Seth Farber
Rabbi and Social Activist
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It takes a village… and a Knesset

What kind of compassionate, democratic Jewish state welcomes tens of thousands of Ukrainians under the Law of Return -- and then denies their Jewishness?
Jewish immigrants fleeing the war in Ukraine, arrive at Ben Gurion airport near Tel Aviv on March 6, 2022. (Tomer Neuberg/ FLASH90)
Jewish immigrants fleeing the war in Ukraine, arrive at Ben Gurion airport near Tel Aviv on March 6, 2022. (Tomer Neuberg/ FLASH90)

This past Friday morning, a member of my community went to the airport to pick up a Ukrainian family of four who had been on the run for the previous week. Another member of my community housed and fed them for the weekend. Another member sent them to synagogue. Another member took them to the Ministry of Interior to register their children (one of whom arrived in Israel without any passport whatsoever), and waited with them for four hours until they received their documents. Yet another member, who happens to be a doctor, met with them late at night to register them for medical insurance. And another member met with them to discuss jobs.

Indeed, it takes a village. And in the unfolding crisis that will bring tens of thousands of immigrants to Israel in the coming weeks, everyone who can will have a role to play to help alleviate the humanitarian crisis.

So, while I was helping coordinate my community to help one family, I was also paying close attention to two government decisions. The first is something of which we can all be proud: the government created a desk to help immigrants from Ukraine both get here and settle here. Already many organizations including ITIM, the organization I run, have reached out the director of the office, offering assistance. One of the issues facing those who are “aliyah-eligible” is proving their Jewishness to the satisfaction of the authorities. ITIM has opened a hotline for families here who want to bring their relatives.

But another government decision is a cause for embarrassment. While the government has decided to allocate millions of shekels to bring tens of thousands on aliyah, it also has opted to construct a brick wall in the face of those olim. Despite the coalition agreement that guaranteed enactment of a law that would significantly simplify the conversion process in Israel, and despite its passage by the cabinet, the coalition has now decided to “push off” the conversion bill until the summer Knesset session. This is shortsighted in the extreme, as at least 75 percent of the incoming Ukrainian refugees are not halachically Jewish. It also demonstrates how cynical politicians are when it comes to matters of religion and state. Can we really claim to be a compassionate, open democracy if we bring tens of thousands to Israel under the Law of Return — and then condemn them to second-class citizenship?

The reasons that the conversion bill — which was supposed to be enacted in the first 60 days of the coalition government — is again being deferred is a result of the disinformation the opposition is spewing about the bill. Claims that the bill will enable rabbis to convert foreign workers, or that the bill will completely undermine the chief rabbinate are unfounded. In fact, the bill will allow more Orthodox conversions and possibly lower the intermarriage rate in Israel. There are already 450,000 people in Israel who made aliyah and are not registered as Jews. With the new immigrants — who all have Jewish ancestry — that number will increase. Passing the bill will enable the conversion of thousands who have not found the present system viable.

There is still time to save the conversion bill. And there is still time to save this aliyah. If we are to succeed, it will take a village. But it also will take a Knesset.

About the Author
Rabbi Seth Farber, PhD, is Founder and Director of ITIM, an organization committed to making Israel’s religious establishment respectful of and responsive to the diverse Jewish needs of the Jewish people, and a Founder and Director of Giyur K'Halacha, Israel's largest non-governmental conversion court network. He is a recipient of the Nefesh B'Nefesh Bonei Zion Prize, and the Israel Ministry of Aliyah & Integration's Prize for Outstanding Contribution to Israeli Society.
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