Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Conversion - Join IDF & become a Jew

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.[...]


  1. I met one of the chief dayanim of that program and he struck me as a serious, sensitive guy, who stressed the need for an actualized qabalat 'ol mitzvot.

    Therefore, I wonder, does the preparation essentially consist of no more than 15 weeks of courses? Are they socially conditioned to become part of the community of the observant? Does anyone know how many remain observant after conversion?

    Does anyone have a grip on the facts?

    BTW, I recall being told that the conversion happened after they left teh army, after they had decided to pursue conversion and reenrolled in an additional course of study. How does that jibe with the report you posted? Are my facts wrong? The JPost's?

    Kol tuv,

    Arie Folger

  2. I was under the impression that after the Army, prospective converts enrolled in Rabbi Druckman's program. With this gone, are IDF conversions continuing?

    I was under the impression that this ended when Rabbi Druckman's conversions were invalidated.

  3. Having spoken first hand to dayanim of the Conversion Authority and of the IDF's Nativ, I can tell you that they are totally separate programs, though it is possible that some Nativ graduates choose not to convert during their army service, and hence might end up later at teh Conversion Authority.

    In fact, the Nativ people do not accept the theoretical underpinnings of the most lenient stream at the Conversion Authority (with which not even all CA dayanim agree, either), which essentially dispenses with questioning conversion candidates whether they plan on fulfilling the mitzvot. In Nativ, they do aim for actualized qabalat 'ol mitzvot. Whether they are successful, and whether their program is sufficiently reinforcing mitzvah observance are good questions, but ideally, they aim higher than some at the Conversion Authority.

    Someone in the know who was once my guest remarked that the Conversion Authority necessarily gets the most difficult cases: those who want to convert once they realize that otherwise they can't marry. These people are already settled in their lives and are less likely to make the behavioral changes that go with conversion, though that isn't always true.

    Nonetheless, it would be far more ideal for conversions to be sought earlier in life, though one must wonder what will prompt future candidates to desire a serious conversion earlier in life (say, in high school or at the onset of military service, when they could still be integrated in a frum unit). Quite important in this matter is the question in what measure we may and should encourage conversions, a topic I am sure our blogmaster has explored in the past (and will likely revisit in the future).

    Kol tuv,

    Arie Folger


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