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Army converts dragged into Israel’s conversion wars

Dina KraftWorld
Published: 12 November 2010
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The army conversion case of Alina Sardikov, shown at her wedding to Maxim Sardikov earlier this year, at which ITIM director Rabbi Seth Farber officiated, has gone to the Israeli Supreme Court. ITIM

TEL AVIV – For years, army conversions were seen by many as a convenient solution for resolving at least part of the “Who is a Jew?” question that hangs like a cloud over the lives of tens of thousands of Israelis.

In the Israel Defense Forces, under the guidance of army rabbis, some 5,000 young soldiers in the last decade have undergone a conversion process seen as rigorous but welcoming. That process stands in contrast to the experiences described by many of those seeking civilian conversions run by the haredi Orthodox-dominated Chief Rabbinate.

Now the issue has come to a head with a decision by the Chief Rabbinate not to continue to stand behind IDF conversions until a panel of its rabbis can scrutinize the process.

Furthermore, the Chief Rabbinate broadened the panel’s task to re-examine Israel’s conversion process across the board. That has left thousands of converts, most of them immigrants from the former Soviet Union, wondering where they stand.

“I am all for high standards for conversion, and I’m also for clear standards for conversion once a person converts under the Chief Rabbinate, but it’s outrageous to throw into question their sincerity or their Jewishness,” said Seth Farber, an American-born Orthodox rabbi who is the director of Itim-The Jewish Life Information Center, an organization that helps Jews navigate the bureaucracy of the Chief Rabbinate.

The Chief Rabbinate did not answer requests for a comment on the issue.

It was a lawsuit filed by Farber’s organization that inadvertently prompted the latest crisis in Israel’s conversion wars. In the case, currently being heard by the Supreme Court, Itim is suing the Chief Rabbinate and the rabbis of four cities who have refused to recognize army conversions.

During a hearing in September, the state attorney said there was a procedural problem with recognizing the conversions — a snag that elements in the haredi Orthodox community have seized upon to turn the battle into an ideological one, Farber and other more liberal Orthodox rabbis argue.

They point to the full-page ads in two haredi newspapers taken out by the rabbinic leadership of the large Lithuanian haredi community as an example of the pressure being put on Sephardic Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar, who oversees the issue of conversion, to withdraw his sanction of IDF conversions. The ads rail against what the rabbis call fictitious conversions and say that any conversions done without converts taking on the “yoke of mitzvahs” are to be considered invalid.

Israel Eichler, a former Knesset member from the haredi United Torah Judaism party and currently the editor of a religious newspaper, said he had no specific opinion on army conversions. But he suggested that if soldiers’ observance was in doubt, there could be a problem.

“A person who converts and does not fulfill the mitzvahs is not a Jew,” he said.

Meanwhile, a bill has been submitted to the Knesset that, if passed, would cement the IDF conversions as valid according to halacha, or Jewish law.

But Rabbi Yakov Ruza, the rabbi of the Tel Aviv suburb of Bat Yam and a member of the rabbinical council — the equivalent of the Chief Rabbinate’s high court — said those who have converted in the past through the IDF should not be concerned that their conversions could be revoked.

Ruza was appointed as one of the rabbis on the new investigative panel but has stepped down, citing technical reasons.

Taking aim at critics of the Chief Rabbinate, however, he suggested that the whole episode is being overplayed.

“There are certain sources that are battling the Rabbinate to try to make it look like an extremist institution,” he said. “They take certain incidents and make them appear to be questioning the status quo, which they are not.”

An estimated 350,000 to 400,000 Israeli citizens are not Jewish according to Jewish law — immigrants or children of Russian-speaking immigrants who were granted citizenship under the Law of Return, which allows those with a Jewish grandparent to become Israeli even if they are not Jewish according to Jewish law.

Most of those who have converted through the army fit that category.

Among them is a young woman who preferred to be identified as Shira (not her real name). She immigrated to Israel alone 10 years ago as a teenager from a small town outside of Moscow. Her father is Jewish, her mother is not.

Shira always felt herself to be Jewish and knew one day she would formally convert, an opportunity she welcomed while serving in the air force.

“They do it so well in army. They focus on all the beautiful things in Judaism like human relations and values,” she said. “They know dealing with new immigrants. There’s no brainwashing but a focus on the important things, the right things.”

Shira is distraught at the idea that army conversions might be in peril.

“We are talking about young Zionists who have come to serve in the army,” she said. “It’s not easy, but they want to serve the country and feel connected to who they are.”

Rabbi Chaim Iram, who serves as director of conversion preparation for the Institute for Jewish Studies, the organization that coordinates IDF conversion courses, dismissed suspicions that army conversions are anything but legitimate.

“I invite anyone to come see our course, the materials we use, and the seriousness and devotion of our students, and then we can talk about criticism,” he said. “According to any and all parameters — both knowledge and practice — we are doing top-level work.

“We need to tell all of our converts that they are Jews, period, that this is a procedural problem that cannot be made into a problem of principle. But yes, welcome to Israel. There is politics, yes. That is a problem.”

Amar’s panel, which is in disarray with three of the five appointed rabbis quitting, has been given four months to make a recommendation on the conversions. Farber notes that is exactly when a freeze on discussion of a controversial conversion bill proposed by Knesset member David Rotem is set to expire.

Farber suggested that the Chief Rabbinate is preparing to use the panel as leverage to win approval for Rotem’s bill. The measure has many opponents, among them non-Orthodox diaspora Jewish organizations that fear it would give too much power to the Orthodox-dominated Chief Rabbinate on conversion issues, formally shutting out the Conservative and Reform movements.

Gilad Kariv of the Israel Religious Action Center, the Reform movement’s lobbying arm, said it had been naive to think army conversions could be isolated from the overall atmosphere regarding conversions in Israel.

“We claimed for years that the wall between the army and civil society was a fake wall,” he said. “In the end, unless something is done to address the irrational, immoral, and un-Jewish approach of the ultra-Orthodox establishment, it will have a serious and severe effect on the conversions in the army.”

JTA Wire Service

 
 

11 Orthodox converts barred from aliyah

Local rabbi signs letter to interior ministry

This time it’s an Orthodox problem.

The latest round in the never-ending battle over “who is a Jew” pits diaspora Orthodox rabbis, including one from Teaneck, against the Israeli Interior Ministry and the office of the chief rabbi.

At immediate issue is the immigration status of 11 North American Jews who underwent Orthodox conversion and whose petition to make aliyah has been denied in recent weeks by Interior Ministry immigration authorities.

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Rabbi Seth Farber Larry Yudelson

“It’s just not right that people who live in our communities, who are observant Jews, who have come to share their fate with the Jewish people and the State of Israel by making aliyah, are being denied the right to become citizens under the Law of Return, as other Jews can do,” said Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot of Cong. Netivot Shalom in Teaneck.

Helfgot was one of more than 100 rabbis who signed a letter to the interior ministry expressing concern that “conversions performed under some of our auspices and those of our colleagues are being questioned vis-à-vis aliyah eligibility.” The letter protests a new policy by which Orthodox converts are no longer automatically approved for immigration. Instead, the ministry has begun consulting with the chief rabbinate, which has announced a policy of accepting only conversions performed by certain rabbinical courts.

Had these converts been converted by Reform or Conservative rabbis, they would have been eligible to immigrate under a 1988 Israeli Supreme Court ruling that non-Orthodox converts are to be considered Jewish for the purpose of aliyah.

The letter was organized by Rabbi Seth Farber, head of Itim: The Jewish Life Information Center.

“One of the sad things for me is that one of the 11 converts converted more than 25 years ago and has been living an Orthodox life, and for the first time this person got a slap in the face. He’s basically being told he’s not Jewish as far as the State of Israel is concerned,” Farber told The Jewish Standard last week.

Farber, a Yeshiva University-trained rabbi, formed Itim in 2002 to ease the access to Jewish lifecycle services — such as weddings and funerals — that are under the purview of the Israeli government rabbinate.

Since then, Farber has found himself advocating for people whose Jewishness has been called into question by that body.

“We challenge the rabbinate when we see them either not following the policy as they define it, or see the policy they define as going against normative democratic behavor,” he said.

“I once thought that working quietly with the rabbinate wold solve every problem, that we could be the nice guy,” he added. “I’ve learned that the rabbinate is put into political positions and we’ve become a political counter-pressure against forces from the right,” Farber said.

A lawsuit filed by Itim has been shaking Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s governing coalition. Itim had demanded that the rabbinate and local marriage registrars register as Jewish people converted by the Israeli army rabbinate. Without such registration, the converts will be unable to legally marry Jews in the State of Israel. The army rabbinate has converted more than 4,000 people, mostly immigrants or children of immigrants from the former Soviet Union.

The army rabbinate is considered by many to be more lenient than the national rabbinical authorities, who demand that converts observe a strict Orthodox lifestyle. This makes it a useful avenue for aliyah advocates, including many religious Zionists, who want large-scale conversion to help integrate the many non-Jewish relatives of Jews who immigrated from the former Soviet Union, but that leniency has led the national rabbinate to refuse to register the converts as Jewish.

This has resulted in political battles between the Yisrael Beiteinu party, which represents immigrants from the FSU, and the haredi Shas party, with the former offering legislation that would require the rabbinate to register military converts.

For the 11 Orthodox converts seeking to make aliyah, the question is less a struggle over who is a valid convert and more a question of who decides who is a kosher Orthodox rabbi: the Israeli chief rabbi or the local community?

This has been a gray area in Israeli law for several years, but the practice until the beginning of this year had been that the interior ministry deferred to the local community.

The Jewish Agency for Israel, which serves as the official bridge between Israel and the diaspora, particularly when it comes to aliyah, is getting involved in the matter at Farber’s behest, and Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky is raising the matter with interior ministry officials.

“Let the Jewish Agency emissaries decide who is eligible for aliyah, just as they decide concerning people who are born Jewish,” said Farber. “Halacha says we don’t treat the convert different than anyone who is born Jewish.”

Ultimately, said Farber, this all speaks to a broader issue.

“Certain forces in Israel are trying to export their version of Orthodoxy over the whole world. There are two opposite approaches, one that sees Israel as relevant to the entire Jewish people, and another ideological position that klal Yisrael — Jewish peoplehood — is only for the type of Orthodoxy that the chief rabbinate identifies with,” said Farber.

To reach Larry Yudelson, write to .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

 
 

Englewood rabbi takes helm of Orthodox rabbinic group

Rabbi Shmuel Goldin returns to RCA leadership as bridge-builder

If three years ago you had told Rabbi Shmuel Goldin that he would be elected president of the Rabbinical Council of America this week, he would have said you were crazy.

Goldin, who heads Englewood’s Cong. Ahavath Torah, had been an officer in the modern Orthodox rabbinical organization years ago.

But he was effectively removed from the leadership track in the 1990s, when he led an organization — Shvil Hazahav — that pushed back against Orthodox opposition to the Oslo Accords and the government of Prime Minister Yizhak Rabin. Goldin argued that American Jews should not oppose the policies of the Israeli government, a policy he maintains.

So when the RCA nominating committee approached him to become vice president two years ago, Goldin was shocked. But the organization said it wanted him for his outside perspective and his ability to serve as a bridge-builder.

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Rabbi Shmuel Goldin addresses the annual convention of the Rabbinic Council of America at his Englewood synagogue on Sunday. courtesy RCA

Building bridges is a central part of the vision Goldin spelled out in an interview with The Jewish Standard.

“Within our own rabbinic community, our task is enhancement. Within the Orthodox community at large our task is education about our perspective and what we believe modern Orthodoxy can be. The third principle is engagement, to engage the Jewish community beyond the Orthodox community. We have a lot to say, a lot to share beyond the Orthodox community,” he said.

“I’m deeply frightened that one day God will turn to the affiliated Jewish community and say, ‘You’ve built some wonderful buildings, but what have you done for the great percentage of Jews who are unaffiliated?’”

Goldin said he and his board will spend the next few weeks setting priorities. At this stage, he has no specific plans for new initiatives.

But he knows he wants to reach out.

That includes reaching out to the non-Orthodox movements.

“There are certain things we can do with the other denominations,” he said. “We have to see where we can work together. Where we disagree, we have to do so without acrimony, without demonizing each other. I want to sit down with the leaders of the non-Orthodox community, as I have done in the past on a personal level.”

And it includes reaching out to the more liberal quarters of the modern Orthodox community. The RCA has refused to accept as members graduates of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, the “open Orthodox” institution founded by Rabbi Avi Weiss. This led to the formation of the International Rabbinic Fellowship, which includes Chovevei graduates as well as RCA members. Last year, an amendment to RCA bylaws that would have punished members who joined the fellowship was proposed but rejected.

“I’m in active discussion with the leaders of IRF, as well as with leaders on the right. We’ll see where that leads. There is no question that there are fault lines,” he said.

Goldin said the question of Chovevei graduates is an area of frequent discussion in the RCA.

“One of the possibilities would be to create a membership track based not only on the smicha, the ordination, that the candidates get, but on their track record in the field,” he said.

The RCA has recently received the imprimatur of the Israeli Chief Rabbinate, which has apparently decided that only Orthodox conversions that take place through the RCA’s centralized GPS system — the acronym stands for Gerus (conversion) Procedures and Standards — will be approved. In the three-year-old GPS process, the RCA set up 10 regional conversion courts (including one in Bergen County), replacing a system where conversions were handled on an ad hoc basis by individual rabbis. The Israeli rabbinate has in the past few months rejected immigration applications from 20 converts who did not go through the process, according to Rabbi Seth Farber, an Orthodox advocate for converts in Israel. At least some of those converts were converted by IPF members working in conjunction with RCA members.

Farber, an American-born Orthodox rabbi, has filed suit in Israel against the rabbinate for not recognizing those conversions.

With the rabbinate on one side endorsing only the RCA’s converts and procedures, and Farber arguing that the rabbinate has no legal right to do so, Goldin thinks Farber is right.

“The current situation that exists vis-a-vis aliyah and the acceptance of candidates for aliyah, that all candidates from Conservative and Reform movement are accepted as Jewish, but within the Orthodox community only some are accepted — that’s not acceptable,” Goldin said. “We have to work out a better system. What has happened is the Jewish Agency, which was always the organization that determined that particular status, handed that over to the [Chief] Rabbinate. The Rabbinate was looking for a central address and the RCA was the natural central address. That’s how the problem developed. I agree with Seth that we have to develop a solution to that. He is doing a wonderful job as far as I’m concerned, enhancing the ability of converts to access a difficult system in Israel, and I think we should support his work. I will consider him an ally during my tenure.”

Within the Orthodox community, he wants to increase cooperation with Yeshiva University and the Orthodox Union, “strategic partners” of the RCA which are much larger.

“There’s a lot of duplication of efforts. If we come out with classes for rabbis, classes for the communities, that are sponsored by numerous organizations, we’ll be much better served. Those conversations have begun,” he said.

 
 
 
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