20 Marcus St.
Author: Dr. Netanel Fisher
Series: Hebrew Policy Papers
Softcover | 245 pp.
Conversion in Israel is a major topic of public debate in Israeli society, but very little is actually known about it: How many people convert each year? How many converts are men and how many are women? What percentage were born abroad and how many are native Israelis? Why do so many people who start the conversion process fail to complete it? Does Israeli society and the religious establishment in Israel support conversion? And what is Israel's political leadership doing about this issue?
Written by Dr. Netanel Fisher under the auspices of IDI's Nation State project, The Challenge of Conversion in Israel presents a comprehensive picture of the situation in Israel today. It reveals, for the first time, the full data about conversion in Israel and surveys the achievements and failures of the government’s conversion policy during the last decade. It also presents a wide variety of recommendations for advancing conversion in Israel. These include: information campaigns, enlisting the government and Israeli society to take up the cause, better support and guidance throughout the conversion process, and the adoption of a welcoming approach to conversion by the Chief Rabbinate and the religious establishment.
An overview of the main challenges and recommendations for change described in this Hebrew volume can be found below.
Summary of Policy Reccomendations
The state of conversion to Judaism in Israel is unsatisfactory. Twenty years after the influx of one million Jews from the former Soviet Union (FSU), the State of Israel does not recognize one third of the members of this immigrant community as Jews. Only 7% of the non-Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union have chosen to convert to Judaism. The remaining 93%—more than 300,000 people—suffer infringement of basic rights and face difficulties in integrating fully into Israeli society. Moreover, the rate of intermarriage in Israel is now approaching 10%—a figure that endangers social solidarity and the Jewish character of the state.
Since 1995, approximately 23,000 immigrants from the FSU to Israel have converted to Judaism. This is only about 7% of all non-Jewish FSU immigrants in Israel, who numbered 333,000 in 2012. The annual rate of conversion among members of this community is approximately 1,800. This is less than 25% of the natural rate of growth of this community—which includes both immigration and reproduction. Thus, the problem is growing with every passing year and the current system does not provide an adequate solution to the challenge at hand.
1. Lack of interest and a high dropout rate
The percentage of immigrants who are interested in converting to Judaism is relatively low (about 25%). Many members of the FSU immigrant community see the act of conversion as incompatible with their other self-identities (Jewish-Israeli-Russian). Other members, who might have been interested in conversion, choose not to convert because of the high level of religious observance required for conversion and because they are concerned the authorities will not recognize them as converts at the end of the process. As a result, over 50% of potential converts begin conversion studies but drop out prior to completing the program. The number of dropouts is thus higher than the number of people who complete the process and convert.
2. The religious establishment does not encourage conversion
3. Israel's political leadership does not promote conversion
Although Israel’s political leaders—from the Prime Minister through cabinet ministers and members of Knesset—often make statements about the importance of conversion, they do not work consistently to implement those declarations and have not declared conversion to be a national priority.
4. Israel's centralized policy for managing conversion
The State Conversion Authority within the Ministry of Religion does not encourage the involvement of new players in the field of conversion, even though such players would invigorate the system by increasing competition and boosting the number of converts. The Joint Institute for Jewish Studies has a monopoly on preparing candidates for conversion. This makes it difficult for other organizations to enter the field and establish new initiatives to recruit students, disseminate information, and prevent dropout.
5. Israeli society is not mobilizing to promote conversion
The general population of Israel is either apathetic toward conversion or focused on criticizing Israel's rabbinical court judges; this does not encourage potential converts to convert. The religious Zionist community, which should carry the banner of conversion, has an ambivalent attitude toward conversion. In addition, the leadership of the ultra-Orthodox community actively blocks attempts to facilitate conversion. Finally, the political representatives of the Russian community have thus far failed to raise the banner effectively on personal status issues. As a result, opposition to conversion in the religious community has not been met with a resolute religious and political response by the rest of Israeli society.
1. Set realistic goals and focus on key groups within the immigrant population:
2. Promote adoption of a welcoming approach to conversion by the Chief Rabbinate and the religious establishment:
3. Make the system more open and accessible to prospective converts
4. Provide effective government support for conversion:
5. Mobilize civil society and encourage new initiatives
6. Provide guidance and support
7. Fill the void in leadership
8. Protect the status of conversions
9. Launch special conversion programs targeting young Israelis
The challenge of conversion to Judaism in Israel is a challenge of historic proportions, and the road to promoting conversion in Israel is fraught with difficulty. A combination of vision, leadership, and joint action of the state and civil society organizations has the potential to bring about the desired change. This will enable us to strengthen Jewish solidarity in Israel and ensure the future of the Jewish State.
About the Author
Dr. Netanel Fisher conducted the research for this policy paper as a researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute. A graduate of the Merkaz Harav and Otniel yeshivot, he is a visiting faculty member in the Department of Political Science of the Open University and heads the Converts, Returnees, and Adherents Research Group at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute.
Legislation drafted by the Israel Democracy Institute and ITIM that is designed to serve as the legal framework for state conversions and to address the crisis of conversion in Israel.
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