The Challenge of Conversion to Judaism in Israel

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This groundbreaking overview of the situation of conversion in Israel presents, for the first time, full data about conversion in Israel, analyzes the achievements and failures of the government's conversion policy, and recommends ways in which to promote conversion in Israel.

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.

The Challenge

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.

How Many Immigrants Convert?

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.

Why is the Number of Converts So Low?

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

  • The conversion courts – The policy of Israel's rabbinical conversion courts does not encourage large-scale conversion. Some judges refuse to accept the lenient approach to conversion practiced in Jewish communities for centuries, and adhere to a policy of deterrence that rejects hundreds of candidates for conversion each year. In total, rabbinic courts reject nearly 50% of candidates from the FSU immigrant community at their first conversion hearing.
  • The Chief Rabbis – To date, Israel's Chief Rabbis have not actively promoted conversion and have opted to maintain the status quo instead. They have not publicly called for immigrants to convert, have not confronted rabbinical court judges who invalidate conversions, and have not committed themselves to ensuring that conversion certificates are irrevocable.

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.

Recommendations for Promoting Conversion in Israel

1. Set realistic goals and focus on key groups within the immigrant population:

  • The government should set an attainable goal of 40,000 converts within the next seven years and work diligently to achieve it. 
  • Conversion efforts should focus initially on young women of reproductive age with clear Jewish ancestry. Practically, it makes the most sense to focus initially on young people, especially young women, aged 30 and under, who have clear Jewish ancestry (i.e., a Jewish father), since the status of these young people will determine the percentage of non-Jews in Israel in the coming generations. Some 40% of this population is already interested in conversion. In future years, the circle of converts should be expanded to include children and teenagers, who today number about 100,000.

2. Promote adoption of a welcoming approach to conversion by the Chief Rabbinate and the religious establishment:

  • Adopting a lenient approach to conversion, grounded in Jewish law, will make it easier to meet the threshold conditions required for conversion. For many years, Jewish tradition did not encourage conversion at all. The significant increase in intermarriage in recent generations, however, forced leading halakhic authorities to face reality and accept that promoting conversion is desirable. As a result, during the last 200 years, a lenient approach to conversion has become common in the Jewish world. Leading halakhic authorities who adopted this approach in our time include Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, Rabbi Shlomo Goren, Rabbi Shlomo Dichovsky, and Rabbi Yaakov Ariel. If Israel's Chief Rabbinate adopts a lenient approach to conversion, it will enable the implementation of a welcoming conversion policy that encourages the conversion of people who are prepared to take on the yoke of the commandments, even if it is not clear that they will maintain a religious lifestyle throughout their lives.

3. Make the system more open and accessible to prospective converts

  • The state should appoint new judges (volunteers and local rabbis) who espouse a lenient approach to conversion.
  • The state should abolish the current registration areas for conversion, enabling prospective converts to choose among all the conversion courts in Israel, as was done recently with marital registration.

4. Provide effective government support for conversion:

  •  Israel's political leaders should declare conversion a national project.
  •  The government should launch a national public information campaign to encourage non-Jewish immigrants to convert. 
  •  The government, in partnership with the non-profit sector, should enlist all of Israeli society in supporting the conversion effort. 
  •  The government and Knesset should appoint committees to advance legislation and promote new initiatives to reform the conversion system. 
  •  The Prime Minister should appoint a Special Advisor on Conversion within the PMO.

5. Mobilize civil society and encourage new initiatives

  •  The Israeli government should actively involve civil society in conversion efforts. It should commit to providing ongoing support to existing NGOs and should facilitate the involvement of new NGOs in the system. These non-profit organizations will conduct information campaigns and run programs to prepare adults, teens, and children for conversion. 
  •  A public committee and a Rabbinical council should be established in order to provide broad support for the process.

6. Provide guidance and support

  •  To counter the high dropout rate, the state should encourage the establishment of a support system for people interested in conversion or already involved in the process. This support system may consist of regional conversion coordinators, an expanded role for conversion instructors, community support networks that accompany conversion candidates through the process, and financial aid for prospective coverts.

7. Fill the void in leadership

  •  It is imperative to appoint a new head of the conversion system immediately. Although the state issued a tender for Director of the State Conversion Authority over a year ago, it has not staffed the position. It is vital to appoint someone with public influence and practical leadership abilities to coordinate all conversion activity, in collaboration with the Chief Rabbi and the leaders of the religious establishment, as soon as possible.

8. Protect the status of conversions

  •  The state must ensure the absolute validity of conversion certificates. It should design a new mechanism to enable oversight of the conversion process while at the same time limiting the possibility of challenging the validity of conversions performed by the system. If doubts arise about the validity of a conversion, the Chief Rabbi should refer the case back to the court that issued the conversion; that court will be the only body that has the authority to invalidate the conversion, and only in extreme cases, such as those involving fraud. This will require both new legislation and procedural reform within the courts.

9. Launch special conversion programs targeting young Israelis

  •  Award stipends and academic credits to undergraduate students who participate in state-sponsored conversion programs.
  • Develop programs to facilitate conversion among children and teenagers. These programs could be conducted in youth movements, religious and secular schools, and institutions of higher education.
  •  Ensure that conversion courts will honor the conversion preparation of graduates of these courses.

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.

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. 

A Proposal for A State Conversion Bill

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.