April 13, 2007


The Power of the Gatekeepers: The difficulty of converting to Judaism in Israel (EVAN R. GOLDSTEIN, April 13, 2007, Opinion Journal)

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. [...]

For its part, the Orthodox rabbinate defends its strict interpretation of Jewish law, arguing that conversion is not a casual decision. It says that the Russians are free to live as citizens of Israel even if they are not Jewish by Orthodox criteria, but otherwise consider themselves Jews.

But they are not accorded the same rights as citizens. In an arrangement that dates back to the earliest days of the Jewish state, matters of marriage, divorce and burial are governed by Orthodox religious authorities. Therefore Israelis who are not Jewish according to Orthodox standards are unable to have an official Jewish wedding ceremony or be buried in some Jewish cemeteries there.

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 13, 2007 12:44 PM
Comments for this post are closed.