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The Conversion Controversy: An Orthodox Perspective


Lost amidst the controversy surrounding the proposal to reform Israeli conversion law is its impact on thousands of former Soviet Jews who immigrated to Israel in search of religious freedom after three generations of Communist-imposed atheism and anti-Semitism. The American Jews who have fomented opposition to the bill are unwittingly following in the footsteps of the former Soviet oppressors.

 

Take a common-enough scenario, an 18-year-old Israeli-born soldier, the son of Russian ?migr?s, who eats kosher, observes religious holidays, and is willing to die for his homeland. His parents entered Israel under the Law of Return, but according to Jewish law (halachah) he is not considered Jewish because his mother is not Jewish. He cannot marry in his native land or be buried in a Jewish cemetery.

 

Under the Law of Return, Israel grants citizenship to anyone with one Jewish grandparent. An estimated 300,000 of the million immigrants from the Soviet Union are therefore notJewish according to Jewish law. Some five percent, or 15,000, wish to become Jewish, but are stymied because current Israeli law allows only the Israeli Chief Rabbinate to perform conversions. This creates a bottleneck. The rabbinic courts are backlogged with applications, each of which has to be individually investigated and processed.

 

Jewish law is specific about what is asked of a person who wishes to be a Jew: circumcision for men (milah), a dip in a ritual bath (mikveh) and, above all, a commitment to living a Jewish lifestyle. A rabbinic court (beis din) is convened to ensure that these requirements have been met. Most rabbis – and this includes most Orthodox rabbis – are not conversant in the arcane details, just as most rabbis are unprepared to slaughter an animal according to Jewish dietary law or to circumcise an infant boy. These skills must be specifically learned. Would you hire an outstanding lawyer who specializes in matrimonial law or in corporate mergers to defend you in a murder trial?

 

David Rotem, is a Member of Knesset representing the political party supported by many Russian immigrants. He introduced a measure to ease the bottleneck by permitting chief rabbis of cities throughout Israel who have passed examinations in order to hold their office to conduct conversions. The bill pertains onlyto conversions performed within Israel. It vastly expands, rather than limits, the number of rabbis authorized to perform conversions. And it leaves intact the ability of rabbis of all persuasions in America and throughout the world to perform conversions that are recognized in Israel.

 

To me, the Rotem Bill is laudable. But the leadership of the Reform movement in America opposes it, and has threatened to withhold financial and political support from Israel if the bill passes. It has even lobbied 20 members of Congress against aid to Israel. These leaders claim to represent a majority of American Jewry, but clearly they do not. They may not like these facts:

 

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Lost amidst the controversy surrounding the proposal to reform Israeli conversion law is its impact on thousands of former Soviet Jews who immigrated to Israel in search of religious freedom after three generations of Communist-imposed atheism and anti-Semitism. The American Jews who have fomented opposition to the bill are unwittingly following in the footsteps of the former Soviet oppressors.

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