Conversion in Israel: From Bethlehem to Chelm to Sodom

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Once, she was called Ruth; today she is Natasha. On the eve of Shavuot, IDI Vice President Prof. Yedidia Stern responds to the State Comptroller's findings on conversion and calls for a solution that will enable 318,000 Israelis from the former Soviet Union to receive the embrace of Jewish identity that they deserve.

Once, she was called Ruth; today she is Natasha. Both of these women came to Israel to settle here and integrate into society. Ruth changed her identity, from Moabite to Jew, and her blood was mixed with our blood in the fields of Bethlehem—so much so, that according to tradition, both King David and the messiah of the future are her descendants. And what of Natasha? Her blood has intermingled with ours as well, as her children are risking their lives serving in the Israel Defense Forces. But her identity has remained as it was—Israeli, admittedly, but not Jewish.

Natasha is one of a third of a million immigrants from the former Soviet Union who are not recognized as Jews in Israel and are classified as having "no religion." Most of the immigrants with this status are of "the seed of Israel"—of Jewish descent—or, like Ruth the Moabite, are married to Jews. The State of Israel was supposed to enable them to be accepted like Ruth: to convert and become a part of the Jewish people. But the facts indicate that the Biblical town of Bethlehem has been replaced by the absurd village of Chelm, or perhaps the wicked city of Sodom.

In what way is the current situation of conversion in Israel like Chelm? The State Comptroller's report, which was released yesterday, reveals a staggering failure. In 2008, the Israeli government set itself a goal to double the annual number of converts. In fact, however, not only has the number not increased, but it has decreased dramatically—by almost half, dropping from approximately 8,000 in 2007 to 4,300 in 2011, just one quarter of the government's goal. While this decrease can be attributed in part to the decrease in the number of immigrants to Israel from Ethiopia, it is also a function of reduced conversion rates among immigrants from the former Soviet Union. The hard facts are that in 2012 (which is not included in the State Comptroller's report), there was a drop of 23% in the rate of conversion among immigrants from the former Soviet Union and a drop of 16% in conversions that were performed within the framework of the Israel Defense Forces.

The Joint Institute for Jewish Studies, the main body that prepares candidates for conversion, receives approximately 60% of the Conversion Authority's budget. The rate of conversion among its students, however, is less than half. Thus, a significant portion of the government budget allocated to the Conversion Authority does not lead to actual conversions. Moreover, many of the Israelis who are considered to have "no religion" are not interested in conversion at all. They are apprehensive about meeting the conversion rabbis, which is itself a painful issue. In order to encourage them to convert, a deliberate initiative is necessary. However, the State Audit found that the Conversion Authority does not deal with this critical issue, contrary to the recommendations of a government committee.

And from the foolishness of Chelm we descend to the wickedness of Sodom: The Israeli government has decided that the Prime Minister should personally monitor the progress of the conversion process; that the Ministerial Committee on Immigration, Absorption, and the Diaspora will be made responsible for conversion in Israel and will be renamed to reflect this responsibility; that the Cabinet Secretary will coordinate all efforts related to conversion; that a steering committee will be established to oversee the activity of the Conversion Authority, and more. The Prime Minister has also requested "regular updates" regarding efforts to advance conversion in Israel. It turns out, however, that the government's decision was not worth the paper it was written on. None of it was carried out, not one iota. And no one seems to care in the least. Moreover, two and a half years ago, the government decided to establish a search committee to select the new head of the Conversion Authority. The State Comptroller found, however, that the members of this committee were never appointed. As a result, the position remains unstaffed; the system has literally lost its head.

To the sins of the government we may add the crimes of the Chief Rabbinate. Its scandalous attempt to retroactively cancel the validity of thousands of conversions in one heartless fell swoop will go down in ignominy. And what can we say to someone who successfully undergoes the entire conversion process in accordance with the laws of the State of Israel, but then discovers, when it is time to marry, that the rabbinate's marriage registrar refuses to recognize his or her status as a Jew?

On the holiday of Shavuot, we will read the Book of Ruth in our synagogues as a success story from our glorious past. The ancient grace of Boaz, who accepted the Other and was enriched by that experience, must again characterize life in Israeli society. A third of a million brothers and sisters who have returned from the steppes of Europe to the fields of Bethlehem have not yet received the embrace of Jewish identity that they deserve. It is time for us to allow Natasha to be Ruth. 

Yedidia Z. Stern is Vice President of Research of the Israel Democracy Institute and a Professor of Law at Bar-Ilan University.

A version of this article was originally published in Hebrew in Yedioth Ahronoth on May 9, 2013.