Strictly Orthodox

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Last year, about 2,500 immigrants to Israel from the former Soviet Union began their conversions to Judaism. The official framework of Orthodox Judaism -- the only one recognized by Israeli law -- typically takes about 10 months and involves studying Jewish law and thought, navigating an intricate bureaucracy, and adopting an Orthodox lifestyle, including strict adherence to kosher dietary laws and observance of Jewish holidays. The process culminates in a visit to the beit din, or rabbinical court, where the potential convert's knowledge of Jewish history and practice is probed.

It turns out that of the roughly 2,500 Russians who began their conversions last year, only about 940 successfully completed the process. This sparse result has triggered the latest battle in the long-running war over conversion in Israel. In the last decade of the 20th century, a wave of some 1 million immigrants from the former Soviet Union arrived in Israel. Though one-third were not recognized as Jewish according to rabbinic law, primarily because their mothers are not Jewish, all were granted Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return, which has a more expansive definition of who is a Jew and thus entitled to live in Israel.

For the roughly 300,000 Israeli citizens from the former Soviet Union who are not recognized as Jews by the chief rabbinate, a state-financed academy was created to ease their path to conversion. Benjamin Ish-Shalom, who directs the Institute for the Study of Judaism, said the grinding pace of Orthodox conversions was due to the courts' excessively rigid standards, demanding that women wear only long skirts or that converts move to more Orthodox neighborhoods, for example.

Ish-Shalom maintains that the current crop of presiding rabbis -- many of whom are Haredi (ultra-Orthodox), as opposed to modern Orthodox -- holds potential converts to a higher standard than is required by Jewish law. Earlier this month, he raised the stakes of his protest, announcing that the institute will no longer send graduates to the conversion courts until there is a change in rabbinical conduct and an easing of the requirements. "This problem jeopardizes the future of the Zionist idea and the unity of the Jewish people," Ish-Shalom said.

For its part, the Orthodox rabbinate defends its strict interpretation of Jewish law, arguing that conversion is not a casual decision. It says Russians are free to live as citizens of Israel even if they are not Jewish by Orthodox criteria but otherwise consider themselves Jews.

But they are not accorded the same rights as citizens. In an arrangement that dates back to the earliest days of the Jewish state, matters of marriage, divorce and burial are governed by Orthodox religious authorities. Israelis who are not Jewish according to Orthodox standards, therefore, are unable to have an official Jewish wedding ceremony or be buried in some Jewish cemeteries there.

The current tussle exemplifies how this arrangement with the Orthodox rabbinate has been mutually corrupting. It has fostered a bureaucratization of religious faith that sometimes renders disputes about theology indistinguishable from disputes about state money and power. Nowhere is this more evident than when it comes to the deeply vexing matter of conversion.

The prospect of a permanent class of inferior-status half-Jewish or non-Jewish Israelis raises the ugly specter of an Israel increasingly divided by hierarchical definitions of Jewish authenticity, and it has bred a dangerous sense of alienation in certain precincts of Israel's Russian immigrant community. According to a recent study, 48 percent feel more "Russian" than "Israeli."

In an effort to address this looming threat, the Absorption and Immigration Ministry recently opened a marketing campaign aimed at encouraging non-Jewish Russian Israelis to undergo Orthodox conversions. The outreach effort has led to a modest spike in interest, but there is every reason to believe that interest will remain modest.

Most Russian Israelis were raised in the spiritually desolate environs of the Soviet Union, and since arriving in Israel many have naturally adopted the secular lifestyle favored by a majority of their Jewish countrymen. They speak Hebrew and serve in the army, but the prospect of embracing strict Orthodoxy as a precondition to conversion -- and full inclusion in Israeli life -- is a hard sell. Why should the Russian immigrants have to keep kosher and observe the holidays in order to get the full rights of Israeli citizenship when their nonimmigrant friends do not?

Many understandably resent being considered illegitimate in the eyes of the religious authorities despite having demonstrated a sincere commitment to live as Jews. "If the immigrant communities cannot be included 'in the fold,' then this presents a serious danger to the Jewish dimensions of the state," said Rabbi Seth Farber, director of ITIM, a privately funded nonprofit organization that helps potential converts navigate the often maddening rabbinic bureaucracy. He warned that this conversion crisis "can, and very possibly will, erode the Jewish character of the state." A prospect that Israel can ill afford.

Evan R. Golstein is a contributing editor at Moment magazine. This comment appeared in The Wall Street Journal.