The Conversion Crisis in Israel

Rabbi Seth Farber is a Modern Orthodox Rabbi who graduated from NYU, was ordained at the Theological Seminary of Yeshiva University and obtained  a PhD from Hebrew University, Jerusalem, in 1991.   He founded ITIM (The Right to Live Jewish) in 2002 to oppose the alienation of many Israeli Jews from their religious traditions (see http://www.itim.org.il ).  Their interactions with the religious establishment are often accompanied by negative experiences and alienation.   He spoke at Netanya AACI on “The Conversion Crisis in Israel.”

There is a complication in Israeli Jewish life that causes serious problems.  Many immigrants to Israel, especially from the former Soviet Union (FSU) are Jewish on their father’s side, and the Israeli Law of Return requires only one grandparent to be authentically Jewish.  But, Jewish religious law requires matrilineal descent, i.e. the mother must be Jewish.  So there are many FSU immigrants who became Israeli citizens, and fought in the IDF, but who are not considered halachically Jewish by the Rabbinate, and hence by the State.  They can risk their life for the country, but they cannot be accepted as Jewish by the country, and consequently they cannot marry a Jewish woman or participate in many civil activities.  This situation affects ca. 364,000 individuals, ca. 5.8% of the Israeli population, not an inconsiderable number.

Of course, these “half-Jewish non-Jews ” can convert, but often there are problems put in their way.  It is as if the Rabbinate don’t want them to become halachically Jewish.  Under Jewish religious law (halacha) it is forbidden to treat a convert any differently than a born Jew (with matrilineal descent).  So for example, the IDF established a conversion program that converts ca. 800 soldiers a year.  But, although this program is under the religious authority of the Rabbinate, in many cases Rabbis have refused to accept the conversion of soldiers as legitimate, and sometimes require them to take more courses before getting married to a halachic Jew.

Then there are the problems faced by Israeli Jews who go abroad and marry someone who is not Jewish.  If they return to Israel and the spouse wishes to convert, the Rabbinate puts all sorts of hurdles in their way, sometimes making it almost impossible.  It used to be that they had to convert only with an Orthodox Rabbi in their locality, but after ITIM brought a case to the Supreme Court this limitation was overthrown and now they can choose a Rabbi anywhere in Israel, which makes the situation much easier.  Every year there are about 500 such cases in Israel.  There are also several hundred of cases per year of individuals converting with a Conservative or Reform Rabbi in Israel, although these conversions are not recognized by the Orthodox Rabbinate.

There are also many cases of individuals who have converted abroad and who come to Israel expecting to be accepted as Jewish by the Rabbinate and the State, and who find their certificates of conversion, even by a recognized Orthodox Rabbi, are not recognized in Israel.  This is in many cases unacceptable and is often due to incompetence or desire to receive bribes by the officials of the Rabbinate.  However, often people who are sincere convert sand who have lived as Jews for many years find that when they come to Israel, they are not only not accepted as Jews, but can even be deported because their visas are for only a short stay.  ITIM takes their cases which very often end up in court.

I raised the issue of the Bnei Anousim (descendants of forced Sefardi converts to Christianity) who sometimes can establish their matrilineal descent through documentation, but usually have a very hard time convincing the Rabbinate.  There are hundreds if not thousands of such people a year, and very often they are regarded as unwelcome by the Rabbinate and the State.  It should be pointed out that the concept of Orthodoxy in Judaism is only ca. 200 years old and stems from Germany, and in order to retain strict adherence to halacha many thousands of people who wish to rejoin the Jewish people are being denied their sincere wish.  Can Israel afford to continue in this way?  ITIM seeks to help these people and establish more accepting civil regulations.