Aliyah Day should include converts

The first Aliyah on record – that of Abraham and Sarah (or more accurately, Abram and Sarai accruing to the biblical tradition) — should serve as guide star for the State of Israel as Aliyah Day is celebrated here.

Like in Abraham’s time, aliyah over the past seventy or so years has more often than not been characterized by young people abandoning their parents for the hope of a better future. In many cases, aliyah was catalyzed by a transcendent emotional feeling (though not always a divine directive as was the case with Abraham), and often, aliyah was a running away from as much as a running toward (as Abraham in the rabbinic tradition, had to literally be the first iconoclast in his father’s home).

And yet, there is one aspect of the rabbinic tradition which modern day aliyah has yet to mirror. In fact, to a large extent, the State of Israel and its rabbinic representatives have been anything but Abrahamic in their approach to aliyah.

In a passage in the bible which describes how Abraham and Sarah prepared for their aliyah, the biblical text speaks of their entourage as “the souls which they had created in Haran.”. The rabbinic midrash, stupefied by the intimation that Abraham and Sarah created souls, offers the following interpretation: “Abraham converted the men while Sarah converted the women.” Leaving aside the gender issues for a moment, this passage is remarkably suggestive. It posits that the first olim, the primary people who sought to settle in Israel, were in fact the converts – those who had only recently joined the community. The way was paved for them – by Abraham and Sarah – to make their mark on the Jewish State of old.

What a contrast to our world today!

For more than forty years, ever since the law of Return was emended to enable converts to emigrate to Israel, the State of Israel has done a remarkable job at discouraging converts from making Israel their home. And here are just three examples:

  1. In 2005, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that the criteria by which the State of Israel certifies and recognizes a conversion from overseas was illegal, and Justice Barak called upon the Ministry of Interior to issue new criterion. At the time, the State would only allow converts who had lived in their resident communities for at least a year before and a year after their conversions. Since May 2005 (more than 11 years), the Ministry of Interior has not produced a new criteria. This is an enormous obstacle to those seeking aliyah.
  2. The Rabbinate has over and over again refused to issue criteria for which rabbis are legitimate in their eyes to perform conversions. Despite ITIM’s lawsuits, the rabbinate continues to be obstinate and continuously sends converts to reconvert. This past summer’s travesty related to Rabbi Haskel Lookstein’s conversions only highlights how bad things are. Can we really expect converts to make aliyah if they are constantly viewed suspiciously?

On Aliyah Day, we should consider setting aside time to think about how aliyah was meant to enable vulnerable Jewish populations to find a home. In the past, Jews who were persecuted by others could make aliyah and find a home in Israel. Today, Jews who try to make a home in Israel are persecuted by the very authorities who should be most sympathetic to them.

Perhaps Aliyah Day should remind us of where we came from – and stimulate us to help the convert find his or home in Israel, comfortably among his or her Jewish brothers and sisters.

Rabbi Seth Farber is the founder and director of ITIM and a founder of Giyur Kahalacha.

About the Author
Rabbi Seth Farber is Founder and Director of ITIM, the leading advocacy organization working to build a Jewish and democratic Israel in which all Jews can lead full Jewish lives. ITIM is committed to helping people participate in central features of Jewish life in Israel, such as gaining official recognition as Jews, marrying as Jews, and converting to Judaism, and to improving government policies that impede access to these fundamental Jewish life passages.
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