Sunday, May 18, 2008

Impact of Russian aliyah on Israel society II

The following is an article published in the Wall Street Journal op/ed section
It was written by Evan Goldstein editor of Moment magazine
The Power of the Gatekeepers
The difficulty of converting to Judaism in Israel.

Friday, April 13, 2007 12:01 a.m.

Last year approximately 2,500 immigrants to Israel from the former Soviet Union began their conversions to Judaism. The official Orthodox framework--the only one recognized by Israeli law--typically takes about 10 months and involves studying Jewish law and thought, navigating an intricate bureaucracy, and adopting an Orthodox lifestyle, including strict adherence to kosher dietary laws and observance of Jewish holidays. The process culminates in a visit to the beit din, or rabbinical court, where the potential convert's knowledge of Jewish history and practice is probed.

It turns out that of the roughly 2,500 Russians who began their conversions last year only about 940 successfully completed the process. This sparse result has triggered the latest battle in the long-running war over conversion in Israel. In the last decade of the 20th century, a wave of some one million immigrants from the former Soviet Union arrived in Israel. Though one-third were not recognized as Jewish according to rabbinic law, primarily because their mothers are not Jewish, all were granted Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return, which has a more expansive definition of who is a Jew and thus entitled to live in Israel.

For the roughly 300,000 Israeli citizens from the former Soviet Union who are not recognized as Jews by the chief rabbinate, a state-financed academy was created to ease their path to conversion. Benjamin Ish-Shalom, who directs the Institute for the Study of Judaism, alleges that the grinding pace of Orthodox conversions is due to the courts' excessively rigid standards: e.g., demanding that women wear only long skirts or that converts move to more Orthodox neighborhoods.


The prospect of a permanent class of inferior status half-Jewish or non-Jewish Israelis raises the ugly specter of an Israel increasingly divided by hierarchical definitions of Jewish authenticity, and it has bred a dangerous sense of alienation in certain precincts of Israel's Russian immigrant community. According to a recent study, 48% feel more "Russian" than "Israeli."

In an effort to address this looming threat, the Ministry of Absorption and Immigration recently launched a marketing campaign aimed at encouraging non-Jewish Russian Israelis to undergo Orthodox conversions. The outreach effort has led to a modest spike in interest, but there is every reason to believe that interest will remain modest.



  1. Here is a first hand account from the conversion institute from a woman who says she successfully completed the conversion process under Rabbi Druckman.

    She blogs under her screen name, Treifalicious:

    As far as the Israeli Rabbinate is concerned, they pay lip service (or they did in the late '90s) to expecting converts to be religious but in practice many potential converts lie and the Rabbis know it (at least according to news articles I read in the Israeli press a couple years after I finished my conversion).

    I can tell you that in my class there were women that walked around in short shorts and miniskirts all day and then put on their long skirt and blouse for the class. One woman basically wore the same two outfits to class every day (the class met 2 hours a day 5 days a week for some 8 months). There was one couple, where the woman was an Israeli Jewish woman and the guy was a Catholic from South America, where they openly drove on Shabbat but DAVKA ALSO CELEBRATED CHRISTMAS!!! I felt like such a frier (sucker) for wearing my long skirt and T-shirt (a la a Bnei Akiva/Dati Leumi type woman) all day every day, even buying a new wardrobe just before my conversion studies started. Another couple who did seem more sincere was timing their wedding by when the woman was going into teh mikveh and the teacher and rabbis who ran teh class knew it.

    However, those converting on their own as singles were given extra scrutiny by the Rabbis. If anything, I was so glad to be done with the Rabinical System after I finished my conversion just so as to now have to see the hypocrisy anymore. I suppose on one hand this would bolster the Haredi case, but what the Haredim don't understand is that if they required everyone to be 100% religious all the time for the rest of their lives it would be counterproductive, estranging people that sincerely DO want to be Jewish, but can't do 100% of the tznius rules expected of women, for instance, or must make halachic compromises in order to take care of non-Jewish parents, etc.

    Besides, religious observance is something that ebbs and flows and evolves over time. In the same conversion class there were also people who were clearly contemptuous of the whole conversion thing and found themselves getting into it by the end of the class and stayed relatively traditional afterwards (while other converts eat ham and cheese sandwiches on Pesach).

  2. More observations from Conversion class:

    "I once asked the teacher in my conversion class, "What if your neighbors don't care if you do laundry before or even during Shabbat, does Mara'it Ayin still exist?" She couldn't usually deal with such questions and often yelled, yes yelled, at me, a full grown adult, whenever I asked her tough but perfectly valid questions. She didn't know much besides what she dictated to us from Kitzur Shulchan Aruch and expected a room full of adults to just accept what she said without question. She would cover up her lack of knowledge with anger and even namecalling (she actually called me stupid in front of the class for asking a question that I later asked someone about and they told me this question appears and is dealt with in the Talmud! Not like she'd know). She had previously been a Tanach teacher in a public school (Tanach is the acronym for the Bible - Torah, Prohets and Writings - and in the Israeli public schools, Bibe is a subject like all others taught in the schools. The Tanach teachers are often religious women who apparently just drop the information expecting them to blindly swallow it wiothout question - according to Israelis I met) and expected us to be like grade school kids and got frustrated when we revealed that we were not."

    "I started to talk in my last post about the conversion process in Israel. Now I will continue.

    When I first went to Israel, intending to convert there under the Rabbinate, friends who were becoming Ba'alei Tshuva told me essentially, "Go to Jerusalem, not Tel-Aviv, and find yourself a Rabbi with the biggest, blackest, furriest hat, and convert with him." Their reasoning was that the Rabbinate's conversion classes are basically a factory for Jews to live in Israel and create more Jews so as to diminish the Arab demographic threat. Others added that the Rabbinate is dominated by the National Religious/Modern Orthodox who worship the Land of Israel but not G-d, and that only the Haredim really worship G-d, and so if I want a REAL conversion I should go with them.

    In retrospect, in a way these people were right, especially those who said that the Rabbinate's conversion classes are bascically factories for the creation of Jews. It's like those diagrams they would have in our Operations Management textbooks in the MBA program.

    Gentile--->[Ulpan Giur]--->Jew

    There were SO many games being played. Most of the students weren't especially serious and most were converting in order to marry an Israeli. Very few were converting without the impetus of a romantic relationship. Moreover, the Rabbinate seems to give these people preference, which as far as I know flies in the face of centuries of Jewish Law. Maybe a third of my particular class was made up of Russian immigrants who were not halachically Jewish. In my class the Russians were relatively sincere, but I was in another class earlier where the Russians sat in the back of the class, read books and played a sort of musical chairs and just generally blew off the class, doing little more than showing up. Another large bloc of students in the class were the native Israelis whose mothers did not convert Orthodox and now could not marry in Israel. These people often married in Cyprus and the (in most cases) woman did the conversion in Israel in order to have a religious wedding, perhaps for the parents, and also for the sake of future children. There were people like me and my roomate who were converting for our own sakes. However, scratch the surface and many of the peopel converting for their own sakes had a Jewish father but non-Jewish mother (like my roomate, as well as other converts to Judaism that I met). Sometimes they were raised as Jews and sometimes they weren't. I remember in the first class I was in (I switched classes to facilitate working since the first class started very early and was outside of Tel-Aviv) there were two girls from Rishon who were raised as religious Israelis educated in the religious schools. All their lives they thought they were Jewish until on their 16th birthday their mother tells them they're not really Jewish because she converted Reform, so as to get the conversion out of the way so that she and their father could get married and start their lives. By far, the largest group in the class were foreign workers marrying or who were already married to Israelis.

    The Israeli Ministry of the Interior (the Misrad HaPnim) has this idea that legions of foreign workers are bum rushing Israel and converting to Judaism in order to get citizenship. They are dead wrong. Most of the foreign workers I met were such devout Christians that they could never convert to Judaism, even if they faked it to get citizenship, because their Christianity was so strong and meaningful to them. They just wanted to live in the land that Jesus lived in. Those that maybeweren't such religious Christians and got into a serious relationship with an Israeli Jew were teh ones in the conversion classes. Others, a variation on teh foreign worker, were Europeans who were in Israel for some reason (a study program, maybe work on a kibbutz) that alsw were about to marry Israelis. SOmetimes the Israeli met the European on a trio somewhere, also, and brought the fiance to Israel."

    "Why did I do an Orthodox conversion in Israel? Well, I had decided to convert in the US while I was still in college. I went to Israel for a semester and decided I wanted to make aliyah. During this trip, I read in the papers the story of a Russian Immigrant named Olga Khaikov who was killed in a terrorist attack in Jerusalem. She had converted Orthodox (I think in In Israel, but I'm not sure) and had married an Israeli in Israel. Still, when someone called and anonymously said he wasn't Jewish the Rabbinate buried her in a part of teh cemetery set aside for peopel of questionable Jewishness. There was a hue and cry from Russian activists on the case. I saw tis and realized that if I am going to convert and make aliyah, I most definitely had better do tehe conversion by the book. I also didn't want to waste time living in the US when I really wanted to be in Israel, so I decided it would be best to go to Israel as soon as possible and convert there so as to facilitate aliyah. I never for a minute considered Reform conversion, but I did consider Conservative conversion briefly before going to Israel the first time.

    Despite it all, I would still recommend Orthodox conversion for anyone who is serious about becoming Jewish. I have told people myself that if they really want to be Jewish they will deal with the long skirts and won't mind keeping Shabbat and kashrut or at least trying honestly to do so. Meanwhile, you do learn a lot. Judaism makes sense when you learn from an Orthodox perepsctive that I think it wouldn't if you did a non-Orthodx conversion. I had been active in the Masorti/Conservative movement in Israel before the conversion and I knew people who taught Conservative conversion classes and they taught people that some aspects of basic Halacha were only customs that didn't beed to be observed (on example of this that I remember is cli sheni, where when, say, making tea on Shabbat, you had to take the water from the water heater and put it in one cup and transfer it to another before fixing teh tea, I believe because teh water would be too hot and might consitute cooking if you put a teabag in it). We in the Orthodox class were taught all 39 Av Melachot that form the basis of Shabbat law, and the Toldot that derive from them and their modern applications. We spent an entire month just on the laws of Shabbat. Our teacher said that most peopel who have been religious all their lives don't know most of this stuff and just observe Shabbat out of habits picked up at home.

    The problem is that it takes away the freedom you had to observe or not to onserve that made every mitzva you did special. Before the conversion, I kept some form of Shabbat and Kashrut. I had a long and bloody struggle with myself as I painfully phased shrimp out of my diet (shrimp was one of my favorite foods. I still get cravings for it sometimes in ways I don't for other treif foods like pork or milk-meat combos). I was slowly stating to think more about my tznius at one time. The changes fraked me out a little but they were real. But the minute I started my conversion class everything changed. I felt forced to observe all kinds of mitzvot I wasn't truly ready for. For instance, For maybe a week or two I went shopping for long skirts (I didn't own any before a couple years before that and the one or two I did own I wore only to shul and the Kotel in Jerusalem) and on the first day of class abruptly stopped wearing all my pants and shorter skirts, most of which were very flattering, for two years. One day a couple months later, I "freaked out" and wore pants one pretty much last time and went to Netanya with a Russian guy I had been dating all just to go to McDonald's and eat a cheeseburger. He thought the whole thing, which he called the "C-H Mission" was silly and I guess it was. I just wanted to feel like I was free for one last time, but was so afraid that someone would see me (as they tell you that Rabbis are watching you, spying on you, to make sure you are observing the Laws and will expel you from the conversion class if you are caught slipping up) that I went to Netanya to get my trief on because I knew no one knew me and so no one would recognize me."


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