The idea that underpinned the agreements reached at the Ne’eman Commission, and what motivates me today as director of the Institute for Jewish Studies, is the wish to offer a halakhic conversion process that is as friendly and as considerate as possible. I consider individuals who qualify under the Law of Return but are not halakhically Jewish, who wish to convert to be already Jewish: Seed of Israel (zera yisrael) as the halakhic definition has it. To use modern terms, I consider them to be Jews – ethnically, by descent, by their subjective identity – who wish to join their fate with ours.
It is incredibly difficult to reach any consensus among Jews. In tough times we know how to agree on the essential issues. But when it comes to conversion, the divisiveness among the various denominations is even more radical, because this division is not only between denominations – Orthodox, Conservative, and so on – but within them as well.
At the end of the day this matter is so complex because of its diffusiveness. We don’t have simply three approaches to conversion – Orthodox, Conservative and Reform. Rather, within each of these communities both practical and theoretical variations exist. It is very difficult, therefore, to talk about any recognition: who would recognize whom, who is even in a position to recognize someone else, who is asking for the recognition of whom? I don’t think, however, that this need lead to catastrophe.
I believe that we are witnessing an ongoing process that touches on a great variety of issues. One of these issues concerns the high rates of assimilation and intermarriage. Open society and liberal democracies are a tough terrain for fighting against this phenomenon.
What can you tell a man who falls in love with a nice non-Jewish girl, who, for her personal, justifiable reasons, doesn’t want to convert? If this Jewish man is not deeply committed to halakhah, what can you tell him? If he doesn’t feel intrinsically bound by halakhic values, and he doesn’t feel that his identification with the Jewish people is sufficiently strong to stop him from making this move, you have no reasonable arguments to pose to him.
I think we are focusing too much on the quantitative question and not enough on quality, or on questions of meaning and value. If we are uninteresting, boring, repugnant; if we are perceived as immoral; if we do not possess anything beautiful, attractive, we are risking this existence even more. On the other hand, if we are interesting, fascinating, challenging, good, and so forth, we draw positive attention. People would want to convert and to marry Jews. This magnet works by itself.
In the seven years of our operation we have educated some 25,000 students. By way of comparison, the very welcome trend of Israeli-born, secular adults who study Jewish texts, roughly consists of 4,000 students in ten years. We pride ourselves in the cross-denominational solidarity of our staff members: Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and secular, together constructing our educational vision and the programs’ curricula. This solidarity has shown me that the existential experience of a fundamental solidarity, of one people, or a community, of a havruta, should figure prominently in the discourse concerning identity.
The Institute offers Jewish education to a variety of populations – adults, young people, students, soldiers, teenagers. In our Jewish education program for soldiers, Nativ, the participants undergo a process of self-discovery, even if they already considered themselves to be Jewish before attending the course. They deepen their engagement, they want to belong. The majority of Nativ graduates decide to undergo the conversion process under the auspices of the Chief Military Rabbinate, although conversion is not what motivated their attendance initially.
Even if not all of the converts become observant or Orthodox, their entire approach, understanding, and depth of identification change dramatically. Nativ graduates teach their fellow Israeli-born friends, sabras, basic concepts in Judaism – kiddush, havdalah, the counting of the Omer. To tell you the truth, this is what keeps me going, because it is immensely difficult to handle the obstacles and problems that stand in our way.
Benjamin Ish-Shalom, founder and rector of Beit Morasha of Jerusalem, is also the founding chairman of the Institute for Jewish Studies – the Joint Conversion Institute. Holding a PhD. in Jewish Thought from Hebrew University, Ish Shalom has written many articles in Jewish Philosophy and thought, has authored a book on Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, has served on the faculties of several prestigious universities and has lectured worldwide. In 2004 Ish-Shalom received the AVI CHAI Prize for Tolerance and Jewish Unity.