Russian Immigrants Leaving Israel, Discouraged by Conversion Woes

Figures show one-third of Israelis who emigrated in recent years were not accepted as Jews in the country.

Russian immigrants arriving in Israel.
Pavel Wohlberg

A disproportionate share of Israelis leaving the country in recent years are immigrants from the former Soviet Union whose Jewish credentials had been called into question, according to an expert on emigration trends.

Speaking at a Jerusalem conference on Israeli expat communities, Yogev Karasenty, a policy adviser to the Jewish Agency, noted that more than one-third of the 15,900 Israelis who left in the country in 2012 were defined by the Central Bureau of Statistics as “other.” This is the term generally used to describe immigrants from the former Soviet Union who were eligible for Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return but are not considered Jewish according to Halakcha (Jewish law).

Difficulties confronted by this population in converting to Judaism in Israel, he posited, was motivating them to leave the country.

“If this particular group had access to a friendlier conversion process, it would be very reasonable to assume that their drop-out rates would not be as high,” he said. “Because they are not considered Jewish here, it is much more difficult for them to feel a part of the country.”

Karasenty a former fellow at the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute, said the 2012 figures were representative of trends in recent years. He estimated that the number of immigrants from the former Soviet Union who fit the definition of “other” is somewhere between 200,000 and 250,000.

“I had expected that their share among those leaving the country would be higher than that of native-born Israelis, but I was surprised to discover that it was that high,” he said.

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 in Israel, a person must have been born to a Jewish mother or have undergone an Orthodox conversion. Many of the immigrants from the former Soviet Union have resisted these conversions because the process is lengthy and requires them to adopt an Orthodox lifestyle.

Karasenty presented the figures at a conference in the Knesset organized by Israeli Global Leadership, a group that seeks to strengthen and cultivate lay leadership in Israeli expat communities around the world. It was the first conference of its kind to be held in Israel.

Recent reports of young Israelis leaving the country, especially to destinations like Berlin, have sparked concerns.

Infographic by Haaretz

According to World Bank figures, some 350,000 Israelis currently live overseas, the overwhelming majority in North America. Karasenty said this figure only takes into account individuals born in Israel and, therefore, tends to underestimate the phenomenon.

According to his calculations, the number of Israelis living abroad today is somewhere between 550,000 and 580,000 – in line with figures published by the Central Bureau of Statistics. This figure does not include children born abroad to Israeli citizens, but it does include about 100,000 Arab citizens of the country.

More than half the Israelis who left the country in recent years were not native born but had immigrated from elsewhere, said Karasenty. That includes many immigrants recognized as Jews, he said, who are part of a growing global community of what he termed “multi-locals” – young adults who move from country to country.

Despite recent reports that “tens of thousands” of Israelis were relocating to Berlin, Karasenty estimated that the actual number was somewhere between 6,000 and 12,000.

Today’s event was organized by leaders of the Israeli communities in New York, Toronto, Australia and London. Many of the speakers, including the organizers, stressed the important role Israeli ex-pats could serve as bridges between Israel and the local Jewish communities where they reside.