By Carlyn J. Steiner, Special to the Jewish Sound
Last July, close to 800 Seattle Jews convened for a “community conversation” on what was called “The Jewish Peoplehood Crisis.” The organizers defined the crisis as a loss of “identification with Jews throughout the world,” the loss of “commitment to Jews throughout the world,” and a failure to take “responsibility for Jews throughout the world.” Concerned by the gradual splintering of the Jewish people into narrow subgroups, the Jews of our city set their sights on restoring a sense of Jewish solidarity, irrespective of political leanings, ideological preferences, or religious dividing lines. While the task of resolving the problem remains formidable, there is some good news from Israel suggesting that progress may be possible.
One of the most serious rifts that threatens Jewish peoplehood centers on conversion to Judaism. Under present Israeli law, conversions must go through the office of the Chief Rabbinate, which for some time has been in the hands of haredi (Ultra-Orthodox) rabbis. Not only do they insist on the most stringent criteria of Jewish religious observance in order to become part of the Jewish people, they are also often unfriendly to potential converts and unsympathetic to their justified concerns. There are today thousands of Israelis, mostly from Russia or elsewhere in the former Soviet Union, who are not Jewish according to Jewish law but who speak Hebrew, have served in the armed forces, and think of themselves as Jews. Many would be willing to convert if the process were more user friendly. Surely increasing the number of Israeli Jews would strengthen the Jewish State, and facilitating these conversions would do much to bring the Jewish people together.
The conversion status quo in Israel also affects American Jews. Not only does the delegitimization of non-haredi conversions drive a wedge between Israeli and American Jews — 90 percent of whom are not Orthodox — but people who have converted to Judaism in the U.S., even under Orthodox auspices, often have a hard time being recognized as Jews by Israeli authorities if they move to Israel.
The Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee just voted to decentralize conversions in Israel, giving local rabbis the authority to conduct conversions. While the American Jewish Committee takes no position on the details of the proposal, which are specific to the Israeli situation, the overall goal of weakening the Chief Rabbinate’s stranglehold in this area can only bolster Jewish peoplehood. Local rabbis are far more likely to know the individual situation and degree of sincerity of the conversion candidates who come before them than a bureaucratic rabbinic establishment whose haredi leanings predispose it to distrust the motives of would-be converts.
The national AJC office has assembled a broad coalition of American Jewish and Israeli organizations that promotes Jewish peoplehood by furthering religious equality. While the Israeli Chief Rabbinate serves many useful functions in the Jewish State, it should not have monopolistic control over conversions. Knesset passage of the new conversions bill can mark a step toward fulfillment of the goal set by our city’s Jewish community at last year’s community conversation, “to create a moral society based on the principle of mutual responsibility.”
Carlyn J. Steiner is president of the American Jewish Committee (AJC) Seattle Region.