Israel eases conversion procedures
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Israel eases conversion procedures

Orthodox rabbinic group Tzohar claims victory

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Rabbi David Stav: “We live in a democratic world.”

On Monday morning, Rabbi David Stav’s inbox was overflowing.

During an interview at a Teaneck cafe, he apologized for looking at his phone as the messages came pouring in. (He was in the area after spending Shabbat at Manhattan synagogues; he is scheduled to be scholar in residence at Englewood’s Congregation Ahavath Torah in February.)

But that morning – well, afternoon, Israel time – the Sephardi chief rabbi of the State of Israel – Rabbi Yitzchak Yosef – had denounced Rabbi Stav by name in a radio interview, and his friends were letting him know.

Rabbi Stav heads Tzohar, an organization of Israeli Orthodox rabbis that tries to bridge the gaps between Israel’s established Orthodox rabbinate – which regulates marriage and divorce in the country – and the secular public.

The day before, the group had won a major political victory. The Israeli government voted to make it easier to convert to Judaism by enabling municipal rabbis to run conversion courts. (Now only the central chief rabbinate has that power.)

This followed Tzohar’s legislative victory last year, which allowed municipal rabbis to register any marriages, even those of couples not from their area.

The government vote was the outcome of five years of work, Rabbi Stav said. An earlier bill had been defeated. This year, a bill offered by Knesset Member Elazar Stern seemed headed to passage in the legislature, prompting the government ministers to act.

MK Stern’s interest in the conversion issue highlights the centrality of the issue to the Israeli national agenda. As head of the Israeli army’s human resource division, he had seen that a large number of draftees came from families that had immigrated to Israel from the former Soviet Union under the Law of Return. Those young Israelis were not legally Jewish, because their fathers, but not their mothers, were Jewish. He set up conversion courts under the auspices of the military rabbinate that converted thousands of soldiers.

His proposed bill was too liberal for Prime Minister Netanyahu, but its wide support pressured the government to act.

In Israel, which only allows for religious marriage and therefore renders interreligious marriage impossible, non-Jews cannot marry Jews. Many mixed couples fly to Cyprus to marry civilly, and those foreign marriages are recognized by the Israeli government.

Rabbi Stav and his group opposed another proposal raised in the current Knesset, which would institute civil marriage for people who could not marry under Israel’s current framework. Civil marriage, according to Rabbi Stav, would threaten the unity of the Jewish people.

Most Orthodox halachic authorities, including Rabbi Stav, require that converts fully accept the obligations of the commandments of Jewish law. This creates a problem, because ultra-Orthodox authorities say that accepting only modern Orthodox law doesn’t count.

The result is that the conversions done in the army, or under another special conversion court that Rabbi Stav served on, or for that matter even by the chief rabbinate, had not always been accepted by the increasingly charedi rabbinical establishment.

Strict conversion requirements are a problem for not only Russians of mixed origin. They also make it extremely difficult for Israelis to adopt children from overseas – and if they do manage to adopt them, for those children to be integrated into Israeli society.

This week, Haaretz reported that more than a third of the 15,900 Israelis who moved out of the country in 2012 were defined by the Central Bureau of Statistics as “other,” meaning neither Jewish nor Arab, and generally referring to Russians of mixed origins.

The newly approved conversion plan allows any of Israel’s more than 180 municipal rabbis to convert people. Rabbi Stav is among that group: He is the rabbi for Shoham, a small town of about 22,000 people in the center of the country.

“The idea here is not to crush the chief rabbinate, but to decentralize it,” Rabbi Stav said.

This freedom of rabbinical action “continues a tradition of thousands of years that rabbis carry out conversions,” he said. It was the centralized Israeli system that just was superseded, he said, that was a departure from Jewish tradition and Jewish law.

He said that charedi leaders’ declarations that they will not recognize conversions done by municipal rabbis are “nonsense, because they do not recognize the conversions of the chief rabbinate. To be honest, the vast majority of Israeli society doesn’t care what the charedi position is. The vast majority relies on modern Orthodox rabbis.

“Most probably, a regular charedi family will not have to deal with conversions,” Rabbi Stav said. “That’s part of the problem. We tell them, you are not threatened by the intermarriage threat as we are. We go to the army together” with non-Jewish immigrants of Jewish origin, “we go to work together. You are segregated. We are not. We have to be responsible to our kids to at least try so that whoever wants to come under the umbrella of Torah and mitzvot and convert, to make it accessible for him. We have to make sure that we make every effort to help our kids who came back after seventy years of the Communist regime, to help them be absorbed in Israeli Jewish society.”

Rabbi Stav said that the Israeli rabbinate has gone “totally against halacha,” Jewish law, in drafting a policy of “checking the validity of each conversion according to the person’s current behavior,” that is, of saying converts who don’t lead Orthodox lives are not Jewish.

“They see someone who is not observant and assume they never had the intention” to accept Jewish law.

Tzohar rabbis are familiar with this practice, because the bulk of the organization’s work is helping individuals and couples deal with the Israeli religious bureaucracy. The group was formed 19 years ago, after Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated, to help close the yawning chasm between the Orthodox community, which held power over private Israeli lives, and the secular community, which responded to the Orthodox with disdain.

It started with marriage services, to help couples get married “in an embracing way.”

The group’s several hundred rabbis perform 5,000 marriages a year, or about a quarter of marriages among the Israeli secular public.

They also help people with their problems as they try to register for marriage. Their need to prove that they are Jewish poses a particular problem for immigrants, whether from the former Soviet Union or the Americas.

Tzohar also has begun providing religious services in community centers across the country, bringing in more than 50,000 people on Yom Kippur.

“We were accused of being the rabbis of the chilonim,” the secular Israelis, Rabbi Stav said. “I keep on saying I could not get a bigger compliment than being the rabbi of the chilonim.”

Other insults have arrived with more force. In 2013, a day after Rabbi Ovadia Yosef gave a sermon attacking Rabbi Stav, who was running for post of chief rabbi, a group of charedi teens attacked him at a wedding.

Rabbi Stav traces his commitment to the cause to his teacher, Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook, who also taught Tzohar’s other cofounders.

“We were taught to see the Jewish society that is gathering from the four edges of the world to the State of Israel as a mission,” he said. “The process of connecting them to Judaism would have to evolve, Rabbi Kook taught. It wouldn’t come by hitting them or forcing them. Rabbi Kook was a member of the anti-religious coercion league for several years. He said that Torah could not be coerced.

“Torah should be taught in a friendly way.”

Accordingly, while Rabbi Stav said he disagreed with members of one of Shoham’s 15 synagogues, who decided to call women to read from the Torah last Shabbat, “we live in a democratic world,” he said. “Everyone is entitled to ask their own rabbis.”

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