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On Rotem Conversion Bill, Focus Should Be On Israel

On Rotem Conversion Bill, Focus Should Be On Israel

Conversions of Russians trump concern over Chief Rabbinate hegemony.

Gary Rosenblatt is The NY Jewish Week's editor at large.

 I’m having second — and third — thoughts about the wisdom of rejecting outright the controversial conversion bill in Israel.

Before you get too worked up about that statement, please hear me out.

I am well aware that most of American Jewry is very much opposed to the bill. And there’s no need to lecture me about how the legislation could destroy the fabric of Jewish unity around the world, etc. 

I know. I made that case myself in two previous columns on the subject. But after talking to several rabbis of different denominations, and David Rotem, the Knesset member who authored the bill, I’m rethinking my viewpoint.

It’s not that I’ve changed my mind as much as shifted my perspective. I’ve come to better appreciate that the primary issue here is not about us, it’s not about diaspora Jewry. Rather, it’s about the up to 400,000 Russian immigrants and their children who are Israeli citizens but not Jewish, according to Jewish law. And while the diaspora objection, passionate as it is, essentially is emotional and theoretical (more on that later), the impulse and motivation driving the conversion bill is pragmatic. And immediate. 

That’s because unless a solution is found quickly to allow this segment of the Israeli people to be welcomed into the Jewish fold — to permit tens of thousands of young people to marry in a Jewish ceremony a classmate or fellow soldier or fellow worker — Israel will have a social crisis on its hands of monumental proportions, one that will dwarf our intermarriage problem tenfold and further divide Israeli society.

So let’s try to break down the motivations behind this contentious legislation. There are three key components to the bill proposed by Rotem, and which has been put on hold for at least a few months. 

Point one is a positive practical step. It would allow community rabbis throughout Israel to prepare people for conversion and perform the ritual. At present, conversions are under the centralized control — read “stranglehold” — of the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate, which itself has come under the grip of the haredim, whose fundamentalist interpretation of halacha, or Jewish law, requires the strictest standards for conversion. That means taking it upon one’s self to observe all of the mitzvot before being approved as a convert. As a result, very few people even apply for conversion, and fewer are accepted.

Rotem’s party, Yisrael Beiteinu, is composed of and supported by large numbers of immigrants from the former Soviet Union. Many of them and their offspring would choose to convert if the option was more palpable. So decentralizing the process and allowing community rabbis who are more likely to know, interact with and be sympathetic to the potential converts is the central ingredient of the original bill Rotem proposed.

But he found that the only way he had a chance of getting it through the Knesset was to give in to the demands of the haredi parties stipulating that the actual conversions be done with the approval of religious judges appointed by the Chief Rabbinate. 

Most problematic and controversial is part three, which would codify what has been a de facto situation by making the Knesset, not the Supreme Court, the arbiter of such decisions. This is most worrisome to the liberal streams because the high court has been their biggest and only champion in Israel.

As Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, told The Jewish Week the other day, “if you write in the law [as currently proposed] that the Chief Rabbinate has the ultimate authority over conversions, 30 years of legal decisions [by the Israeli High Court] are thrown out. 

“For us,” he added, “that is the most significant issue. Everything else should be negotiated.”

 Skepticism About Compromise

But is there room for negotiation?

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has appointed Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky with the task of forming a committee, with wide representation, to come up with a compromise. 

Most leaders are skeptical, though. Rabbi David Stav heads the Tzohar movement of younger, progressive Orthodox rabbis in Israel who strive to be more welcoming to wary secular Israelis. He told me, during a visit to the U.S. this week, that he doesn’t believe there will be a compromise.

Those with extreme views, on both the left and right, oppose conciliation, says Rabbi Stav, asserting that the haredim don’t want to make conversions more accessible and the Reform and Conservative leaders are hoping a standoff will force a sympathetic Supreme Court to step in.

If even a handful of more lenient, “courageous” community rabbis become involved in performing conversions, Rabbi Stav says, it would be “a big first step.

“We have to change the climate because now no one wants to convert,” out of fear of the stringent demands made by the Chief Rabbinate.

One community rabbi eager to step up and set up a conversion court is Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, the founder of Lincoln Square Synagogue in Manhattan and spiritual leader of the Efrat community in the West Bank since 1982.

He says he is prepared to perform up to 40 conversions a week, with appointed deputies. That’s more than 2,000 a year.

Rabbi Riskin believes the Rotem bill has been “wrongly demonized” and that it could go a long way toward solving Israel’s social crisis without changing the status of diaspora Jews.

The rabbi charged the Conservative and Reform movements with “making political hay on the backs of hundreds of thousands of Russian immigrants.” His solution is for the bill to say that the conversions would take place under the supervision of the Chief Rabbinate, “according to the status quo,” which removes the worry of the bill codifying Orthodox-only legislation, he says.

But Rabbi David Saperstein, who heads the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center in Washington, points out that “status quo” can mean different things to different people. For the liberal streams, it could refer to the rulings of the Supreme Court, which has sided with them in a number of cases, while the Orthodox could take “status quo” to mean the authority of the Chief Rabbinate.

In addition, while Rabbi Saperstein supports the efforts of Tzohar rabbis to be flexible in their approach to the Russian immigrants, he has serious doubts as to whether they could gain appointments from the Chief Rabbinate.

 ‘They Are Cheating People’

As for Rotem, he insists his sole motivation is to make conversions in Israel far more accessible, and he has no interest in changing anything that would affect the status of diaspora Jews — to the point that he is willing to add a clause to his bill to that effect.

He strenuously disagreed with my suggestion that American Jews misunderstand the conversion controversy or are responding emotionally to it, or both. Rather, Rotem charges Reform and Conservative leaders with “purposely misleading” their constituents. “They are cheating people by not telling them the truth” about the difficulties they may face as non-Orthodox converts in Israel in terms of personal status, like marriage and divorce.

Bottom line, the conversion conflict underscores the fissures and frustrations within and between the diaspora and Israel. Front and center is the rigidity, if not corruption, of the Chief Rabbinate itself, which is a tragedy. But the fact is that no one trusts an institution that should be the beacon of Jewish ethics and morality, including the haredi leaders who control it but have no respect for it.

Yes, the Chief Rabbinate, responsible for the hatred of religious Judaism among so many Israelis, should be completely revamped. And yes, Jews of all denominations should be treated with dignity and compassion in the Jewish state. But neither of those changes is happening tomorrow, and Israel needs a way out of its societal ticking time bomb yesterday.

In this imperfect world, let’s make finding a way to welcome hundreds of thousands of Russian immigrants to Judaism now our highest priority. 


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