Jewish Converts Are Pawns in Religious Sector Power Struggle

The Absorption Ministry invited some 1,500 converts to the reserve for a conference that would also be a show of "support and solidarity."

A group of prospective Jewish converts stood on Wednesday around a threshing floor at the Neot Kedumim Biblical Landscape Reserve near Jerusalem. In an excited voice, the tour guide told them: "This is where it all began."

The Absorption Ministry invited some 1,500 converts to the reserve for a conference that would also be a show of "support and solidarity."

The ministry's guide went on to explain that the threshing floor was so exciting because that was where Boaz, King David's great grandfather, met Ruth, the biblical figure who is celebrated as a convert who took the Jewish principles to heart.

"So that wedding produced King David, ladies and gentlemen," the guide said. "And who will come out of King David? The messiah! And that's what I remind people who speak against converts."

Such sympathy and encouragement - be they genuine or orchestrated - is not the usual response converts - most of them Russian immigrants - illicit from the public to which they aspire to belong after completing hundreds of hours of coursework over long months, sometimes even years.

Many converts say that in addition to feeling despised by the ultra-Orthodox public, they also feel betrayed by the establishment, following the Supreme Rabbinical Court ruling to annul thousands of conversions that had been performed in Israel since 1999. They complain it has left many converts hanging in the balance and thrown into question the fates of those currently undergoing conversion.

"It's an empty show," said one conversion tutor from the north, who would identify herself only as Ahuva. "They had this conference to tell us that they are there for us, but they don't have an awful lot to back their pretty words with." She complained the conversions crisis was detrimental for the conversion seminars.

"We're feeling through the fog of battle. No one really knows where we're heading," Ahuva went on to say. "Those who created this crisis never thought about what was going to become of these people, they didn't stop to think about the consequences of their decisions. Currently, it's affecting three groups of people - those who are currently in the process of converting, those who have already converted and those who are contemplating converting."

Things are worse for the graduates, she says. "We're talking about Jews in every way. They call us all the time, asking what will become of them. People are very worried."

Although the converts at the conference were predominantly Russian, participants from other countries were also present. Standing across from the threshing floor was one Filipina, who is in the process of completing 400 hours of Judaism lessons over a 10-month period. Like many others, she does not know whether her efforts will make her Jewish, and thus capable of marrying her Israeli partner in a religious ceremony.

But beyond the personal stories of people like the Filipina and Ahuva's students, the conversion crisis is an internal struggle within Israel's religious sectors. In fact, it seems the general secular public regards the issue as an internal struggle which has a limited effect on people outside the religious community.

In essence, the dispute within the religious community lies between the religious Zionists, who seek to make conversion easier for some 300,000 citizens whose religion is "undefined," and the ultra-Orthodox, who objected to bringing those 300,000 from the former Soviet Union in the first place, and are now opposed to converting them to Judaism.

One of the reasons for the objection from ultra-Orthodox circles - which resulted in the recent ruling to nix conversions from 1999 onward - is that the converts were declared as such regardless of whether they observed the rules of religious Jewish life.

Some of the very converts whose conversion is contested by the ultra-Orthodox, agree with their reservations regarding non-observant converts. "I'm not sure who's right here," says Yuli Tzoer from Petah Tikva, who attends a conversion seminar. "It's a problem of the person who undergoes conversion and then chooses not to observe religious laws. Anyone who doesn't plan to observe at least 90 percent of the laws best stay away from the whole thing."

Other converts feel the dispute over conversion does not concern them. Several had not even heard of it. Ina from Ashdod says that she believes that "the conversions will not be nixed at the end of the day. The ultra-Orthodox are just flexing their muscle. This dispute doesn't affect us."

So who exactly is affected, or even concerned, about the conversion crisis? It would appear that the first two concerned groups are the religious Zionists and the ultra-Orthodox. Another group is made up of people who had already completed the process and are now facing the possibility of entering the rabbinical courts' black lists. This would prevent them from getting a religious marriage in Israel - the only kind of marriage which is recognized by the state.

And yet, almost all those who petitioned the High Court of Justice against the ruling to nix conversions were not converts themselves. They hail from religious Zionist circles. Former Bnei Akiva secretary-general Dr. Amnon Shapira said it is "the first time that the religious Zionist public has told the ultra-Orthodox outright that they have gone far enough."

He added: "It begins with the military service and the national service, it went on with the Shmita debate and now it has come around to conversion. It cannot go on. The ultra-Orthodox have created a new religion, and now they're calling for a war. A cultural war."

Ahuva says that regardless of the solution to the current crisis, the conversion conflict is bound to leave deep scars. "I'm sure they will solve it eventually, but I'm afraid the damage is already done. Many feel offended and betrayed, and they won't soon forget how the secular, normative Israelis remained unmoved and stayed largely indifferent to the whole thing. This indifference reinforces the aversion that these new immigrants already feel toward conversion and it perpetuates their mistrust of the system."

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