Like thousands of other young immigrants from the former Soviet Union, Ukrainian-born Igor Lermont always considered himself Jewish, even though his mother is not Jewish.
"When I was young, I thought I was Jewish," the 22-year-old IAF technician told a small delegation of North American Jews attending the General Assembly of the United Jewish Communities in Jerusalem on Tuesday. "I thought it did not matter that my father is Jewish and mother is not."
When he arrived in Israel four-and-a-half years ago, Lermont soon discovered that according to Jewish law, a person's religion is determined by the mother - regulations that are strictly followed by the government, as the Orthodox have a monopoly on religious affairs.
After enlisting in the army, Lermont heard of an educational Jewish-Zionist educational program, offered in conjunction with his military service, which culminates with official conversion performed by the IDF Rabbinate.
The program, called Nativ, offers soldiers and officers who are not Jewish according to Halacha a seven- or 11-week intensive course in Judaism to prepare them for conversion.
After completing the course and being sent back to their bases, soldiers interested in proceeding with the conversion process are then invited to two two-week seminars, with a month off between them, before undergoing the official conversion by three rabbis of the IDF Chaplaincy.
The programs, which are a joint project of the IDF Education Corps and the Joint Institute for Jewish Studies, are made possible with the support of the Immigrant Absorption Ministry and the Jewish Agency for Israel. They offer thousands of IDF soldiers an opportunity to convert in an Orthodox-recognized process with like-minded peers in a friendly environment, bypassing the rigid civilian conversion system.
"I enlisted in the army specifically to take this course," said Cpl. Sophie Shapira, 19, who immigrated to Israel as a baby from Moscow, never knowing she was not considered Jewish by her adoptive country. She is now nearing the end of the course.
"Back in Lithuania, I knew that I would not be considered Jewish in Israel, and I thought it was a joke," said Lt. Dalia Desiatnik, 21, a basic training platoon commander. "When I got here, I understood it was no joke."
One million Jews from the former Soviet Union have immigrated to Israel over the last decade and a half, but about a third of them are not Jewish according to Halacha.
Today one out of every five soldiers is a new immigrant, with one of four new immigrants serving in a combat unit.[...]