Israel Tries to Resolve

In Israel some believe that Orthodox control of conversion is impeding efforts to convert immigrants from the Former Soviet Union.

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Like so many questions in Judaism, the quandary of  "Who is a Jew?" has many answers.

According to traditional Jewish sources, if a person is born to a Jewish mother, he is Jewish, regardless of faith or religious observance. A more liberal interpretation accepts patrilineal descent as well, and if a child is born to a Jewish father who is married to a non-Jewish woman, and the couple raises the child in a Jewish home, then liberal Jewish interpretation would accept that child as Jewish.

In Israel, the question of "Who is a Jew?" is especially important as there is no separation between church and state. Weddings as well as funerals are either Jewish, Christian, or Muslim. The issue has become even more timely as 250,000 immigrants from the Former Soviet Union (FSU) who are not Jewish according to halakhah (Jewish religious law) are now living in Israel. These immigrants were accepted under the Law of Return, which allows any prospective immigrant with at least one Jewish grandparent or with a Jewish spouse to be registered as a Jew for purposes of citizenship. These immigrants, therefore, are "Jewish" by nationality, but not according to religious law.

Barred From Lifecycle Events

Because in Israel these newcomers are not considered halakhic Jews--even though they oftentimes experienced anti-Semitism in the FSU--they cannot be married by a rabbi or be buried in a Jewish cemetery. Civil marriage options, such as a proxy wedding by mail or a trip to Cyprus can be arranged, yet they feel themselves ostracized. Especially poignant testimony to their fringe status are the stories of immigrant soldiers, killed during military service in the Israel Defense Forces, who died for their country but must be buried in the non-Jewish section of the cemetery.

Because of their problematic social status as well as for spiritual reasons, hundreds of these immigrants yearly are looking for options of conversion through the Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox movements.  But although the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that a person who has undergone a Reform or Conservative conversion abroad must be registered as Jewish, liberal conversions performed in Israel are not recognized by the Orthodox rabbinate (which is concerned that people who convert through the liberal movements have not taken upon themselves full observance ot the mitzvot, or commandments, thereby invalidating their conversions).

As a result these immigrants who face obstacles to lifecycle events find themselves in a bewildering situation, with little space to maneuver. Adding a national dimension to the personal plight of these immigrants are the fears of some that, in combination with the growing population of Israeli Arabs, the existence of this large body of non-Jewish FSU immigrants may threaten Israel's existence as a Jewish state.

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Janet Mendelsohn Moshe is a tour guide and freelance journalist in Israel.