Why Bother With non-Orthodox Conversion in Israel?

Although deemed 'non-kosher' by Israel’s Chief Rabbinate, non-Orthodox movement’s conversion program is attracting a growing number of students

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A sign displayed prominently above the entrance to Beit Daniel, Tel Aviv’s only Reform synagogue, advertises its conversion program, beckoning potential candidates with the statement “Certified by the Ministry of Interior.”

The program may indeed bear the official seal of the government office that decides who is a Jew in Israel. But it is definitely not considered kosher by the Chief Rabbinate, which is the body that ultimately decides who is allowed to marry here under Jewish law.

Yet that doesn’t seem to bother any of the 20 or so men and women entering the building on this unusually warm Hanukkah morning and climbing up to the second floor where their weekly conversion classes are held.

Most of them have been living in Israel for at least 10 years by now, they’ve served in the army and hold full-time jobs. Among them are a professional opera singer, a trained economist and a kibbutz factory executive. The overwhelming majority come from the former Soviet Union, have Jewish fathers and were raised as Jews. But because the Reform movement in Israel, unlike its sister organization in the United States, does not recognize patrilineal descent, they are required to undergo conversion here.

This group takes a special expedited course – not the usual one year of study mandated for converts with no Jewish background whatsoever, but rather two to three months of what its administrators describe more as a “confirmation” process.

And what benefits are conferred upon them by the certificate they receive upon completing this process? “Absolutely none,” acknowledges Rabbi Gregory Kotler, the Russian-born director of the Reform movement’s conversion programs in Israel. “These are people who are going through the conversion process out of completely pure motives. They’ve always felt Jewish, and being recognized as Jews by the Reform movement provides them with a sense of validation.”

Both the Conservative and Reform movements in Israel launched their first conversion programs in the country about 10 years ago, in the wake of a Supreme Court ruling that individuals converted by the non-Orthodox movements in Israel were entitled to be registered as Jews in the Interior Ministry’s population registry. For practical purposes, though, this registration is meaningless, since the Rabbinate does not recognize those who undergo non-Orthodox conversions in Israel as Jewish, and therefore prohibits them from marrying in the country under its auspices.

Unlike Jews who undergo non-Orthodox conversions abroad and then move to Israel, those who go through the process in Israel are not eligible for the significant benefits provided to new immigrants, putting them at an even further disadvantage.

Yet despite all this, their numbers are growing. This past year, the Reform movement oversaw 200 conversions, and the Conservative movement about 130. “Every year, there are about 10 percent more,” says Kotler, noting that the non-Orthodox movements in Israel will agree to convert only individuals who already have Israeli identity cards or permanent status in the country, so as to prevent those not legally in the country from exploiting the conversion option to legalize their status.

One-third are children

About one-third of the converts are individuals with Jewish fathers or grandparents, many of them from the former Soviet Union, who are already recognized as Jews by the Law of Return, which grants them the automatic right to immigrate to Israel. Another third are non-Jews seeking to marry Jewish Israelis. The remaining third comprises children who were either adopted abroad or born to surrogate mothers abroad; according to Israeli law, these children must be converted – although not necessarily by Orthodox rabbis – in order for their Jewish parents to obtain custody of them.

This latter category, says Rabbi Andrew Sacks, the director of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly in Israel, is the fastest-growing one. “We’re now doing about 25 of these conversions a year, many of them children born to surrogate mothers and adopted by same-sex couples.”

The Rabbinate prohibits Orthodox rabbis from officiating at the marriages of these converts. But a growing number are choosing to have their wedding ceremonies performed by Conservative or Reform rabbis, after which they go abroad and have a civil ceremony so that their marital status is recognized in Israel. Circumventing the system in this way, insists Sacks, “is not a big deal, and many of us in the Conservative and Reform movements believe that the marriage laws will change in the next few years. In fact, there are many proposals on the table right now.”

Galia Sadan, a former kibbutznik, is one of Israel’s most prominent Reform rabbis and director of the Beit Daniel conversion school, which she boasts is the biggest Reform conversion school in the world today – at least based on the size of its student body. It’s quite a claim to fame, she notes, considering that Tel Aviv is hardly the world center of Reform Judaism.

Unusual circumstances

Sadan opens this Friday morning session quizzing her students about the blessings made during the Hanukkah candle-lighting ceremony.

“Who can recite the second blessing for me?” she asks.

“I can,” a student named Daniel and wearing a beret immediately accepts the challenge. “Blessed are you, O Lord Our God, who made miracles for our forefathers.”

“And?” Sadan coaxes him.

“And what?” Daniel looks at her quizzically.

“And?” she says again.

“Oh, right,” he catches his omission after a few seconds, “for our forefathers and for our foremothers.”

“Good job,” Sadan congratulates him.

Daniel, 40, who asked not to have his last name published, came to Israel under rather unusual circumstances, and unlike most of his classmates, has no Jewish blood running through his veins. “I was born into a Muslim family in Morocco,” he says. “I’m gay, and as a result, I was persecuted where I grew up, so when a bunch of Jewish friends came to Israel in 1999, I joined them. I’ve always felt very connected to the Jewish people and to Jewish history.”

Today, he works in a hotel and lives with his Israeli partner in Herzliya. “For me, going through this conversion process is part of building my Jewish and Israeli identity,” he explains.

Like Sadan, Alexandra Kedem, another student in the class, doesn’t care that she won’t be able to be married down the road by an Orthodox rabbi. “I’m a lesbian,” says the Chilean-born quality-control supervisor, who immigrated to Israel in 1999 and has a Jewish father. “But I was once married to a kibbutznik, and he told me before we got married that if I even thought of converting, he wouldn’t marry me. So we had a civil ceremony in Cyprus. I always wanted to go through a proper conversion, though, and was looking for the right push. It came when I met a religious woman who told me she couldn’t be with me if I wasn’t Jewish. I’d been to weddings of lesbian friends where there were Reform rabbis, and that’s one of the reasons I decided to seek a Reform conversion.”

Yanina Tsirina, a 29-year-old Russian immigrant, says she decided to undergo a Reform conversion because she identifies much more with Progressive than with Orthodox Judaism. “The purpose for me is to have a better sense of my religion,” she says. “The stringency of Orthodoxy – it’s just not for me, and I have no intention of leading an Orthodox lifestyle.” 

A conversion to Judaism class at the Beit Daniel Reform synagogue in Tel AvivCredit: Nir Keidar
A conversion class at Beit Daniel, a Reform synagogue in Tel Aviv.Credit: Nir Keidar

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