A few years ago, I moderated a series of focus group conversations about Israel. The participants were mostly middle-aged American Jews affiliated with Reform and Conservative congregations. As discussion touched on Israel’s policies on settlements, peace negotiations and civil rights, participants argued back and forth, with many expressing tempered criticism of Israeli positions. But when the conversation turned to the Chief Rabbinate’s authority over matters of personal status, including marriage, divorce and burial, debate gave way to unified expressions of bewilderment and outrage.
“As a Jew by choice, I certainly know that I’m not welcome.”
“As a husband of a non-Jewish wife, with two children raised in a Jewish household, you could imagine how we feel.”
“Right, as the son of a woman who went through Reform conversion…I would need to convert were I to want to return to Israel…so it’s personal!”
Trying to make sense of the conversations, I realized that the participants’ responses were not merely an expression of their principled views about the proper relationship between religion and state. Most participants recognized Israel’s unique character and did not insist that it behave like the United States. Rather, their outrage expressed their sense that Israel does not reciprocate their own feelings of loyalty and connection—that Israel does not recognize them as part of the Jewish people.
I thought of these conversations recently at a meeting of representatives of advocacy organizations, federations and denominations convened at the American Jewish Committee. As reported in The Jewish Week (“Enough: AJC Leads Effort To Take On Chief Rabbinate,” Editor’s column, Jan. 31), the aim of the gathering, which also included Israeli activists, was to lay the groundwork for a campaign of Israeli and American Jewish organizations to promote religious freedom and equality in Israel.
By the close of the session, the group had resolved to advocate for “recognized alternatives to the exclusive control of the Chief Rabbinate over personal-status issues, notably marriage, divorce and conversion to Judaism.”
Why is this happening now? One explanation is that the rabbinate’s increasingly hard-line posture has finally jolted Israeli and diaspora organizations into action. In recent years, the rabbinate has stiffened requirements for conversion, limited the number of Orthodox rabbinical courts empowered to perform conversions, and, most egregiously, allowed retroactive annulment of conversions performed by rabbis deemed insufficiently strict. As a result, hundreds of thousands of Jewish Israelis, mainly children of immigrants from the former Soviet Union but also many new immigrants from the United States, cannot legally wed in Israel.
But the gathering at the AJC also reflects growing recognition of the changing composition of American Jewry. According to the Pew Research Center’s new study, half of all Millennial Generation Jews — those born after 1980 — are the adult children of intermarriage. As I illustrated in Tablet Magazine in November, this new demographic development reflects both the coming of age of the first generation born after the surge in intermarriage in the 1970s and 1980s and the increasing propensity of adult children of intermarriage to identify as Jewish.
The group gathered at the AJC understood the implications of this demographic picture. Already, between one-quarter and one-third of young adults who consider themselves to be Jewish cannot legally wed in Israel. Most are Jewish by patrilineal descent and upbringing; some are children of mothers who converted through a denomination or rabbinical court not recognized by the rabbinate. They cannot marry in Israel because the rabbinate, entrusted by the Israeli government with the institution of Jewish marriage, will not recognize their status as Jews.
Successive Israeli governments have taken measures to encourage the Jewish identities and connections to Israel of intermarried families and their children. The state recognizes conversions conducted by all Jewish denominations outside of Israel for the purpose of immigration. It helps fund Birthright Israel, a program that expressly welcomes the children of intermarriage — who now comprise 30 percent of North American participants — as Jews. And it carefully crafted a new law easing visa requirements for young adults wishing to work in Israel to include Jews of both patrilineal and matrilineal descent.
But these moves are inadequate. So long as American Jewish young adults know that they — or their fiancées, cousins or friends — cannot stand under a chupah in the state of Israel, the claim that Israel is their homeland will ring hollow. As intermarriage extends its reach into the vast majority of American Jewish families, pressure to address the issue will only intensify.
The significance of the AJC gathering — whether it’s the start of a broad-based campaign or a passing expression of frustration — will only become clear in time. In the meanwhile, the Knesset has two versions draft laws on its docket that would establish civil unions as an alternative to marriage through the rabbinate. The draft laws are a step in the right direction and deserve broad support. By adopting such legislation, Israel’s government can immediately send a clear message: that Israel intends to remain a nation-state of the Jewish people, all of them.
Ted Sasson is author of the recently released book, “The New American Zionism” (NYU Press, 2014). He is professor of international and global studies at Middlebury College and senior research scientist at Brandeis University’s Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies.