The great immigration wave from the former Soviet Union in the 1990s brought approximately 1 million Russian speakers to Israel. Some were born to non-Jewish mothers, and thus are not viewed as Jews according to Jewish halacha (religious law) in which religion is determined by the mother. It is estimated that there are around 100,000 children and teenagers under age 18 from the former Soviet bloc who live in Israel and are categorized as having “no religion.” They are growing up in Israeli society with distinctly Jewish identities, yet lack one key component: a clear religious identity.
Beyond the identity issue, members of this group are likely to encounter difficult hurdles in the future, mainly with regard to marriage, family status and burial. That is because in Israel, the various religious establishments (Jewish, Christian, Muslim and Druze) are in charge of these three domains, as there are no civil marriages in Israel.
A new initiative called “conversion according to Jewish law,” under Rabbis David Stav and Nahum Rabinowitz — of the Tzohar rabbinical organization, which champions inclusive Judaism while keeping the strict rules of halacha — and other national-religious rabbis, seeks to defuse this ticking time bomb and convert those who are stranded in the “no religion” zone. The rabbis have a two-pronged objective: to ensure the socialization of the youths in Israeli society on one hand, and to avoid a future halachik imbroglio on the other. The future problem is: If and when they marry Jewish Israelis, this could constitute intermarriage and cause assimilation — the situation of Jews marrying non-Jewish partners.
Only recently, on July 5, following demands by the ultra-Orthodox who now are part of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's coalition, the government canceled the conversion law — which was approved just eight months ago by the former Knesset. Now the aforementioned rabbis hope that the Chief Rabbinate will not be able to withstand public pressure and will ultimately be forced to accept the alternative conversion court. For adults, the conversion process includes a long studying period. The conversion candidates are questioned by a rabbinical court about Jewish principles and practices. But the conversion of minors is a much easier process than the conversion of adults and does not entail any period of study or preparation. This is because minors are not obligated to observe the commandments (among other reasons).
The Chief Rabbinate, for its part, refuses to authorize conversion of children whose parents are not Jewish when the child does not grow up in religious surroundings. “Our assumption is that under such circumstances, the child will never adopt a religious lifestyle, not as a youth nor as an adult. And this is a basic, indisputable stipulation for a religious conversion. In these cases the mother herself refuses to convert, so there is no basis for thinking that the child will adopt a religious lifestyle.” These are the words of ultra-Orthodox Rabbi Nachum Eisenstein to Al-Monitor; Eisenstein heads the International Rabbinical Committee on Conversion and, until five years ago, served in the Chief Rabbinate’s conversion court.
Stav, rabbi of the Shoham locality, who previously sought the position of chief rabbi, rejects this argument. “Today, an Israeli couple that adopts a child in Thailand converts him or her in the rabbinate in a fast-track procedure including making a statement that the child will be sent to a religious school and will not be forced to violate the Sabbath. I simply do not understand why this [new initiative] is substantively different from a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother who want to convert their children, and agree to commit themselves to the same or higher standards,” he told Al-Monitor.
Stav says the Chief Rabbinate’s opposition doesn't stem from halachik motives but from political ones that are hard to prove. “Those who rule the rabbinate today are political animals who are leading the conversion discourse deceitfully and are not willing to address the conversion question from a national perspective,” he said. “Contrary to what people accuse us of, our conversions will be conducted according to accepted halacha, and we have no intentions of being less stringent in religious law. All we want to do is to ease the process, and there are those who are very disturbed by this.”
The “national perspective” that Stav talks about alludes to the deep concern regarding the future of those 100,000 youths in Israel who are not listed as Jews in the state’s official records. He worries that “the Jewish people will be torn to shreds” and claims that we are facing an “intermarriage and assimilation bomb” down the road that will lead to severe social chaos.”
Eisenstein is not worried about the national threat described by Stav. “It isn’t our fault that the government brought dozens of thousands of non-Jews here; as far as I am concerned they should marry one another,” he said. “What I am afraid of is ‘quickie’ fake conversions that will break all the doors down and enable all Jews to marry them. We prefer the current situation. Today, large swaths of secular Jews are careful not to intermarry, and if we recognize fake conversions then we’ll lose them as well.”
The controversy is not limited to minors but also to conversions of adults as well, and is connected to one of the most sensitive, touchy issues in the conversion process: the level of religious observance on the part of the convert. The lenient approach adopted by Stav seeks a commitment “in principle” and “a reasonable degree” of observance of the commandments, even if in fact they don’t observe each and every detail. By contrast, under Eisenstein’s approach, a potential convert must be required to commit to absolute and consistent observance of all the commandments. “We do not limit ourselves to declarations alone,” he emphasized. “We seek to verify that the potential convert really and truly intends to adopt a religious lifestyle.”
Al-Monitor tried to talk with actual families seeking to convert their children in order to present the issue from their points of view, but encountered systematic opposition. That might be because they worry that airing their views could harm their conversion process in the Chief Rabbinate.
Some parts of the religious and ultra-Orthodox public are already talking about creating and maintaining genealogical lists (ancestry lists of the entire family) in response to the alternative conversion initiative. Such lists would enable them to trace who was converted by the Chief Rabbinate and who got married with whom. A person converted by the new framework wouldn't be ''accepted'' as a marriage candidate for an ultra-Orthodox partner. And even those converted by the Chief Rabbinate in recent years would be privately checked out. “We are not at all satisfied with the conversion situation in the Chief Rabbinate; most of the converts do not observe even their first Sabbath. It is truly a corrupt process,” said a high-level ultra-Orthodox source in the rabbinate, speaking on condition of anonymity. “The ultra-Orthodox public won’t even look at the conversions performed according to the new initiative. The vast majority of ultra-Orthodox and religious Jews won’t marry these people. This initiative will only cause unnecessary distress to those seeking to convert. We don’t want to create a split [in the Jewish people], but it appears that we won’t have a choice, and ultimately we’ll be forced to create ancestry lists.”
The conversion issue is one of the most emotionally charged ones in worldwide Jewish society coping with the severe problem of assimilation caused by intermarriage. In Israel, the problem is even more complex, since it raises questions of national, not only religious, identity. The attempt of certain rabbis to lead a more conciliatory approach will, necessarily, lead to two separate conversion channels: the stricter Orthodox channel alongside the more lenient Orthodox one. All this can lead to a situation in which two “species” of Jews will emerge in a few dozen years, and each side will not recognize the Judaism of the other — in other words, with regard to Jewish identity, a significant rift within the Jewish people.