The Book of Ruth describes how Ruth the Moabite left her land and her people to accompany her Jewish mother-in-law, Naomi, to the Land of Israel. Ruth declared, “Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God” (Ruth 1:16). The Talmud (Yevamot 47b) understands this incident to be part of Ruth’s conversion to the Jewish people. Over 3,100 years later, thousands of non-Jews wish to declare “your people will be my people and your God will be my God,” and formally, halakhically, become members of the Jewish people.
We are living in an unparalleled period of Jewish history. In our ancestral homeland, we are citizens of a Jewish state. Alongside economic security, and medical and scientific achievements, there are more students of Torah in our day, in yeshivot, midrashot, and our communities, than ever before. We are also witnessing an ingathering of exiles from all corners of the world.
Despite all of this, the Jewish people face a great crisis. After the Second World War, the Iron Curtain descended, and over a million Jews who survived the horrors of the Holocaust were trapped in the (former) Soviet Union, barred from living fully Jewish lives. In the West, assimilation, and intermarriage, at unimaginable rates, have created a new nation of “Zera Yisrael” — children and grandchildren of Jews who are not Jewish — halakhically speaking.
We stand before a national challenge, which, unfortunately, its enormity we have yet to internalize. In Israel, over 400,000 Israelis are legally categorized as “without religion.” They attend Jewish schools, even religious schools, and serve in the army. Many were born and raised in Israel, observe the Sabbath and festivals, and adhere to the laws of kashrut. They live and work alongside us, like every other Jewish Israeli.
These Israelis are not going anywhere. They are an integral part of the Israeli/Jewish experience. Our children will marry their children, and their grandchildren will marry our grandchildren. They have fully integrated into Israeli society, absorbed its values, internalized its culture, and are coming closer to Judaism.
Of course, there is no halakhic method, or will, to perform a mass conversion. I am not even sure how many of these Israelis, at any given time, wish to undergo an Orthodox giyur, which entails a commitment to live an observant lifestyle, kabbalat ol mitzvot. However, it is our responsibility to be there, ready and waiting for the moment they are prepared to accept upon themselves the yoke of Torah and mitzvot, to enable and assist them to convert.
Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, different societies adopted diverse policies towards conversion, in accordance with their communal challenges and values. Some communities outright prohibited conversion in order to discourage intermarriage. Others were very open to giyur, even sanctioning converting the children of non-Jewish mothers. Yet others adopted a more cautious, and at times, ambivalent approach, suspicious of the convert’s motives, examining each case on its own merits.
Traditionally, the chief rabbis of the State of Israel, including Rabbi Herzog, Rabbi Uziel, Rabbi Unterman. Rabbi Nissim, Rabbi Goren, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, and Rabbi Bakshi Doron, encouraged the conversion of non-Jews who chose to cast their lot with the Jewish nation in Israel, whether it be non-Jewish spouses of Jewish refugees who fled to Israel, non-Jewish volunteers on kibbutzim who decided to stay in Israel, or the more recent emigrants, and their children, from the former Soviet Union.
There are numerous kind, committed, and scholarly judges, dayanim, on the Rabbanut’s courts, batei din, who do their utmost to embrace those who desire to convert. However, unfortunately, many of those who wish to convert meet a wall of bureaucracy, or rabbis and rabbinic judges who are not sufficiently aware of, sensitive to, or halakhically inclined to usher them under the wings of the Shechina and enable them to join, halakhically, the Jewish people.
In this great time of need, instead of adopting the more lenient approaches to conversion, which are fully rooted in halakhic tradition, and which were espoused by rabbinic authorities, including the chief rabbis of Israel mentioned above, they choose to make the path to Judaism difficult. These accusations come not just from conversion candidates, but from experienced rabbinic judges, such as Rabbi Shlomo Daichovsky, as well.
In addition, the rabbinic courts adopt a stringent approach regarding the conversion of children. While great halakhic authorities, including Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, and the recently deceased Rabbi Nachum Eliezer Rabinovitch z”l, endorsed the conversion of children raised by parents who were not fully observant, which would make the conversion of minors an easier, yet partial solution to the crisis described above, the Rabbanut’s rabbinic courts have almost entirely ceased to convert children, included children who are adopted or born to surrogate mothers.
We desperately need dayanim who, within the confines of halakha, will do their utmost to enable the conversion of those who wish to strengthen their commitment to Judaism, who wish to be married according to “dat Moshe ve-Yisrael,” and who want to raise traditional, observant families.
In this context Giyur K’Halakha, a private network of conversion courts, founded by R. Nachum Rabinovitch z”l alongside tens of talmidei chakhami, rabbanei arim, roshei yeshivot, ramim, and communal rabbis, has risen to the challenge, providing a strictly halakhic, warm and welcoming beit din legiyur — conversion court.
I have seen tens, if not hundreds or adults and children, new immigrants and those born in Israel, who wish to strengthen their commitment to Judaism and raise their children as Jews in every regard. While there may be no immediate solution for the majority of these Israelis, our leaders, and our communities, need to be there, ready to embrace them when they decide to join the Jewish nation and declare “your people will be my people and your God will be my God.”
This article was written as part of Giyur K’Halacha’s initiative, ‘VeAhavtem et HaGer’, in memory of its founder and av beit din, R. Nachum Rabinovitch z”l.