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The Challenge and Crisis of Conversion in Israel

It is a travesty that one cannot convert into being a Reform, Conservative, traditional or secular Jew in Israel
Rabbi Dr. Donniel Hartman is president of the Shalom Hartman Institute and holds the Kaufman Family Chair in Jewish Philosophy. He is author of the Boundaries of Judaism, and Putting God Second: How to Save Religion from Itself. His latest book, Who are the Jews and Who Can We Become, was a 2023 Jewish Book Council Award Finalist.  Donniel is also the host of the award-winning podcast For Heaven’s Sake, together with his colleague Yossi Klein
A major in the Israeli Army came to me recently and said, “Rabbi Hartman, I need your help. Three years ago I adopted my first child. I wanted the child to be Jewish; and I converted my child, and in order to do so, I had to lie (about keeping an Orthodox lifestyle). In two months I am getting my second child, and I don’t want to lie anymore.”
Why is it that within the borders of the State of Israel, this individual cannot convert his child to be a Jew like he is? Why is it that the State of Israel determines not merely the citizenship, but in essence who is an authentic Jew?
Under Israel’s law of return, which grants automatic citizenship to anyone who Hitler would have killed as a Jew (an individual born from a Jewish mother or father, one who converted or married a Jew, or with one Jewish grandparent), approximately 325,000 individuals moved to Israel from the former Soviet Union. While citizens of the State, they are not Jewish in accordance with the standards set by the Israeli Rabbinate, which requires that a person be born from a Jewish mother or be converted to Judaism according to Orthodox halakha.
In much of the Jewish world, Jews of different denominations may disagree – for example, in the U.S., patrilineal descent is accepted by the Reform movement, while Conservatives and Orthodox hold to matrilineal – but each denomination there has its own rabbinate, which allows the ideological community to function independently. In Israel, however, there is only one rabbinate for issues of marriage, conversion, kashrut and burial, and this rabbinate is controlled by Orthodoxy, and a non-modern one at that.
Over the last 15-20 years, only a few thousand Russians have chosen to convert, and today, only 1,000-1,500 convert a year. However, with a natural birthrate of 3,000, the problem is only getting more acute. The reasons why the vast majority of non-Jewish Israelis from the former Soviet Union are not converting are numerous. One of the most central is the fact that conversions through the existing channels are limited to individuals who want to be Orthodox, a denomination that most immigrants from the former Soviet Union, and indeed most Jews around the world, find unacceptable.
New conversion initiative not enough
The current conversion predicament has bothered numerous political and religious officials and private organizations. The office of the Prime Minister, now the central location for the issue of conversions, has recently announced a new initiative to expand the number of judges on conversion courts and to alleviate the difficulties inherent in the conversion process. But these steps do not address the fundamental issue. The question is not the number of judges but their affiliation and orientation.
To date the most promising and active solution has been the Israeli Army’s Nativ program, where individuals in the context of their army service are able to learn Judaism from different streams. But in the end, it, too, faces the same bottleneck, because conversions are still exclusively conducted by the Orthodox military rabbinate, a fact that causes the vast majority of soldiers to drop out without converting.
Israel is the national home of all Jews – it is not the synagogue of this or that particular denomination – and cannot be governed by the rules of any single denomination. As the home of all Jews, Israel must be a space in which the diverse Judaisms of the Jewish people all have equal status – legal, economic and religious. As an Orthodox Rabbi, the question is not what I believe, but whether I believe that I or any single denomination can control the State of Israel.
The State of Israel cannot give preference to one ideological perspective over the other and retain its status as homeland of all Jews. There are many types of Jews – Orthodox, Conservative , Reform , Reconstructionist , Renewal , and Secular . All types live within Israel, as they do in the Jewish world at large. All are building meaningful and vibrant Judaisms. It is not the place of the State of Israel to determine which denomination lays claim to the authentic title of Jewishness. As the state of all Jews, the State of Israel must be neutral on this question.
It is a travesty that one cannot convert into being a Reform, Conservative, traditional or secular Jew within the confines of the State of Israel. As long as conversions are limited to the Rabbinate, it will still be under the control of one denomination, and as long as the access points to Judaism are limited to that denomination, most people will stay outside.
The laws of Israel must represent more fully the meaning of a national homeland for all Jews. Only when that happens will we be able to turn to our fellow citizens of the former Soviet Union and elsewhere who serve in the Army with us, study in our schools, pay taxes and contribute to our society and offer them a pathway into the Jewish people commensurate with the type of Jews they want to be.
I don’t expect the Rabbinate to accept conversions not in accordance with its understanding of Orthodox law. I do expect the State of Israel not to give to one single rabbinate the sole authority of determining the Jewish identity for the whole state. If we choose to have a government-sponsored Rabbinate, we must have multiple rabbinates.
If we want to solve the problem of the integration of non-Jews from the former Soviet Union into Israeli society, as well as the injustice facing non-Orthodox Jews in Israel on daily basis, Israel must adopt the model of world Jewry, where Jews of different beliefs have multiple access points into their tradition. Religious tolerance must not be limited to Diaspora Jewish life, but must be the foundation of our national homeland.

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