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Reform Conversions on the Increase among Russian Immigrants

By Abigail Radoszkowicz

This article is reprinted with permission of the Jerusalem Post . Visit www.jpost.com .

It might have little impact on their personal status, but nearly 200 immigrants, mostly Russian, converted through Reform Judaism last year.

While a drop in the ocean of the estimated 300,000 immigrants from the former Soviet Union who are not halachicly Jewish, it is nearly double the number that were converted the year before and, excluding Ethiopian immigrants, is equal to the number of Orthodox conversions.

The latter have averaged 3,500 over the last five years, but the number of Russian immigrants among them is estimated to be around only 700.

Conservative conversions numbered 67 in 2002. The High Court in February 2001 ordered the state to register Reform and Conservative converts as Jews in the Population Registry and in identity cards. In response, the Knesset voted that the category of "nationality" be stricken from identity cards, explained Rabbi Uri Regev, executive director of the World Union for Progressive Judaism.

As a gesture of equality, the Interior Ministry refuses to recognize almost all conversions, including Orthodox ones, that are performed abroad, he noted.

The Chief Rabbinate does not recognize either Reform or Conservative conversions, and couples married under their auspices must undergo an additional civil wedding abroad in order to be recognized as a couple by the state.

Regev was speaking at a press conference held by the movement celebrating the publication of its Russian-Hebrew mahzor (High Holy Day prayer book), out just in time for this Rosh Hashana, which marks the "bar mitzva year" of the movement's work in the former Soviet Union, where some 100 Reform congregations now convene.

The Reform movement in Israel operates 10 conversion classes throughout Israel, but only in towns where a Reform congregation is active. A candidate for Reform conversion must bring a letter of recommendation from his local rabbi before embarking on the year-long study course, and rabbis will give recommendations only to candidates who regularly attend services at their congregations, explains Rabbi Yelena Rubenstein, the first Russian-speaking woman rabbi of the Reform movement in Israel.

Candidates must be either legal residents or citizens of Israel.

Unlike the Reform movement in America, that in Israel does not recognize patrilineal descent. However it encourages the conversion of those born of a Jewish father and a gentile mother, emphasizing their traditional halachic status as zera Yisrael, the seed of Israel.

Ilana, inventory and computerization supervisor with a supermarket chain, who immigrated with her Jewish husband from Ukraine 10 years ago, is two months into conversion classes. Always interested in learning more about Judaism, it was only after the personal crisis sparked by her son being wounded in combat in Gaza, that she began to consider conversion. After healing, her son underwent an Orthodox conversion provided in the framework of the army, but Ilana decided to go for a Reform one.

"I believe in [Ezekiel's] vision of the resurrection of the dry bones and wanted to be buried next to my husband, so I decided to convert as a formal act. I already felt part of the Jewish people and was trying to run our family life in a more traditional matter. My teacher is very special and I still get emotional when I think with what open arms I have been welcomed as a 'bat Yisrael' [daughter of Israel].

I didn't try for an Orthodox conversion because I don't believe that all the prohibitions that were written in the Torah 3,000 years ago apply today. I don't believe God meant to ban driving on Shabbat. I love going on Shabbat eve to Beit Daniel for Kabbalat Shabbat services and sitting together with my husband, but we get there by car."

Rubinstein says that the Reform movement teaches the mitzvot, but believes in individuals' free choice in observing those bein adam lemakom [between man and God]. "It must be from the heart, not because someone says so," she says.

The Reform movement provides all religious services. It does not have its own mikvaot [plural of mikva, a ceremonial bath], however, and immersion, which, like brit mila [ritual circumcision], is required for conversion, is done in the sea. As in the US, the observance of mikva has become more popular among local couples, she notes, but here the sea is used. "I think it's more holy."

The desire to pray together in a family atmosphere is what leads many to choose non-Orthodox streams of Judaism, says Inbal Cohen, spokeswoman for Israel's Conservative Movement.

Rabbi Haim Ben-Yaakov leads a Reform congregation in Ashdod with 115 dues-paying members, most of whom are, like him, immigrants from Russia.

He noted at the press conference that 90 percent of the congregants are Jewish by birth, and were motivated to found a Reform congregation primarily out of the desire to be able to learn more about the Judaism from which they'd been cut off for so many years while sitting together in family units.

Hebrew for "Head of the Year," the Jewish New Year. With Yom Kippur, known as the High Holy Days. Hebrew for "son of the commandments." In modern Jewish practice, Jewish boys come of age at 13. When a boy comes of age, he is officially a bar mitzvah and considered an adult. The term is commonly used as a short-hand for the bar mitzvah's coming-of-age ceremony and/or celebration. The female equivalent is "bat mitzvah." Hebrew for "covenant of circumcision," a ritual for Jewish boys when they are 8 days old. It is commonly known as "bris," which is the Ashkenazi or Yiddish pronunciation of "brit." Plural form of the Hebrew word "mitzvah" which means "commandment," it has two meanings. The first are the commandments given in the Torah. ("You should obey the mitzvah of honoring your parents!") The second is a good deed. ("Helping her carry her groceries home was such a mitzvah!") The Jewish Sabbath, from sunset on Friday to nightfall on Saturday. A language of West Semitic origins, culturally considered to be the language of the Jewish people. Ancient or Classical Hebrew is the language of Jewish prayer or study. Modern Hebrew was developed in the late-19th and early 20th centuries as a revival language; today it is spoken by most Israelis.
Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation. The first five books of the Hebrew Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), or the scroll that contains them.

Abigail Radoszkowicz writes for the Jerusalem Post.

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