Ugandan converts forced to cancel study program at yeshiva in Israel
They can’t study in Conservative yeshiva because gov’t has yet to rule if they’re Jews.
Ugandan convert Moses Sebagago, right, participating in a Hebrew language class. Photo by Emil Salman
A group of Ugandan Jews invited to study at the Conservative yeshiva in Jerusalem has been forced to cancel its plans because of questions raised by the government about the legitimacy of non-Orthodox conversions performed abroad.
About 20 members of the Abuyudaya community in Uganda had planned on spending a year studying in Israel, as part of a program sponsored by the Jewish Agency and Marom Olami, the world organization for young adults affiliated with the Conservative movement.
According to Ministry of Interior regulations, only Jews are eligible for the special student visas required for participation in programs offered by non-degree conferring institutions, such as yeshivas. (Students in programs offered by degree-conferring institutions, such as universities, do not need to prove they are Jewish to obtain visas.) A request to allow the Ugandans to receive the required student visas was submitted more than a year ago, but because it has still not been approved, the applicants will not be able to come to Israel to start the upcoming school year here.
The Abuyudaya community split from Christianity in the early 20th century when its members began identifying as Jews and observing Jewish laws and customs. In 2002, a rabbinical court sent to Uganda by the Conservative movement formally converted most of the 1,500-strong community.
The Ministry of Interior, in issuing visas and approving citizenship requests for converts, typically relies on the recommendations of the Jewish Agency. Representatives of the Jewish Agency already provided their stamp of approval many months ago for this particular group.
Rabbi Andrew Sacks, director of the Rabbinical Assembly in Israel of the Conservative/Masorti movement, said the sponsors of the Abuyudaya group were willing, as part of a test case, to reduce the number of participants to just a handful. To date, however, the Ministry of Interior has not been willing to approve visas even for a smaller group.
Two years ago, a member of the Abuyudaya community did spend a year studying at the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem and has since returned to Uganda.
In response to a query from Haaretz, Ministry of Interior spokeswoman Sabine Hadad said the following: “The issue is now under investigation. Every new issue that we need to learn requires time and the Jewish Agency is just one factor in the process.”
In a related development, another member of the Abuyudaya community has been waiting for almost a year and a half for the Interior Ministry to approve his request to immigrate under the Law of Return. Mugoya Shadrach Levi, 26, is the first member of the community to express interest in moving to Israel.
Unlike most other remote Jewish communities – for example, the so-called “Jews of the Amazon” from Peru and the Bnei Menashe from India – the Abuyudaya do not claim and are not known to have any Jewish roots. How the Interior Ministry rules on their requests to be recognized as Jews for the purpose of visiting and immigrating to Israel will deliver an important message about the legitimacy of conversions performed by non-Orthodox rabbis.
Male and Female He Created Them
On an El Al plane waiting to take off from Ben Gurion where I was seated =
next to a man, I was approached by an ultra-Orthodox fellow who wanted =
me to give him my seat in exchange for his which was next to a woman. "I =
can't sit next to a woman," he said to me. "It is forbidden." "If it is =
forbidden," I asked him, "why do you think it is all right for me to sit =
next to a woman? Isn't it equally forbidden to me and therefore aren't =
you asking me to commit a sin?" Puzzled, he went elsewhere to find the =
answer to his problem. I'm certain that this incident on El Al was not =
unique. Take offs on El Al are frequently delayed while this scramble =
for kosher seats takes place. Of course this is indicative of a much =
larger problem which now affects Israeli society and public life: the =
extreme position taken regarding the separation of men and women which =
is even more extreme than anything known before in Jewish life. It =
certainly does not reflect normative practice dictated by Jewish Law. =
Like the demand for glatt kosher everything, even water, it goes far =
beyond the law.
Oddly enough, at the same time that extremist elements in the =
ultra-Orthodox community are striving for a complete separation between =
men and women in transportation, shopping centers and even the public =
streets, the exact opposite is happening in other Orthodox circles, =
where more and more is being done to encourage greater participation of =
women in synagogue life and other aspects of Judaism.=20
The last few decades has witnessed a true revolution in the part women =
play in Judaism. This may be the direct result of greater educational =
opportunities for girls. Religious high schools no longer take it for =
granted that girls will not study Talmud, for example. The result has =
been the flourishing of a population of observant women well educated in =
Jewish sources and no longer willing to take a back seat in Jewish life. =
In addition, the struggle for the rights of Agunot, women who cannot =
obtain a divorce because of recalcitrant husbands, has produced a new =
sense of militancy among religious women. =20
Admittedly this has not gone as far in Orthodox circles as in the =
Masorti Movement or the Reform Movement where women have long had the =
opportunity to participate fully in services and to become rabbis. =
Nevertheless even rabbinical ordination for women is beginning to occur =
one way or another in certain Orthodox circles. There are also =
congregations that label themselves Orthodox in which an attempt is made =
to include women as much as possible in the conduct of the service. The =
mehitzah may still be there but it is less blatant and allows women to =
be as close to the center of the service as the men are and to =
participate in leading prayers and reading the Torah. Women's minyanim =
and Megillah readings are becoming more common. Of course there is =
resistance to these changes within the modern Orthodox community, but =
they do exist and there is every reason to believe that this trend will =
grow in the future.=20
Although the Torah and the rest of the Bible obviously represent a =
Patriarchal society in which women were usually subordinate to men, as =
was the case is all societies at that time, there is nothing to indicate =
that they were ever totally separated from men or that they had no role =
to play in religious life. Obviously they did not serve as priests or =
levites, although Exodus 38:8 mentions "women who performed tasks at the =
entrance of the Tent of Meeting," without telling us exactly what they =
did. Miriam was considered a prophetess and led the women in joyous =
worship - and there is nothing to indicate that the men were not present =
when she sang her song. Women as well as men played in the orchestra in =
the Temple in David's time (1 Chronicles 25:5) and sang in the Temple =
choir during the post exilic period (Ezra 2:65 and Nehemiah 7:67). Like =
Miriam, Deborah was not only a judge - the equivalent of being prime =
minister - but also a prophetess. When King Josiah was told that an =
unknown scroll had been found in the Temple and needed to know if it was =
holy, a part of the Torah of Moses, or not, he inquired of a woman =
prophetess, Hulda, for verification. It was on her word that the book - =
probably Deuteronomy - was declared sacred. The midrash also ascribes =
religious roles to women. For example a midrash states that both Abraham =
and Sarah made it their business to teach about God to anyone coming =
their way and converted them to their new faith: Abraham converted the =
men and Sarah converted the women. (Genesis Rabbah 39:5).
There is a struggle going on today within traditional Judaism concerning =
the place of women. One side wishes to separate them from men and keep =
them not only out of public view but out of public functions as well. =
The other side wants to bring them in and make use of their talents and =
their potential. The outcome will be crucial not only for women but for =
the future of Judaism and the Jewish People as well.
Chicago-area Jewish women hold Torah to send a message
Photos of women holding Torah capture religion's divide and protest arrest of woman who held a Torah at Western Wall in Israel
September 19, 2010|By Becky Schlikerman, Tribune reporter
Nancy Stone, Chicago Tribune
One by one, the women walked onto the sanctuary's stage, took hold of the Torah and smiled as the photographer captured them cradling the sacred scripture.
The women, members of Congregation Solel, a Reform temple in Highland Park, intend to send the portraits to the Israeli government, protesting the recent arrest of an Israeli woman. Authorities reportedly detained her July 12 for the forbidden act of carrying a Torah at the Western Wall.
Their demonstration highlights a difference of practice between Orthodox and progressive Jews that more often plays out behind the closed doors of a synagogue. Because women don't touch or read the Torah in the most traditional Orthodox Jewish settings, they also are forbidden from doing so at the Western Wall, the remnant of the wall that surrounded the sacred Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. Many progressive Jews interpret the restriction as a violation of their right to worship in the Holy Land.
"It speaks to the divisiveness of the chief rabbinate in Israel and the unfortunate lack of pluralism allowed in the country," said Rabbi Michael Siegel of Anshe Emet a Conservative synagogue in Chicago's Lakeview neighborhood. The chief rabbinate of Israel is charged with overseeing religious laws and supervising the Western Wall.
In Israel, when Judaism is observed, it is often done in a more traditional way.
"The non-Orthodox religious movement is growing in Israel, but is not as extensive as it is here," said Rabbi Michael Balinsky, executive vice president of the Chicago Board of Rabbis.
And Jewish Americans are beginning to feel the strain, reacting to events like the July arrest of activist Anat Hoffman. Shortly before her arrest, Hoffman held a series of events in Chicago synagogues to raise money for her organization, Israel Religious Action Center.
For Wendy Rhodes, president of Congregation Solel, Sunday's photo op was an important way to take a stand for religious plurality, she said.
"We hope it sends the message," Rhodes said of the two dozen photos she commissioned. Rhodes said the congregation seeks to make a dent in the much larger issue of religious equality.
"The challenge they face as members of a Reform congregation is wanting to assert a greater religious presence at a site like the Western Wall, (where) traditionally Orthodox exerts religious control," Balinsky said of efforts like Solel's.
For Modern Orthodox Rabbi Asher Lopatin of Lakeview's Anshe Sholom B'nai Israel, where women do touch the Torah, it's important to respect and honor rules set abroad.
"It's very tricky to get critical not living there," Lopatin said. "We have to give a lot of respect to those who are living there and those who are put in charge."
But it's not that simple for progressive Jews, who fear that the restrictive rules will push people away from the religion.
"This is a very serious issue that really threatens the unity of the people," Siegel said. "Throughout Jewish history, internal divisions … have proven to be as dangerous as external threats."
As Reform advocate Marlene Dodinval summed it up, "There's more than one way to be Jewish."
*Our Lunatic growing fringe extremists
How about a
> rabbinical court meting out 39 lashes to a man who sang in mixed company?
> stranger, the man agreed to the lashes. It was in Friday's jpost.
*d Abbas's popular name.
"God should strike them and these Palestinians -- evil haters of Israel -- with a plague," the 89-year-old rabbi said in his weekly address to the faithful, excerpts of which were broadcast on Israeli radio Sunday.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu distanced himself from the comments and said Israel wanted to reach a peace deal with the Palestinians that would ensure good neighborly relations.
"The comments do not reflect Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's view or the position of the government of Israel," Netanyahu's office said in a statement.
The United States said Yosef's comments were "inflammatory" and an impediment to peace efforts.
"As we move forward to relaunch peace negotiations, it is important that actions by people on all sides help to advance our effort, not hinder it," State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said in a statement.
President Barack Obama's administration is hosting Israeli and Palestinian leaders in Washington this week to try to restart direct Mideast peace negotiations after a nearly two-year hiatus.
The Iraqi-born cleric has made similar remarks before, most notably in 2001, during a Palestinian uprising, when he called for Arabs' annihilation and said it was forbidden to be merciful to them.
He later said he was referring only to "terrorists" who attacked Israelis. In the 1990s, Yosef broke with other Orthodox Jewish leaders by voicing support for territorial compromise with the Palestinians.
Thursday, Aug. 12, 2010
In Israel, A Fight to Make the Wall More Inclusive
By Hillary Brenhouse --
Last month former Jerusalem city councilor Anat Hoffman, a brightly colored
prayer shawl draped about her neck like a scarf, took a stand. Backed by a
band of dancing, chanting, clapping women and the mound of stones that is
Judaism's most revered shrine, the Western Wall, or Kotel, she cradled a
heavy Torah scroll. In moments, a YouTube video testifies, the Israeli
police were there, pleading with her to abandon the holy book. When she
refused, they made attempts to pry it from her arms.
"It's mine, it's mine!" she yelps over and again in the footage of the
scuffle. Hoffman was still gripping onto the scroll when she was jostled
into the backseat of the van that would take her to the police station. The
women continued to sing even after the car had pulled away.
Twenty years ago, Women of the Wall, the religious activist group of which
Hoffman is chairwoman, petitioned Israel's Supreme Court for the right to
worship freely at the Kotel, in the manner of Orthodox Jewish men. They
asked, in other words, for authorization to pray as a group, their voices
raised, while wearing prayer shawls and reading from the Torah. Meeting in
supplication at the start of every Hebrew month, they were =97 and still ar=
assailed with curses and hard objects, hurled across the partition that
separates ladies and men at the site. Customarily, women at the Kotel pray
individually and in silence. (See pictures of
The court ultimately ruled against them. After a lengthy legal battle, it
determined in 2003 that women are not permitted to read from the Torah or
wear tallitot, fringed pray shawls traditional to men, at the Western Wall
on the grounds that it might disrupt public order. Instead, they may hold
services any way they like at the adjacent Robinson's Arch, a monument set
in an archaeological garden tucked just out of view. The 1967 Protection of
Holy Places Law that governs the Kotel bars "holding a religious ceremony
that is not according to local custom." Israel's Chief Rabbinate, its
supreme Jewish religious governing body, and Religious Affairs Ministry hav=
interpreted that as Orthodox custom. The definition stands.
In the early years of the State, the Chief Rabbinate was in the hands of
Orthodox Zionist parties that prioritized the building of Israel and felt a
connection with secular Jews. But in recent years that movement has focused
almost exclusively on settlement building in the West Bank, allowing
religious power to shift to the more liturgically rigid ultra-Orthodox.
Thirty years ago, ultra-Orthodox parties held five of the 120 seats in the
Knesset, Israel's legislature. As of the 2009 elections, they hold sixteen.
"Narrow-minded parties have become the kingmakers," says Rabbi Steven
Wernick, executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative
Judaism. "And the more the Haredim [ultra-Orthodox] consolidate power, the
less pluralism and liberal expressions of Judaism are allowed to be
expressed in the Israeli religious landscape."
That landscape is becoming increasingly fractured. On the same day that Ana=
Hoffman was detained, a law on religious conversion proposed by Yisrael
Beiteinu member David Rotem passed through a Knesset committee by a 5-4
vote. The bill was initially aimed at facilitating conversion for the
300,000 Russians immigrants in Israel who are not considered Jewish due to
their mixed parentage, granting local rabbis across the country the power t=
convert. But under pressure from the ultra-Orthodox parties, the bill was
amended to grant full authority to the Chief Rabbinate and declare Orthodox
Jewish law the basis of conversion. The reaction from members of the
American Jewish community, who fear that their more lenient conversion
processes will be invalidated by the law, has been overwhelming. "The bill
completely delegitimizes North American Jewry, 85% of which is politically
liberal," says Wernick. For now, both sides have agreed to a six-month
period of negotiation, a delay instituted by Prime Minister Netanyahu, who
has said that the bill "could tear apart the Jewish people."
But though they sympathize with liberal Jews in that growing crisis, most o=
Women of the Wall's 106 members are themselves Orthodox. Jewish law mandate=
that women are exempt from performing what are called "positive, time-bound
mitzvot," or commandments that are to be carried out at specific intervals,
such as the wearing of the tallit. Opinion, even among Orthodox leaders,
differs as to whether women may, in keeping with religious law, waive this
exemption. But even among those who agree that they can, many rabbis
maintain that to pray in such a way at the Wall would be an impermissible
departure from tradition. "Custom is much harder to fight than regulation,"
says Hoffman. "The wall has been in Israeli hands for 43 years. Women of th=
Wall has been around for 21 years. When will I become custom?" (See picture=
of heartbreak in the Middle
That is the question that prompted Hoffman to slip her exposed Torah past
security, a scroll that had previously only ever seen the women's side of
the Wall from the inside of a dark duffel bag. She is said to have only bee=
carrying the holy book, not reading from it as is illegal. An investigation
into her case is still underway. "In Israel state forces =97 the police, th=
courts, the municipalities =97 have somehow become servants of only one str=
of Judaism," says Hoffman, who was fined $1,300 and banned from visiting th=
Western Wall for thirty days as a result of July's run-in. "The secular
police of the democracy are under pressure to stop us. And they are
completely out of their jurisdiction." This is their second female arrest i=
two years: in 2009, Israeli medical student Nofrat Frenkel was the first
woman in the country to be detained during prayers at the Kotel for publicl=
wrapping herself in a tallit.
Hoffman's detention gave a sense of urgency to a pre-planned conference hel=
by the Knesset's Lobby for Civil Equality and Pluralism one day later on
July 13th. The meeting was led by Nitzan Horowitz, a liberal member of the
parliament, who intends on introducing a bill that would amend the Holy
Places Law and advance more inclusive solutions at the country's sacred
sites. It will propose that the Kotel plaza be divided into three sections,
the largest of them a non-segregated space, recognizing the Wall as a
national place of pilgrimage rather than a religious site where worship mus=
follow strict Orthodox practice. The proposition is an audacious one.
"Secular Jews are much more bold now than they ever were in the past," says
Professor Menacham Friedman, a Bar-Ilan University sociologist of religion,
in response to the idea. "They are pushing back." On whether he thinks the
bill will become law, Friedman predicts, "Not now. But probably yes, in the
end. Revolutions do not happen in Israel. Everything is evolution; slowly,
carefully, things are changing."
Among those in attendance at the meeting were former paratroopers who
brought the Kotel under Israeli control in the 1967 Six-Day War fought with
Egypt, Jordan and Syria, and who spoke of the need to "liberate the Wall
once again," this time from intolerance. "The time has come to return the
Wall's plaza to the hands of the entire Jewish people," Knesset member
Horowitz told the crowd of civil rights activist, religious groups and
political party members. "It belongs to us all."
Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, the religious authority who has overseen the Wall
for nearly fifteen years, shares that sentiment, but has come to a radicall=
different conclusion. "The Kotel belongs to everyone, and so it needs to be
run according to what is mutual between us, not what separates us," says
Rabinowitz, who was notably absent from the Knesset gathering. What is
common to the diverse worshippers who visit the site, he stresses, is the
custom of the Wall. "That is why the Supreme Court came to the decision it
did. If the Women of the Wall would like the state to be more liberal, this
is not the place to voice that opinion. This not a political place." A
common criticism of the women's group is that its members are motivated by =
desire to make a political statement, not a sincere wish to pray.
It is likely that a mix of politics and prayer brought the women to the
stretch of coarse, white limestone, the last remnant of the ancient Jewish
temple destroyed by the Romans in 70 A.D., this week. August 11 marked the
first day of the Hebrew month of Elul, when it is customary to blow the
shofar, or ram's horn. Hoffman has sounded the first blasts, meant to begin
the process of ushering in the Jewish High Holidays, on the group's behalf
since its founding in 1988. This year she was absent, her restraining order
still in effect. So was theshofar, which was confiscated by police and only
returned to Women of the Wall upon their departure to Robinson's Arch. But
upwards of one hundred members and supporters came to show their solidarity
in the spirit of the soldiers who reached the Wall 43 years ago and, singin=
the Israeli national anthem, wept for victory. "We are going to take back
what most Israelis have given up for lost," Hoffman says. "If we can get
pluralism at the Kotel, we can get it anywhere. This is where we're going t=
win our liberation."
Monday, July 19, 2010
Govt may fall over conversion bill
The struggle over the conversion bill is not quite over and the remarks
of Rabbi Amar yesterday have now made clear what many of us have been
saying all along: it is aimed at preventing non-Orthodox conversions.
Amar called for haredi parties to withdraw from the coalition if the
bill is not passed and said, "I told Prime Minister Netanyahu if, heaven
forbid, he permits Reform conversion, we will be turning the people into
two parts,meaning one part will not intermarry with the other....Pass
the conversion law or we will leave..." Amar is not concerned with the
bill because it will make conversion for Russians easier, but because it
will make 'Reform' conversions (and that includes us) harder - and this
from the rabbi we have been told for years is really liberal! I don't
know if Rotem really believes what he says when he tells us that it
won't harm our conversions or not but it is obvious what his partners
believe. He can have a bill that will help by leaving out the parts that
strengthen the authority of the Chief Rabbinate, but if he does that he
will loose the support of Shas and the Haredim whose agenda is not to
encourage conversion but to assert Orthodox monopoly not only in Israel
but throughout the world. In case this was not clear before, it should
Posted by Rabbi yonatan at 7:17 AM 0 comments
Sunday, July 18, 2010
Netanyahu blocks bill?
Dear Rabbi Schonfeld,
I am pleased to inform you that at the Cabinet meeting this morning the Prime Minister announced that the Conversion Bill (Rotem Bill) will divide the Jewish people, and should be opposed.
The Prime Minister informed Professor Yaakov Neeman, Minister of Justice, that the government has retracted its support for the bill in its current form.
As I have said in our conversations together, as well as in media interviews, I am in favor of reaching a compromise on this issue which will meet the main demands of all sides involved. Therefore, I am especially pleased that the bill in its current form will be removed from the agenda and hopefully revamped.
Thank you for bringing me your concerns on this issue and for all of your helpful comments.
MK Yuli Edelstein
Minister of Public Diplomacy
And Diaspora Affairs
Posted by Rabbi yonatan at 1:11 PM 0 comments
The latest news here is that Netanyahu is opposed to the conversion bill
The latest news here is that Netanyahu is opposed to the conversion bill.
"Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu announced on Sunday that he opposes the conversion bill, proposed by Israel Beiteinu MK David Rotem. Netanyahu said the bill could tear apart the Jewish people. The prime minister plans to try to reach an agreement with Israel Beiteinu over the bill, however, if the bill is not removed, Netanyahu said he plans to tell the Likud and other coalition parties to vote against it."
*The Ongoing Destruction of Jerusalem*
In Israel, the Rotem conversion bill, which first loomed as a threat earlier this year, has passed the first vote in the Knesset. This is a very bad thing, because the bill threatens religious pluralism in Israel, the status of all liberal Jews, including Conservative/Masorti Jews, both in Israel and outside it, and the relationship of liberal Jews to the Jewish state.
Rabbi Steve Wernick was in Israel when he, along with his Masorti colleagues, learned that MK David Rotem was taking the bill to the Constitution, Law, and Justice Committee, hoping to have it approved before the end of the Knesset session, which is soon after Tisha B'Av. This was an upsetting surprise; Rabbi Wernick and his colleagues had been assured many times by many officials that no version of the bill would be brought forward at that time and in that way. Rabbi Wernick has done a great deal of lobbying, and has met with Minister Sharansky and other MKs. Members of the Kadimah party have been supportive, he tells us.
There is something that we can do, and we have to do it NOW.
Please click here
and fill out the form and click "Submit". That will send it to Prime Minister Netanyahu.
It is vitally important for all of us - Conservative/Masorti Jews, liberal Jews, and ultimately all Jews - that this bill, which will serve only to divide the Jewish world and subvert the Zionist ideal - not be allowed to pass.
Please forward this to your entire list. There is not enough time for us to send this the conventional way through our database. This should go to every Conservative Jew you can think of - executive directors, other professionals, presidents, other lay leaders, and everyone else.
For more information:
Here, the Jerusalem Post's editorial is strongly against the Rotem bill:
Jpost editorial http://www.jpost.com/Opinion/Editorials/Article.aspx?id=181271
Update from Jerry Silverman with President Peres' Statement
I am writing to you all now towards the end of yet another day of very significant activity regarding the conversion bill. I'll try to summarize the latest news here.
As you know, the bill passed its reading in the Law Committee yesterday. The next stage involves three readings in the Knesset plenum. A number of sources have indicated that the bill will not be presented before the Knesset breaks for the summer next Wednesday, but we are not relying on this. In fact, the media has reported that Prime Minister Netanyahu himself will stop the legislation from progressing before the recess, but there have been no public statements to that effect.
Unfortunately, over the last three days, neither Prime Minister Netanyahu nor the Likud Party have issued any statements regarding their position on this issue - but we hope they will do so. The Prime Minister has, in the past, expressed his view that the bill should not be passed in its present form, but he has refrained from commenting in the critical last three days.
I sent a personal and urgent letter to the Prime Minister two days ago. Similarly, our Chair, Kathy Manning, sent a letter to him today. The text of that letter can be found at the end of this update.
In addition, our Campaign Chairs and Directors (CC+D) Mission, currently in Israel, met today with Mark Regev, the Prime Minister's media advisor. Responding to a question by National Campaign Chair Michael Lebovitz on the conversion issue, Regev stated: "The Prime Minister takes this very seriously. His closest confidante is Natan Sharansky. The Prime Minister will not allow anything to happen that will in any way inhibit the unity of the Jewish people. That's all I can state publicly."
I was supposed to return to the United States last night, but have now delayed that trip indefinitely, pending developments. Yesterday we met late in to the night discussing strategy, and we continue to be in constant touch with JAFI Chair Natan Sharansky and the representatives of the religious streams. The relationship and professionalism of working with the streams has truly been a privilege.
In addition, we have been speaking with influential Israeli personalities and politicians to continue to apply pressure. We appreciate the work of our Federation colleagues in North America and our rabbinic colleagues and major organization leaders in reaching influencers to hear their concerns
Similarly, we have given multiple media interviews in both Hebrew and English, including to the BBC, and continue to act wherever possible. I have included links to some recent articles at the end of this email.
A short time ago, our Senior Vice President Rebecca Caspi and I had a personal, urgent meeting with Israeli President Shimon Peres on this issue where we stressed the critical nature of the question to our communities. Following the meeting, Peres met with the entire CC+D Mission where he made the following statement:
"More than half of our people are living in the State of Israel. Almost half of it lives outside of Israel. We should remember that those living outside of Israel are not represented by the Knesset, they have their own communal life. A discussion that bares consequences on the entire Jewish people should include different voices - from within Israel and from without.
The legislative process should include an open public discussion that will lead to an understanding. It should be conducted with tolerance, with open hearts and open minds.
A split in the Jewish life will be catastrophic and totally unnecessary. We bear the responsibility for generations to come we should handle it with care while preserving unity.
In 1988 I could have formed a government under my leadership. The condition was my approval to revise the law of 'Who is a Jew'. I immediately rejected this offer.
I noticed with appreciation the comments made by Prime Minister Netanyahu, who said that the legislative process will be postponed in order to conduct a serious and inclusive discussion. We have to find a proper solution to enable conversion in Israel but not at the cost of unity with the Jewish community abroad."
JFNA is closely monitoring developments and we will keep you posted as the events occur.
Update from Natan Sharansky
Jerusalem, 2nd Av התש"ע
July 13, 2010
I am writing to bring you up to date on developments over the past 48 hours related to the conversion bill of MK David Rotem. As you may recall from my letter in March, the implications of this bill could be profound for Israel-Diaspora relations.
In a surprise move apparently calculated to enable quick, unopposed passage of his bill, MK David Rotem brought it before the Knesset Law, Constitution and Justice Committee on Monday morning.
After vociferous debate in which many MKs expressed deep-seated opposition to the bill, it nevertheless passed the committee by a vote of 5-4, rallying the support of MKs from Israel Beitenu and the haredi parties Shas and Agudat Yisrael. The bill is expected to go to the Knesset plenum for the three required readings in the coming weeks, though, we hope, not before the Knesset goes into recess in the middle of next week.
When I spoke at the Knesset Law Committee, I explained to the MKs that the passage of this bill would send a loud message to world Jewrythat they had been betrayed and that Israel was questioning the legitimacy of their Judaism. Jerry Silverman, President and CEO of the Jewish Federations of North America attended the Knesset Law Committee and explained cogently the implications of this legislation both to Knesset members and the media.
Once the bill passed through the committee, our efforts turned toward thwarting the intention to move the bill forward through the Knesset plenum in the few remaining days before the Knesset goes into its summer recess. That very day I had an urgent meeting with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu as well as with Speaker Reuven Rivlin and cabinet ministers, in order to make sure that no additional surprises are in store for us in the days ahead.
In parallel, the Jewish Agency took to the airwaves and spoke to journalists about the urgent need to prevent a needless rift in the world Jewish community. I can assure you that the issue is becoming as important to Israelis as it is to Diaspora communities. In the past 48 hours, this issue has received a prominent place in the pages of Israel's newspapers and in Hebrew-language radio and television broadcasts, nearly all of which carried our message of the importance of unity in these difficult days.
We continue to meet with key players in the political system, as well as to keep up our efforts in the media. We are committed to ensuring that the Diaspora's position is heard clearly by all members of Knesset and ministers in the government so that they can fully understand the gravity of the consequences of this legislation
We will continue to update you as this important issue moves forward.
Letter to the Prime Minister
Letter to PM
July 13, 2010
His Excellency Mr. Binyamin Netanyahu
Prime Minister of Israel
Dear Mr. Prime Minister,
We are writing to you in what we believe are extraordinary circumstances. Indeed it is highly unusual for the entire Coordinating Council of The Jewish Federations of North America to jointly sign a letter, but we feel that this action reflects the depth of feeling and the gravity of the situation regarding the conversion bill currently before the Knesset.
We were certainly encouraged by your earlier statement on the matter and especially by your request to Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky to lead efforts to find a formula that is acceptable to all parties.
But we were taken by surprise and deeply disappointed to hear that the bill was passed by the Law Committee before this process reached completion.
We are at a loss to understand how, with the entire Jewish world focused on that committee room, the three Likud members - who could have voted down the bill - were conspicuously absent.
We are of course pleased by what we understand is your position on this issue, but are concerned that neither you nor your party has made a public statement on the matter in the last few critical days.
We don't need to tell you the depth of feeling and level of concern in our communities at this moment in time. We now await your leadership and action that will reflect your concern for the unity of the Jewish People to ensure that dialogue takes place and that appropriate language is found, acceptable to Jews across the world.
On behalf of The Jewish Federations of North America, we urge you to act decisively to stop this bill from proceeding any further and ensure that the proper discussions that you requested take place.
Kathy E. Manning
Chair of the Board
July 14, 2010
Much of the American Jewish community is feeling betrayal over steps taken in the Knesset this week toward approving a controversial bill that would give the Orthodox rabbinate a monopoly on conversions. My column and our lead Editorial explore the issue.
Overhaul The Conversion Process
The leadership of organized Jewry, from the Jewish Federations of North America to the Jewish Agency for Israel, is expressing frustration, anger and a sense of betrayal - understandably - with the Netanyahu government for allowing a controversial conversion bill to go forward in the Knesset, even though it would alienate the vast majority of diaspora Jewry.
Fresh Anger From Diaspora Over Bill On Conversions
by Gary Rosenblatt/Editor and Publisher
It's hard not to be cynical about the latest conversion controversy in Jerusalem that threatens to further divide an already fragmented Jewish People for no reason but one: internal Israeli politics.
Former Knesset speaker worries rift with haredim too deep to bridge; says 'we are witnessing ongoing disintegration of Israeli society into 'tribes'
Published: 06.19.10, 20:42 / Israel News
Former Knesset Speaker Avraham Burg said mass protests in the haredi sector following the Emmanuel affair, in which parents refused to send their daughters to an ethnically mixed school despite a High Court ruling on the matter, served as the final deed of divorce between the haredim and the rest of Israeli society.
In an interview with Ynet, Burg warned that the widely covered attack of haredi sector representatives on the Supreme Court and its judges is eroding Israel's rule of law.
Preoccupied with nonsense / Sever Plocker
Instead of focusing on Iran, we’re dealing with insignificant haredi drama
"The haredim are not part of the State of Israel," said Burg. "The day before yesterday, haredim declared their autonomy within the State. They may be part of other countries, but I think we are witnessing the ongoing disintegration of Israeli society into 'tribes'."
The former Knesset speaker said the passing week has served as a turning point in the State's ability to govern the haredim.
"The Supreme Court has become a weak body under attack and no one is defending it. Their power trip, along with mistakes made by the political establishment, which has simply ceased to function in the past few weeks, are issues that could have been solved quickly.
Ultra-Orthodox rebellion / Our God is on earthThe ultra-Orthodox public,
will destroy basic values, without which a democratic, developed state
cannot exist; it will be lost unless it fights back.By Yossi
For many years the culture war has hung over us like a dark cloud, like a
threat. Now it is happening; the war has erupted. The great Haredi rebellion
has begun and is raging on several fronts - in Jerusalem, Ashkelon, Jaffa,
Immanuel, Be'er Sheva - and no place is safe. The ultra-Orthodox public,
which has always been cutting down our trees, is now uprooting them. It will
destroy basic values, without which a democratic, developed state cannot
exist. It will be lost unless it fights back.
This was to be expected, despite our attempts to ignore and deny it. This is
what happens when there is no agreement on the source of authority. Their
source is the halakha's dead letters, to each rabbi his own, while our
source is the living fountain flowing through government, court and Knesset
- democracy's authorized, elected institutions.
Thus, even negotiations in good faith have little chance of success. So far
all the attempts have failed, not only about archaeological digs. It's like
the deaf talking to the blind - they are the deaf, we are the blind, who
refuse to see reality as it is and where it is going.
No negotiation or agreement are possible with people who have no God but
their father in heaven and his representatives on earth; whose sovereign is
God almighty and they are his self-appointed spokespeople. We, too, have a
God, but he is on earth, in our heart and consciousness. We, too, have a
sovereign - the people and its elected, not anointed, representatives.
The Haredim have declared a rebellion now for an obvious reason. They know
they have a good chance of winning. In every other country they obey the
state authorities. Only here, in the state they made no effort to establish
and make no effort to maintain, are they a law unto themselves.
We have brought this calamity upon ourselves with our own hands, with our
weakness and concessions. While every country worthy of the name makes
efforts to separate state from religion, here they are mixed together,
wallowing in the same mud, both getting soiled.
Only in Israel are they such heroes. Everywhere else they are submissive and
docile. It wouldn't occur to them to curse judges in America or attack
policemen in Europe.
The Haredim of Zion and Jerusalem do not recognize the Zionist state's
legitimacy, yet they eat off its table. They kick every bucket, but will not
give up the milk. The Jewish state, on its part, is giving up the democratic
part of its definition.
The walls are shaking, and the state's leaders keep mum. To this moment we
haven't heard a single official word. Nothing about stopping the
discrimination between secular and Haredi students, or the discrimination
against Sephardi girls in Haredi schools. Nothing about quashing violent
demonstrations of heresy against the rule of law.
This is a war that has been forced upon us, a war we cannot afford to lose.
The rebellious Haredim must be put in their place, so that we, too, have a
place in which to live.
A Prayer for Israel in Troubled Times:
Dear Mr. Ambassador,
>In these troubled times, when Israel is subject to severe criticism
>from all corners, I am pained to write this letter to you. But I do
>so as I have been working to rectify an intolerable situation for
>many years to no avail. I have spoken with officials at the highest
>levels. I have worked within the system with far too little success.
>I serve as the director of the Rabbinical Assembly in Israel. This
>is the organization of Masorti rabbis. I have been working with
>converts to Judaism in this capacity for some sixteen years. In all
>of this time I do not recall a single case of a convert to Judaism
>from the States, of African-American origin, who was able to make
>aliya through normal channels. In virtually every case there are
>stumbling blocks placed in the path to Israel by both the Interior
>Ministry and by the Ministry of Justice.
>Lest there be any question about this I shall give several examples
>(and there are many more) of those who have suffered this racist
>policy. The racism has been exposed in news stories over the years
>but nothing has changed at all.
>Carla went through a Masorti/Conservative conversion in Atlanta. She
>has been in Israel, together with her now nine-year-old daughter,
>for several years. She has all the necessary papers to qualify for
>citizenship under the Law of Return. Yet, not only has she been
>stonewalled by the Interior Ministry but they have not even issued a
>work permit. She may not work nor is she entitled to health
>insurance. Clara attends a Masorti shul in Jerusalem every Shabbat.
>Calls to the Interior Ministry fall on deaf ears. Faxes receive no response.
>Judith is a returning Israeli. She had been converted to Judaism in
>America as a child but returned to the US a number of years back.
>The struggle for her family to obtain Israeli citizenship took
>years. Judith's mother, living in Israel, took ill and Judith
>returned, together with her new husband, about eighteen months ago.
>Her husband has not been issued a work permit and Judith has not
>received rights as a returning citizen. Both are Black. There is no
>other reasonable explanation.
>Nechama, too, is returning to Israel. She has been hoping to rejoin
>her family. She is married to a man that went through conversion in
>Chicago. Her rabbi has high praise for the couple. Nechama and her
>husband are both people of color. Nechama sits in Chicago and is
>unable to receive an answer as to what is behind the delay. She
>fears that if she sells her home she will be left in limbo. But I
>know the problem. It is the color of her skin. Again my letters and
>calls to the Interior Ministry have gone unanswered.
>Len (Leib) is living in Ashkelon. He was converted in Kansas and
>became active in a Conservative congregation. His commitment to
>Judaism is serious. He is unable to obtain status from the Interior
>Ministry, leaving his family in dire straits. The same is true for
>Ira, who was converted in Dallas. Both are people of color.
>I have attended to several dozen cases just like this. They will
>remain in limbo, never to be acted upon, until the wonderful lawyers
>with whom we work press hard for months (and sometimes years) or
>until we take court action.
>The Shlichei Aliya in the States are powerless to help. The
>dedicated people at the Jewish Agency can only throw up their hands
>Officials in the Interior Ministry will claim that they have no way
>of knowing whether these righteous converts are, in reality, Black
>Hebrews affiliated with the cult in Dimona. Despite no evidence that
>they have such an affiliation, they are presumed guilty unless
>pressure is brought on their behalf.
>The problem is not limited exclusively to Americans. Miriam, from
>the Philippines, had been trying to make Aliyah for six - yes, six -
>years. Even with pressure from the lawyers, her skin color was just
>not right. Three months ago the Israeli High Court ordered the
>Interior Ministry to interview her and show cause why she should not
>be recognized as Jewish and allowed to make aliya under the Law of
>Return. The Interior Ministry decided that she must fly to Israel
>for the interview rather than hold it at the Israeli embassy in
>Manila. This is the same woman who had been turned away at the
>airport the last time she tried to visit her friends in Israel (even
>though she is Jewish and no advance visa is required from the Philippines).
>The trip from Manila to Tel Aviv is a long one. Just before her time
>of arrival I received a call from the Justice Ministry. They were
>demanding a thirty thousand shekel guarantee at the airport in order
>to allow Miriam to enter the country (this despite the court ruling,
>or maybe to show who is the real boss). Miriam did not have that
>kind of money, and, in any event, she had already left her home. We
>were able to see that a bond was posted. Miriam passed her interview
>with flying colors, her commitment to Judaism and our people evident
>- but she still awaits a decision on her status. Meanwhile, she is
>living in Israel without the right to work and without health coverage.
>Israeli law is quite clear. These people are entitled to
>citizenship. The discrimination is not based on the denomination.
>The Interior Ministry, by and large, no longer differentiates
>between Orthodox and non-Orthodox converts. But heaven forbid you
>have the wrong skin color.
>I have a news flash for the Interior Ministry. Jews come in every
>hue. We have been blessed by the aliya from Ethiopia - however slow
>the process has been. We have a thriving community in Uganda known
>as the Abuyadaya.
>The plummeting support for Israel around the world means that we may
>need our friends in North America more than ever. But support among
>our young is falling. There is embarrassment at so much of what
>Israel is doing (some owing to flawed policies and some to poor
>When women are arrested at the Western Wall for wanting to pray in
>keeping with their custom, Israel pays a price. Diaspora Jews can't
>fathom such a thing.
>When the deputy Foreign Minister tries to change the conversion laws
>in a way that may severely impact on non-Orthodox Jews, North
>American Jews are flabbergasted.
>When a member of the Israeli coalition claims that he does not need
>the support of North American Jewish leaders (MK Rotem) he drives
>another wedge in the relationship of our two communities.
>Mr. Ambassador, my hand shakes as I my fingers hit the keys on my
>computer. How can such an injustice based on color exist in a
>country made up of so many citizens who have suffered because of
>their own ethnicity.
>Mr. Oren, I implore you, please help me fix this injustice.
>Rabbi Andrew Sacks
She Doesn't Live Here Anymore, Part 2
Rabbi Morris Allen Rabbi Morris Allen responds.
Earlier today I posted a story about a woman who made aliya, served in the IDF but then left Israel when her non-Orthodox conversion was rejected by Israel's non-Zionist chief rabbinate.
While Jessica Fishman did not convert in Minnesota, she did live most her adolescence and early young adulthood here, attending Beth Jacob Congregation, a Conservative synagogue headed by Hechsher Tzedek / Magen Tzedek's Rabbi Morris Allen.
In response to that article, Rabbi Allen Issued the following statement:
Rabbi Morris Allen
First and foremost, our thoughts and prayers are with Jessica Fishman. She is a wonderful individual whose passion for Israel and the Jewish people has been inspirational. We cheered in our shul when Jessica made aliyah in 2002. When she landed on the tarmac of Ben-Gurion Airport and had her picture taken with the Prime Minister she was radiant. Her beautiful smile made it clear that she understood that she had come “home” --to the home of her people long ago and for generations to come.
I have had the pleasure, as her rabbi, of watching this Zionist passion grow and develop. Having grown up in a home where Judaism and love of Israel were both central, it was not accidental that during her college years her Zionist fervor found expression. On one occasion, when Jessica was a senior at Indiana University, during our annual “college winter break reunion”, she implored her fellow Beth Jacob college students to spend a semester or a year on junior year abroad. After her college graduation, she applied for and was accepted into OTZMA, a Jewish Agency program whose primary goal is to allow recent college graduates an opportunity to experience what living in Israel might indeed be all about. It was after this year-long program that Jessica decided that she was going to make Aliyah and devote herself to the cause of making Israel truly a Jewish homeland. The sadness of this current moment in her life is that a passionate Jew and fervent Zionist has discovered that the country we love and defend has increasingly surrendered its soul to those whose understanding of Judaism and the Jewish people is narrow and filled with misunderstandings and a fear of “Klal Yisrael”.
I know the Fishman’s. They are good Jews and lovely people. I had the pleasure of being their rabbi from the time they moved back to Minnesota from New York in 1989, until they moved to Colorado in 2008. They purposefully moved to Mendota Heights so they could raise their children in our shul community. They bought a home not more than 3 blocks away so they could have the shul serve as a central part of their family’s life.
They sent their children to Jewish schools, provided them with strong Jewish connections throughout their high school years, and encouraged them to participate in USY and Herzl camp. They also modeled what Jewish life was all about. Not only was their home a home where shabbas was shabbas, and where kashrut was observed, they demonstrated that the principle that “all of Israel is responsible one for the other” was a living part of their lives.
Les Fishman was active in shul leadership and served as its President. He was regularly at daily minyan. Susie was actively involved in Hadassah and served as its President and was in shul most every Shabbat. In fact, during the Intifada, when many American Jews refused to travel to Israel, Susie and I together with several other Jews from St. Paul made a solidarity trip to support the people and the State of Israel. Sadly, Susie’s mother died while we were there. And though she immediately boarded a plane and returned for the funeral, her parting words to me at the airport were that she was “truly sad to be leaving her people at this critical moment in time for an equally tragic personal loss.”
I hope that Jessica is able to return to Israel with her dignity as a Jew fully intact and her passion for the Zionist dream no less evident. But in order for that to happen we need to work together to overcome the forces that are pulling the fabric of the Jewish community and the Jewish people apart. The forces of intolerance and the enemies of pluralism must be addressed at every point of contact. We must teach a Judaism where “Simchah shel mitzvah” --the joy of Jewish living-- is evident in all that we do. We must work hard to create a Judaism where service in the Israeli army is valued no less as a sign of one’s commitment to Jewish people than is study in a yeshiva. We must work hard to create a Judaism where kashrut doesn’t devolve into worrying about bugs in broccoli but rather is a means for eating in a manner that brings God’s presence more fully into this world. We must work hard to create a Judaism where Jewish learning is central to every Jewish person’s life, and that learning includes not only the accumulated sacred texts of our tradition but also the poetry of a Bialik, the prose of a Singer and the teachings of a Heschel. Unless we devote ourselves to creating such Judaism, the likelihood of additional tragedies like Jessica’s will only continue to multiply.
For those of us who are vigilant day and night for the security and defense of Israel, we understand that its internal security is no less important. If the forces of the narrow and intolerant continue to flourish inside the State, the long-term security of her borders are even more precarious. Jessica Fishman is an example of the best that American Jewry has produced. As one committed to the sacred work of building a vibrant Judaism and a vital Jewish people, I re-dedicate myself to working to insure that never again will such a beautiful Jewish soul feel the vindictive hand of a Judaism increasingly controlled by narrowness and intolerance. Judaism and the state of Israel are capable of crafting solutions to ambiguously difficult situations. More importantly, what is called for is to recapture the courage of the ancient rabbis, who even on occasion were willing to alter a biblical command in order to allow for Jewish lives to be protected and lived fully(see for example Sanhedrin 26a). We Jews deserve no less and indeed the times call for such courage in fighting for this cause.
Rabbi Morris J. Allen May 4, 2010
Horrible Rottem bill
April 30, 2010 (New York, NY) -- Israeli Knesset Member David Rotem, author of a proposed bill dealing with conversion in Israel, met this week with leaders of the North American Jewish community to discuss the bill’s possible ramifications. Following a series of discussions with Rotem, the Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist movements together issued the following statement:
We are appreciative of the substantial amount of time MK David Rotem devoted to meetings with us, individually and collectively, during his visit to the United States to discuss the legislation he has sponsored in the Knesset dealing with conversion and the Law of Return. We also welcome Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Daniel Ayalon’s participation in many of our meetings.
It should, first, be emphasized that we deeply appreciate Mr. Rotem’s stated goal in advancing the legislation – to ameliorate the bottleneck in the conversion process that currently keeps as many as 350,000 thousand olim (immigrants) from the former Soviet Union from converting to Judaism. The laudable goal of attempting to hasten the process of conversion for these individuals – who currently serve in the Israeli army and contribute positively to Israeli society – is one that deserves widespread attention and support. Together, we thank MK Rotem for his efforts in addressing this crisis.
MK Rotem believes his proposed legislation would rapidly open the door to a faster conversion process. We respectfully disagree. Not only would this legislation fail to achieve his forecasted result, the collateral damage to the 85% of world Jewry who are not Orthodox (and perhaps others who are) would be disastrous to the unity of the Jewish people in a number of ways.
The bill threatens to alter the Law of Return and consolidate conversion power into the hands of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel. Both of these results could have devastating effects on the relationship between Israeli and Diaspora Jewry and thus on the broader unity of the Jewish people. Such concentration of power in favor of Ultra-Orthodox Jewry effectively negates the roles of the non-Orthodox movements both within Israel and abroad, sending the message that only the Orthodox have a place within our Homeland.
Specifically, the current formulations of Article 1 would legislate the role and status of the Chief Rabbinate in a way not previously written into law. Such legislation would turn back the clock on 20 years of hard-won accomplishments in the Israeli High Court and complicate future efforts to appeal to the Court, which has been the single mechanism to counter religious discrimination in Israel .
This bill returns us to the destructive “who is a Jew” question, that has previously threatened to divide World Jewry, as it does today. To explicitly connect conversion to a single religious stream, while making no mention of other streams of Judaism, is by definition to compromise and jeopardize the Law of Return, as it places the decision for “who is a Jew” in the hands of one group. Such an action is inconsistent with the democratic ideals on which the State of Israel was founded and relies, and would detrimentally affect the worldwide Jewish community.
Further compounding our concern is the fact that the bill mentions no alternative method of conversion via non-Orthodox streams. We – and more importantly, our Israeli colleagues and their lawyers – believe that this language, if adopted as written, would further marginalize and hamper the Masorti and Reform movements in Israel . This would be a tragic consequence as we offer vibrant religious alternatives to a nation of Jews religiously alienated by the increasingly extreme positions of a minority religious establishment. We firmly believe that any conversion legislation must explicitly address these concerns.
We are additionally troubled by language that provides that any person who entered Israel while ineligible to receive Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return will remain ineligible following conversion. Though MK Rotem says this language exists to outlaw the possibility of illegal immigrants undergoing conversion solely to obtain Israeli citizenship and remain in the country, the reality is that this deeply troubling clause differentiates between those who are born Jewish and those who choose to be Jewish, amending the Law of Return to exclude those who have made a conscious decision to join the Jewish community. For 2,000 years, Judaism has treated Jews-by-choice the same as Jews-by-birth. We are taught "as soon as a convert emerges from the mikvah (ritual bath) she or he is Jewish for all purposes." (Talmud, Yevamot 47b) We see no justification now for differentiating between groups of Jews or including an article with such severe ramifications in the framework of a law purportedly dealing with easing conversion procedures.
While we recognize the goals Mr. Rotem is working to achieve and deeply respect his efforts, we cannot lend our support to a bill that will have such devastating ramifications. This moment, when Israel faces a great many challenges, both at home and abroad, is no time to enact legislation that has the potential to divide the Jewish community or to alienate Diaspora Jewry.
Even as we expressed our concerns to Deputy Foreign Minister Ayalon and MK Rotem, we also emphasized our steadfast love and commitment to the people and State of Israel. It is in this spirit of unity that we stand shoulder to shoulder with our colleagues in the Masorti and Reform movements in Israel and with one another. Indeed, it is our unconditional love for Israel as both a sovereign nation and a worldwide Jewish community that calls us to urge, in the strongest possible terms, upon MK Rotem, the Yisrael Beitenu party, and Prime Minister Netanyahu to withdraw this bill and introduce legislation that resolves the urgent problems of olim from the former Soviet Union without compromising either the core democratic values of the State or the Law of Return.
SHE DOESN'T LIVE HERE ANYMORE
By Smadar Shir, Yediot Achronot April 30th 2010
Jessica Fishman In IDF Uniform (right)
Jessica Fishman no longer lives in Israel.=20
Exactly a week ago she cleared out her rented=20
apartment in central Tel Aviv, put the dog she=20
called Jinji she picked up off the street, in the=20
cage, and together they flew to her parents in=20
Colorado. She has no plans, either on the=20
personal or professional plane, but she needed=20
the warmth of her family to rebuild her identity.
"Seven years ago, I arrived here as=20
a Jewish and Zionist woman," she says teary eyed=20
while packing her suitcases. "Now I am leaving=20
Israel because in the eyes of the Chief Rabbinate=20
I am not a Jewish woman, and when I myself am=20
already not so sure I am so Zionist.
Her seven years in Israel were not a=20
bowl of cherries. But Jessica, age 29, did not=20
break. "To be a new immigrant is to go to war=20
every day. It is a nightmare. It isn't a matter=20
only of concessions and reductions in quality of=20
life and comforts, but getting used to many=20
difficulties including a lonesome life style.=20
Even in the most frustrating times I said to=20
myself that this is my time and the suffering=20
will pay off, because the good follows bad. I=20
volunteered, I studied, I worked, I served two=20
years in the IDF, I met a boy, we were about to=20
get married, I thought I finally was starting my=20
own family. Look the new immigrant's biggest fear=20
is where will we be for the holidays? Who will=20
invite us for meals? And indeed when everything=20
looked like it was falling into place, that seven=20
black years were behind me and I can look ahead =96 the door slammed in my=
Suzie Fishman, Jessica's mother, who=20
came to Israel to help her daughter with parting=20
arrangements, shrugs in defeat.
I ran a kosher home, I sent my two=20
daughters to Jewish schools and I never hid from=20
them the fact that I am a convert," she explains=20
in English. "I always told them: "there are=20
people who were born as Jews and never did=20
anything to enrich the wonderful religion. I did:=20
"I chose, I converted, I immersed myself in a=20
mikvah. Today for the first time in my life, I do=20
not regret this, but I am certainly sorry. I=20
never wanted my conversion to destroy their lives."
Suzie (62), Jessica's mother, grew=20
up in a Christian family in Missouri. "My mother=20
was very religious, and every Sunday she took me=20
to church," the mother recalls. "But in high=20
school I started to move away from religion." In=20
the framework of studies for becoming a=20
registered nurse she met Leslie Fishman, who=20
became a pediatrician. "We dated for two years,=20
and when he received his certification in=20
Minneapolis, MN, he proposed marriage. I knew he=20
was Jewish before then, but between the two of us=20
religion did not play a significant role. Love=20
made me flexible. I need to convert? No problem.=20
This was much harder for my family than for me,=20
in particular my mother. My two parents were=20
prejudiced, and my mother worried she would lose=20
me, which actually happened. She respected my=20
husband but the conversion separated them."
Fishman went through conversion with=20
a reform rabbi in Saint Louis. I did not know=20
much about the various streams of Judaism, but=20
Leslie explained to me that the orthodox are less=20
progressive than the reforms in their approach to=20
women, and therefore we chose a reform rabbi. I=20
studied kosher laws and holidays and customs.=20
Leslie came from a home in which the Judaism was=20
a cultural and social matter more than religious,=20
and it turned out that I learned things that he=20
never knew. At the end of the process I immersed=20
myself in the mikvah. Most of the reform=20
conversions don't include immersion, but the=20
rabbi explained to me that the mikvah will=20
increase the chances that my conversion will be=20
recognized in Israel, a question which at that=20
time did not concern me at all. I received a=20
certificate that I am a Jewish woman and I chose=20
the Jewish name Shulamit, which is derived from the word shalom =96 peace."
In their home in St. Paul MN, Suzie=20
was in charge of giving their daughters a Jewish=20
education: Jessica (Tamar) and her younger sister=20
Sheina, who lives today in New York. "We lived=20
ten minutes walk from the conservative synagogue=20
"Beit Yakov" led by Rabbi Morris Allen," Jessica=20
recalls from her childhood. "Every Shabbat we=20
walked to the synagogue, even when it snowed, and=20
after prayers the children split up into=20
classrooms where they learned Bible. My father=20
was on the synagogue's board of directors, and my=20
mother volunteered for Hadassah. She lit candles=20
every Friday night, she built the sukkah on=20
Sukkot and she taught me why we fast on Yom=20
Kippur and why we light candles on Chanuka. For=20
the seder night there was a big celebration, the=20
whole family came to our house, and until today=20
Passover is my most favorite holiday."
When she was three years old, her=20
mother went through a Bat Mitzva ceremony. "For a=20
year she studied and I applauded when she read=20
from the Torah," Jessica recalls, who until sixth=20
grade learned in a Jewish school. Because of her=20
father's work the family moved to a small city in=20
New York, and she remembers herself in the local=20
supermarket, looking for food items on whose=20
packages was written OU, specifying they were=20
kosher. Summer vacations she spent in "Herzl=20
Camp", and at age 14 she went with her parents=20
and sister for a first visit to Israel. "We=20
toured all over and I loved it," she says=20
smiling. "In particular Tel Aviv. Even then I=20
announced to my parents that one day I will=20
return to Israel forever." Two years afterward=20
she came to Israel for six weeks in the framework=20
of the conservative youth movement. "We prayed=20
three times a day, and every meal ended with the=20
prayer after meals. "I was not so devout," she=20
confesses, " but it interested me to see Israel=20
from the point of view of people my age."
While studying communications and=20
business management at Indiana U. she came to=20
Israel again, learned for a half a year at Hebrew=20
U. and at age 22 returned to Israel in the=20
framework of a nine month volunteer project. "I=20
worked in an absorption center in Ashkelon with=20
Ethiopian children and I prepared young Israelis=20
for their high school graduation exams in=20
English. Afterward we moved to Migdal Ha=20
Emek, we set up a chocolate milk house for=20
children, I worked in a village for children at=20
risk in order to contribute as much as possible,"=20
she stresses. "In the framework of the volunteer=20
project I met Nachman Shai, who was then IDF=20
Spokesman, I told him who I am, and he promised=20
to help me. Two weeks later I received a phone=20
call, someone asked to speak with Jessica Fishman=20
Daughter of Eliezer. It took me a minute to=20
understand that they meant me," She laughs. "They=20
asked me to enlist in two weeks, I sought to=20
postpone the enlistment until I finish the Hebrew=20
class and finally they told me "Hey you can't=20
choose the date of your enlistment according to=20
what is comfortable for you, this is the army." I=20
flew to my parents for a month and a half, I=20
organized documents, I made Aliyah, and at age 23=20
I started to serve in IDF Spokesman."
"We were worried about her," her=20
mother comments. "This was during the second=20
intifada, it was dangerous, but we were very=20
proud of her. She fulfilled her Zionism and her Judaism.:"
LOVE DEPENDENT ON THE PAST
For two years Jessica served as an aide in the=20
Unit For Strategy and Initiatives. "Until today I=20
am forbidden from telling too much about what I=20
did there," she relates. "I thought that I would=20
be Israel's spokesperson for the foreign press,=20
but this was only one aspect of work in the unit,=20
which prepared in advance ways of coping with=20
atrocity scenarios. As a lone soldier woman I=20
rented an apartment, I found friends and every=20
day, when I dressed in uniform, I felt my Israeli=20
identity getting stronger. When I was discharged=20
I wanted to make a long trip abroad like everyone=20
after the army. Instead of flying to India I flew=20
to my parents, who had moved to Colorado, I went=20
skiing and I returned home, to Tel Aviv."
She worked in an advertising office,=20
started to study for a master's degree in=20
business management in the interdisciplinary=20
center in Herzliya and for the first time started=20
to read in Hebrew. "They told me to start with=20
books that I did not know in English, so I=20
started with CATCHER IN THE RYE and from there I=20
moved to BAGEL WISDOM. Reading in Hebrew took=20
more time, but there was great satisfaction.
Two years ago she met M, who almost=20
became her husband. "A friend told me about a guy=20
who wanted my advice," she relates, "I assumed=20
this was someone planning Aliyah. The first time=20
I met M I was amazed that he had such good=20
Hebrew. Later I understood that this was an alibi=20
for a date. We fell in love. He is a fun loving=20
guy who works in strategic marketing. We took a=20
biking trip, his family adopted me like a=20
daughter and I felt that finally I found a home.=20
When we started to talk about marriage I told him=20
that my mother was a reform convert, which the=20
orthodox rabbinate in Israel did not accept. This=20
I learned in the army. M said he did not want our=20
children to suffer and asked me to convert. I was=20
opposed. I claimed "Why should I convert? Am I=20
not Jewish? After all I contributed more to the=20
country than many who wear the kipa who refuse to=20
serve in the IDF. These discussions became arguments and soured our=
According to her, M's mother used to say: "I=20
love Jessica as if she is my daughter, but your=20
children will suffer, they will not permit them=20
to get married in Israel," And she applied=20
indirect pressure. In the final analysis Jessica=20
phoned her parents and asked them to try to=20
obtain a certificate of validity for her mother's=20
conversion. And then the blow struck.
Rabbi (advocate) Uri Regev, director=20
of Hadush (Freedom, Religion, Equality) stated=20
unequivocally: "Israelis born in Israel who want=20
to get married go to the Religious Council, bring=20
two witnesses who verify they are Jewish and=20
single and the marriage is registered. When new=20
immigrants want to get married, they are sent to=20
Rabbinical court to verify their validity for=20
marriage, and it demands that an orthodox rabbi=20
from the place they live will verify that the=20
party making the request is Jewish and single."
Suzie Fishman relates: "One day we=20
received a phone call from an orthodox Rabbi who=20
asked to know the names of my parents, and I=20
understood that he does not realize I am a=20
convert. So I told him that since the conversion=20
I am called Shulamit daughter of Avraham. At that=20
moment he stopped talking to me. My husband=20
raised the telephone receiver in the next room,=20
and the Rabbi continued talking but only to him.=20
The orthodox Rabbi claimed that Reform conversion=20
isn't valid and that Jessica is not a Jewish=20
woman because the Jewish spirit was not in my=20
womb when she was conceived. I broke out weeping.=20
This was the first time that someone dared state=20
to me that I who chose to be Jewish, am not Jewish."
"My father phoned me immediately=20
after the talk with the rabbi," Jessica=20
continues. "He reported to me about the nuances=20
of the conversation and wept like a child. My=20
father said that he felt he was raped. He wept=20
and said Jessica I am so sorry we have not=20
managed to help you get out of this trap."
In November Jessica said goodbye to=20
her mate (it was no longer pleasant between us.=20
The arguments killed the love") And she decided=20
to leave Israel. "I felt that the country=20
betrayed me, humiliated me and spit in my face."
Jessica's story is a sad human saga,=20
strong and powerful, that exemplifies the growing=20
crisis between Israel and Jewish leadership in=20
the US, "says Rabbi (advocate) Uri Regev.=20
According to him the thing that causes the crisis=20
is the proposed law on conversion from MK David=20
Rotam from Israel Beiteinu, chairman of the=20
Knesset constitutional committee. "His proposed=20
law is aimed, as it were, to increase the number=20
of orthodox converts in Israel, but in fact it=20
grants for the first time to the chief rabbinate=20
the authority over conversion in Israel, and it=20
is liable to cause Reform and Conservative=20
converts =96 who are the decisive majority of=20
converts in the US =96 not to be recognized as Jews=20
even for the purpose of the Right of Return," Regev cautions.
MK Rotam, who landed in New York=20
this week for a series of meetings with heads of=20
Federations and Jewish communities about the=20
proposed law of conversion, was sorry to hear=20
that Jessica Fishman already left Israel. "She is=20
correct," he said. "Her case is scandalous. It=20
hurts me to hear that a young woman who=20
contributed so much to Israel was forced to=20
leave, and this is exactly what my law seeks to correct."
How will your law correct the problem Fishman experienced?
"If my law is passed, instead of=20
going through a long process of conversion=20
Jessica will be able to turn to the Rabbinical=20
Court of the metropolitan rabbinate that we want=20
to establish. The metropolitan rabbinate will=20
examine her knowledge of Judaism, and in the=20
worst case will convert her one more time in a swift way."
But Jessica Fishman does not want to=20
go through another conversion, either long or=20
short. According to her she is Jewish.
"This problem is beyond my law. It=20
relates to the Chief Rabbinate which recognizes=20
only orthodox conversion. Jessica can still get=20
married in Israel with a reform Rabbi. If she=20
fell in love with a young man who is not prepared=20
to get married to a young woman whose mother went=20
through reform conversion, she needs to address=20
her reasoning to the young man with whom she fell=20
in love. Not to me and not to the establishment.=20
If my law is passed, Jessica would be able to=20
register in the couples registry and get married.=20
It is correct that with regard to orthodoxy there=20
will be problems for her children, but she can=20
say: "I am a Jewish woman and my children are=20
Jewish like me, and hope that they will choose to=20
marry Israelis who don't object to reform conversion."
Jessica is leaving and is very angry=20
about it especially toward the rabbinical=20
establishment. "This is not Jewish behavior, this=20
is antisemitic behavior that causes=20
discrimination. Everyone thinks that the proposed=20
new law relates to Russians and foreign workers,=20
and they don't understand the extent to which it=20
is likely to influence people like me, Americans=20
who came to Israel out of Judaism, Zionism and=20
idealism. I came to Israel because I thought it=20
is a country where everyone is Jewish, but this=20
beautiful dream was shattered. It is finished. My=20
case is already lost, but I agreed to tell my=20
story in the hope that it will raise public=20
consciousness about the matter. I intend to build=20
a new life in the United States, and I have no=20
doubt that I will only marry a Jewish man. What=20
will happen when my children want to immigrate to=20
Israel and get married to Jews here? God bless. I=20
can only hope that by then they will solve the problem."
Translation by yonatan silverman=20