First daughter Ivanka Trump is probably the most famous convert these days, while her frenemy Chelsea Clinton is one of the more famous women to join what researchers refer to as “the Jewish family.”
“Fifty years ago, no one would have imagined that the US president’s daughter would undergo a conversion and marry a Jewish guy. Simply put, something like that would not have happened,” says Dr. Netanel Fisher, who, together with his colleague, Prof. Tudor Parfitt, recently presented a book at the Open University’s JCM Center conference trying to interpret the processes taking place in the Jewish world today.
“For thousands of years, the Jewish people were perceived as a rejected group,” he says. “No one wanted to join. If there were any massive movement, it was in the opposite direction. Many Jews tried to shake off the ‘Jewish weight’ off their shoulders and assimilate into the general society.”
Fisher, a researcher at the Open University and at the Kohelet Forum, notes that famous Jews like Franz Kafka, Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud and Benjamin Disraeli had one and a half feet out the door. There was no need to become Christian necessarily, but mainly to find the route the world outside the ghetto, seeking non-Jewish self-determination.
Polish, Germans and northern Indians too
So when did the dramatic change begin? Fisher points to “the 1980s onwards,” and the figures he presents are amazing: Israel has 300,000 residents who made aliyah under the Law of Return and are not considered Jewish according to the Halacha. Only 25,000 of them converted, and another 250,000 are part of “the Jewish family.”
“They see themselves first of all as Jews,” Fisher stresses. “They speak the language, their children have Israeli names, and they light Hanukkah candles and fast on Yom Kippur. Who can tell them they’re not Jewish? They will say to you: ‘We’re not Jewish? You’re not Jewish!’”
In the United States, the numbers are quite close: Some 200,000 people whose mother is not Jewish define themselves as Jews. About 100,000 of them have converted, most of them not in an Orthodox process. They are married to Jews, they have a distant family relation to Judaism and they go to synagogue on Shabbat.
In South America, there are hundreds of thousands of such people. In eastern Africa, in Madagascar, in the Omuhimba and Lembaa tribes, many see themselves as Jews, or as the Bnei Menashe from northern India say, “We are descendants of the ten tribes.”
In Europe, which lost countless of its Jews in World War II, Judaism is blossoming too. Many gentiles are suddenly “remembering” their Jewish descent. In Poland, many residents are discovering they have a grandparent who survived the Holocaust and hid the fact that he or she was Jewish, and Germany is experiencing a phenomenon of “reverse conversion”—Germans who seek to convert in order to “atone” for the crimes of their fellow countrymen.
“The local rabbi in Warsaw told me that when he arrived in the city, it only had old Jews,” says Fisher. “Now, he told me, ‘I am the oldest man in the community.’ In many cases, these converts become the leaders of the Jewish communities, because after all, these are committed people who don’t take Judaism for granted.”
According to Fisher’s estimate, we are talking about millions of people. “There are quite a few differences between Ivanka and Bnei Menashe, but they have one common denominator – they all want to be Jewish.”
This study is amazing in light of other research , which points to a trend of the extinction of the Jewish people in recent years.
“There is no contradiction,” Fisher replies. “The Jewish hard core is weakening because of mixed marriages. The hard core may be disappearing, but the Jewish periphery is growing.”
Fisher stresses that many of those who join do it in a controversial way: They claim to be Jewish, but they haven’t converted. They talk about Jewish traditions passed down in their family, like kissing the mezuzah at the entrance to a house and separate burial, and are very angry when people doubt their Jewishness.
‘Today, a person can be proud to be Jewish’
The reason for this phenomenon, according to Fisher and Parfitt, is the Internet revolution and the spiritual revolution that have changed the world simultaneously. “The general world has changed,” Fisher stresses, “but so has the Jewish world. A person can sit in Cuba and communicate with other Jews anywhere in the world.”
Fisher adds that as part of the “spiritual revolution,” many in the world are searching for an identity, and more importantly—the search has become legitimate.
Another thing that has changed, according to the researchers, is the Jewish world itself, which is perceived—for the first time in 2,000 years—in a positive light. Millions, they say, find in Judaism a deep spirituality, family values, intellect and wisdom.
The State of Israel is also considered an economic power and a destination for international immigration. Today, unlike in the past, a person can be proud to be Jewish. “The US president’s daughter can marry a Jew, and you won’t have a single person viewing it as degradation,” Fisher notes.
So this is a positive process?
“There are definitely quite a few positive elements here. This great Jewish periphery can strengthen the core. There are so many people who want to join us, and they are giving us so much power and strength. The State of Israel can have hundreds of thousands of ambassadors around the world.”
Beyond that, Fisher argues passionately, “This process is simply happening. It can’t be ignored. What are we going to tell Ivanka, that we don’t recognize her conversion?”
Can’t you understand rabbis who are having trouble accepting this trend?
“I am a religious person, but if the Orthodoxy and the Rabbinate don’t come to their senses, we’ll find ourselves alone. We can’t remain in the ‘yesterday,’ in a world that no longer exists. Apart for a small Haredi group, all our children are affected by the global village, listen to the same music and are fed by the same stuff. If anyone thinks he can prevent his offspring in the future from marrying the offspring of Jewish families of Russian descent—he is very wrong.”
The big questions of the 21st century
Nevertheless, the researchers also present many negative aspects to the new following Judaism is receiving. Questions arise such as, how sincere is this affiliation? How committed are the new members to Judaism and to Israel? And most importantly, does this interest in Judaism stem from a financial interest to immigrate to a developed country?
“The conservative approach looks at this phenomenon with horror,” says Dr. Fisher. “The conservatives are afraid that the great mass of new members will seriously damage authentic Judaism and the identity that has been preserved for so many years. Their solution is simply to raise the walls, create more and more difficulties for those seeking to join and to allow the conversion of very few.”
Fisher is convinced that the Chief Rabbinate must think in different, more liberal and open terms. As an example, he mentions Rabbi Ovadia Yosef’s brave ruling from the 1980s that recognized the immigrants from Ethiopia—the “Falashas”—as Jews, despite the major controversy around their affiliation with Judaism and the ability to marry them.
“Rabbi Ovadia ruled that a community that comes to us with (Jewish) tradition—even if it’s definitely different—is Jewish. We need honorable people like the late Rabbi Ovadia to find ways to bring these people closer rather than drive them away.”
Won’t such a mass change the character of our people?
“I don’t have answers to all the questions and difficulties,” Fisher admits. “I do know that these are questions we will have to deal with in the 21st century. We can’t simply ignore them. There are many question marks, and few exclamation marks. But the main point is that we are already there. We can’t take it backwards.
“What we will be required to do is to seat all the Jewish organizations around a round table and to try and think about the response we are giving the millions of people who have arrived at our doorstep, or have even crossed it already.”