Israeli Jews Who Aren't Jewish in Eyes of Rabbis Face Kafkaesque Conversion Plight

Immigrants Make Aliyah But Rejected by Rabbinate

Not Jewish Enough? Maxim and Alina Serjukov had to move to another town in Israel after a rabbi rejected their efforts to convert.
Courtesy of maxim and Alina Serjukov
Not Jewish Enough? Maxim and Alina Serjukov had to move to another town in Israel after a rabbi rejected their efforts to convert.

By Nathan Jeffay

Published April 04, 2014, issue of April 18, 2014.
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They live as part of Jewish society in the Jewish state, but the state itself does not consider them Jewish.

For Israel, some 330,000 immigrants, mostly from the former Soviet Union, represent a big assimilation problem and a big political problem, made worse by the fact that the only solution for this largely non-religious group is seen as a religious one. And the remedy lies exclusively in the hands of the country’s state-sponsored Orthodox rabbis, who, under Israeli civil law, have sole authority to determine the Jewish status of the state’s citizens.

Now, the latest effort to address this problem has collapsed, as the Orthodox political party that was key to reform on many other fronts has balked. The religious-Zionist Jewish Home party, a member of the current government coalition, supported recent legislation to draft Haredim, or ultra-Orthodox Jews, for the first time; approved a liberalizing overhaul of marriage procedures, and created a modest dedicated space at the Western Wall for non-Orthodox prayer.

Yet the same party backing these religious reforms — the most progressive passed by any recent Israeli government — appears to have sabotaged a bill to help would-be converts.

That promises to leave the large number of Russian immigrants in Israel who are not considered Jewish under Orthodox religious law in limbo. They came into Israel under an immigration law that permits anyone who can claim one Jewish grandparent to become a citizen. But this large population now faces the disabilities imposed by other laws that use Orthodox religious law to determine one’s status as a Jew. This includes marriage law in Israel, where there is no civil marriage, and only individuals recognized as Jewish under traditional religious law may marry other Jews. Non-Jews wishing to marry Jews are forced to go abroad to wed, and then apply to have their foreign marriages registered and recognized in Israel. Except for converts, Orthodox religious law considers a Jew to be only someone with a Jewish mother.

The Israeli reality TV star Alin Levy, whose parents were born in the FSU, is the latest prominent person to get caught in this bind. Despite living a Modern Orthodox lifestyle, she cannot marry unless she converts or goes abroad. And as a condition of converting, she claims, the state’s Chief Rabbinate demanded that she abandon her television career.

It is unclear how many Jews from the FSU might be interested in converting. As it is, this overwhelmingly secular population has displayed little enthusiasm to become religiously Jewish, even as they become ever more part of Israel’s secular Jewish society. But today, anybody who wants a state-recognized conversion has to go through the centralized Conversion Authority, whose religious courts have a reputation for being unwelcoming and intimidating. Elazar Stern, a coalition lawmaker from the centrist Hatnuah party, proposed decentralizing the operation and allowing all municipal rabbis to perform conversions.

This would not have diluted the Orthodox standards for conversion; the Chief Rabbinate, which currently supervises the Conversion Authority, oversees all municipal rabbis. But Stern hoped that it would allow prospective converts the freedom to at least choose a rabbi that they find welcoming.

The Jewish Home party initially supported Stern’s bill. But then, just before the Knesset’s Passover recess, the party turned against it. Jewish Home’s switch followed the lead of the Chief Rabbinate, which feared a reduction in day-to-day control of conversion.


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