Friday, June 20, 2008

Secret conversion course in Tel Aviv high school

Jerusalem Post reports:
Jun. 19, 2008

Shevach Mofet High School on south Tel Aviv's Rehov Hamasger is a living example of what many Israelis perceive to be a danger to the Jewish state's religious-cultural unity.

Perhaps no other high school better embodies the effect of the absorption of hundreds of thousands of non-Jews from the former Soviet Union as part of the waves of immigration in the 1980s and 1990s.

Of the elite math and science school's 1,600-strong student body, hundreds are gentiles by Orthodox Jewish standards.

True, the vast majority of Israelis might not consider themselves Orthodox. But most would grudgingly say Orthodoxy is the most legitimate expression of Judaism.

As a result, the gentile students at Shevach Mofet, part of group of about 300,000 non-Jewish immigrants from the FSU, have to cope with the gnawing feeling that they are not full-fledged citizens of a state that defines itself as both democratic and Jewish - especially the females, since matrilineal descent determines whether the next generation is Jewish or not.

So it comes as no surprise that it was at Shevach Mofet that the Immigrant Absorption Ministry, together with the Education Ministry, the IDF and a few maverick Orthodox rabbis launched a pilot program to instill non-Jewish students with the requisite knowledge and religious experience to prepare for conversion to Judaism.

"The demand came from the students," Avigdor Leviatan, head of the Absorption Ministry's Conversion Division, said on Thursday.

"School psychologists were confronted with dozens of cases of students who were concerned about their lack of Jewishness and how that affected their feeling of belonging to the Jewish people.

"So we decided to set up a curriculum that would prepare high school students for an Orthodox conversion. The first group of seven or eight girls will appear before the conversion court in the coming month."

Participants devote six hours a week for a year to the studies and take part in Shabbatot during which they are immersed in a Orthodox environment on religious kibbutzim.

In the coming year, the program will be expanded to schools in five cities and will include 300 students, Leviatan said.

The program, which was started nearly two years ago, was kept secret to prevent the Ashkenazi haredi establishment from attacking it. Chief Sephardi Rabbi Shlomo Amar, who is in charge of conversions, defers to the Ashkenazi haredi rabbis.

In the past Amar has backed down to haredi pressure. Many Orthodox rabbis, especially in haredi circles, oppose accepting as converts teenage girls enrolled in a totally secular, coed high school and living in an irreligious household.

An integral part of conversion to Judaism is embracing an Orthodox lifestyle, including maintaining a kosher diet, adhering to the restrictions against work on Shabbat and accepting sexual abstinence until marriage.

Conservative-minded rabbis, with a predisposition to being suspect of the purity of potential converts' intentions, doubt young women who are in a totally secular environment can faithfully embrace Orthodoxy.

Perhaps out of concern that the Shevach Mofet program will encounter stiff rabbinic opposition, more moderate rabbis within the National Conversion Authority, the body approved by the Chief Rabbinate to perform conversions, are denying any knowledge of and trying to downplay the issue.

For instance, the deputy head of the Conversion Authority, Rabbi Moshe Klein, told The Jerusalem Post that he was not familiar with the conversion program at Shevach Mofet.

"I know nothing about the program," Klein said. "I don't know how many students are learning in the program. I don't know what the educational content is and I have not set up a panel of judges to convert anyone."

Klein's comments contradicted statements made by Leviatan, who said that both Klein and Rabbi Haim Druckman, the outgoing head of the authority, knew all about the program and wholeheartedly supported it. "They are afraid of hurting the chances of its success," said Leviatan. "That's why they do not want to comment right now."

Leviatan said that several conversion judges have already agreed to cooperate with the program.

One of the judges named by Leviatan is a well respected rabbi who is not considered particularly lenient. The judge denied that he was involved.

Rabbi Sefi Sherman, who heads Tel Aviv's Beit Midrash Tair, an educational program that brings together secular and religious teenagers, is the educational director of the Shevach Mofet initiative.

Beit Midrash Tair provided young, dynamic rabbis who could teach the young women at Shevach Mofet in an interesting, nonthreatening atmosphere.

Sherman, who is also the principal of a high school in Tel Aviv, declined to comment.

Leviatan said that he agreed to an interview with the Post only after the story was revealed by Tel Aviv, a local weekly. Tel Aviv's breaking of the story also led to coverage on Israel Radio.

"Media exposure will only hurt the chances that this program will succeed," Leviatan said.


  1. In the 1971 film "Fiddler on the Roof", Reb Tevye says:

    "As the good book says 'Each shall seek his own kind'. In other words a bird may love a fish but where would they build a home together?"

    ""So we decided to set up a curriculum that would prepare high school students for an Orthodox conversion."

    "Participants devote six hours a week for a year to the studies and take part in Shabbatot during which they are immersed in a Orthodox environment on religious kibbutzim."

    That's it?, 3000 years of Torah Imecha and now some Rabbis believe that all there is to being a Jewish woman, wife and mother can be taught in a high school course like math or biology???

    This is the value placed upon Jewish women??

    Sexist ideas like this declare Jewish women into nothing more than "blessed" wombs.

    As a Jewish mother with a professional education working from home, I won't take a job earning twice as much outside and the reason why is quite simple; being a Jewish mother and raising Jewish children involves a WHOLE lot more than just birthing them and turning them over to someone from a different religion and culture.

    Whoever designed this "conversion" course is under the mistaken belief that being a Jewish mother means nothing more than having a toiveled womb, as if a Jewish woman is MERELY a POT in which to cook babies!!!

    Its sexist and offensive to Jewish women everywhere!!

  2. Jersey Girl: The article was not about good people like you and please stop placing yourself and your life at almost every post like this from leading Israeli newspapers.

    Try instead to read the article and not vent and scream in a way that shows that not only are you (maybe) a stay at home Mom as you claim (which is doubtful, given your ability to tap into all sorts of information data bases and life's experiences, and you already publicly admitted that at one time you family was wealthy too) but that you are also a fanatical extremist and frustrated one at that especially when you let off steam screaming that "Its sexist and offensive to Jewish women everywhere!!"

    Those two words "sexist" and "offensive" are straight out of the PC lexicon that are aimed at stifling free thought and free-wheeling discussion, so try not to use them because the method of decrying of "Sexism" as either a concept or goal is not Jewish in any way.

    And to get back to the article, regardless of your paranoid and demeaning perception of what was going on there, it makes sense that IN PRINCIPLE it is MUCH BETTER that efforts to educate these people when they are still in high school, unmarried and with time on their hands, to learn about Judaism and if they want to sincerely convert it is a much easier proposition with them as teenagers and young adults than if they were to be actively in love with or engaged to Jews, about to marry them, or carrying or having already borne the children of Jewish spouses.

    So there is definitely a silver lining in this scenario and it needs to be explored in the State of Israel that has this huge problem and probably encouraged rather than you quoting silliness from Fiddler on the Roof, when this is the New Age of Jew-loving such as we see now in our times.

    Every age has its challenges and what Tevye in the times of Fiddler on the Roof (and I personally love many of it songs and motifs) went through under the Tzars in Russia is not what Jews and others are going through in the Information Age of absolute personal, political, and spirirtual freedom.

  3. I don't think that RaP is being fair.

    JGs comments are right on the mark.

    I have noticed for a long time that the same Rabbis who are quick to convert women to marry Jewish men are also extremely reluctant to convert gentile men to marry Jewish women. They have their logic too....that they need to prevent the scenario where someone is raised with a "Jewish name" and identity who is not in fact Jewish.

    There is definitely a double standard.

    Use of words like "sexist" or "bigot" don't stifle a discussion...rather they open challenges and opportunities for genuine intellectual exploration of a topic. However, character assassination does stifle a discussion. We should all stay on topic and not attempt to disqualify the opinions of others on personal grounds.

    If the qualifications for converting a man are more stringent than the qualifications for converting a woman, this is discriminatory (aka sexist) by definition.

    As important as that is, it may be besides the point of this particular article post. The whole idea of converting high school students who are still living with their gentile parents, who just want to "fit in" better (as do all high school students) by offering Judaism as a one-period per day course like Algebra is ludicrous.

  4. 1."to learn about Judaism and if they want to sincerely convert it is a much easier proposition with them as teenagers and young adults"

    Isn't that proselytizing?

    How can a young woman seriously prepare for conversion while living with her Gentile mother, eating non kosher food, living in a non Shomer Shabbat household and attending a secular school??

    Our Rabbis have not been willing to convert Gentile children adopted by non observant JEWISH couples, why proselytise to Gentile children who are living with Gentile parents??

    2. "not only are you (maybe) a stay at home Mom as you claim (which is doubtful,

    I am an Accountant. I work from an office in my home.

    3.given your ability to tap into all sorts of information data bases and life's experiences

    Thank you. Jewish women are known to be very resourceful. Everything I know, I learned from my mother and my maternal grandmother who lived up the street from us.

    4. and you already publicly admitted that at one time you family was wealthy too)"

    My parents became wealthy B"H by a miracle while I was in High School.
    (This was DEFINITELY a miracle. My father is not able to write a sentence in English.)My parents both work full time for tzeddakah now in addition to being givers.

    Throughout my childhood, we had nothing materially and there was a great deal of stress over paying for the basics. My siblings and I were tzedakkah cases in the Jewish schools, we got our clothing from gemach boxes, our house was very cold in the winter and hot in the summer. We ate a lot of oatmeal, eggs and soup.

    I do not believe that Judaism can be taught as a High School course as if it were Algebra or Biology.

    I also believe that offering such a course in a secular High School whose student body is significantly non Jewish is proselytizing.

    I think that it is sexist that the course is only offered to young women. This I feel reduces the role of a Jewish woman to that of "sanctified womb".

    I am sorry that you are of the opinion that I am "a fanatical extremist and frustrated one at that" because I am of the belief that Jewish women contribute more to the Jewish people than merely "cooking" kosher babies in toiveled wombs.

  5. "(maybe) a stay at home Mom as you claim (which is doubtful, given your ability to tap into all sorts of information data bases and life's experiences,"

    Wow! So RaP doubts Jersey Girl is a stay at home mom because she's too smart and technologically savvy!

    Talk about sexist!

    Since he clearly thinks that staying home to raise children is not a task for the intellectual, it's not very surprising that he sees no problem with the girls quickie high school conversion course.


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