In the 1990s, 1.5 million new immigrants from the former Soviet Union made aliyah. Some were Jews according to halacha and some were not. Most integrated into Israeli society, completed their army service and fought to protect their country, and some paid with their lives.
Today, there are more than 400,000 Israeli citizens from the former Soviet Union who are not halachically Jewish, a fact that renders them unable to marry in Israel. (In Israel, marriage is governed by the Chief Rabbinate, which follows halacha — Orthodox Jewish law — regarding marriage.) A large part of this population seeks to join the Jewish people by Orthodox conversion but is met with an inflexible, unfriendly system that often makes it impossible for these people to convert.
I want conversion to be available in every town by rabbis of the candidates’ choice, rabbis who are connected to the candidates’ communities and who are rooting for their success. But conversion by a sympathetic city rabbi would be of no use unless one could marry on that basis. Therefore, it is also essential to break the rabbinate’s monopoly on marriage.
My sole interest in my bill is to allow hundreds of thousands of Israelis the chance to convert with ease and move on with their lives. And my bill in no way changes the rights or status of conversions carried out outside of Israel. Nor does my bill change the criteria of the Law of Return in any way.
I have spent the last two years seeking the legal remedy for those trapped in conversion deadlock. The result was an encompassing compromise that granted all city rabbis in Israel the authority to form their own conversion courts, breaking a 60-year monopoly of the Chief Rabbinate. Moreover, it would no longer be possible to annul a conversion except in cases of extreme fraud, in which case only the rabbi who performed the conversion in the first place would have the authority of annulment.
Additionally, city rabbis would have the authority to marry those they have converted, and the state would recognize these marriages.
My bill includes the granting of responsibility of matters of conversion to the Chief Rabbinate. However, this responsibility is not absolute. The Chief Rabbinate will not be able to annul the conversions or marriages performed by city rabbis.
I was unprepared for the strong opposition of diaspora leaders, particularly those of the Reform and Conservative movements. They expressed concern that my bill relegated them to second-class status in the eyes of the State of Israel. Was I turning my back on American Jewry at a time when Israel needed them as much as ever?
Every time I visit the U.S., I am moved by the unwavering commitment to Israel of Jewish leaders there. I would never want to jeopardize that. Therefore, I emphasize that my conversion bill does not in any way affect the status of the different streams of Judaism worldwide. My bill pertains only to conversions carried out in Israel and does nothing to endanger the recognition of non-Orthodox conversions performed outside of Israel.
After many, often heated, discussions, I realize that many opposed to the bill would like to see Reform and Conservative conversions performed in Israel granted the same recognition as Orthodox conversions. However, public support in Israel is not there yet. To date, there are only approximately 200 non-Orthodox conversions performed annually in Israel. Is it justifiable to hold out for a more pluralistic law that is nowhere in the offing, while 400,000 people have no hope for conversion?
This Shabbat we read Isaiah’s words of comfort to a nation that has just been exiled. God promises (Chapter 40:4), “And the crooked shall be made straight.” We all have a duty to try to straighten the problems around us. I believe with all my heart that my conversion bill is the best chance the Jewish people has today to straighten the crooked situation of some 400,000 Israelis.