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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Yet the very groups likely to initiate an organized effort to convert this mass of people--the liberal movements--have had their hands tied. Even though in 1995 the Israel Supreme Court claimed that for the purpose of citizenship and registration as Jews, no basis existed to discriminate against those converted by non-Orthodox clergy, non-Orthodox converts are not accepted as Jewish in matters of personal status like marriage, divorce, and burial.

The Ne'eman Commission

But pressure for a solution continues. In 1998 the Jewish Agency established a committee, chaired by Prof. Yaacov Ne'eman, to decide how to deal with these immigrants who live with the Israeli people and want to be a part of the Israeli people but find the path to conversion fraught with difficulty. The Ne'eman Commission decided that a conversion institute would be established jointly by members of the Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox movements. Teachers would come from all three streams, but the actual conversion would be left to the Orthodox courts.

And so the Institute for Jewish Studies was born, which today offers 500 classes to help encourage Jewish study as well as conversion. These classes educate both Jews and non-Jews (often there is little difference in the knowledge of the two groups). The final step of conversion, however, is moving slowly and is bottlenecked, with only a few hundred FSU immigrants being converted annually.

In another attempt to deal with the FSU immigrants, the Jewish Agency in 2003 launched an accelerated conversion program at Israeli absorption centers in Eastern Europe whose rabbinic conversion courts (batei din) are staffed by Orthodox rabbis who are not accepted by the Israeli Chief Rabbinate. The actual conversions will follow an intensive four-week educational program.

Despite these efforts on the conversion front, the liberal movements believe that the question of "Who is a Jew?" is a time bomb and is widening the gap between native Israelis and immigrants. The seemingly unyielding religious establishment quashes the interest of the immigrants in Judaism, and veteran Israelis harbor distrust of the newcomers. In short, the two groups are fearful of each other.

Interestingly enough, years ago, former Sephardic Chief Rabbi Ovadia Yosef initiated a lenient conversion process for the Falash Mura in Ethiopia. Assuming that this population in Ethiopia was not Jewish according to halakhah, but knowing that they lived as Jews, Rabbi Yosef decided that the conversion of these people must be a national task. Perhaps as a society, Israel needs to help today's newcomers today find their path to Judaism as well.

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