June 3, 1999
A Conversion Solution
The prime minister-elect wrangles with the powerful Sephardic fervently Orthodox party
Softly, softly, Israel has launched a joint Orthodox-Conservative-Reform program to solve the problem of quarter of a million Russian immigrants who are Jewish according to the Law of Return (at least one Jewish grandparent), but not according to Halachah (a Jewish mother).
They feel outsiders. The Orthodox rabbinical authorities, who enjoy a monopoly in such matters, will not marry them, or bury them in Jewish cemeteries. The Interior Ministry refuses residence to their dependent relatives. Ovadia Yosef, a former Sephardi Chief Rabbi, denounces them as "goyim", who want to flood the country with pork-eating pimps and prostitutes.
The immigrants want to be integrated into Israeli society. Many of them recognize that the way in is through the Jewish religion. Yet most of them refuse to adopt the Orthodox lifestyle on which the courts insist for conversion. The more flexible Reform and Conservative movements, a tiny minority here, are still fighting for legitimacy.
With a deliberate lack of fanfare, a joint "Institute for Jewish Studies", sponsored by the Jewish Agency, opened its doors a couple of months ago in Karmiel, north-east of Haifa. The first 30 immigrant candidates in their early twenties have started a part-time course (three evenings a week), designed to qualify them for Orthodox conversion after one year. Two more centers are planned in Ra'anana, near Tel-Aviv, and Beersheba in the south.
The compromise, following the lines recommended by a commission headed by the former Finance Minister, Ya'acov Ne'eman, is this: the Orthodox are giving a degree of de facto recognition to Reform and Conservative, while those movements are settling for an Orthodox beit din at the end of the converts' road.
The institute's board combines representatives of the Reform and Conservative movements with respected "non-representatives" of the Orthodox establishment. Its chairman is Professor Binyamin Ish-Shalom, an Orthodox Zionist educator with a liberal reputation. The Chief Rabbinate has given the institute its blessing, but not its hechsher (kashrut certificate). That would mean recognizing the non-Orthodox streams, which it refuses to do.
"Relations are very warm and friendly and supportive," testifies British-born Mickey Boyden, a former chairman of the Israel Council of Progressive Rabbis, who settled in Israel 14 years ago and heads a Reform congregation in Ra'anana. "We share common aims and ideals. This is the first time in the history of the State of Israel where members of the three streams are working together in a religious area in order to offer a joint solution to a major issue."
His board colleague, Amnon Shapira, who teaches biblical studies at the Orthodox Bar-Ilan University, adds: "I am not compromising my beliefs, but the question is how we are going to live together. I would like all Jews to be like me, but it's not like that today. I have to ask how I can do my best for my faith, for my God and for the people of Israel.
"The best way to encourage the Reform is to fight them. What we have to do is show that Orthodox is better. We have to fight on the spiritual level, not on the political level. Otherwise, we'll fail."
The outgoing Israeli Government invested an initial $1 million in the institute. Rabbi Boyden argues that they will need hundreds of millions from Ehud Barak's new Government if they are to make an impact on the huge numbers of not-quite-Jewish immigrants. The board is already exploring education television and Internet options to reach them.
Whatever their personal preferences, the Karmiel students learn together. The teachers are drawn from Orthodox, Conservative and Reform. Instruction is in Russian. Classes are strictly factual: what Judaism says about the sabbath, the festivals, dietary laws, and so forth. The denominational differences are spelled out in panel discussions with speakers from the three streams.
As part of the Ne'eman package, the Chief Rabbis agreed to set up special, relatively liberal, conversion courts, though they have not yet named the judges. The unanswered question is whether these dayanim will convert the Karmiel graduates.
All Dr Shapira will say is: "We can't promise anything, but I see a good chance to think that the results will be OK. The curriculum is the same as the Orthodox curriculum. We don't take one step without consulting the Chief Rabbis. So far, they have given us their blessing. They are not happy, but they do it."
Bobby Brown, Binyamin Netanyahu's Jewish affairs adviser, believes the rabbis will have no choice. " If they want the conversions done in Israel according to Halachah," he says bluntly, "this is the best they are going to get."