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 ).  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.

The Carvajal Manuscript

The most amazing find after about 75 years is the discovery of the 400 year old Carvajal Manuscript that went missing from the National Library in Mexico in the 1930’s.  It was found  after it was put up for sale in London and New York, and is now being returned to Mexico.

Luis de Carvajal was a New-Christian, a descendent of forced Jewish converts to Christianity known as “marranos” (or anousim in Hebrew) who fled Spain to escape persecution by the Inquisition.  He led an expedition of a group of several hundred New Christians to the Spanish colony of Mexico where they had bought land in the then remote areas of northern Mexico, in what is now near the US-Mexico border.  However, the Inquisition were aware of his plan and he was arrested in 1595 for being a “Judaizer” a capital offense, meaning that in one of many ways he was suspected of remaining a practising Jew.

During his time in prison he wrote an account that is probably the oldest such manuscript from the Americas in existence.  His memorias written under the name of Joseph Lumbroso, his original Jewish name, consists of personal statements that state his true opinions and expose the depredations of the Inquisition of the Catholic Church.  He was indeed a Jew who retained beliefs that were Jewish.  He was tortured by the Inquisitors and forced to reveal his plans.  He was burned at the stake in 1596 at the age of 30 in a process called an auto-da-fe, or trial by fire,  and another 120 people, his whole family and his friends, were arrested, tortured and many of them murdered.

But, some of his followers managed to escape the Inquisition and indeed lived along the region that is now the Mexican-US border area and practised a form of Judaism there for hundreds of years.  Outwardly they were Catholics, but inwardly they remained secret Jews.  I happened to meet a descendent of one of Carvajal’s followers.  Her grandfather had become a Baptist minister in the US and his congregation consisted like himself of descendants of conversos who escaped Catholicism to become Protestant and practiced a form of Judaized Christianity.  Her family moved to CA and she converted to Judaism and made Aliyah and lived in Netanya for a while.  There is a large community of such anousim living in the region of New Mexico and the US northwest.  They were discovered and written about by Stanley Hordes in his iconic book “To the End of the Earth: A History of the Crypto-Jews of New Mexico.”


A German Life

Dr. Bernd Wollschlaeger spoke at the New Synagogue (Macdonald’s shool) in Netanya with the title “A German Life: Against all Odds Change is Possible,” and this is also the title of his autobiography.  I have written about him before (see IsBlog April 18, 2014).  But, it was quite different hearing his story personally and he spoke very movingly.  His visit was arranged by Renie and Henry Hirsch, who also celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary.

This is my summary ofhis talk. Bernd was born in 1958, after WWII, in the southern German town of Bamberg and grew up not knowing anything about the war or about the Holocaust.  His father was a highly decorated Wehrmacht Colonel and tank commander who had been the deputy of Gen. Guderian.  Bernd grew up believing that his father was a war hero.  At about the age of 10 or so he learnt from his mother about the tragic side of the War and also was befriended by the old widow who lived upstairs, who happened to be the widow of Count von Stauffenberg, the Colonel who led the plot to assassinate Hitler, who was executed with hundreds of others when the plot was unsuccessful.  He started to question his father’s story.

When he was 14 his life was changed completely by the tragic events of the Olympic Games in Munich  in 1972.  The news media reported that Jews had been murdered in Germany again,and he found that last word surprising and wanted to know more.  At school the issues were discussed and he learnt for the first time about the Holocaust of the Jews in Europe during WWII.  But, he was met with silence at home, “we don’t discuss that.”  He decided to go out of his way and found the remainder of the Jewish community of Bamberg, a group of about 30 old Jews who used an apartment as a synagogue.  The names of ca. 1,300 Jews of Bamberg who had been murdered during WWII were in plaques upon the walls.  He volunteered to help them as a shabbos goy and was befriended by several of them.  Several had numbers tattooed on their arms and one of them, who for years never spoke to him, eventually opened up and told him that he was a survivor of the sonderkommando at Treblinka.

At the age of 18 Bernd obtained specific evidence that his father had participated in massacres of Jews on the eastern front (“we had to do it”) and he decided to cut himself off from his family. He asked if he could convert to Judaism and was referred to an Orthodox Rabbi in a nearby town.  At first he was turned down, but he persisted, while beginning his medical studies, and eventually underwent an Orthodox conversion in Frankfurt.  Through his Church he had joined a German-Israel youth friendship group and had met several Israelis, including a girl he liked.  At the age of 20 he decided to visit Israel and stayed with her family in Jerusalem, where he learnt that her father was also a survivor with a number on his arm.

He returned to Germany finished his medical training and then made aliyah, eventually marrying a Jewish American girl.  They lived in Tel Aviv and he served in the IDF as a medical officer.  They had a son and after some years they moved to the US, to Miami where his wife was from and he became a Board certified physician there where he has a private practice in Aventura.  He kept his father’s story from his family until his son was 14 and also started to ask questions.  This led him eventually to publish his story.

He speaks widely about his life experiences and tries to combat anti-Semitism.  Apart from his own autobiography he has written a novel entitled “Samson’s Shadow” and a work entitled “Stauffenberg: my life in the shadow of a hero”  (see ).  He was a very engaging and articulate speaker and answered frankly many questions from the audience.


Two Peoples?

Recently we had a visit from some family from the UK, and of course, we had some political disagreements.  Most Jews from the UK, and the Diaspora in general, are very liberal in their views, while myself, and the Israeli population in general, has moved more to the right.  I became somewhat frustrated at the lack of my ability to communicate effectively with them on various topics.  I should like to try to highlight them here:

  1. The Palestinians: Most Diaspora Jews are very sympathetic towards the Palestinians and regard Israel’s treatment of them as oppressive and typical of a colonial occupying power.  But, they are ignorant of the true situation, for example: Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, Kuwait, Iraq and Syria do not allow Palestinians to enter, yet Israel allows about 90,000 Palestinians to enter every day, with the appropriate permit, to work in Israel (yes, sometimes they have to wait at checkpoints).  The Arab States have persecuted the Palestinians far worse than Israel has done, for example, the Palestinians sided with Saddam Hussein after Iraq invaded Kuwait, so when Kuwait was liberated by the Americans the Kuwaitis killed an unknown number of Palestinians and expelled about 200,000.  Likewise, the Palestinian refugee camp outside Damascus containing ca. 120,000 Palestinians sided with the opposition, so the Syrian Army besieged the camp and shelled it with artillery and after 2 years when it was finally opened to humanitarian help there were ca. 20,000 left. In Lebanon, Palestinians were not allowed to work and were besieged in camps.  Israel supplies Gaza with all necessary materials (food, water, oil, etc.) on a daily basis, but Egypt does not!   Yet, none of these issues are considered by those who criticize Israel.
  2. Terrorism: Every day there are terrorist attacks on Israeli civilians and soldiers, either by stabbing or ramming with vehicles.  Two weeks ago 4 soldiers were killed in Jerusalem. Both Hamas in Gaza and the PA on the West Bank support these attacks. They incite their people to murder and pay their families when they do, and also they celebrate if Israelis are killed.  Certainly IDF soldiers shoot and kill Palestinian terrorists if they attack and they arrest cells if they can detect them, just as all other countries do.
  3. The Wall: Israel built a defensive security fence to stop the terrorism of the second intifada (2000-2002) that killed ca, 1,000 Israelis, mostly in suicide bombings.  The fence worked and reduced the killings by about 90%.  Yet the “wall” was criticized as an “apartheid” wall!  But, everyone has built defensive walls, all cities had them, and there is Hadrian’s Wall and the Great Wall of China.  Among those countries that have built border fences are Saudi Arabia, India, China, Serbia and now Pres. Trump plans to build one along the Mexican border. Where is the criticism of this as an “apartheid wall”?
  4. Rights: Most people believe that some part of this area is “Palestinian Land”, but it is not!  There never was a sovereign Palestine and there never has ever been any Arab sovereignty in Palestine in history.  It’s not only the Bible that gives us rights here.  The Balfour Declaration of the British Govt. in 1917 was adopted after WWI in the San Remo Treaty and in the British Mandate to form a Jewish Homeland in Palestine, not an Arab homeland.  And this was aslo adopted by the UN on its formation. Hence, Israel inherits all of Palestine and Jewish settlements in the whole Land are legal!
  5. Trump: Pres. Trump was elected fairly under the established American electoral system.  Half of the US population voted for him and I supported him, mainly because I found it impossible to vote for Hillary Clinton.  I did not select Trump, but he was the only alternative choice.   I am amazed how hypocritical liberal-leftists are, they claim they support democracy, but cannot accept the will of the people when it goes against them.  Trump may be an unusual President, but certainly no worse in many respects than Reagan, LBJ, Kennedy, Carter, Clinton and Obama.
  6. Islam: Islamic terrorism is clearly a part of Islam, it derives from it, and all attempts, like those of Obama, to ignore that fact are self-deceptive. Islamic extremists want to impose by force beliefs that all Muslims hold, namely Sharia Law, that requires all Muslims to live in a Muslim-controled State, to require non-Muslims (kuffar) to convert or face death, to kill apostates to Islam, and to treat women as chattel.  Just because most Muslims are nice, peaceful people does not mean that these are not tenets of Islam.

These are some of the main points over which we disagreed.  If I became exasperated and “bombastic,” I should apologize.  But, from my pov as an Israeli, I find their ill-informed views naive and self-defeating.  They accept Palestinian propaganda uncritically, but any point we try to make is considered Israeli propaganda.  What about the facts?  On the other hand, living in the Diaspora, in order to fit into their predominantly liberal milieu and considering that these are not life-and-death issues for them, I should be sympathetic to their situation.  But, it’s difficult.

A rare ceremony

I was privileged to participate in the Jewish ceremony to “redeem” my great-grandson, Roi Michael, known as a “pidyon haben” or “redemption of the son.”   This ceremony is only carried out for a first-born son who is not a Cohen or a Levy , but is born of an “Israelite wife.”  Because of these limitations the ceremony is quite rare.

It consists basically of a Cohen (priest) being given the son and then he is sold back or redeemed by the father for 5 silver shekels or coins.   I was the Cohen in this case, and after the baby was redeemed, I blessed him by holding my hands on his head and saying a specific prayer. Hebrew prayers are not my forte, but with some prompting I managed to succeed.  After the ceremony there was a blessing with wine (kiddush) and then a wonderful meal hosted by the family of the mother.

Note that a “Cohen” was a priest in the ancient Holy Temple in Jerusalem and not a Rabbi (teacher) as we now have in Judaism.  The priests are the descendants of Aaron, brother of Moses.  In order to be an actual Cohen today the mother must be Jewish and the father must himself be a Cohen.  By the way, a Cohen need not have that surname, and there are many variants in various languages, such as Cohn, Cahn, Cahnman, Kohn, Kogan, Cogan, Kagan, Katz, Kahane, Conway, Cowen, Coen, Coelho, etc.

This is an ancient tribal ritual that many secular Jews might find archaic, but nevertheless, while they might not want to participate in something like this, they would have no difficulty doing so if it were some ancient African or Asian custom.  By the way, this ceremony should not be confused with the circumcision or brit mila that occurs 8 days after birth for all Jewish boys.  The pidyon haben is held a further 3 weeks after that. Note that it has nothing to do with pigeons!

By the way, as an aside, I was given the address for the ceremony as Aharon ben Yosef Street, and when we were leaving I opened Waze and saw there what I thought was the correct address, so I entered it as the destination and off we went.  I was very surprised to find that we arrived back at the Hall where the brit had been 3 weeks  before.  Since I knew the ceremony was not there, I called urgently to find out why there had been a mistake. After some discussion it turned out that the address of the Hall was on Shlomo ben Yosef Street.  So then I entered Aharon ben Yosef Street as the destination, and after another half hour of driving thru the city and out the other side and then back again we finally found the destination, and we were still early.


The American Jewish Community and Israel

Reams have been written about the relationship between the American Jewish community and Israel.  An excellent article by Elliott Abrams, former Assistant Secretary of State under Pres. Ronald Reagan, analyzes this relationship in a review of two recent books, “The Star and the Stripes: A History of the Foreign Policies of American Jews” by Michael Barnett of George Washington University, and “Trouble in the Tribe: The American Jewish Conflict over Israel” by Dov Waxman of Northeastern (http://mosaicmagazine.come/essay2016/04/if-american-jews-are-drifting-apart-whats-the-reason/).  Not surprisingly both these authors agree that there is a shift away from American Jewish support for Israel, but why?

Waxman presents the standard view that this is because of Israel’s shift rightwards, and the troublesome nature of some of Israel’s policies, including the so-called “disproportionate” use of force against the Palestinians.  Barnett is less sure that this is the cause of the growing rift, and Abrams agrees with him.  They tend to put the blame for the rift more on changes within the American Jewish community itself rather than anything that Israel does or does not do.  This is a refreshing change from the usual message that Israel is to blame and especially the policies of PM Netanyahu.

In Barnett’s and Abrams view, there is an increasing rift between those Jews, mainly Orthodox, who focus mostly on the needs of fellow Jews and Israel, so-called “tribal Jews,” and the majority of more liberal, loosely and unaffiliated Jews (many of them intermarried) so-called “cosmopolitan Jews,” who emphasize universal values.   The latter mainly constitute the Reform Movement, which includes a form of “prophetic Judaism” that believes in Tikkun Olam, repairing the world, rather than the “narrow” interests of fellow Jews and certainly rather than Israel.  They see the Palestinians as a cause celebre somewhat akin to their guilt complex over native Americans and other minorities. These Jews see Bernie Sanders as their political guru.

The fact is that relatively few Jews (those that survived) live in authoritarian countries under constant persecution, and Israel is now considered a power in the Middle East.  The cosmopolitan Jews respond mainly to victims and in their recent historical experience Israel is the victor and the Palestinians are the victims.  Superficial but persuasive.  So the conclusion is that the problem with the American Jewish relationship to Israel “begins at home,” and “won’t be solved by casting blame on Israelis or their policies.”


ISAS web-site

ISAS is the Inst. for Sefardi and Anousim Studies at Netanya Academic College, that I am associated with as a Board Member and it has a wonderful new web-site.  I urge you to visit which has been organized by Adina Moryosef, Administrative Coordinator of ISAS.  I would like to describe some aspects of its contents:

The Statement of Aims of the Institute:

The Institute for Sefardi and Anousim Studies (ISAS) at Netanya Academic College in Israel was created in response to the incredible phenomenon of the descendants of the forced converts (Anousim) in medieval Spain and Portugal awakening to their Jewish heritage.  The ISAS promotes research on the historical and contemporary development of the crypto-Jews of Iberian origin, as well as other groups such as the Mashadis of Iran. We offer seminars, courses, and conferences to educate the public about this phenomenon and its contemporary ramifications in Israel and around the world. We also offer assistance to those seeking confirmation of their Jewish ancestry through genealogical research.  Please browse our website to learn about our research library, our genealogy unit, and all of our activities. We encourage you to sign up for our mailing list so you can receive more information about us and upcoming ISAS events.

International Conference “Reconnecting 2016” in Miami, Florida:

On May 22-24, 2016 the ISAS will host a two-day international conference, “Reconnecting 2016: Reinvigorating Shared Jewish-Latino Roots and Heritage” in Sunny Isles (Miami), Florida, USA.  This high profile conference is dedicated to both enhancing Jewish-Latino relations as well as raising awareness regarding the historically forced converts (Anousim) from the Iberian Peninsula and their descendants. It will feature leading scholars and public figures,

The Genealogical Research Unit:

The Genealogical Research Unit of ISAS is headed by Dr. Yael Cohen, an experienced genealogical researcher.  The process of returning to Judaism is different for every individual, with each case presenting its own challenges. The Genealogical Research Unit of the ISAS can help you navigate the vast territory of genealogical resources necessary to investigate your family history.  We request a nominal fee of $75 to create a basic genealogical report that surveys all of the resources at our disposal. To request a report, please follow the application procedure.

The Columbus Collection:

The late Elie Schalit, shipping magnate, philanthropist, and a founder of the fledging State of Israel’s arms industry, had a life-long fascination with Christopher Columbus (Colon), both as a navigator and possibly of Jewish descent. Mr. Schalit invested much effort and money to commission museum-quality replicas of Columbus’s books, diaries, and navigational tools created by Jews and Conversos. The exhibit premiered in 1992 in Madrid on the 500th anniversary of the Expulsion from Spain. King Juan Carlos and Queen Sophia presided over the opening gala.   Elie and Ana Schalit donated the entire Columbus Exhibit to Netanya Academic College in 2012, intending it to be a cornerstone of the future Sefardi and Anousim museum to be established at Netanya Academic College.

The ISAS Library

The ISAS has a unique collection of over 2,500 books, journals, and archives. The collection is named in honor of Gloria Mound, founder of Casa Shalom, and the late Leslie Mound. Gloria Mound donated the Casa Shalom library to Netanya Academic College in 2011, and it was relocated to the college from Gan Yavneh thanks to the financial assistance of Ana and the late Elie Schalit and the Davis Family Charitable Foundation (UK).  The library is open for visits.

 We welcome any interest and support in this important but neglected area of Jewish history and study.  Please contact Salomon Buzaglo, Manager of ISAS, at, for any feedback or information.  You can also visit the Facebook page of ISAS.