community, including Shas colleagues, are lashing out at Rabbi Amsalem and calling his writings “a mockery of halacha” and a “publicity stunt.”

Rabbi Seth Farber, whose organization, ITIM, helps people navigate the Israeli religious bureaucracy, expresses great admiration for Rabbi Amsalem and supports his work. But he points out that the rabbi’s proposed solution is theoretical rather than “politically viable or implementable.”

None of the current 34 conversion judges employed by the state would adopt Rabbi Amsalem’s position, says Rabbi Farber.

He calls Rotem’s proposed bill “idiotic” because it risks dangerous levels of frustration and anger from diaspora Jews for practically nothing in return — perhaps another two or three dozen conversions a year from a handful of city rabbis.

What’s needed, asserts Rabbi Farber, is to close down the ineffectual system of conversion judges, at a current government expense of about $12 million a year, and start over. 

“We need fundamental reform with the backing of the Jewish Agency for Israel and the various religious movements,” he said, noting that the Amsalem approach could be applied. 

Nothing will happen, though, without the support of Israeli politicians.

For now, Rabbi Amsalem has shown that halachic solutions are possible. But without the will to implement them, it’s all for naught, according to Rabbi Farber.

As for an immediate way out of the current impasse, he said it simply requires the Chief Rabbinate to authorize city rabbis to perform conversions, as was done in the past. That should satisfy Rotem and Yisrael Beiteinu as well as calm diaspora Jews since it would widen the pool for conversion rabbis yet not require or effect Knesset legislation.

But that may be far too logical and peaceable a solution for the Israeli political system to handle. 

E-mail: Gary@jewishweek.org

 

Get The Jewish Week Newsletter

Comment Guidelines

The Jewish Week feels comments create a valuable conversation and wants to feature your thoughts on our website. To make everyone feel welcome, we won't publish comments that are profane, irrelevant, promotional or make personal attacks.

Comments

Let's get down to basics: when was the last time any Jew of any persuasion or stream or trend, who was serious about the matter of Jewish gastronomy depended on a Reform kashrut certification for a hotdog? And the Reform want us to trust their procedures for conversion?
The problem with this is the corrupt and criminal "orthodox" Beth Dins particularly in Australia, who are anything but orthodox. After being a victim of this, after hundreds of thousands of dollars spent and 8 years only to cut the losses in disgust, the irresponsibility of the Rabbinate and its refusal to deal with rogue Beth Dins make the process impossible. There needs to be Gov. leadership to bring the Rabbinate to account and remove and prosecute the frauds. Failure to do so will mean foreign Governments will need to clean up the mess that the Rabbinate fails to do, and in the process causes the entire Jewish people to become odious. This is seriously overdue to be addressed. If the Jewish State cares for its reputation it MUST address the failures of the Rabbinate.
If the orthodox rabbis who represent a minority of Jews gain controls such as this, the bulk of Judaism will regret less the loss of this Jewish state which no longer represents them, if such a catastrophe should occur. There is no question that Israel was designed to be a country for all Jews, not just a few of us.
This circus and the horror stemming from this will continue as long as the myth that Jewish legitimacy is exclusively equated with Orthodoxy is given credence. All of us who understand the truth of the pluralistic nature of Judaism need to be vigilant and vocal to dispel this virulent and destructive correlation. It is a myth that most strict is equated to most holy or the “highest” form of Judaism. When no one believes that the ultra-Orthodox wing of our people represents an ideal, they will be powerless. While we must still fight the dangerous actions going on in Israel now, let us not forget that on a certain level, they are playing a legitimacy card we have abdicated and have the power to reclaim.
Can you say FAILED STATE?
“Neal, “ You are mistaken about Ruth and Naomi. Actually, if one studies the story Ruth shows the sincere and complete adherence to Halacha and follows the Halachot to the T. Additionally, Ruth is considered the model for a true convert; she exemplifies the level of true love for becoming Jewish since she leaves behind a life of wealth and nobility to become a severely poor Jewess. For these reasons as well as others she is rewarded with King David as her descendent. --------------- “Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 07/16/2010 - 09:27,” You mention that you “READ THE DAILY PRESS IN ISRAEL” The business of the Daily Press in any country is to drum up business. Unfortunately, manipulations of politics and culture through individual and group reportage policies (funding sources) and journalists who are interested in promoting THEIR agenda is what you read in the Daily Press everywhere ; in some "daily press" you will get a majority of points of view that sometimes ridicule or color negatively the convenient scapegoat of (highly religious people who want to preserve their heritage, in this case) the Haredi/Orthodox group. It’s convenient to blame a group that does not particularly take interest in defending itself since it is NOT reading the daily press of Israel (or any other country.) In order to relate to the problem of preserving Jewish heritage one must be more aware of how easy it is to lose their children to the winds of world philosophies and political maneuvers. Halacha is not based on a desire to intrude into privacy and both genders have rules. The nature of human beings is easily influenced. If it were not so there would not be a need for Torah and Halacha .
I live in Israel as a practicing non-Orthodox Jew. Handing responsibility for conversions to the Chief Rabbinate is the LAST thing that should be done! I have watched the rabbinate disinter a converted Jew because after his death his wife was caught eating non-kosher food. I have watched the rabbinate coerce born-Jewish couples to commit to sending their adopted children to black hat schools and to raising them as black hats in order to have those children converted to Judaism. Without that commitment, they refuse to convert infants. I have watched as Orthodox conversions were retroactively revoked because of political in-fighting between the rabbis. I suggest that you READ THE DAILY PRESS IN ISRAEL to understand the deep rift between the Israeli rabbinate and the majority of the Israeli population. Many of the rabbis paid by the state conduct themselves with total disdain for the public they are supposed to serve. They refuse to convene the municipal panels that are to determine the religious services for each city if women or non-Orthodox individuals were appointed or elected to the panels. They don't show up for appointments with young couples who need licenses for their weddings. They demand illegal payments for burials. The documented reports of corruption and arrogance are endless. The barriers that the official rabbinate erects for converts and born Jews alike remind me of the book Catch 22. Think about it... Can you PROVE you are Jewish if you are not a convert? The Israeli Rabbinate demands such proof to marry you. Do you have your parents and grandparents ketubot? Were the ketubot from an Orthodox institution and signed by people who are on the Chief Rabbinate's list of acceptable people? Can you get affidavits from an orthodox rabbi on the Chief Rabbinate's list that you and your parents are Jewish and that you were never married? My Orthodox rabbi, a graduate of Yeshiva University, wasn't on their list! The only people on their list didn't know me. My parents were holocaust survivors. They certainly didn't have any ketubot to bring from Europe. And how exactly can you prove you were never married before? Bring an affidavit from the marriage registry of every country in the world? And those were the standards in the 1960s! I cut the Gordian knot by cheating and lying. Today, people simply fly to Cyprus and marry abroad or don't bother to get married at all. In order to get a marriage license from the rabbinate in Israel, I had to give the date of my last menstrual period (I kid you not!) so that the date of the wedding would fall within a time period for halachically permissible sexual relations. Are you prepared for that level of intrusion of halachah into your life if you are a non-halachic Jew? And even if you are, exactly whose version of halacha? After all, even Hillel and Shamai disagreed on what the halachah should be. And what happens when there is disagreement in Israel? Just look at what is going on in the girls' school in Immanuel! Because of a disagreement over the length of the girls' sleeves -- below the elbow or all the way to the wrist -- we have a supreme court case on discrimination, riots in the streets, families flouting the law of the land, death threats to the Orthodox man who brought suit in order to get the best available Torah education for his daughter, and rabbis branding supreme court justices as Amalek! Talk about baseless hatred! My heart bleeds for Israel, both the state and the people. Far from preserving us, the rabbinate has refused "Darchei Noam" (the sweet paths of acceptance and peace) and foments anarchy in the name of the halachah. I would certainly not give them any more authority over anyone's lives! I am passionately against the bill!
Thank you for opening my eyes.
There is a reason for this. Reform and Conservatives are not the historical accepted norm of Judaism . Over time as the numbers of orthodox jews reach the majority across the world, then the attacks on conservatives and reform wil become more and more direct and the communities will become truly different. Orthodox will no longer recognize the other as Jews as defined by Halacha. Conservatives and reform will either disapear as jews (faster than they are now) or become somewhat orthodox. This is the only possible and normal process that will correct what is seen in the eyes of Orthodox as a great tragedy-the creation of the reform movement.
While I certainly understand the frustration of the non-Orthodox rabbinate in North America on this issue, much of the furor is an elevation of symbol over substance. A little perspective is required. First, this conversion bill has nothing to do with the Law of Return. An Orthodox conversion is not required in order for a foreign convert to be entitled to Israeli citizenship. This bill will not change that. Second, in the area where the rabbinate does control -- marriage -- non-Orthodox converts are not accepted now. The only way for a non-Orthodox convert to be recognized as legally married in Israel is to get married abroad, in which case even a completely non-religious, civil marriage will be recognized. This bill will not change that either. So what is this bill supposed to change? The conflict that the bill seeks to resolve is not the conflict between Orthodox and non-Orthodox but a conflict among the Orthodox. Through an intricate process that I don't pretend to fully understand, "official" conversion in Israel -- the only kind that will be recognized by the rabbinate for purposes of marriage -- has come to be controlled by the most extreme elements among the Orthodox, and they have put so many obstacles in the way of prospective converts that it has become all but impossible for most of the immigrants from the Former Soviet Union or thier Israeli-born children, many thousands of whom are not halkhically Jewish and want to convert, to do so. These are people who speak Hebrew and serve in the army. They are for national purposes Jews but not for halakhic purposes. This is obviously not a healthy situation for Israel. It is in the national interest to find ways for them to have conversions that can be recognized in Israel for purposes of marriage, and many of them are willing to undergo Orthodox conversions. But the official conversion rabbis mostly are drawn from the chareidi world and don't care about Israel's national interest -- they were not so happy with Zionism to begin with. Rotem's bill is intended to expand the number of Orthodox rabbis who can perform fully recognized (for marriage purposes) conversions in Israel in the hope that at least some of them will be a little more flexible so that we can reduce the number of Israelis who are nationally Jewish and religiously Gentile. Will it work? I don't know, but I respect Rotem's determination to try. This bill is not designed to improve the status of the non-Orthodox movements in Israel, nor will it worsen it. It's trying to address a different problem.
I think there is a huge mis-understanding here. The orthodox community only cares about doing that which is right, that which is correct, and that which the Torah dictates to do. It is often difficult, inconvenient, and offends many people, but ultimately, when a Jew rises up in the morning he needs to ask himself, am I doing what I want to do or what G-d wants me to do. If its the former, then there is a problem, if its the latter, then he is on the right path. If you ask "how do the orthodox know what g-d wants?", that question is simple, go and learn. The way in which Halacha is structured is that it works according to rules and logic, and if you find a flaw, then bringing it to the Rabbis, they'll discuss it and address it with you, and may even alter what the Halacha is if the argument is sound and Halachily based. But to nullify Halacha outright, never having learned it, gives one zero credibility to make statements about the validity or application of Halacha. When these guidelines are being set-up it is to insure that Jews marry Jews and have Jewish children. An improper conversion, done by a non-halachicly bound Rabbi, is not a conversion, and therefore the end result is someone who isn't Jewish walking around claiming that they are. It makes no different to someone who is bound by Halacha if "feelings get hurt" to those that never bothered to do a proper conversion, they have no say in this debate, if they really cared about being Jewish, they would have done things the right way.
Michael, the problem here is *not* over a "proper conversion," it's a political battle over who is a rabbi. "Conversion" (a rather stupid term for a serious change of belief) can be done, and in my metro area is done, by Conservative rabbis according to all the requirements of halacha. But the Israeli magistrates of frumkeit would invaditate those coversions because they were not performed by an Orthodox rabbi. And as you surely much know, some of Israel's blackest hats have questioned conversions performed by some Orthodox rabbis! If a commitment to live by all 613 commandments (those still possible in our time) is a requirement to be a Jew, almost 90 percent of us would fail. If the less-then-frum still can be considered Jews because their mothers are Jews, then we are making a judgment based on blood. (The Nazi version of who is a Jew.) But we are not a race -- we are a people. Following the rules for the rules for a conversion according to halacha should suffice.
Unfortunately, Orthodox Jewry thinks they are exclusive to conversions which is not correct. Most Jews outside of Israel ARE not Orthodox and don't choose to be. This is why there will never be peace in Israel. Peace can only come if we don't let one faction of Judaism think they speak to everyone. I am appalled by this lastest development and hope that these people come to their senses. They have to learn to flex and if they don't they will lose most of the Jewish young people.
Orthodox Jews consider conservative and reform Jews to be in error. So it seems logical that only they would want to have control over the conversion process since any other form of the religion lacks, in their eyes, legitimacy. While I don't agree with that perspective it's not just an internal political issue, but a more fundamental religious issue. The result will be non-Orthodox Jews perhaps feeling more disenfranchised from Israel - but so what? In America we are Americans.
The importance of halachic conversion is to ensure that the convert understands and accepts without reserve the unbreakable spritual link that Jews everywhere should have to Eretz Yisrael as the land given us by Hashem as written in the Torah. Only a halachic conversion will unwaveringly undertake to ensure that the convert makes a committment to observe Torah Mitzvot thereby knowing without doubt his/her responsibility before Hashem, to the Jewish people and the State of Israel. There is much confusion amongst diaspora Jewry largely due to misguided spiritual leadership from some, certainly not all, non Torah observant Jewish communities. Some of these leaders espouse sympathy for the "poor Palestinians" whose plight is enitrely due to their own policitcal leadership who openly declare their intention to destroy Israel. To permit any authority other than Orthodox to control the conversion process in Israel would be akin to allowing a "Trojan" horse to enter the land leading, G-d forbid, to greater internal dissention at a time when we need greater cohesion. If the Knesset proposal would, if passed, be met with displeasure by some of American Jewry and result in their estrangement from Israel that is their right and maybe it would be better for them to continue to enjoy their "American dream". This may be better both for them and for the State of Israel. Israel has to be strong enough to stand on its own feet and not to be a client and compliant state of the United States. This can only be if its people are united in their committment to Eretz Yisroel as defined in our Torah. This does not exclude differing political opinions or parties or even argument over Halachic interpretations but Halacha can be the only basis for such critical matters as conversion. If the non Torah or non Halacha observant leadership in the United States had maintained the unwritten understanding once shared with the "Orthodox" communities on the principle of matrilineal descent then we would not be facing this predicament today, or at least not on such a serious level. It should be noted that certain important non Orthodox Jewish communities outside of the United States such as the Conservative Beth Din of Buenos Aires are in their practices very similar to the "Orthodox" except that they permit mixed seating during services but adhere to Sabbath observance, Kashrut and matrilineal descent. Their conversion process, which is often rejected by them, is under strict rabbinical supervision for the period of time neccessary to ensure the fufillment of Mitzvot by the convert. The United States more than anywhere else is rich in Jewish diversity from the "Ultra Orthodox" to a plethora of non-orthodox insitutions and communities of differing practices, beliefs and religious interpretation. This in itself is to be admired and respected and is indeed the embodiment of American freedoms as guaranteed in the Constitution. However, as close as Israel and the United States may be (at least until now), they are completely different socio-political entities and as much as this may be lamented by many in the United States, their religious diversity cannot be transplanted in Israel and will not be in the foreseeable future (G-d willing). American Jewry is extremely important to Israel, as are Jews the world over. However, American Jews should realise that they need Israel maybe even more than Israel needs them and that the "tail should not wag the dog". Geoffrey L Rogg Puerto Vallarta, Mexico July 14, 2010
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 problem, Josh, is that Israel's rabbinate is making those who want to become Jews pledge to live with punctilious observance not followed by 85 to 90 percent of the world's Jews. The overwhelming majority of Jews do not try to observe 613 commandments, and to demand such observance -- to the extent possible in today's world -- as a condition of becoming Jewish is to repel most would-be Jews. There must be some minimum basis for becoming a Jew, but in the 21st Century, few people are attracted to or willing to live the black-hat lifestyle. One would think there are so many hundreds of millions of us that we should want to make barriers to membership near impossibly high. The reality is the opposite: We've never attained the numbers we had in 1939, and meanwhile the world's population has exploded. In the United States, Jews were 4 percent of the population in 1940; now we're 2 percent. The proposed law would be an insult to the non-Orthodox majority of American Jews (and some Orthodox conversions in the USA and Israel already have been challenged by Israel's magistrates of frumkeit). Although the cash donations of U.S. Jews now are but a small part of Israel's economy, the political support of U.S. Jews is crucial for U.S. political and military support of Israel. (Think of Israel's ability to buy $100 million fighter aircraft without $3 billion in annual military aid.) The Torah says we should welcome the stranger. But the Israeli official rabbinate would all but bar the door by setting the threshhold for membership in our people so high. (Not to mention: If all of Israel turned black hat, who would serve to defend it?) The Torah also makes dugma'ot of Naomi and Ruth, from whom came King David; today, the rabbinate would not consider them Jews. I come from a small city in the U.S. Midwest, one with few Jews. My recognition of a Jew is someone who professes Judasim and lives in ways that show some Jewish belief and practice. I don't check credentials. Doing so becomes the sort of geneological investigating practiced by the Nazis. The proposed law would send an already fractious, disputatious people further down the path of sinat hinam -- and we all know how well that turned out. NMG Minneapolis

Add comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.