With figures indicating that as many as one-fourth of immigrants to Israel from the former Soviet Union are not Jewish, the government of Israel is about to embark on a program to teach prospective immigrants Hebrew, Israeli culture and Judaism.
“These are courses in Judaism, they are not for conversion,” said Rabbi Michael Melchior, Israel’s minister for Israeli Society and Jewish Communities. “Of course, there may be some non-Jews who might wish to continue their studies for the purpose of conversion once they are in Israel.”
He stressed that the courses, which could begin as early as next month, are not designed to weed out non-Jews and that it is now “not a requirement, only a suggestion. [But] I would want us to get to the point that this is what you do — [that] nearly all immigrants who come would go through this program.”
Rabbi Melchior, in an interview during a recent trip here, said: “Just as in the United States where you require people to pass a test for citizenship, here you would not have a test but a basic, important requirement [for aliyah]. … It is important for the future of aliyah and for the future of Jewish identity, for Israeli society. It sends a message that we’re not only interested in aliyah but in absorption into Israeli society.”
The Jewish Agency, in conjunction with Israel’s Foreign Ministry, is to administer the courses, which could cost millions. Last year about 60,000 people from the former Soviet Union immigrated to Israel, and the number from Russia has increased in the face of an economic downturn and growing anti-Semitism.
The project comes as a debate rages in Israel over the growing number of non-Jewish immigrants and what impact they might have on Israeli society. Many fear a possible increase in the intermarriage rate and the loss of Israel’s identity as a Jewish state. Some see the new Jewish education courses as an answer to that problem.
The president of the Orthodox Union, Dr. Mandell Ganchrow, welcomed the project as the next best thing to banning non-Jews from making aliyah under the Law of Return. He said he would have preferred eliminating provisions in the law that grant immediate citizenship to non-Jews who are married to Jews or whose grandparents were Jewish.
Ganchrow said that as a member of the Jewish Agency’s Unity Committee, he plans to press for a curriculum that stresses the teaching of Judaism. The committee is slated to meet later this month in Israel.
“There’s a big difference between Judaism and Israeli culture,” he explained. “If you teach people the national dance of Israel, the hora, that does not make one a Jew. Israeli culture is important, but it is not a substitute for basic Jewish identity.
“Our goal should be to reinvigorate for the Jews what they lost during 70 years of communism and what it means to be a Jew today in the world. … People should come to Israel with a basic understanding of what the requirements are of being a Jew.”
Ganchrow said also that he believed aliyah should be reserved strictly for Jews. He said Theodor Herzl, the father of modern Zionism, and David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, shared that view.
“They never had the idea that Russians who are unhappy with their economic status in Russia should pick themselves up and come to Israel if they did not have a mother who is Jewish,” he said. “Why should we be spending money to bring this class of people to the country if they have no interest in attending conversion schools? In bringing them in, you have created a serious problem for the future of Israel as a Jewish state.”
Stephen Solender, president of the United Jewish Communities, which helps raise funds for the resettlement of those from the former Soviet Union, questioned the accuracy of Rabbi Melchior’s figure that more than 200,000 of the 800,000 who immigrated to Israel from the former Soviet Union are non-Jews.
“We have to be very, very careful in making these kind of analyses due to the convoluted impact of the Holocaust on many of these families, as well as the convoluted impact of 75 years of communism,” he said. “It is often very hard to determine who is Jewish and who is not.”
Solender said he wanted to analyze the Jewish Agency’s educational program before making a judgment.
The executive vice president of UJA-Federation of New York, John Ruskay, said his organization welcomed the “opportunity for more extensive Jewish education here, in Israel and in the former Soviet Union, so that wider segments of our people can be exposed to and learn about the richness of Jewish life.”
“If there are a sizable number of non-Jews coming to Israel, we should do everything we can to provide them with opportunities to learn about Jewish life,” he said.
Ruskay added that if this was done with “seriousness, and if we provided the resources needed to do this, the result can only be positive for Jewish commitment and Jewish identity.”
That view was echoed by Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, who said Jewish educational lectures and exposure to Jewish culture and people “can only be beneficial to those considering aliyah.” He said many of the immigrants are “totally ignorant and anxious for some kind of formal Jewish instruction.”
He added that the Jewish Agency is “obligated under current policy to provide such programs in a pluralistic spirit, and we would expect that Reform representatives would play a role in the preparation and teaching of these courses.”
“I would favor offering — in addition to a broad overview of Judaism, Jewish culture and civilization — substantive teaching about the Jewish religion. One way to handle that is to have representatives of the different streams of Judaism offer their approach to expose [these people] to the variety of views in the Jewish world,” Rabbi Yoffie said.
Rabbi Joel Meyers, executive vice president of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, pointed out that there was a collaborative effort by the movements in the development of conversion schools in Israel, and that these classes could be developed the same way. The schools were established two years ago because of the Chief Rabbinate’s refusal to recognize non-Orthodox conversions in Israel.
Rabbi Meyers said that although this new project grew out of “concern about the non-Jewish immigration to Israel, it is nevertheless important to have basic programs of Jewish study and culture. And no matter what happens in the end, a basic program would be in place for Jews, for those who are marginally Jewish, and for those whose Jewishness is questionable.”
Rabbi Melchior said that there are about 120 students in the conversion school and that he had “very good reason to believe that all of those worthy of conversion will be converted. I’ve even had some promises in that direction.”
The conversion would be performed by a religious court, or bet din. Each applicant would appear individually and be questioned.
Rabbi Melchior said the first applicants were expected to appear before the bet din in “the coming month or two.” He said they would be treated “as though they were students in classes arranged by the Chief Rabbinate.”