Jerusalem — What do Israelis make of the crisis over conversions that has bitterly divided American Jews? While many are still unaware of the Reform and Conservative movements and what they stand for, there are indications that the issue, which has simmered for about a year, is finally making an impact here.
The media this week devoted more attention than ever to the issue. The mass-circulation dailies, which rarely referred to the conversion crisis, have been brimming with articles on the so-called “conversion bill crisis” for several months now.
The story has become so hot that the Neeman Commission and its proposal was the top domestic story on Sunday night’s Israel TV news broadcast, preceded only by a 10-minute account of the “Naughty-gate” scandal in Washington.
Rabbi Einat Ramon, a former spokeswoman for the Conservative movement in Israel, believes that this expanded media coverage reflects “a growing interest by ordinary Israelis in the conversion issue.”
Rabbi Ramon, the first Israeli woman to be ordained (she was ordained in America), recalls that “a year ago, Israelis had no clue about conversions. I remember our first demonstration [when Reform and Conservative rabbis chained themselves to the gates of the Interior Ministry] and the few reporters who came didn’t have any idea why we were protesting. The journalists didn’t have a clue, never mind the public.”
Today, she says, “there’s no comparison. Our battles have caught on and are now the top news story on the evening news. I know there’s more awareness because people come up to me in the grocery store and ask questions about religious pluralism. That’s progress.”
Though no one can deny they have made many strides, the Reform and Conservative movements continue to exist on the margins of Israeli society. Of the country’s 4.8 million Jews, just 10,000 belong to the Reform stream; another 20,000 define themselves as Conservative.
The Reform movement, which came to Israel in the 1930s, boasts 23 congregations, two kibbutzim and a rabbinic seminary — the Hebrew Union College annually trains 85 rabbinical and cantorial students, including 10 Israelis. The Conservative movement, which established its first Israeli congregations in the 1950s, has more than 50 congregations, one kibbutz and the Beit Midrash, a seminary that trains 350 graduate and rabbinical students, 300 of them sabras.
About 20 students, most of them American Jews, study at the movement’s yeshiva in this city. Both streams run outreach programs aimed primarily at attracting Russian immigrants.
Non-Orthodox leaders stress that the statistics can be deceiving.
“Many, many ‘unaffiliated’ Israelis utilize our services every year and they should be counted in the statistics,” insists Rabbi Michael Boyden, chairman of the Israel Council of Progressive Rabbis. “Our rabbis perform their weddings, their funerals, their circumcisions. There’s a great deal of interest out there.”
Rabbi Boyden adds that the Reform and Conservative movements in Israel tend to be more religiously traditional than their American counterparts.
“The Israeli Reform movement doesn’t recognize patrilineal descent or intermarriage,” he notes. “Israeli society is more traditional than American society, so that’s a point we’re really trying to get across.”
Given the resources — Reform and Conservative institutions received approximately $2 million from the government in 1997, compared to the $1 billion allotted to Orthodox institutions — Rabbi Boyden and others insist that their movements would flourish.
Although the conversion issue has alerted many Israelis to what the Reform and Conservative movements stand for, even Rabbi Ramon admits that “we’ve reached the intelligentsia but not the masses — yet. When it comes to religion, people are afraid to question the supremacy of the [Orthodox] rabbinate.”
According to most observers, non-Orthodox conversions remain a marginal issue for the majority of citizens, especially those born in Israel.
“It is an issue, but not a very important one,” says Mina Tzemach, one of Israel’s leading opinion pollsters. “Security and economic issues are much higher on the Israeli agenda. Religious coercion is a growing concern, but not at the top of the priority list.”
David Clayman, director of the Israeli office of the American Jewish Congress, concurs. “True, the media has never paid as much attention to the American Jewish community and its concerns, and the government has devoted an inordinate amount of time to the matter. But Israelis as a whole have made no great emotional or intellectual investment in the conversion issue.
“I recently attended a lecture on the conversion bill and it was half empty. I knew almost everyone in the room, and they were Anglo-Saxons [from English-speaking countries],” he says.
If anything, Clayman says, most of the successes the non-Orthodox streams have scored over the conversion issue are linked to the Israeli public’s longstanding fear of religious coercion.
“There’s ongoing disgruntlement over Orthodox attempts to stop stores and places of entertainment from operating on Shabbat. Israelis resent haredim [fervently Orthodox Jews] who don’t serve in the military,” he says.
Yossi Lapid, a columnist for the Hebrew daily Maariv, believes that Israelis worry that the conversion controversy will sour relations with American Jews.
“They don’t want to lose the only dependable ally we have in the world,” he says. “On a practical level, conversions mean very little to them. The 200,000 non-Jewish Russian immigrants aren’t lining up for conversions.”
While Reform and Conservative leaders claim, perhaps rightly, that thousands of non-Jewish immigrants would convert to Judaism if they had a state-recognized non-Orthodox option, some in the community dispute this theory.
Russian-born journalist Anna Isakova, who moved to Israel in the 1970s, says that only “a minuscule number” of the non-Jewish immigrants she knows want to convert. “They’re already living in Israel, so what’s the big deal? Being Jewish isn’t important to them.”
At the Malcha shopping mall, a popular venue for religious and secular Jewish and Arab Jerusalemites, at least some people appeared concerned about this ticking time bomb. Not everyone, though, sought a non-Orthodox solution.
“I feel for these [non-Jewish] olim, but if they want to convert, they have go to the [chief] rabbinate,” said Eli Gedanyan, a health-food store owner. Gedanyan, who is not outwardly religious, added that “the Reform need to understand that the Jewish people must keep its traditions. These traditions have kept us going for thousands of years.”
Rinat, a recently demobilized soldier who defines herself as secular, agrees. “People should be free to practice religion any way they want, but the [chief] rabbinate needs to be in charge of things like conversions and marriages. I realize that American Jews are upset, but I don’t see them here fighting our battles.”
Of all those interviewed, only Batya Pilzer, a Modern Orthodox woman of 20, called for inclusivity and open-mindedness. Pilzer, whose American parents made aliyah 13 years ago, is doing National Service, an alternative to military service for religious girls.
“I’ve chosen the halachic way [according to Jewish law] to be Jewish, but others have chosen other ways. I’m not sure the Orthodox way is right for everyone,” she says. “I think there are many ways of worshiping Hashem.”