Changing Conversions in Israel & USA

Conversions to Judaism have become a hot topic over the past days in both the USA and in Israel.

In the USA, the harsh spotlight generated by the arrest of Rabbi Barry Freundel has become the catalyst for a major review of the conversion process (called GPS - Geirus Policies and Standards Committee) under the RCA and Beit Din of America.

In Israel, a controversial Conversion Bill has been passed by the Cabinet, effectively turning it into law.

Furthermore, there is a connection between the two processes, as at the end of the day, both the RCA and the Rabbinate in Israel are seeking mutual recognition of their own converts as being fully Jewish.

The recent history of conversion processes in the diaspora and in Israel have been markedly different.

Both communities are faced with huge problems of intermarriage. Abroad, this is complicated by the strength of the Reform and Conservative movements, and the tiny minority status of the Jewish population as a whole amongst welcoming gentiles.

In Israel the Russian and Ethiopian immigrations are the main challenges. There are now over 300,000 non-Jewish, non-Arab, Israelis. Nothing compared with the assimilation in the USA, but nevertheless a major problem for the Jewish State.

According to an account by Rabbi Eliezer Melamed, the dominant attitude in the Diaspora has been to be strict on ensuring the halachik observance of converts, to the extent that this places major barriers before potential converts to Judaism. Whereas, he continues, in Israel, the adherence to the second required factor, a willingness to join Am Yisrael, the Jewish People, and become a partner in our history, has been dominant over the convert's strict adherence to all of halacha.

Inclusive in Israel, rather than exclusive in the Diaspora.

In the diaspora, explains Rabbi Melamed, conversion policy has been used in an effort to prevent intermarriage, by trying to prevent the would-be converts from becoming Jewish. The rationale is that the more strongly affiliated Jews will therefore be dissuaded from courting non-Jews, as they know there is no easy conversion option for their would-be spouse.

In Israel, however, the approach is to welcome the non-Jewish Israelis into the Faith, in order to make them halachikly marriable to Jewish Israelis.

I witnessed this myself.

Over 15 years ago, my family 'adopted' two halachikly non-Jewish Russian/Israeli girls. They were then aged 18 or 19, and both were actively dating Jewish Israelis.

Our job was to introduce these girls to our orthodox family and lifestyle, in parallel to the conversion course they were studying.

These two girls were not very serious about halacha. And they rarely turned up at our home, in spite of our many invitations. Any understanding of halacha they showed was very rudimentary,

My wife, Julie, was invited to the Bet Din session to testify about the girls. By which time one of the girls had a serious (Jewish) boyfriend and was pregnant with their child.
Julie answered the Beit Din's questions, basically saying we hadn't seen much of the girls over the months of the process.

The Beit Din asked the girls some basic questions, such as "what is the bracha over an apple", which the girls were generally unable to answer correctly.

Both girls were accepted by the Beit Din and they proceeded to the mikva ritual.

One of the dayanim told my wife that it is better these girls marry Jewish Israelis as Jewesses, than they marry them as gentiles. A pragmatic approach to the problem of 300,000 non-Jewish Israelis.

The new Conversion Law takes this approach a step further, opening the doors of every Beit Din in Israel, rather than solely the four which are currently authorised, to conduct conversions.

These are the same local Batei Din who are today responsible for marriages and divorces, kashrut, eruvim, mikvaot, etc...

Meanwhile, back in the USA, the GPS Committee has been overhauled - with the resignation of Rabbi Steven Pruzansky, the inclusion of five women of the eleven members, and the appointment of a new head, Rabbi Shmuel Goldin Yudin.

According to Rabbi Yudin: The committee has been carefully selected to represent the spectrum of viewpoints that characterize today’s Orthodox community. Comprised of both men and women, its membership includes converts, mental health professionals, rabbis and other community leaders.

Although he points to the recent allegations of abuse, and taking steps to avoid future abuses, this committee will also revisit some basic assumptions of the original GPS Committee.

High on the list will be this balance of strict halachik observance, weighted against the convert's willingness to join and contribute to the Jewish people. 

Is tomorrow's battle against assimilation and intermarriage going to be to strengthen the remaining committed Jews, by ensuring high barriers in front of potential converts, exclusiveness, or to welcome in anyone who sincerely wants to be a Jew, inclusiveness? 


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