Conversion flap topic in Teaneck
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Conversion flap topic in Teaneck

Rabbi Haim Druckman, the former Knesset member who is a key figure in the ongoing conversion crisis in Israel, will speak on the issue next week at Con. Rinat Yisrael in Teaneck. The Dec. 3 lecture, called “You Should Love the Convert,” is open to the public and will begin at 8 p.m., followed by a private dessert reception for sponsors.

The event is co-sponsored by American Friends of Yeshivot Bnei Akiva, the largest religious Zionist educational network in Israel, and by the synaogue’s adult education Committee.

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Rabbi Haim Druckman will speak locally about conversion in Israel.

For the past three years, Druckman served as head of the Israeli government’s National Conversion Authority, which oversees conversions. It aimed to help facilitate the conversion of over 300,000 immigrants from the former Soviet Union whose Jewish ancestry could not be determined.

In March, a ruling by a haredi-dominated rabbinical court in Israel called for invalidating Druckman’s conversions on the grounds that they did not require what the court considered an acceptable level of religious observance. That decision reignited the debate over what a convert must do to be considered a Jew.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert subsequently opted not to renew Druckman’s contract as head of the authority.

The storm surrounding his conversions has made Druckman and his followers only more firm in their convictions. “Our answer to all the naysayers is to add many more ulpanim [schools] to teach conversion and more batei din [religious courts] to deal with the many thousands who want to return to the Jewish people,” Druckman said in an e-mail message.

Rinat Yisrael’s Rabbi Yosef Adler calls Druckman “a courageous leader of the Dati Leumi [modern Orthodox] community who has demonstrated enormous sensitivity to those who have considered joining the rank and file of Am Yisrael,” the Jewish people.

Joshua Annenberg, board member of AFYBA and chairman of the event hopes that it will draw a large crowd from around New Jersey who will come to demonstrate their support for the rabbi.

“Rabbi Druckman has enabled thousands of Russian immigrants to Israel to rejoin the Jewish people through a conversion process based upon education and human dignity,” said Annenberg, a Teaneck attorney. “We must support Rabbi Druckman, a leader of the religious Zionist community, against attacks by haredi rabbinic courts who misuse halacha [Jewish law] and political ideology to nullify Rabbi Druckman’s conversions.”

Speaking at a recent Jewish Agency Board of governors meeting in Jerusalem, Israeli Cabinet Secretary Ovad Yehezkel said that the conversion process was stuck because of the demands of haredi political parties that converts “adopt a haredi, not merely observant, lifestyle after their conversions.”

Druckman says he feels an urgent responsibility toward those who yearn to become Jewish, particularly many of the immigrants who came to Israel with Jewish relatives but lacked the paperwork to prove Jewish ancestry. He notes that immigrants from the former Soviet Union, who have been coming to Israel in large numbers since 1990, when the gates of the USSR were thrown open, “were forcibly assimilated by 70 years of concerted government efforts at eradicating all manifestations of Judaism. They are our brethren,” Druckman said, “and this is why we have to love them.”

Druckman himself is an immigrant to Israel. He was born in Poland in 1932 and escaped the Nazi invasion of Poland by fleeing to Romania. At age 12, he immigrated to Israel, leaving his parents behind in Europe. After graduating from Yeshivat Kfar Haroeh, the first Bnei Akiva yeshiva high school, he enlisted in the Israel Defense Forces. He then studied for the rabbinate, under Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook, one of the leading luminaries of the religious Zionist community, in Yeshivat Merkaz Harav.

Druckman was among the originators of the hesder yeshiva movement, which combines religious studies with military service, and served as the chair of the hesder yeshiva organization. He later founded the Bnei Akiva High School Yeshiva Or Etzion in the village of Merkaz Shapira in the Negev.

Druckman has served twice in the Knesset, representing the National Religious Party, first from 1977 to 1989 and again from 1999 to 2003. For the past 13 years, he has chaired Yeshivot Bnei Akiva, which boasts of a network of 61 schools for men and women throughout Israel.

In 1997, the Prime Minister’s Office asked Druckman to head a special committee for the conversion of minors and, in 2004, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon asked him to head the National Conversion Authority. In that capacity, Druckman facilitated the conversions of several thousand people, many of whom were immigrants.

Druckman’s supporters maintain that it is in the best interest of mainstream Jews for Israel to recognize Druckman’s conversions and retain him as head of the Conversion Authority.

Menachem Bar-Shalom, executive director of AFYBA, said, “There are very few respected and accepted religious leaders in Israel today with the national and historic sense of responsibility and the depth of knowledge needed to cope with the conversion of hundreds of thousands of ‘lost’ Jews, as Rav Haim Druckman.”

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