This past Thursday, I witnessed one of the most meaningful religious experiences of my life. I did not visit the Temple Mount, nor did I visit a revered religious leader to receive his blessing. Instead, I visited the Israeli Army Rabbinate court for conversions, to witness the final examination of a prospective convert, whom we have been hosting in our home for Shabbat, over the past five months. It was an unforgettable event.
“Rabbinical conversions?” you say. “You mean those terrible ordeals, where the rabbis test, hector, and try to trip up the prospective candidate with a variety of trick questions?”
These days, it seems, just about all of the problems that confront Judaism are blamed on rabbis. They are too inflexible, judgmental, and insensitive, according to some. While there are undoubtedly instances where rabbis can be obstructionist, what I witnessed on Thursday was the power of rabbinic Judaism expressed in a positive and compassionate manner.
The IDF’s Nativ program is a comprehensive Jewish education program designed to strengthen immigrant soldiers’ connection to the State of Israel and to the Jewish heritage. It combines classroom study, experiential activities, tours, Shabbat seminars, and individual projects. Soldiers who wish to convert to Judaism may take two additional two-week seminars on Jewish studies and practice. They are then referred to the military rabbinate to complete their conversion. Leading up to the conversion process, the candidate spends a number of Shabbatot with a host family, to better familiarize themselves with the Shabbat experience within a family setting.
Katya was born in Russia to a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother. Her family moved to Israel when Katya was very young. She grew up with a minimal Jewish background, and related how her grammar school classmates laughed at her because she knew so little about the Jewish holidays and general observance. Katya’s older sister converted to Judaism through the Nativ program, and she herself became interested in joining the Jewish faith. Katya joined Nativ, and has studied Judaism intensively for the past year. During the time that she has spent in our home, at our Shabbat table, and at the synagogue, we have been impressed by her sincerity, dedication, and interest in becoming Jewish.
About two weeks ago, Katya contacted us, and invited us to attend the Bet Din of the Army Rabbinate, where her final status would be determined. Approval from the court is required before the final step, which is immersion in the mikveh, or ritual bath.
On a cold, but sunny and clear Thursday morning, Talli, my wife, and I, drove to the Jerusalem neighborhood of Givat Shaul, where the army’s rabbinical court is located, for the decisive meeting. As we entered the outer office, we met Katya. She was a bundle of anticipation, nervousness, and expectation. After a few moments, Talli and I were ushered into the room, where the three rabbinical judges sat. We introduced ourselves, told them where we lived, and related our experiences with Katya. We told them how impressed we were with the seriousness of her approach to Judaism, and how much she wanted to become a part of the Jewish people. Shortly thereafter, Katya was called into the room, together with some of her teachers in the Nativ program.
The rabbis sat patiently across the table from us, and with great kindness and empathy, asked Katya about her observance of Judaism, both in the army, and at home with her parents. Katya described how she frequently attends synagogue during Shabbatot when she is serving in the army, walking to a nearby settlement, frequently in the cold and rain. She told how she plans her day in the army so that she has time to pray in the mornings, before her intensive work begins. She described how she has a separate corner in the kitchen of her parents’ home, where she keeps her kosher utensils. And she took great pride in telling the members of the court that she had discovered that one of her forebears in Russia had been a rabbi. It was, she felt, a link through which she could renew her Jewish faith via conversion.
I was most impressed by the tenor of the discussion. The rabbis were firm in their questioning, yet courteous, respectful, and kind. And they did not only confine their queries to Katya’s level of ritual observance. They pointed out that Judaism places a great emphasis on man’s relationship with his his fellow man, and asked Katya how her studies of Judaism impacted her daily relationships with her peers.
Finally, after twenty minutes of give and take, in which Katya explained her feelings for Judaism, her observance and understanding of the rituals, and what Judaism means to her, we were asked to leave the room while the rabbis deliberated.
After a few minutes, we were called back into the court. The rabbis announced that they had reached a decision. Katya, who will soon be known as Eliya, will be accepted as a Jew! As the announcement was made, Katya was overcome by emotion, and burst into tears. She was then asked to rise and repeat a statement affirming her desire to adhere to the tenets and customs of Judaism. She then recited the first verse of the Shema. All in in the room were swept up in the emotion of the moment.
In the complicated, frenetic, and often messy Israeli reality of today, extremism, intolerance, anger, and disillusionment influence the religious experience of many. Witnessing both the yearning and sincerity of a prospective convert, and the sensitivity, patience, and love expressed by the rabbinic court gave me the feeling, that sometimes, in this holy land, religion can indeed be a beautiful thing.