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In Israel, A New Battle Over Who Qualifies As Jewish

Amit and Regina Goldstein adopted their 7-year-old daughter, Lihi, from Ukraine. They decided to convert her to Judaism using a new, unofficial process rather than the strict official one that's been in place for decades.
Emily Harris
Amit and Regina Goldstein adopted their 7-year-old daughter, Lihi, from Ukraine. They decided to convert her to Judaism using a new, unofficial process rather than the strict official one that's been in place for decades.

Who is a Jew? It's an age-old question that in Israel been determined by government-selected rabbis in the decades since the country was established in 1948.

But now a group of Orthodox rabbis is challenging the state's control on determining who is and isn't Jewish — a status that affects many important aspects of life in Israel.

The parents of 7-year-old Lihi Goldstein weren't thinking about their daughter's future wedding when they adopted her as a toddler. Israelis Amit and Regina Goldstein picked the blue-eyed girl from a crowd of children at an orphanage in Ukraine.

They didn't know her family's religious background, but it didn't matter to them, says father Amit Goldstein. They are Jewish — so she would be, too.

"She lives in a Jewish house, in a Jewish family," Goldstein says, describing their life as largely secular but observing "the basics" of Jewish practice. That includes saying a prayer on Friday night, going to synagogue on Yom Kippur and not working on Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath.

"That's what she knows," Goldstein says.

But that's not enough for Israel's chief rabbinate to consider Lihi Goldstein Jewish.

Since the country's founding, the rabbinate has determined who is considered Jewish and overseen conversions of new Jews. In Israel, only Orthodox conversions are recognized, following Halakha, or Jewish law. Reform and Conservative Judaism, while widespread in the U.S., have only small followings in Israel and are are not officially recognized by the rabbinate.

Secular Israeli Jews joke that the synagogue they don't go to is Orthodox. The Goldsteins, although not religious, are recognized as Jewish because their mothers were.

But if the rabbinate says Lihi isn't Jewish, she won't be counted as Jewish by the government. That means she would have to leave Israel to get married, even to a Jewish Israeli, because only Orthodox Jews are allowed to marry in Israel, although marriages performed abroad are recognized. Her children would not be considered Jewish.

The Goldsteins could have converted Lihi through Israel's official rabbinate. But it would have required displays of faith such as attending religious school or following strict dietary rules that conflict with the family's largely secular Jewish life.

"It's hopeless," Regina Goldstein says, "because it's common knowledge that you have to convert all your life around or you have to stand there and lie."

An Alternate, Unofficial Conversion

According to research compiled by the Israel Democracy Institute, half of those who begin the conversion process under the auspices of the rabbinate quit.

Even religious Jews can run into trouble. Ya'akov Lasri, a devout Jew his entire life, sat in on official conversion classes for more than a year while his wife, Galia, attended. She is a Ukrainian immigrant, born Catholic. They married abroad.

In what should have been the couple's final interview before her conversion was approved, Lasri says a rabbi asked him, "How is it that you, a religious person, active in synagogue, are sleeping with a goya?"

Goya means a non-Jewish woman. In this context, it's derogatory. Lasri felt angry and humiliated. His wife felt rejected by her adopted homeland. Despite that, they continued with classes, and tried to finalize the conversion again months later. In the interview this time, Lasri says a rabbi implied the couple faced a high risk of divorce.

Lasri says he and his wife were comfortable that she had fully embraced Judaism, but he says there was "a lot of talk" among people at his synagogue, wondering when she would officially convert.

Eventually, both the Lasris and the Goldsteins turned to a new, alternative way to convert to Judaism in Israel. One of the key leaders behind this effort, Orthodox Rabbi Seth Farber, describes the project as a "game changer" and a direct challenge to the official system.

The court began working this summer. Over the first six weeks, some 50 conversions had been approved, including Lihi Goldstein and Galia Lasri. Farber says the court hopes to reach 2,000 over the first year, which would exceed the annual average of conversions through the official rabbinate. He says with tens of thousands of Israelis with Jewish heritage not counted by the rabbinate, he expects no trouble hitting those numbers.

"Whether this will bring down the rabbinate or not remains to be seen," Farber says. For now, the new conversions are not recognized by the Israeli government.

'They Don't Feel Connected'

The alternative conversion process requires candidates to show knowledge of Judaism. For example, a panel of rabbis asked Galia Lasri if she could cook on certain holidays and to recite a prayer.

It is led by Orthodox rabbis, who, like the ultra-Orthodox-led rabbinate, follow Halakha. But it is not as rigid in measuring Judaism through behavior. Rather, says Farber, it aims to "open doors." The Goldsteins had never told Lihi that she wasn't Jewish, so they also didn't tell her the rabbis asking her questions would be converting her. When it came time for the final step — a dip into a pool used for Jewish religious rites — the rabbis simply asked Lihi to show them if she could dive.

Faber has been battling the rabbinate for a long time. He founded an organization, ITIM, to help Jews navigate the religious bureaucracy in Israel. The court is a new project; its main target is Israeli immigrants from the former Soviet Union.

About a third of the million Soviet Jews who moved here in the 1990s easily become citizens under Israel's Law of Return, which allows anyone with a Jewish grandparent to immigrate. But an estimated 350,000 — and in many cases, their children — are excluded from being designated as Jewish because of the rabbinate's strict rules.

Farber says that approach is turning people off and undermining the unity of Israeli Jewish society, by excluding citizens who must serve in the Israeli military but cannot officially be registered as Jews.

He believes this also alienates Israel from less religious Jews around the world. "They don't feel connected," he says. "And it's not only about the security thing. It's about their personal status."

A Never-Ending Debate

One of the top critics of the new conversion court, Ziv Maor, a former spokesman for the government rabbinate, worries that if the conversions are validated, it will open the door to permit conversions by branches of Judaism the rabbinate does not see as legitimate — including the Reform movement that is widespread in the U.S.

This would lead to Jewish assimilation with people he views as non-Jews in Israel, he fears. That's a real threat, in his eyes, to the future of Judaism.

"When people are getting married with non-Jews," Maor says, "the unfortunate result is that their children and grandchildren will no longer be Jews."

Maor argues that the Law of Return should narrow the definition of who is Jewish for the purposes of becoming an Israeli citizen. He also warns that since the government doesn't recognize the conversions performed by the new court, it won't end the debate over who is Jewish. This keeps the new court's converts in limbo, he says.

"This dispute probably will be between great camps of great rabbis, but there is a person in the middle of it," Maor says. For now, he says, someone who wants to be Jewish enough to convert should "be on the safe side."

Rabbis backing the new court say the dispute is temporary. Their aim is to convert so many people that Israel's government — and courts — cannot ignore them any longer.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

International Correspondent Emily Harris is based in Jerusalem as part of NPR's Mideast team. Her post covers news related to Israel, the West Bank and Gaza Strip. She began this role in March of 2013.

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