Great-grandmother to King David, the biblical Ruth was not the first Jewish convert, but she is the most recognized. While her story is a model for Jews-by-choice, the allegory does not hold true in Israel today where, all too often, converts and their descendants face both legal and sociological discrimination.
Erin Kopelow and Ariel Beery, both immigrants from the United States, find themselves in this very situation because the Israeli rabbinate refuses to recognize Erin’s mother’s conversion. Erin, whose mother had converted through a Conservative rabbi in Canada before her parents married, had a typical North American Jewish upbringing. She never doubted her Jewish identity; in fact she led her family toward becoming more observant. Yet under the current Israeli law, Erin and Ariel’s daughter will not be considered Jewish.
When Jews apply for Israeli citizenship, according to the Right of Return, they need to prove that they have one Jewish grandparent or had a Jewish conversion from any denomination. However, when it comes time for these same immigrants to marry, they face a much stricter definition of who is a Jew since the only way to be married in Israel is through the Orthodox rabbinate. According to the rabbinate, a Jew is someone who was born of a Jewish mother (either a mother born Jewish or one converted with a rabbi recognized by the rabbinate) or a convert who converted with a rabbi recognized by the rabbinate.
In addition to this legal discrimination in a religious arena, social discrimination exists on multiple levels, even for those who did convert through the Orthodox rabbinate.
Indeed many Israelis, regardless of their observance levels, hold converts to a higher standard. According to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics, 43.4 percent of Israelis are secular. Yet according to the Israel Democracy Institute, “a majority of Israeli Jews (73 percent) accept the official position that Orthodox conversions are the path leading to recognition of a person’s Jewishness.” Anecdotally, converts experience this attitude every day.
Tom, an immigrant from France, recalls sitting down for lunch with two friends, a sabra who was eating a cheeseburger at the time, and another friend from France whose wife had converted before making aliyah. The sabra explained that the friend’s wife and child were not really Jewish because the conversion was not Orthodox. When Tom questioned his friend, noting that he didn’t seem particularly observant himself, the friend replied, “I can do what I want since I was born Jewish.”
Combining the legal discrimination with societal attitudes, it is not surprising that many Israeli converts feel like second-class citizens and second-class Jews – even if they did convert through the rabbinate. Children who were converted as babies need to reaffirm their Jewish identity during their bar mitzvah.
Sivan, an immigrant with a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother, did convert through the rabbinate. After the required year-and-a-half process of intensive study and observance, the mikvah experience had a tremendous impact on her: “It was cathartic. It was emotional. Finally getting through it and being accepted into the tribe.” Nonetheless, it didn’t totally solve her identity crisis. “I still felt and feel half-Jewish because of the way people speak about converts here.”
Dr. Maya Cohen-Malayev, a professor at Bar-Ilan University’s School of Education who grew up in both Israel and the United States, studies identity in different Jewish cultures. She offers insight into why Israeli converts often feel uncertain about their identity, explaining that identity has two separate components – internal and social.
“Identity isn’t what I think about myself, it is what I think about myself within the context in which I live,” she explains. “I might think of myself as Jewish; I see myself as Jewish; and I feel Jewish. This is the internal part of identity. And then suddenly someone comes from the outside and says, ’No, you’re not Jewish.’ This causes a big discrepancy between how I feel and who people are telling me I am.”
Dr. Cohen-Malayev says that parents can help by providing children with a viewpoint about Jewishness and conversion that is different from the rabbinate’s and that they should speak openly about conversion and Jewish identity just as other parents speak openly about adoption.
Anya, an immigrant from Russia, moved to Israel as a teenager without her parents. Identifying as a Jew, Anya faced the same problem as many Russian immigrants – she had the right to move to Israel, but because her mother is not Jewish, she could not get married. Anya was faced with some hard realities – her future children would not be considered Jewish or if she were killed while serving in the Israel Defense Forces, her body could not be buried in a military cemetery. While doing her army service, Anya decided to go through a conversion in a special IDF program and is now in a relationship with a secular Israeli. Despite the fact that he is secular, he has told Anya that if she had not converted, they wouldn’t be in this relationship. When Anya talks about it, her pain is apparent.
Erin and Ariel have already begun to help their daughter cope with the issues that society might force upon her, mostly by speaking to her about Judaism and instilling in her a sense of being part of a deep, rich, questioning tradition. They have yet to decide how to bring up the issue of conversion and her status.
“I always imagined that it would come up organically, just like I always knew my mom converted. It was just part of my story,” Erin explains.
Erin and Ariel are often questioned by people, even well-intentioned friends, about why they didn’t convert their daughter with the rabbinate as a baby to avoid these issues. Ariel is particularly frustrated by these questions “Just like she is fundamentally our daughter, she is fundamentally part of the Jewish people. If some people don’t consider her part of the Jewish people for their own sake, it is their problem.”
Of course, even if they had converted their daughter, she still might face identity and acceptance issues. Ariel is hoping that things change. He believes that this fight is more about his country’s identity than about his daughter’s. “My grandparents didn’t come to this land, build it up, and create the state so that someone could say their great-granddaughter is not Jewish.”