Jewish Agency Head: New Conversion Law May Keep Russians in Israel

Natan Sharansky hails reform easing conversion process for disaffected immigrants not considered to be Jewish by traditional religious law.

Moti Milrod

The Israeli cabinet's approval on Sunday of legislation easing the process of Jewish conversion could help stem the tide of immigrants from the Former Soviet Union who are leaving the Jewish state, says Natan Sharansky, chairman of the Jewish Agency.

“There is no doubt that the current restrictions on the conversion process have served to dampen the enthusiasm of those who have tied their fates to the Jewish state and now wish to become more fully a part of the Jewish people,” he said in response to a question from Haaretz.

“It is for this precise reason that we at the Agency have long been pushing for the liberalization of the conversion process.”

He referred to the new, modified version of the controversial conversion reform law, to be implemented immediately, as “an important step in the right direction.”

As reported in Haaretz over the weekend, a disproportionate share of Israelis leaving the country in recent years are immigrants from the FSU, whose Jewish "credentials" have been called into question by the official Orthodox authorities.

The report cited Yogev Karasenty, an expert on emigration trends and a policy adviser to the Jewish Agency, who found that more than one-third of the 15,900 Israelis who left the country in 2012 were defined by the Central Bureau of Statistics as “other.” That term is generally used to describe Soviet-born immigrants who are eligible for Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return, but are not considered Jewish according to halakha (traditional religious law).

The problems this population often had when converting to Judaism in Israel, he posited, motivated them to leave.

The definition of a Jew under the Law of Return is anyone with at least one Jewish grandparent or a Jewish spouse. But to be considered Jewish for the purpose of marriage by law in Israel, a person must have been born to a Jewish mother or have undergone an Orthodox conversion. Many immigrants from the FSU resisted that process because it is lengthy and forces them to adopt an Orthodox lifestyle.

The new legislation will allow municipal rabbis to hold special conversion courts – as opposed to the past, when the entire process was overseen by the Chief Rabbinate – thereby facilitating conversions for tens of thousands of Israelis.

Minister of Immigration and Absorption Sofa Landver agrees that the new reform could provide new immigrants whose Judaism has been challenged with a greater incentive to remain here.

“The minister is aware of the problems facing those immigrants who are not considered Jewish by halakha,” said her press adviser, Ludmila Lagosh. “She supported the conversion bill because she knew it would help these immigrants feel more connected to the Jewish people.”

For his part, Rabbi Seth Farber, the founder and executive director of Itim, an organization that advocates on behalf of converts, surmised that had a different conversion program existed previously, “there would be fewer immigrants leaving.”

He noted that recent studies have shown that 75 percent of the immigrants from the FSU who, according to halakha, are not considered to be Jews “feel uncomfortable living under the shadow of a question mark.”

Nicole Maor, an attorney with the Israel Religious Action Center, an arm of the Reform movement in Israel, said she suspected it was the grandchildren of the immigrants who were actually leaving the country. “In these cases, it’s quite possible that the commitment to Israel as the ideological home of the Jewish people is much weaker than others, regardless of whether they wanted to convert or not,” she said.

At the same time, Maor added, it was difficult to believe that “it was the conversion issue alone that brought about the decision to leave the country.”