Photo: Gali Tibbon
Conversion (Illustration)
Photo: Gali Tibbon
Hard times at the conversion school
Arik Sharon’s plan seemed perfect: Thousands of youngsters would enter the classes of the government conversion system - and leave as full Jews. So how is it that six years after the project has begun only two thousand people are converted in Israel every year?
Revital Goltzman sits in the conversion class at the Institute for Jewish Studies and sucks her thumb. She tiredly listens as the teacher explains in Russian how the Jews arrived in Persia. It is already eight thirty in the evening, and the room is full of people trying to concentrate. When the teacher begins the explanation on the reciprocal relationship between the Jewish nation and the prophet Jeremiah, Revital, seven months old, has a hard time concealing her impatience.


True, it is not exactly a pleasant family outing, but her mother, Inna (28), who immigrated two years ago from Buryatia, wants to be a Jew. The stringent rules of the rabbinate require her to bring her Jewish spouse to accompany her through the process, and since the couple cannot afford a babysitter - the baby unwillingly joins them. The Goltzman family does not want to make any mistakes- they know that in Israel there are no short cuts on the exhausting path toward joining the Jewish nation.


It is not easy to obtain the stamp of “Jew” on an identity card. In Israel today there are three hundred thousand immigrants who came to Israel via the Law of Return and are not considered Jewish according to Jewish law. Every year this population has around 3,000 children, who are also not recognized as Jews.


Over the years the government realized that it is not worthwhile to leave the conversion process in the hands of the Rabbinate and that they should speed up the process. Thus, six years ago, then Prime Minister Sharon established the government conversion authority, which included specialized conversion courts and accelerated learning frameworks. The goal was to convert a third of the non-Jewish immigrants and to focus on the youth among them.


However since its festive beginning the pretentious program has encountered difficulties. Today every immigrant knows that the greatest challenge before him is dealing with the strict rabbinic judges of the conversion courts.


Various government offices are standing against them - led by the Ministry of Absorption - trying to change the process and make it easier for the converts. In the meantime, the results are minimal. Every year 6000 people begin the process through different frameworks but only 2000 actually convert.


The reason: Many of the immigrants come from a secular background and have a hard time dealing with the strict requests of the rabbinic judges. Only half of the people who take the final exam successfully pass it. It is doubtful if a native Israeli who is not Orthodox would be able to pass this difficult test.


'They are afraid of brainwashing'

Because of the small number of converts the Institute for Jewish Studies is trying to bring in more students. A few months ago, the Ministry of Absorption began a comprehensive campaign in the Russian community under the name “Judaism with a full heart”. Yet at the Institute they explain that even more classes would not constitute a solution to the sparse flow of converts. Their claim is that what needs to change is the pedantic treatment of the rabbinic judges.


The judges claim that Judaism is not a missionary religion and is certainly not a joke. In order to join the Jewish nation, the judges explain, you have to make an effort. Whoever is not willing to make an effort - can keep their “unregistered” status on the nationality section of the identity cards.


However, Inna Goltzman does not need you to tell her about efforts. In order to successfully pass the course, she had to implement a strict religious lifestyle for herself and her secular family. The course was supposed to last ten months, but Inna has been learning for over a year.


“Once the baby did not feel well, once we moved apartments and we had to start from scratch”, she says. “It is very depressing. True, there are things that are interesting to learn, but it is hard to change my habits”.


The difficulty even begins in the kitchen, says Inna. “For example, I cook mashed potatoes with butter and serve it with meat. Suddenly it is forbidden. My secular friends do not understand why I need this. Sometimes I force myself to come here because there is no lack of other problems in my life. At this pace I do not know when I will successfully finish the conversion”.


“I was never religious, but I was always a Jew”, she explains. “In Russia I was considered a Jew because of my father. After I came to Israel I suddenly discovered that according to Jewish law I am not a Jew and therefore I cannot marry my partner. I understood that I had to undergo this process in order to be comfortable with myself”.


The class is diverse - from impatient high school students to retirees. Two desks in front of the Goltzman family sit Leonid and Galya Roznov. Galya covers her hair and is concentrating on her illustrated Megillah. Leonid gazes into the air with concentration. Leonid is blind and cannot take notes and therefore has to remember all the material by heart. Not far from them sits 66-year-old Tatiana.


“I decided to convert for sad reasons”, she relates. ‘My husband was Jewish, and he died four years ago after a serious illness. We were together for 41 years, and always lived as Jews; we celebrated all the holidays, and I never felt different. If in order to be together in the next world I need a stamp from the rabbinic courts, I will do it for him”.


In addition to the difficult tests and long classes there is always the fear that the new immigrant will receive a home visit. At these visits the rabbinic inspectors check the sincerity of the converts and see if they continue to keep the commandments outside the classroom.


“We were hoping that the judges would use a more open approach”, says the director of the conversion department at the Ministry of Absorption, Avigdor Levitan. “True, in Israel there are laws, but we have to help as much as we can these people who have Jewish blood flowing in their veins”.


Rabbi Chaim Bar-On, conversion coordinator of the youth villages of the Rural Education Administration, admits that the process is problematic. “I am uncomfortable asking the immigrants to know more than the average secular Israeli”, he says. “The immigrant’s neighbor is lucky that he was born to a Jewish mother. But if you want to join a club, you have to go through a difficult process. If Israel recognized non-Orthodox conversions, it would be a lot easier”.


Indeed, some of the immigrants come to Israel after they converted in another country through a Reform conversion, and are immediately recognized as Jews.


“And if that is not enough”, continues Rabbi Bar-On, “there is the family matter. Not all immigrant families support the conversion because they are suspicious of brainwashing. The Russian community has a very complicated perception of the religious establishment. But the greatest problem is with the identity of the young children, because they are stuck between what was in their native land and their new identity. They are lacking religion and lacking definition, they do not know where they belong.”


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