By Dina Markon | 05/09/2010
"'In Russia, I felt like an outsider, and here I feel like an outsider,' is how Israelis who are not halakhically considered Jews (mainly the children of Jewish fathers) and caught in a vacuum of identity in Israeli life –– commonly characterize their situation." Dina Markon trailed the speakers at a conference at the Efal Seminar
photo: Inbal Roz
Center initiated by "PANIM –for Jewish Renaissance in Israel," which opened the hearts of people whom the State brought to Israel on its initiative but fails to work to fully integrate them into its society
It's not easy to enter the gates of the Jewish people. According to statistical data, some 300,000 individuals (if we take into account only those who came here from the geographical space formerly known as the Soviet Union) are standing at our gates – symbolically, since they have lived among us for a long time, and many of them were even born here. They are knocking, and only one in thirty manages to squeeze in through these narrow gates, after "proper conversion."
And what, in fact, is this proper conversion? Opinion is divided. In February of 2007, the High Rabbinical Court ruled on the appeal of a woman to overturn the ruling of the Ashdod Regional Rabbinical Court that retroactively annulled her conversion to Judaism when she asked for a writ of divorce (a "get") from her husband. The pretext for the annulment: failure to observe the mitzvoth. The woman had converted fifteen years earlier under the tutelage of Rabbi Haim Druckman, who is the head of the conversion system, and during a discussion of her case, the court annulled with a wave of its hand all of Rabbi Druckman's conversions since 1999, terming them "an act of deception and fraud."
Thus go the Jewish Wars. It's the ultra-Orthodox rabbis from the High Rabbinical Court versus the rabbis of the national-religious stream and in charge of the conversion institutes, who, on their part, will not live in peace alongside the Conservative and Reform Jews, among others. As for the convert at our gates – he has no choice but stand open-mouthed in response to these debates that, needless to say, pertain directly to him. Since, until these debates are resolved and the question of which side has the right to determine 'who is a Jew' is decided, the convert will remain standing at that symbolic gate, or, if you will, in the foyer, without being allowed into the internal Israeli-Jewish chamber, and be accepted there as a member of the family. And a number of additional basic rights will be denied him: to get married, or, in stark contrast, to be buried according to his preference. No big deal.
And so, they came together on the last day of the month of July in one of the meeting rooms at the Efal Seminar Center in order to discuss and to take counsel. "They" being mainly the representatives of potential converts, who represented the gamut of Jewish-pluralist movements and organizations, and also a small number from the "third sector" whose work in the field. This colorful group came to speak in the name of and to defend the interests of those who in today's parlance are commonly called, after Emmanuel Levinas, "the others."
What brought them here is the will to stand united and to fight the absurd reality in which Israeli candidates for conversion find themselves in 2008. Since "the opportunity of some twenty years beginning with the large wave of immigration from the countries of the former Soviet Union to provide a response to the challenge of conversion, received by the Chief Rabbinate of Israel from the State, […] had been completely exhausted. It is imperative to appropriate its monopoly […] the state institutions and legal system are paralyzed and unable, in the existing circumstances, to generate an answer to the problem (from the document of the "Round Table for the Advancement of Joint and Coordinated Activity of Pluralist Organizations on the topic of the Conversion Crisis in Israel," signed by Meir Yoffe, Director, "PANIM for Jewish Renaissance in Israel").
The conference, held under the title of "'Your People is My People – Conversion and Identity – The View of the Russian-Speaking Community in Israel," was one gathering of several organized by "PANIM" under the leadership of Meir Yoffe, and the Secular-Pluralist Lobby at the Knesset, headed by MK Yossi Beilin. Its objective was "to set into action a process that will lead to activity in the realm of conversion, both at the level of civil society and in the realm of legislation and parliamentary activity" (from the invitation to the meeting). The meeting was prepared and also facilitated in part by Rabbi Gregory Kotler, a fellow at the Mandel Leadership Institute.
There were two representatives from well known movements and organizations: two Reform women rabbis – one in her official capacity and one not, the director of the Russian department at institutes for Jewish-Zionist education (a light-haired woman who spoke with a certain pathos about the paternalism of society and the establishment towards the immigrants), members of PANIM, representatives from the Institute of Jewish Studies, a representative of SHATIL (long, dark hair with a somewhat sad face), a sociologist from the Open University (gaunt, glasses, grey hair and a tense expression), a doctoral student from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem who specializes on the topic of conversion (round-faced and wearing glasses), a young and refined journalist, foundation representatives, self-appointed representatives, a political personality, a representative of the "Or" party whose burning passion was the separation of religion and state, and a lawyer from the Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC). There were also representatives of lesser known organizations that arose as a response to dire needs and distress, such as "The Organization for the Rights of Mixed Families," and "The Israel Association for Immigrant Children," as well as representatives of the organization "Tmura – The International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism."
The age of participants ranged from late-20s to late-70s. Those with head coverings (hats) and skullcaps were a negligible minority: those present represented those viewed as fringe by the Orthodox establishment, or, at least, an antithesis – organizations that for the most part shared a liberal-pluralistic world view, and, consequently, their own unique view on the issue of conversion: people whose clothing bore absolutely no symbolic significance that hinted at a particular worldview. There were some who brought dry facts and statistics, and represented a research approach; there were also, as mentioned, hardworking and energetic people from the field who were obviously fired up about the topic and lived it through daily activity; and there were members of the organizations who preferred to base their claims on hard data.
However, it turned out that in this, of all areas, the field data is unstable: the only data accepted by all of the speakers was the number of non-Jews in Israel today (some 300,000), and the number of children who have Jewish fathers and whose mothers are not Jewish (some 80% of the non-Jewish immigrants). As for the rate of potential converts, according to the data presented by Rabbi Yelena Rubinstein, Director of Conversion Affairs in the Reform Movement (the results of a joint study by the Ministry of Absorption and the Institute for Jewish Studies), 90 percent of non-Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union would like to belong to the Jewish people through conversion; yet, according to data cited by Dr. Ludmila Oigenblick, Director of The Organization for the Rights of Mixed Families, the rate of those who seek to convert is only around 26 percent. According to a survey conducted among the immigrants by Dr. Moshe Kenigstein of The Open University, 60% relate negatively to conversion, and view it as religious coercion; according to Rubinstein's data, 68% are interested in feeling part of the Jewish people and in introducing Jewish customs into their homes. Another statistic from Dr. Kenigstein: 600,000 of the immigrants from the former Soviet Union belong to mixed families. It can be assumed then that the surveys will not yield many answers; moreover, it appears that to this day, no sufficiently thorough, deep and comprehensive study has yet been conducted on the topic, according to the claim of journalist Yvegeny Zediran.
Liberalization of Conversion
In the area of opinions, of all things, and particularly around the question of 'what is the focus of the problem,' the picture became increasingly clear, as people continued to voice their views: the overwhelming majority of participants claimed that the emphasis had to be redirected from the question of conversion and the individual rights and status that conversion confers upon a "halakhic" convert, to the question of identity. Yes, the process of conversion itself is long and tiring, and involves "suffering and humiliation." "It is necessary to enable people to undergo conversion in a respectable manner," said Inda Kriksunov of SHATIL. Or in the words of Rabbi Gregory Kotler, "in an accessible manner and not based on the harsh criteria posed by the courts today." It is important that Conservative and Reform conversion also be recognized, or even that it becomes possible to join the Jewish people via a secularist path.
Again and again the Israeli Declaration of Independence was quoted, including the freedom of religion and conscience promised but not actually upheld. The conversion refuseniks and those listed as non-Jews on their identity cards, in the "nationality" category, will testify to that, since these people are unable to get married in Israel, and are able to bury their dead only in alternative cemeteries. And at the same time, in the words of Rabbi Yelena Rubinstein, they enjoy full civil rights, with the exception of religious services, the right to which is only procured through Orthodox conversion. Moreover, immigrants from the former Soviet Union view a wedding, and any platform that might be called a "life event," as a very personal act, and therefore do not want to take to the streets on the issue. This view is evinced, for example, by Atty. Elina Muchnik-Harel, from the Department of Legal Aid for Olim at IRAC, who also speaks of "nationalizing the personal act of the wedding." "They are trying to obscure the matter just as one conceals a shame-inducing illness," says Rabbi Kotler, in even stronger language. And in the blunt and direct language of Eli Zarkhin, Director of the Israel Association for Immigrant Children: "Who wants conversion? Who wants to be accepted to Judaism? I don't know any such people." Zarkhin defines conversion as a political-technical problem, and claims that conversion according to the Talmud incorporated three components: circumcision, immersing in the mikveh, and a blessing. "All the rest is a purely local invention." Oigenblick supports these positions from her perspective: "Conversion is something abstract when you're talking about such a large number of people. It's a theater show to force all of these people to become religious. The State forces people to acquire their rights through conversion."
If so, say the assembled, conversion must be liberalized – a need that the rabbis from the national-religious stream also recognize. A person must be able to choose to join the Jewish people in a matter that suits his worldview ("the conversion process as it stands today, infringes upon the converts' freedom of choice; it is long and arduous, and people say that they feel as if the establishment wants to change their personality," said Rabbi Rubinstein). And at the same time, the feeling of being an outsider – and according to Oigenblick's version, your feeling of alienation from society – is infinitely more difficult than the infringement on one's rights and personal status, in the sense of being strangers "in a land not their own," a kind of inverse irony. "In Russia, I felt like an outsider, and here I feel like an outsider," is how Israelis who are not halakhically considered Jews feel (mainly the children of Jewish fathers), according to Inda Kriksunov. The ultimate Jewish state-of-being, no?
The feeling of estrangement, alienation and lack of belonging are more strongly manifested among the children of immigrants. Eli Zarkhin, a somewhat gruff man who appears to be passionate about the matter and minces no words, says that 100,000 out of the 300,000 in question are minors. In addition, there are also 94,000 children who have no civilian status. For example, those born in former marriages of the non-Jewish member of the couple in mixed marriages. These children are labeled as "accompanying children," have no rights, and can be deported from Israel when they come of age. Many of these children and teenagers, defined as non-Jews, feel a great disconnect (many of them have dropped out of educational frameworks: every fourth Russian-speaking child drops out of school); this includes even Hebrew speakers from birth who define themselves as "Russian." "These children grow up here and will be part of the State of Israel," Zarkhin emphasizes. What mainly interests us is not the technical aspect of the conversion, but to what extent they feel at home here and want to give to the State. It is necessary to give children and teenagers the feeling that this is their country, and to find threads that will tie them to it. They want to understand what they're doing here and why they were brought to Israel." While he's speaking, he recalls the expression: "the suitcase children," a self-imposed term coined by children of immigrants who were neither warned nor asked, but simply brought here just as one brings a physical object. The blame for the small number of converts, claims Zarkhin, goes not only to the Rabbinate; there are also many among us who simply feel no belonging to Judaism and are entirely un-conflicted about it.
Rather than funding conversion and the study period leading up to it, charges Zarkhin, the State and private organizations must allocate resources to experiential study that will bring children, teenagers and adults closer to Judaism, Israeli-ness, and the State, and help them to resolve ambivalent feelings regarding their identity. Today, there is already a program run in the schools and in informal educational settings. These activities must be increased. "Conversion as a first stage is not reasonable. The consolidation of identity – that's a process that requires time and investment. If, as a result of it, a child decides that he wants to be part of the Jewish people, he can undergo conversion."
Regarding the vacuum of identity – a vacuum that, according to Kotler, necessitates "spiritual absorption" now, when people "are a bit less occupied by the struggle for existence and can take a look around. This vacuum that poses a danger that "these people will have a hollow Israeli-ness, without content" – says Ludmila Oigenblick, a woman in her fifties with a tired expression in which can be discerned the wisdom of life experience: "The state institutions are occupied with prevention of assimilation there, but not with what happens here." Like Zarkhin, she also says that the children of immigrants do not want to undergo conversion, precisely because many of them feel Israeli in every way, and enlist in combat units. At the same time, no small proportion of the non-Jewish immigrants suffers from discrimination, including discrimination at the workplace. Since, like the other participants in the discussion, she does not anticipate that the problem of conversion will be solved at the level of legislation in the near future, she suggests that people be allowed to join the state, Israeli society and the Jewish people by way of a convention (after a course on Jewish studies and the history of the Jewish people, Zionism and the state) in which they declare their fidelity to the State of Israel and their preparedness to observe its laws, and be considered full citizens in the Jewish-democratic state. (This suggestion appears close in spirit to the suggestion of Gavison and Meidan to recognize Jews not according to halakha but as "children of the Jewish people," thereby giving them state recognition. The latter suggestion, however, relates only to the children of Jewish fathers.)
Civil Uprising as a Solution
Some tend towards more radical suggestions, and believe that it is possible to triumph the Orthodox religious establishment that currently holds the monopoly on the question of "who is a Jew" only by creating facts on the ground. Rabbi Yelena Rubinstein, an energetic and charismatic woman wearing some kind of an Uzbek hat, also says that "all that people are looking for is to feel that they belong, to feel part of the State. Anyone who chooses to undergo conversion with one of the liberal streams is not looking for some kind of personal advantage." According to Rubinstein, while it is true that in February 2002 the High Court of Justice ruled that liberal conversion can serve as the basis of a person's registration as a Jew on his identity card, this still does not grant him rights under the Law of Return. Therefore, a person who underwent such a conversion is likely to find himself lacking any status after a divorce, and could even be deported from Israel. "Conversion according to halakha," Rubinstein claims, is a political and not a religious concept, a result of the status-quo, since the laws of conversion are in constant flux. The situation today is fundamentally wrong, and reflects only the balance of powers in Israel."
The solution? According to Rubinstein, it's a two-pronged approach: a. performance of civil marriages; b. state recognition of all streams of Judaism. "What I'm calling for is that the Orthodox – whose right to exist I recognize – recognize my right to existence." How is that done in practice? As stated, by creating facts on the ground. A social movement that will work towards changing the situation must be established. "If we conduct a reform conversion for the entire 300,000, let's see how the Rabbinate will respond."
While Efraim Zadoff, from the secular humanist organization "Tmura," immigrated to Israel from Argentina in the 1960s, and while he does not hail from the community whose view the other participants sought to present, he represents a community whose numerical representation in the Jewish people is considerable, and it also has an organized system of beliefs, calling explicitly for a civil uprising. His organization, which is tied to the International Federation of Secular Humanist Judaism, represents the secular Jews who perceive Judaism as a culture. The movement in Israel has no congregations in the accepted sense, but rather "ad-hoc initiatives" for carrying out lifecycle events (bar mitzvahs, weddings, etc.) and most of its activities operate on a volunteer basis. According to Zadoff, "We are not struggling against anything, but in favor of legitimate secular Judaism. We would like to give the opportunity to all secular Jews to uphold their Judaism in practice." In the current situation, the Jewish secular paradigm is invalidated. In all that pertains to those who are not considered Jews according to halakha, "one must distinguish between the formal legal status of the community of non-Jewish immigrants […] and the topic of conversion and Jewish identity in this same community" (from the position paper presented by Zadoff at the meeting). The first matter will be resolved by the institution of a system of civil marriages and burials. Since the owners of the monopoly will not relinquish their position of political power out of their own free will, and since one cannot expect salvation from the Knesset, 'the community must pressure the politicians.' How? For example, if thousands of Jewish couples choose to perform their marriages outside of Israel (today there are hundreds), the establishment will have no choice but recognize the institution of civil marriage.
In Zadoff's eyes as well, identity and belonging are a real problem, or, as he puts it, "the belonging of these immigrants to Jewish-Israeli society, both in terms of their own feeling and in terms of their acceptance by the Israeli-Jewish population" (from his position paper). And the solution? Every one will solve the problem of identity according to his own feeling, says Zadoff. "Whoever wants to be accepted by the Jewish community – and there is not one community but rather there are Jewish communities – will look for an identity framework according to the worldview closest to his heart. We must enable people to get close to Judaism through study, holidays, and lifecycle ceremonies." The movement is presently conducting its own conversion courses in Israel, whose graduates then find their place in the non-religious Jewish public.
The problem of the conversion of halakhically non-Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union, as well as questions relating to their identity, are still far from being resolved. And yet, there was something very alive and vibrant there, in the encounter at the Efal Seminar Center. Who knows? Perhaps from there, from those non-institutional brains, will come salvation.
Dina Markon is a translator and editor