Israeli Conversion Crisis

Categories: Letters From Leadership

In the Book of Psalms, Chapter 119, Verse 26 it states:
“It is time to act for the Lord, for they have violated your teaching.”

I would like to suggest that the conversion crisis, and I want to call it a crisis, that is now affecting the State of Israel, and in particular the Aliyah of Jews from the Former Soviet Union, is a violation of the teaching of G-d and it behooves us to insure that it does not continue.

I do not wish to give a Halakhic discourse about leniencies concerning the possibility of conversion to Judaism under traditional Jewish law.  There are many leniencies that are present in Jewish law that can be used by the Rabbinate in Israel to accelerate the conversion of many Jews from the Former Soviet Union who wish to join our faith and our people.  There are individuals from scholarly circles in Israel and the Diaspora and scholars of Halakha who can show case after case where Rabbis in rabbinic courts understood the exigencies of the moment and made decisions for the benefit of the Jewish people and its faith.  Unfortunately, the rabbinate in Israel which has become Haredi, ultra Orthodox, is not of that ilk.  Its tendency to push stringencies in the law to the point beyond what is necessary and the tendency of the population of the State of Israel, including government authorities, to accept those decisions, has created a moment in Jewish history where our values are being destroyed and our people are being torn asunder.

“It is time to act for the Lord, for they have violated your teaching.”

Approximately 300,000 out of 1.2 million immigrants from the Former Soviet Union who have made Aliyah under the Law of Return since 1990 are not Halakhically Jewish.  Through the efforts of The Joint Conversion Institute of the Jewish Studies set up by The Neiman Commission in 1998 and the National Conversion Authority, which has been supported by the Prime Minister of the State of Israel and by the Jewish Agency, some have gone through conversion.  However, not anywhere near enough.  When The Neiman Commission originally met it was agreed upon by all three religious streams the Prime Minister’s office and the Jewish Agency for Israel that courses would be established wherein members of all the streams would be the teachers.  Thus, was established the Institute for Jewish Studies.  It was also agreed the final conversion would be done by an Orthodox court of Jewish law.  Both the Conservative and Reform Movements, against the better judgments of many and against their principles, agreed to this plan for the benefit of Klal Yisrael.  Unfortunately, the Chief Rabbinate never signed onto the agreement and it therefore was never put into action.

I wish to publicly state that I want to commend the work and the effort of Professor Yaakov Neiman, the work of The Institute’s Board, Professor Benjamin Ish-Shalom, Rabbi Haim Drukman, Rabbi Moshe Klein, as well as General Eliezer Stern of The Nativ Program in the Army.  With good faith they have attempted to move forward on this issue but have been stymied by the rejection of the Orthodox rabbinic courts and sometimes by the government authorities who have talked the talk, but who have not followed through with the promises that were made.

Recently, articles in Moment Magazine and Hadassah Magazine outlined for the Jewish public in laypeople’s terms the difficulty of converting in Israel.  There are many stories of individuals who came to The Joint Conversion Institute and were ready to join with our people and our faith.  Even after their period of study they were rejected by the Orthodox rabbinic courts many times on either circumstantial evidence or the setting of unrealistic expectations.  It can be shown that conversion in Jewish law does not need to be held up by great stringencies.  In a book just now translated into English entitled Transforming Identity:  The Ritual Transformation from Gentile to Jew – Structure and Meaning, Israeli scholars Avi Sagi and Zvi Zohar demonstrate through a close examination of rabbinic sources that Rabbi Yitzhak Schmelkes of Lvov, who at that time tendered what was a revolutionary responsum, stated that conversion entailed a 100% commitment to all the Mitzvot.

Unfortunately, many Ashkenazic rabbis, mostly Haredi, have followed that opinion.  But, there is an entire spectrum of opinion – Sephardic rabbis and other Ashkenazic rabbis – who do not follow that particular stringency.  Instead, following Mamonidies and many other significant rabbinic sources, they show that Kabbalat Mitzvot does not mean acceptance of all the commandments, but instead acceptance of the Halakhic system and its rewards and punishments.

What is at stake?  What is at stake is the very fabric of Israeli society.  There are 300,000 non-Halakhic citizens of the State of Israel who pay taxes, vote, send their children to Israeli educational institutions and serve in the Army and this number will only grow over a period of time as they have children and their children have children for generations to come.  Unless these people are brought under the wings of the Divine Presence, we will end up with a society in which interfaith marriages may become not only possible but sometimes highly probable.  As someone who works in the Diaspora and whose main issue is that Jews marry Jews and establish Jewish families, it is preposterous, it is absurd, it is dangerous to realize that in the State of Israel this kind of situation could occur as well.

No, not every person who comes from the Former Soviet Union wants to convert to Judaism.  But, unless and until we become a welcoming community; unless and until we use the Halakhic leniencies that are present in our tradition; unless and until we understand the crisis that is right now occurring in Israeli society, we are seeing right before our eyes the possible destruction of Israeli/Jewish identity in the State of Israel.

What are the ramifications?  We have people who fight for the State of Israel and die for the State of Israel and yet cannot be buried in Jewish cemeteries; even though they consider themselves if not Jewish, at least, full Israelis.   We have people who would be willing to rejoin the Jewish people after their families have been slaughtered in the Shoah and decimated by a Soviet regime which wanted to annihilate Jewish religious and cultural identity, who now come to the State of Israel wanting to rejoin our people and are rejected wholeheartedly.  We have individuals who are willing to throw in their lot with the Jewish people who are stonewalled by Haredi influence in the State of Israel threatening the fabric of the society that has been created in the State.

What is to be done?  I speak as a Conservative rabbi who wants his denomination’s conversions accepted in the State of Israel.  I speak for colleagues who take conversion very seriously and want to be seen as full rabbis in the Jewish State.  I speak for colleagues who with a great deal of Mesirut Nefesh, self-sacrifice, are willing to work to bring these people under the wings of the Divine Presence.  We have never given up our desire to have our conversions accepted and we never will and the Israeli Supreme Court has continuously backed the recognition of our converts.  However, for the purpose of Klal Yisrael, we have been willing to accept a decision for the betterment of the entire Jewish people and work with colleagues and like-minded people on behalf of The Joint Conversion Institute.  Unfortunately, in the crisis we now find ourselves, that work is being curtailed and decimated.  I need only mention the annulment of the conversions of Rabbi Haim Drukman as but one example of the Haredi rabbinate’s attempt to undermine the entire Institute.

As a Conservative rabbi in a Diaspora, as one who believes in Klal Yisrael, I am pleased to hear that Orthodox rabbis both in the United States and in Israel have begun to raise their voices at the unacceptability of the present situation.  I encourage them to fight together with us against the Haredization of the rabbinate and their own Orthodox practices.  I contended a number of years ago in speaking with leaders of The Rabbinical Council of America, the largest Modern Orthodox rabbinic group in the Diaspora, that the Israeli rabbinate had already regarded the Conservative and Reform rabbinates as heretics, but their real purpose was now to destroy the Modern Orthodox rabbinate, as well.  Unfortunately, the RCA has capitulated to the demands of the Israeli rabbinate regarding what is a proper conversion, even in the Orthodox rabbinate, in the Diaspora.  They have attempted to silence the voice of Modern Orthodoxy and, as I stated a number of years ago, to push them out of the decision-making process of Halakhic Judaism if not around the world, at least in the State of Israel.

It is time for the Jewish Agency for Israel, it is time for the Federation system in North America, and it is time for all Jews who believe that:  “Out of Zion shall go forth the law and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem,” that it shall be a Torah, a teaching, a law which is “A tree of life for those who grasp it.  Its ways are ways of pleasantness and all its tasks are peace,” to stand up and protest these decisions.

It is time for us to say enough is enough and to demand of the current and next Prime Minister of the State of Israel and all political parties not to accept the present situation.  Politics as usual with the mixture of religion thrown in is unacceptable.  It destroys politics and religion.   It is time for Jews of goodwill to sit down and break the monopoly of the Chief Rabbinate which has currently sent more people away from Judaism than bringing them closer to it.  It is time for us to use all appropriate Halakhic means to reach out to those individuals who wish to join us in faith and in peoplehood and bring them under the wings of the Divine Presence.  And it is time for the Unity of the Jewish People Committee of the Jewish Agency to take a tough and principled stand on this issue.

I believe it can be done.  It has been shown with Ethopian Jewry and the B’nai Menashe as two examples that when there is a will there is a way.  I believe it must be done.  As Rabbi Natan states at the end of the Mishna Berakhot basing himself on our verse:

“They have violated your teaching, it is a time to work for the Lord.”

I pray that that time be now before it is too late for this generation and subsequent generations in the State of Israel, to whom Judaism is attractive, can be welcoming and may be a path for coming closer to G-d and feeling part of the Jewish people worldwide, to settle this issue for the good of Klal Yisrael and to raise the glory of Torah in our lifetime.

About Rabbi Vernon Kurtz

Rabbi Vernon Kurtz is the Rabbi of North Suburban Synagogue Beth El in Highland Park, Illinois and is a past president of the Rabbinical Assembly, the international association of 1500 Conservative Rabbis. Rabbi Kurtz currently serves as President of MERCAZ OLAMI, the World Organization of the Zionist arm of the Conservative Movement and is also on the Board of Governors of the Jewish Agency and serves as co-chairman of its FSU committee.
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