The Fight Over Jewish Identity in Israel

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Jewish identity has been deliberated by Jews for centuries. A recent movement in Israel is giving this debate new life in an age of increasing Jewish intermarriage and growing secularization.

In 1948, when tasked with establishing a new set of rules for the young republic, Israel’s leadership turned what they deemed matters of religion over to the government rabbinate. Questions like who is a Jew and who is not a Jew were to be determined by the country’s Jewish elders. Over the years, however, the rabbinate has become increasing insular and out of touch from the realities of daily life. Though the vast majority of Israelis do not consider themselves Orthodox or Haredi, many decisions, including those relating to Jewish identity, are decided with the strictest adherence to the halakha, or ancient Jewish law. This has led to some absurd outcomes and increasing calls for an alternative method of Jewish conversion.

Ira and Claire Silverstein married 44 years ago in New Jersey. Prior to marriage, Claire, who was raised Episcopalian, converted to Judaism by Ira’s family rabbi in their conservative congregation. Since then, the family has kept kosher in the home, lit Shabbat candles, and held themselves out as Jewish. Their three children attended Hebrew school affiliated with their conservative congregation. Two of their children have since married Jewish partners themselves. When the older son, Jacob, went to Israel with his Jewish wife, he learned that although his mother converted at a relatively young age, he is not recognized as a Jew. “It’s really shocking and insulting” said Jacob. “I grew up more Jewish than most of my Jewish friends. It’s like they spit in my face.”

Secular Jews in Israel joke that the synagogue they do not attend is Orthodox. In a recent survey, only 23% of Israeli Jews responded that they always attend Shabbat services, and over half responded that they sometimes or always perform work in public. Jews that do attend services regularly often do so in a more modern, secularized, tradition-oriented version of Orthodox that mirrors the Conservative and Reform traditions in North America and Europe.

Nevertheless, individuals that are converted by an Orthodox rabbi are recognized as Jews by the rabbinate, but Jews converted by a Conservative or Reform rabbi are not, irrespective of their adherence to the halakha or commitment to the religion and people.

Furthermore, the system is ripe with fraud. Adopted children and converts alike often refuse to adhere to the Orthodoxy’s strict demands, choosing instead to lie about their adherence to the converting rabbi. Stories of bribes to rabbis are not unheard of in a society where Jewish recognition is often tied to economic opportunity.

In the case of Israel’s many immigrants, especially from Eastern Europe where records are sparse, many simply embellish their Jewish linear connection, or pay their hometown rabbi to vouch for their Jewish identity. The system “punishes and insults the honest, and rewards the dishonest – those that pay the rabbi,” said Jacob Silverstein.

Silverstein who does marketing for online pawn shops says the pawn dealers he works with are more honest than some of the rabbis he knows.

Now, an Orthodox rabbi is promoting an alternative to the traditionally recognized conversion process. Rabbi Seth Farber describes the project as a direct challenge to what he sees as an overly restrictive and unnecessarily harsh system. Farber believes that the current approach is turning people off and undermining the unity of the country. Citizens sometimes must serve in the military, but cannot officially consider themselves Jewish. The alternative conversion court setup by Farber began working this summer and has since approved over 50 conversions. Farber hopes to convert 2,000 people in his first year, a number he believes he will have no trouble reaching.

The alternative conversion process requires candidates to show knowledge of Judaism and a commitment to living a Jewish life. The panel of Orthodox rabbis subjects the candidates to a test prior to granting a conversion. “It is led by Orthodox rabbis, who, like the ultra-Orthodox led rabbinate, follow halakha. But it is not as rigid in measuring Judaism through behavior” says Farber. Rather, it “aims to open doors.”

Alternative conversion courts are still not officially recognized, but proponents believe that the tide is turning and it is only a matter of time before the Israeli government breaks up the rabbinate monopoly on conversion. That won’t end the debate of who is Jewish, but it will no longer keep converts in limbo.