Israel's Independent Conversion Court Won't Hit Target Audience

Albeit a positive development, the new court won't entice back 300,000 immigrants from Russia who have lost faith in the need to become Jewish.

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Russian immigrants arriving in Israel.
Russian immigrants arriving in Israel.Credit: Pavel Wohlberg
Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie
Eric H. Yoffie

My congratulations to the Orthodox rabbis who have finally taken action against the miserable, medieval bureaucracy that is responsible for religious conversion in the Jewish state. But we need to be honest:  It is far too little, far too late.

To be sure, I support what these rabbis are doing. The Chief Rabbinate has made conversion to Judaism in Israel beyond reach for anyone who does not promise to become observant according to the strictest interpretation of Jewish law. The “rebels,” well-known and respected national religious rabbis, pushed the Chief Rabbinate for years to offer a path of conversion that might be embraced by more Israelis. Finally, they gave up and established an independent conversion court that will offer an alternative to those of the state.

But the new court won’t make much of a difference.  Not many people will bother to make use of its services. The reason is that its primary target audience, immigrants from the former Soviet Union who arrived in Israel in the early 1990s and who are not Jewish according to halakha (Jewish law), just don’t care.

There are about 300,000 such individuals, who are now classified in Israel as people of “no religion.” Some had a Jewish father; some had a Jewish grandparent. Many had always considered themselves as Jews, were considered to be Jews by their neighbors, and were surprised to arrive in Israel and discover that, according to the standards of the Chief Rabbinate, they were not Jewish at all. Others knew that there were issues of personal status to be resolved but expected that this would happen quickly once they came to Israel.

But these issues were not resolved quickly. In fact, they were not resolved at all. These were people who came from an entirely secular background and whose knowledge of Judaism was minimal. Yet they were told that if they wanted to become Jewish in a legally-recognized way, they had only one option:  Adopt the strictest possible interpretation of a tradition that was entirely foreign to them. Furthermore, they were expected to send their children to schools where strict observance was required and to live in communities where such observance was the norm. This often meant severing ties with fellow immigrants and isolating themselves from the mainstream of Israeli life.  Not surprisingly, most were perplexed and astounded, and many were furious.  And their answer was simple: No, thank you.   

It is entirely possible that if a religious free market had existed a quarter of a century ago, and if Reform, Conservative and Orthodox conversion options had been both legal and available, many more of Israel’s “no religion” immigrants would have considered some kind of a religious conversion. In those circumstances, outreach efforts among the various streams would have been intense, and government-recognized change of personal status would have provided the incentive that then was lacking. Indeed, even in the absence of Reform and Conservative options, if what the independent court is offering now was offered then, with government recognition assured, things might have been different.

But what actually happened was that the immigrants went about their lives, joined the army, established businesses, and became full members of Israel’s contentious civil society.  And they discovered that being a person of “no religion” was not a major disadvantage. They viewed themselves as Jews, and were viewed by most Israelis as Jews. When the time came to get married, they went to Cyprus. The Jewish religion that they had been curious about faded from consciousness.  Being Jewish meant seeing themselves as part of the Jewish state and the Jewish people, and that was enough. 

It is not enough, of course. No rabbi can be happy about these developments. For two millennia, joining the Jewish people has simultaneously been an act of national identification and religious affiliation.  The process of becoming part of the Jewish people has always had a religious dimension, and that must be so even in the State of Israel.

But if this is to be, it will require a new reality. The 300,000 immigrants from Russia who have been turned off religious Judaism will need to be enticed back. And this will require a dynamic, diverse, and pluralistic Jewish community to come into being and do the job.    

For this to happen, the Chief Rabbinate and its supporting minions must be swept away and Jewish religion in Israel must be fully deregulated. Only then will Judaism thrive and will Russians “of no religion” reconsider their options. The new Independent conversion court is welcome, but it is not even close to being enough.

Eric H. Yoffie, a rabbi, writer and teacher in Westfield, New Jersey, is a former president of the Union for Reform Judaism.

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