GOLDBERG: Unraveling Jewish Conversions in Israel: Not an Easy Task

David Goldberg


Rabbi Andrew Sacks is a “glass half-full” kind of person. As the Conservative movement’s point man in Israel on conversions, Rabbi Sacks is confident that the day when recognition of all conversions to Judaism in Israel, whether conducted by Conservative, Reform or Orthodox rabbis, is within reach. This, despite the discriminatory treatment of those who seek recognition as Jews in Israel, but were converted by non-Orthodox rabbis in the Diaspora.

More specifically, there is the ongoing crisis affecting at least 350,000-400,000 members of the Russian immigrant community in Israel – or their Israeli-born children and (now) grandchildren – who are being denied recognition as halachically Jewish (born to a Jewish mother or to a mother who has undergone an authorized Orthodox conversion) by Israel’s Orthodox Chief Rabbinate.

Without such recognition, “non-Jewish” Israelis are denied access to Jewish lifecycle event services (marriage, divorce, burial) which fall under the purview of the Chief Rabbinate.

Contributing further to this crisis is the fact that every year, some 4,500 children are born in Israel to parents who are classifiedunder “no religion,” while about 5,000 new immigrants each year from Russia or former Soviet republics are not recognizedas Jews because they do not meet the Chief Rabbinate’s standards of Jewishness.

A December 2019 study issued by Hiddush, a non-profit organization founded in 2009 to promote religious freedom and equality in Israel, indicated that of the 180,000 who arrived in Israel between (roughly) 2000 and 2018, only 25,375 were halachically Jewish. The overwhelming majority – 154,474 – immigrated as family members of Jews (partners, children, grandchildren) though they themselves were not recognized by the Chief Rabbinate as Jewish.

A 2018 Israel Democracy Institute report warned that if the status quo on conversions, which favours the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate, is not reformed, the hundreds of thousands of “non-Jews” or those of “no religion” among Russian immigrants in Israel who already face problems in registering for marriage and in receiving equal rights because of their status, will continue to multiply. This, the report concluded, will soon mutate into a demographic crisis for the Jewish state.

Rabbi Sacks hastens to emphasize that the goal is not to deny the Chief Rabbinate its rightful role in the recognition of Jewish converts, but rather to encourage it to agree to a broadened process for recognizing prospective converts, one that formally accepts a fair and equitable role for the Reform and Conservative movements and their respective rabbinic authorities.

Rabbi Sacks’ optimism about the ultimate conclusion of this struggle is based mainly on the success of a series of petitions toIsrael’s Supreme Court since the groundbreaking Shoshana Miller case in 1986 that have supported the right of those converted by non-Orthodox rabbis to be formally recognized as ‘Jewish’ in Israel.

(Miller had converted to Judaism in a Reform ceremony in the United States. Immigrating to Israel in 1985, she challenged the Interior Ministry’s labeling her a “convert” in her identity documents because the Reform movement is not authorized to conduct conversions in Israel. In December 1986, Israel’s Supreme Court ruled in Miller’s favour, acknowledging that labeling her a “convert” in her documents would be discriminatory, and that Miller’s identity would henceforth be officially recognized as “Jewish”).

Rabbi Sacks believes that the coordinated strategy of the Conservative and Reform movements in Israel of petitioning the Supreme Court with cases supporting the rights of non-Orthodox converts has the effect of chipping away at the Chief Rabbinate’s self-defined monopoly over recognizing conversions and of narrowing its legal options.

“The legal efforts are painfully slow but they are successful… Every court case we have pursued, we have won,” Rabbi Sacks told me by telephone on June 8.

In the beginning, the non-Orthodox advocacy groups were only able to get four or five cases before the Supreme Court each year. Today, the number is up to 500 cases annually.

Their efforts also are evidenced in the fact the Jewish-Israeli public is beginning to internalize non-Jewish conversions in Israel. A January 2020 survey by Hiddush found that 62 percent of Jewish Israelis “do not consider religious conversion through the Chief Rabbinate as a necessary condition for recognizing the Jewishness of immigrants who are the family members of Jews whose mothers are not Jewish.”

Among this 62 percent of respondents, 34 percent felt such immigrants should be unconditionally recognized as Jewish, while 27 percent felt recognition should be contingent on the completion of a religious conversion, whether Orthodox, Conservative or Reform [emphasis added].

Importantly, issues of conversion and civil marriage have now become electoral platform planks of mainstream political parties in Israel, including Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu and Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid.

Today, more and more conversions are occurring in Israel under the guidance of Conservative, Reform and other non-Orthodox rabbis. Having experienced a conversion that is more warm and welcoming, and less judgmental and demeaning than the Orthodox state process can be, thousands of Israelis are, said Rabbi Sacks, living a “proud Jewish life” in the way they choose to define it. The problem only arises when those converts wish to have a religious marriage in Israel. At that point, as things currently stand, they crash against an unyielding Chief Rabbinate.

The solution to this human tragedy, claimed Rabbi Sacks, is contingent on the recognition of Reform and Conservative rabbis’ authority in Israel to conduct both conversions and marriages.

Rabbi Sacks remains confident in the incremental process toward full recognition in Israel of those who elect to convert to Judaism through Reform or Conservative rabbis. There will be pushback from the Chief Rabbinate and the powerful Haredi-Orthodox establishment in Israel that supports it. But, positive change in the conversion process in Israel is within reach.

David Goldberg
David Goldberg

David H. Goldberg, PhD, is the author of eight books on Israel and formerly served as director of research and education for the Canada-Israel Committee and for the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs.