The Mother Who Trumped Israel's Draconian Orthodox Conversion Process

The Chief Rabbinate generally refuses to convert adopted children to Judaism unless they attend a religious school. What are secular parents to do?

When Hagit Bartov sat before the three rabbinical court judges hearing her case, she had already decided that, if the court persisted in demanding that she send her son to a religious preschool as a prerequisite for completing his conversion, she would refuse.

Bartov, who was raised in a religious kibbutz and defines herself as “modern religious”, is raising her son 22-month-old son Hillel alone, since adopting him from a Russian orphanage about six months ago. When the time came for preschool, she sent him to the public preschool in the southern moshav in which they live, without even considering the Shas alternative. But when she decided to have him circumcised and converted, it was clear to her it would be according to Jewish law.

The rabbinic judges, however, in keeping with Chief Rabbinate policy, told her that transferring the child to an Orthodox preschool was a condition of his conversion. Bartov refused, saying it conflicted with her worldview. She then made an appointment with the Conservative Movement rabbinic court to have Hillel converted according to Jewish law. At the last minute, however, she decided to give the Orthodox court, another chance.

“I don’t really understand the logic, either in terms of Jewish law or humanity, of your choice to require me to move him to a preschool that goes against my worldview,” Bartov told the judges. “This child came to me as a miracle. I couldn’t give birth. I wanted to, and if had given birth to a child, I would have sent him to that same school. That didn’t work out and God gave me a better miracle… and he is mine. He is the son of a Jewish mother. How can you tell me what to do and doubt his Judaism? He is the son of a Jewish mother! Forgive me but I don’t understand. I think it’s cruel.”

Bartov sensed that the judges were unexpectedly softening. Two of them shed a tear, she said. One judge, who turned out to be Rabbi Israel Weiss, the former military chief rabbi, said, after Bartov told them that the Shas school did not suit her, “me neither.”

After a brief consultation they told her they had decided to allow the child to be immersed in the ritual bath, the mikveh, as a Jew. “We have heard your cry,” they said.

Thursday, at the Be’er Sheva mikveh, Hillel Bartov was immersed and completed his conversion.

This story is of course the exception to the rule. In principle, adoptive parents who refuse to send their child to a religious school cannot obtain an Orthodox conversion in Israel.

That is the case, even though the requirement is controversial in halakhic circles. The religious courts are only willing to deal with children who live in Israel by virtue of the law of return, but who are not halakhically Jewish, if the parents undertake to adopt an Orthodox lifestyle and send their children to Orthodox schools.

Haaretz has learned of cases in which rabbinical judges supplemented the policy with other conditions, such as requiring that the woman attend “faith classes” with a rabbi from the messianic sector of the Habad movement. The parents in that case chose not to go public.

While one state religious court wants to force a secular mother to circumcise her son, who is Jewish by birth (an issue that reached the High Court of Justice this week,) other religious courts refuse even to discuss the Jewishness of babies and children, even though their parents want desperately to have them circumcised and to raise them as Jews in Israel.

Regulations formulated years ago by the Chief Rabbinate, and those formulated by the special rabbinical conversion courts, state that parents must give a converted child a religious education. However, Jewish law does not require this. There is disagreement in the Halakha over whether a baby or a child should be converted when it is likely that he or she will not lead an Orthodox life. American Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, one of the leading contemporary authorities on Jewish law, has ruled it sufficient that a child receive a Jewish education.

In Israel, the child is required to receive an Orthodox education. But now, for the first time, a number of yeshiva heads, rabbis of the relatively liberal Orthodox Tzohar association and others are seeking to change things. The issue is likely to become a political hot potato. Behind the conversion bill initiated by MK Elazar Stern (Hatnuah), which passed its preliminary reading in November, is the dispute over the conversion of children. The chief rabbis currently oppose the bill, which would allow municipal rabbis to establish conversion courts, and the Habayit Hayehudi faction has pledged not to go against the chief rabbis’ wishes.

There are more than 300,000 Israeli citizens who are considered of undefined religion; fewer every year are seeking to convert, apparently as a result of the slowdown of immigration from Ethiopia and lack of faith in the state conversion system.

The Conservative and Reform movements operate their own conversion courts, converting dozens of children and babies at their parents’ request every year. They can then register them as Jews in the population registry, but the children will not receive state services, such as marriage, as Jews.

Muli Yeselson, head of the Chief Rabbinate’s conversion department says: “The matter must be dealt with at the national level, and the consideration should be the good of the child.” According to Yeselson, there are 80,000 children of undefined religion in Israel.

In contrast to the Chief Rabbinate, Rabbi David Stav, chairman of Tzohar and rabbi of the town of Shoham, is willing to convert a child whose mother does not convert. According to Stav, many immigrant children already attend Orthodox schools and can easily be converted in the schools, if Stern’s bill passes.

But the bill is far from crossing the legislative finishing line. The issue is now before Sephardic Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, who, his office said, has not yet formulated a position on the matter. The good of the child should prevail, rather than “external matters, whatever their importance,” the office said. While conversion “should be with an open heart, it is not proper to force it on a child when his family does not act in the same way.”

Nir Keidar