A young woman seeking to marry in Israel is told by the Chief Rabbinate that in order to prove that she is Jewish, and thus qualified to wed in the state, she must bring proof, via a photograph, of her grandmother’s grave in London.
A young man, in a similar situation, is told he must verify the Jewishness of his great-grandmother, who died in Europe and whose final resting place is unknown.
There are many stories like these of people frustrated in their efforts to attest to their Jewishness in satisfying a Chief Rabbinate known for its efforts “to keep the gates closed, not open,” according to Ephraim Halevy, an Israeli intelligence expert and former head of the Mossad. In recent years he has been actively campaigning, here and in Israel, to ease the Chief Rabbinate’s hold on matters of personal status, like marriage, divorce, burial and, most pressingly, conversion.
“The procedures have become ever more hostile and devoid of human compassion,” he told me last Friday, asserting that a failure to assimilate hundreds of thousands of Russians into Israeli society as Jews presents a great risk to the survival of the Jewish state from within.
Now, though, after a cabinet vote on Sunday that took place with little drama, fanfare or international attention, the crisis may be easing. After months of political haggling, threats and compromises, the cabinet approved the creation of rabbinic courts for conversion beyond the small group of charedi courts established by the Chief Rabbinate. While lacking the full clout of a Knesset-approved law, the cabinet decision represents an historic achievement in the long battle to make conversion in Israel more accessible.
Decentralizing the process and loosening the grip of the Chief Rabbinate could go a long way toward resolving what is arguably the Jewish state’s most pressing domestic dilemma, with ramifications for world Jewry as well.
In an interview here two days before the vote, Halevy noted that there are an estimated 300,000 Russians living in Israel, married to Jews or the children of a Jewish father and seeking to be fully accepted in society. The inability until now to find a sympathetic solution to the conversion problem presented what he called an existential threat to the Jewish state.
Halevy said the election last year of Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau and Sephardic Chief Rabbi Yitzchak Yosef (both the sons of former chief rabbis) did not ease the situation of the last two decades during which a charedi hold on the office has resulted in more stringent standards for marriage, conversion, etc.
But in predicting a successful outcome in the cabinet vote, he said “this is a propitious moment for change,” in part because the current coalition has no religious parties that would oppose the easing of conversion regulations, making it easier for the Russians and other non-Jews living in Israel to convert and marry as Jews.
Benjamin Ish-Shalom, a professor and founder of the Beit Morasha Institute in Jerusalem, a leading voice for inclusivity and moderation in religious affairs, accompanied Halevy on the U.S. visit last week. He said that the expansion of conversion courts would offer more “user-friendly” options, particularly to the younger generation. “People now will have the opportunity to choose the rabbis they want” to study with for conversion.
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, the founding rabbi of Lincoln Square Synagogue in Manhattan and chief rabbi of the community of Efrat, and Rabbi David Stav, the head of Tzohar, a group of Modern Orthodox Israeli rabbis and whose campaign for Chief Rabbi last year called for a more considerate rabbinate, are among the rabbis expected to head up new conversion courts.
In recent years, with the Chief Rabbinate’s strict policies in place, applications for conversion had dwindled.
Rabbi Seth Farber, a former New Yorker whose organization in Israel, ITIM, has played a key role in helping people navigate the bureaucracy of the Chief Rabbinate in dealing with matters of personal religious status, predicts that 10 to 20 new conversion courts will be created in the next year and that conversions will soon double or triple in number. But he warned that the chief rabbis, who by law must approve the conversion certificates, could refuse to do so.
Critics of the Chief Rabbinate say this would be an abuse of power, since the chief rabbis represent the state. Rabbi Farber said his organization, which played a key role in drafting the new policy, is prepared to go to court against them, as it has in the past, if necessary.
Although the new rabbinic conversion courts will involve only Orthodox rabbis, Rabbi Farber pointed out that the American Jewish federation movement and Conservative and Reform leaders in the U.S. played a key role in advocating for the new policy.
He noted that Jerry Silverman, president and CEO of the Jewish Federations of North America, attended a Knesset meeting on the issue last week, and that Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, and Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive vice president of the (Conservative) Rabbinical Assembly, were helpful throughout the process.
“They showed a lot of responsibility for the good of the Jewish community,” Rabbi Farber said.
He added that while the cabinet solution is far from ideal, “it opens the door a little,” and if successful, could continue to expand in scope and depth.
The Israel Democracy Institute, which also was instrumental in the passage of the new policy, called the decision “historic.” But the IDI said “it is not enough,” pointing out that a future cabinet, presumably with religious parties in the coalition, could overturn the decision. The IDI also noted that the Chief Rabbinate maintains the power to reject conversion certificates, and could even seek to annul conversions retroactively.
All true. But one would hope that the chief rabbis recognize that the same democratic process that saw them elected applies here, and sense the growing frustration in Israeli society with the Chief Rabbinate’s status quo of resistance.
One would hope.