Is Israel’s conversion revolution too little, too late?

Has the government missed the boat when it comes to mass conversion and preventing assimilation?

The Tel Aviv Rabbinical Court. Aug. 3, 2017. Photo by Miriam Alster/Flash90.
The Tel Aviv Rabbinical Court. Aug. 3, 2017. Photo by Miriam Alster/Flash90.
Hanan Greenwood
Hanan Greenwood
Hanan Greenwood reports on religious affairs and the settlement enterprise for Israel Hayom.

Let’s start with the numbers: There are fewer non-Jewish children born in Israel each year than there are non-Jews who convert to Judaism.

The government invests immense resources in attempts to convert close to half-a-million Israelis originally from the former Soviet Union who are not Jewish according to Jewish law (halacha). However, in the past few decades, only about 35,000 immigrants from these countries have actually gone through the conversion process, according to a study by Netanel Fisher, head of the School of Public Administration, Governance and Law at the Academic Center for Law and Science and an expert on conversion.

But Israel might be facing a major change. The new conversion guidelines proposed by the Religious Services Ministry would allow city rabbis—for the first time in years—to set up conversion courts. The openly announced goal of the reforms is to make a process that is considered severe and unwelcoming easier for thousands, if not more, of potential converts.

A recent study conducted by the 1 Million Lobby organization, which advocates for immigrants from the FSU, and the Jerusalem Institute for Policy Research revealed that approximately 45 percent of respondents who are not considered Jews according to Jewish law said they would be willing to convert or consider doing so under the Orthodox-governmental system if changes were made to it.

Israeli Religious Affairs Minister Matan Kahana has already made it clear that conversion will adhere to Jewish law and will require converts to adhere to the commandments, which could deter some potential converts who would like to be Jews, but not keep the Sabbath or send their children to religious schools.

There have been several attempts throughout the years to encourage conversion in Israel. Back in the 1970s, a national conversion system was established by then-Chief Rabbi Shlomo Goren, and city rabbis were allowed to operate their own conversion courts. In the 1990s, after it turned out that due to lack of oversight, each city rabbi could do as he saw fit, then-Chief Rabbi Eliyahu Bakshi Doron decided to stop these local conversions and leave the matter in the hands of the national authorities, where it remains today.

But the early 1990s also brought a massive wave of over 1 million arrivals from the former Soviet Union, which led to a problematic situation—hundreds of thousands of new immigrants of Jewish descent, who had Jewish roots but were not considered Jews according to the halachic definition, were making aliyah. This caused many to worry about increased intermarriage and assimilation. They say that the current situation proves their concerns at the time were valid: There are nearly 100,000 mixed couples in Israel, and we can assume that there are many more who are not married but live together as common-law couples.

The stringent process puts converts off

Data that Fisher has spent years collecting from the national conversion authorities and Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics indicate that when it comes to Israel’s attempts to solve the conversion issue, things are complicated.

Since the 1990s, about 100,000 people have converted, making Israel a conversion powerhouse. Nearly half of these converts are immigrants from Ethiopia, and some 15 percent are from various countries and converted for personal reasons. Only 35 percent are immigrants from the FSU and their children. This means that while there are about half a million Israelis who are not halachically Jewish, only a small percentage convert. About 80 percent of converts are women, which Fisher says stems mainly from the fact that a child’s Jewish status is determined by the mother.

Every year, some 2,000 people from families who made aliyah from the FSU convert, and about 500 of them are native-born Israelis. In addition, the Israel Defense Forces’ Nativ course oversees conversion for 600-800 soldiers annually who made aliyah from the FSU. In the last two years, as COVID cast its shadow over everything, the number of Israelis who converted to Judaism through the national authorities dropped significantly. And as the government dithered, 2020 saw 4,990 babies born (not including Arab Israelis) who are not considered Jewish according to halachah, and only 1,900 converts (excluding converts from Ethiopia).

“We’re seeing a very worrying phenomenon of a drop in the numbers of converts,” says Fisher. “The reason appears to be not only COVID but also that people are getting used to living in Israel without converting. The fact that thousands of people convert each year is not to be taken for granted, but it creates an astonishing dissonance. On one hand, the Rabbinate is operating well and converting tens of thousands of people, while also taking a beating from the more conservative side, which claims that the rabbinical court judges are too easy.

“On the other hand, we are far from reaching the potential. In the past 20 years, one out of every four immigrants took a conversion class—more than 100,000 people who started the process. But only 35,000 finished it. True, there are a lot of reasons why many didn’t finish it, but there’s no doubt that the process itself and the demands it entails put some people off,” says Fisher.

Local conversion

Although there is a unified national system of conversion in Israel, rabbinical courts at the district level act differently. Some take a more lenient approach, while some make things difficult for converts. In some of these courts, about 80 percent pass the tests the first time and become Jews; in others, less than half pass, which makes the conversion process—one that demands mental strength and physical commitment—much harder. This difference is rooted in different approaches to Jewish law, but it effectively means that someone who lives in a city where the presiding rabbinical judge in charge of conversion is more conservative has a significantly lower chance of converting.

“A person’s success or failure to convert cannot dictate what a person’s ID card says,” Fisher points out.

The new conversion framework proves that Kahana understands that there is a need to establish easier alternatives—that are still within the scope of halacha, and thus acceptable to the haredim, even if they grimace. In 2018, former minister Moshe Nissim proposed a framework for conversion that included the establishment of a completely new system, separate from the Chief Rabbinate. This proposal was shelved after being attacked by MKs from the Haredi parties, and by the country’s chief rabbis.

In contrast, the current proposal was put together in cooperation with well-known Religious Zionist rabbis, including the prominent Rabbi Chaim Druckman, which did not neutralize haredi criticism entirely, but might blunt it in the future, making the new option the lesser evil.

One of the urgent issues on the table that still hasn’t been discussed is whether or not the future committee will allow city rabbis to oversee the conversion of children. This is a solution that would allow for the fast-tracked conversion of young children and check the rise in the number of non-Jewish Israelis living here.

Has the government missed the boat when it comes to mass conversion and preventing assimilation?

The fact that lately, the number of mixed couples has increased while the number of converts drops shows that the new immigrants and their children—who are Israelis at every point—aren’t in a hurry to convert. Because the country was and is demanding that converts observe the religious commandments upon becoming Jews, it’s not sure whether a friendlier approach will do the job and bring the masses to the rabbinical courts.

Hanan Greenwood reports on military and ultra-Orthodox affairs for Israel Hayom.

This article first appeared in Israel Hayom.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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