On June 2nd, in preparation for Shavuot, the Schechter Rabbinical Seminary hosted a day-long Yom Iyyun. The theme of the study day, in keeping with the theme of the Shavuot, was Jewish conversion. Fourteen speakers from across the Jewish spectrum, from Reform to Haredi, spoke during the event. Topics ranged from conversion abroad and in Israel, to personal conversion stories, and much more.
The day opened with a greeting from Rakefet Ginsburg, Director General of the Masorti Movement in Israel, describing the importance of conversion. Rabbi Haim Amsalem, a Haredi politician with a more inclusive and open view on conversion, and the author of Zera Yisrael, spoke about the descendants of Jews versus those of non-Jews. Rabbi Amsalem posed the question how does the Beit Din look at converts?
Elad Caplan, Director of the Menomadin Center for Jewish and Democratic Law at Bar Ilan University, is researching conversion and is working to develop both legal and academic infrastructure to create synergy between the components of Israeli identity and impact the public discourse.
In Israel, many immigrants from the former Soviet Union (and their descendants) face challenges regarding their status as Jews. Many were persecuted in their countries of origin for having the Jewish last name from their father, yet in Israel are not considered Jewish because they have a non-Jewish mother. Two speakers spoke about this issue, both from the former Soviet Union, each with different ideas on how to work with the second and third generations that are born and raised in Israel and are part of Jewish culture.
Professor Benjamin Ish-Shalom, Founding Chairman of “Nativ – The National Center for Jewish Studies, Identity, and Conversion,” shared a project in which he is trying to assist Israelis whose children would need to convert. The project helps young children convert to Judaism before they reach the age of Bar/Bat Mitzvah, saving them and their families a lot of time in the long run.
Students from the SRS shared their experiences with conversion, one a convert and another a conversion teacher in the Israel Defense Forces. Maayan Belding-Zidon is studying to be a rabbi at the SRS but grew up in a Christian family in New York. Belding-Zidon spoke about what it was like for her to convert to Judaism in the State of Israel.
SRS graduate, Rabbi Nava Meiersdorf, shared her perspective as a conversion teacher on a panel with Rabbanit Shira Sapir, a civilian Nativ teacher, and Tevel Onofranko who converted through Nativ. Rabbi Meiersdorf, works with the IDF on the program Nativ. She meets with soldiers from different units and teaches them about what it means to be Jewish. Many of the soldiers she works with are children of immigrants from the former Soviet Union, soldiers, who like their Jewish peers, were born and raised in Israel speaking Hebrew. Rabbi Meiersdorf commented, “my students, are Israeli for any matter, they already have a base of Jewish culture just from growing up in the Israeli school system.”
A theme shared between Rabbi Meiersdorf’s experience and the other two narratives was the importance of community. She explained, “when a soldier is in the conversion process, often the relationship with the family is strained, for example, not being allowed to eat in their parents’ non-kosher home.” The community is there to assist and support them throughout the process. Her role as a teacher in the community holds a lot of weight. She told the group stories of individuals who reached out to her after they finished their course to share experiences. One young woman shared that she was in a synagogue lost in the prayer book when the shaliach tzibur started singing a tune she had learned from Rabbi Meiersdorf. She made her role explicit; she is not working for Nativ to try to convince anyone of anything, she is simply sharing her love of God and Judaism, showing the opportunities, and asking challenging questions about their lives.
Where does all of the red tape surrounding conversion come from? Rabbi Professor David Golinkin, President of the Schechter Institutes Inc, taught that many of the chumrot (prohibitions or obligations) were declared at the end of the 19th century, and suggested that it had to do with Jews in the Diaspora wanting to prove the difference between them and their neighbors. Rabbi Meiersdorf shared later “the day was filled with a plethora of voices, from Rabbi Amsalem who is Ultra-Orthodox to Rabbi Sivan Navon-Shoval from the Reform movement. We all gathered on an important common ground, loving the convert, ahavat hager.”