"A few months ago, someone I had never met before came to speak to me. He had heard about our community and even told me that he had come to our congregation this past Yom Kippur. He said that he needed my help. His son, a young man of 26, had fallen in love with a volunteer he had met when he was serving the army. They had remained in contact and now she was back in Israel and they want to get married. Who am I to tell my son who he should marry? But I was not willing to compromise about one thing. She is not Jewish. I am not prepared to have my grandchildren be 'goyim.' No way.
"I spoke to my son about it although it was a very difficult discussion. He yielded only when I began to cry. You must understand; my mother didn’t survive Auschwitz so that her great grandchildren would be 'goyim.' Am I right or not? He went to speak to her and she agreed to convert. I was so happy, until I checked with the Rabbinate.
"It turns out that the process takes at least one year – studies, seminars and talks with rabbis. This much I can accept, but they actually want her to be observant – a bona fide frummie – and him too, my son! They can’t drive on Shabbat, they may eat only in places that are glatt kosher, she may only wear skirts and long sleeves. Are they crazy or what? There’s no way that my son would agree to something like that. And me either. They couldn’t even come to me, their father, on Shabbat, or eat at our house? Look, I don’t bring in 'treif,' but glatt we are definitely not. So this is why I’ve come to you. By you, the Conservatives, it’s easier. Right?"
The rabbi smiled at the man. He could never be sure whether he had chosen this vocation or it had chosen him, but he knew that this was why he was here- to help people, to guide them on their Jewish journey. He told the prospective father-in-law about the Conservative conversion process which follows the thinking of Beit Hillel – attentive, open – but he also explained that in the Masorti Movement as well, the study of Judaism was essential. It was important to learn about the history, the culture, the mitzvot.
The couple would also have to be part of a community, to experience the yearly cycle of Jewish festivals and holidays. There would be no coercion or invasion of their privacy, but there had to be a clear understanding on the part of the convert that Judaism is an entire way of life, a world outlook and practice. And yes, it does take time. Not necessarily a whole year, but certainly a significant amount of time. This wouldn’t be a two-week or two-month process.
This was not what the man had wanted to hear. "Tell me," he said, "are you crazy too? Who needs to learn so much? All we’re talking about is conversion!" When he heard that although Conservative conversion in Israel does entitle converts to be listed as Jews in the population registry, it does not give them the option of marrying in the Rabbinate, which only recognizes Orthodox conversions, he walked away exasperated. The rabbi didn’t see him again, until yesterday.
"I met him yesterday in the mall," the rabbi told me. "He had seen me, but I felt that he didn’t want to make eye contact. He only spoke to me when we ended up standing in line together at the check-out counter. We smiled at each other. 'How are you?' I asked him. 'I’m well, thank you,' he said. 'My son is also doing well, and his wife, too. That’s right, they’re already married. They tied the knot last month. A great wedding, I tell you! They were married in keeping with the laws of Moses and Israel, as they say, with a rabbi from the Rabbinate, and everything.
How? I feel uncomfortable about telling you this, but you Conservatives, you’re living in a fantasy world. After my talk with you, I checked into things a bit. I found out that it is possible to get, here in Israel, an Orthodox conversion, glatt kosher, without studying and with none of that other nonsense. There are macherim (wheeler-dealers) who know how to make the arrangements. They asked for $5,000 and I didn’t even bargain with them. The main thing is that my grandchildren will be Jewish. Right?'"
Yizhar Hess is the executive director of the Masorti Movement