In a recent op-ed in the Times of Israel, my colleague Rabbi Meir Azari argues that it is time for the religious world in Israel to embrace interfaith families by holding Bar and Bat Mitzvahs for non-Jewish children. Rabbi Azari, speaking on behalf of progressive Jews, notes that contemporary culture encourages intermarriage and correctly notes that the population most affected in Israel by the denial of Bar and Bat Mitzvah ceremonies to non-Jewish children is the Russian immigrant population, a group that perhaps more than any other should be welcomed into the synagogue. Rabbi Azari’s suggestion is provocative, and his solution equally so.
And yet, simply said, I think I have a better suggestion.
Rabbi Azari’s argument fits in neatly to the ideology of the Reform movement (and increasingly, the Conservative and modern Orthodox movements) that speaks to the need for greater outreach to intermarried families. We no longer can afford to “sit shiva” for those who are intermarried. Rather than putting up walls, argues, Rabbi Azari, we need to embrace all those whom we can. Thus, he concludes, Bar and Bat mitzvahs in our synagogues should include children of intermarried couples.
At the risk of sounding more progressive than someone who is much more progressive than I, allow me to propose an alternative strategy- one that is firmly grounded in halacha and has the potential to be a game changer- particularly in Israel.
My suggestion is very simple:
Rather than offering Bar and Bat Mitzvahs for non-Jewish children, we should offer intermarried families the opportunity to convert their children prior to their bar and bat mitzvah.
Lest this seem outlandish or impossible, allow me to note that the Orthodox Giyur KeHalacha rabbinical court in Israel, led by the directors of the largest hesder yeshivot in Israel, is doing exactly that. Giyur KeHalacha, which operates independent of the Rabbinate, has already converted more than 150 children prior to the Bar or Bat Mitzvahs (over a period of 14 months), without requiring their moms to go through a formal conversion. Incredibly, the Orthodox community here is addressing a challenge to contemporary Jewish life in a way that is significantly more radical – at least at first glance – than their Reform colleagues.
What does a halachic conversion prior to Bar and Bat Mitzvah look like?
Actually, like many issues, this is subject to debate. Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the first Chief rabbi, maintained that the conversion of a child required strong evidence that the child would be completely observant. This position has recently been cited (if not adopted) by the Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Israel, Yitzchak Yosef.
But Rabbi Kook’s position is decidedly the minority position in normative Orthodox halacha. To simplify the issue, I would note that the conversion of a minor, before his bar mitzvah or her bat mitzvah, is a fundamentally different process from the conversion of an adult – at least from a halachic perspective. Although the family appears before a rabbinical court, and although the candidate (either adult or child) goes through a mikveh immersion ceremony, the achilles heel of conversion for most intermarried families – that of the acceptance of the mitzvot – is not a part of conversion of children. Simply said, though observance is a sin qua non of adult conversion, it is not part of the conversion of children. This appears (with the caveat that I am oversimplifying a little) to be the position of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, the great halachic decisor of 20th century American Orthodoxy, and it is the position of Rabbi Nahum Rabinovitch, the president of Giyur KeHalacha.
Thus, families who are committed to Jewish destiny, who have Shabbat as a part of their lives and who see tzedakah — performing good deeds — as essential to their ethos are able to convert their children to Judaism in a halachic manner, even if the family is not a hundred percent observant. And this process is incredibly straightforward.
If implemented properly, the conversion of children will do more than simply eliminate the need for Rabbi Azari’s call to hold Bar and Bat Mitzvahs for non-Jews. It has the potential, within a single generation, to solve a moral crisis for Israel related to immigrants from the Soviet Union and their children: Israel brought our brothers and sisters here as Jews, but once they arrived, did recognize them as such. At present, some 374,000 immigrants and their children who made aliya to Israel as Jews are listed in the population registry as having “no religion.” The present conversion authority converts approximately 2,000 of these individuals a year, while another 6,000 join the population each year.
The only way to insure that hundreds of thousands of immigrant have the opportunity to fully join the Jewish people is by offering conversion to their children. This is halachically sound, provides an opportunity for outreach, and enables our Jewish society – at least in Israel – to be more unified.
Contemporary Israel has many challenges on its hands. Rather than perpetuating our crises, it is time to start solving them. We can and should reach out to intermarried families. But if we want to resolve the issue of who is a Jew, we should start promoting halachic conversion for minors, in a manner that is accessible to all.