By Amiram Barkat
Haaretz Fri., November 18, 2005 Cheshvan 16, 5766
Earlier this week, Svetlana Kostin and Yulia Leibrov appeared before the special conversion court in Petah Tikva. After more than a year’s preparation, the two had arrived at the fateful moment when three Orthodox religious court judges would pronounce whether they were fit to join the ranks of the Jewish people.
In Kostin’s case, the answer was positive; but Leibrov was sent to "improve" by visiting her synagogue, and told to return "three or four months later."
She burst into tears in the corridor. "I was surprised, because it seemed to me the questions were simple. My teacher says it must be because I look young and they suspect I want to get married," she said later.
The two are among some 300,000 non-Jews who immigrated to Israel from the former Soviet Union during the 1990s. The members of this group are registered as "others" at the Population Registry. The nationality rubric in their identity cards is blank, except for those who came to Israel under the Law of Return and automatically received Israeli citizenship.
The conversion process has been heavily funded over the past two years. About NIS 50 million are poured into the process as compared with only a few million in previous years. The authority that deals with conversion in the Prime Minister’s Office says it is proving its worth: Some 1,300 people have converted in state frameworks this year – a 50-percent increase over the average of previous years. In the Israel Defense Forces, 700 soldiers converted as compared with 450 previously.
"This is an improvement, but it is still not satisfactory," says Rabbi Moshe Klein, deputy head of the authority.
"That is the understatement of the century," comments Dr Asher Cohen of Bar-Ilan University. He says the rate should be 10 times higher. "Every year, 5,000 non-Jewish immigrants arrive… There are more than 100,000 non-Jews aged 15 to 34, and if we do not convert them, the problem will continue for generations."
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who gets weekly reports on the conversion numbers, blames the low rate on the rabbis and their strict attitude toward the would-be converts. Two years ago, Sharon took the conversion process out of the hands of the ultra-Orthodox and placed it under the auspices of his office, but the move was held up for about a year because of a struggle over the authority to convert.
Rabbi Haim Druckman, the head of the conversion authority and Klein, his deputy, have succeeded in ironing out some of the bureaucratic problems and changing attitudes toward the immigrants.
Mark Polonsky, who teaches would-be converts, concurs that the attitude has changed in some of the religious courts, but not in all of them. He says there has been an increase in the number of people coming for courses following an Immigrant Absorption Ministry campaign.
Under the present arrangement, the immigrants study twice a week for 10 months, a heavy load for people who have to work hard for a living. Kostin says she lost her job as a cashier at a supermarket two months ago because she had to leave early twice a week. Leibrov says she was forbidden to eat food prepared by her non-Jewish parents for reasons of kashrut. "I used to make my own meals or eat with a friend," she says. "My parents were very insulted."
Jewish spouses who do not observe Jewish tradition are also expected to attend the courses. "I have a friend who begged her husband to come but he refused because he hates religious people," she said.
Rabbi Shaul Farber, head of the Itim Institute, which helps the immigrants, says that "many immigrants refuse to convert simply because [the rabbinical authorities] demand that they send their children to religious schools."
He says this problem must be dealt with immediately, suggesting that the religious court judges go out and get to know the immigrants "so both sides can see they are dealing with people and not monsters."