Monday, January 31, 2005

Hope for the conversion crisis?

One of Israel's most challenging social and halachic problems in recent years has been the increasing numbers of non-Jews who are socially integrated into Jewish society.

Many immigrants from the former Soviet Union have come with non-Jewish spouses and half-Jewish children who are halachically not considered Jewish. Yet they are socially Jewish, most of them view themselves as Jewish, and they are indistinguishable from the vast majority of Israeli Jews.

According to Israel's Central Bureau of Statistics, there are some 290,000 such citizens who are neither recognized as Jewish nor Arab.

As these individuals assimilate into Israeli Jewish society, they and their children will over time be increasingly difficult to identify as non-Jewish. The results can be tragic. Imagine the heartbreak and suffering when prospective spouses discover that one of them is not recognized as Jewish. Imagine the social and political repercussions as such incidents become increasingly common.

There are no easy solutions, either politically or halachically, and with all of Israel's other pressing challenges such long-term crises often fall between the cracks. But some efforts are being made. Word is that Prime Minister Sharon considers this a high priority, and closely follows the developments.

Among the projects underway is an attempt to facilitate the conversion to Judaism of non-Jewish immigrants. The easiest way to do this is when they are already in some formal framework, usually the army.

The IDF sponsors a voluntary course for immigrant soldiers, called Nativ, which offers a broad introduction to basic Judaism. The course is run by the Jewish Agency-sponsored Machon L'limudei Hayahadut (Institute for Jewish Studies). Those who are not Jewish and wish to convert can follow the course with a conversion program.

Resources, naturally, are limited, and the program can reach only a small percentage of the relevant population. But every bit helps.

Along the way, prospective converts must spend a certain number of Shabbatot with religious families to experience religious life first-hand. We have recently had the privilege and pleasure of participating in this, hosting a pair of soldiers undergoing conversion. The Machon is always looking for more host families.

We figure we're doing our bit to make Israel's future a little brighter.


Batya said...

Many years ago we helped someone convert, and it was wonderful.
But it's so individual.

Avi said...

I'm not going to comment about what to do now that they are here, but the Jewish Agency did the Jewish people and the State of Israel a significant disservice by encouraging it. Of course those who were married to Jews or would have otherwise come are eligible as long as the Law of Return is what it is. But I have heard horror stories of Jewish Agency bureaucrats in the former USSR that basically tried to entice knowingly non-halakhic Jews to make aliya. Unfortunately, the focus on aliya without focusing on the causes of yeridah and the needs of the best potential olim of the State of Israel doesn't help.