Let My People Convert!

Russian Jewish immigrants to Israel face an absurd situation. In Russia, their identity cards marked them as Jewish, and they experienced anti-Semitism in their professional and personal lives. They were reminded of their Jewishness on a regular basis, whether they liked it or not.

But once they get to Israel, if they can’t confirm that their mother was Jewish, they are viewed as non-Jews–and must face a laborious conversion process to be considered as Jews. The conversion process is controlled by the Orthodox religious monopoly, which demands these “non-Jews” adopt a traditional Orthodox lifestyle. Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist conversions are not officially recognized. The rationale for such a restrictive, demanding system is that “Non-religious converts, even if their conversions were performed by Jewish organizations, will not adapt, will not become acclimatized, and will lead to a future trail of separations and tragedies,” says Rabbi Yisrael Rosen, a rabbi for the conversion courts. But Rosen, like most arbiters of Jewishness in Israel, ignores the fact that half of Israelis consider themselves secular, and even the majority of those who consider themselves “traditional” are flexible about the rules of Shabbat.

Rabbi Gregory Ketler, coordinator of the (Reform) Progressive Rabbis’ Council in Israel, and Rabbi Jerome Epstein, head of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, each recently wrote about urging Israel to open up the conversion process. And Avirama Golden makes the point in Ha’aretz that if Ruth, the best-known convert in the Bible, wanted to join the Jews today, she would probably be denied:

But if Ruth were to decide today to link her life with Israel and the Jewish people, her chances would be negligible. The Orthodox establishment – which is cut off from the majority of the Jewish people in the Diaspora, with its various denominations, as well as from many Israelis – has over the last few years fortified the walls that prevent hundreds of thousands of people from joining the State of Israel and its society as citizens with equal rights. Full citizenship in Israel is possible only for those who convert.

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