Still fighting the battle over Israeli conversions

The head of Israel’s conversion programme tells us why he is defying its hardline opponents.


Rabbi Chaim Druckman, head of Israel’s National Conversion Authority

Rabbi Chaim Druckman, head of Israel’s National Conversion Authority

For many Israelis, Rabbi Chaim Druckman represents the very essence of religious Zionism. His cheerful countenance, swathed in a flowing white beard, commands great respect well beyond the confines of the Zionist yeshivah world in which he has been a major player for almost half a century.

But last year the patriarchal-looking figure became the centre of a furious dispute over conversion, the full repercussions of which even now are unclear. In 1999 Rabbi Druckman became director of Israel’s new National Conversion Authority (NCA), which four years later was brought by Ariel Sharon under the aegis of the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem.

The main goal of the NCA has been to try to solve the issue of some 300,000 non-Jews from the Former Soviet Union, who entered Israel in the 1990s, mainly as spouses of Jewish partners or their children. It was clear to the Zionist religious establishment that the only long-term solution was to undertake a massive conversion programme. This would ensure that they and their offspring would be able to fully meld into Israeli society as halachically recognised Jews.

One major problem was that many, if not most, of these new immigrants from atheistic communist regimes had no idea of any religion, let alone Judaism, so their attitude to conversion was often indifference rather than opposition. Inside Israel the conversion process was increasingly in the hands of the Charedi community, whose attitude was extremely restrictive, not to say negative, towards these newcomers.

The NCA proceeded with its work, converting an increasing number of individuals, although still only a minuscule fraction of its target. But the Charedi world saw the NCA, and its parallel conversion programme through the army, as a challenge to its own authority. Last May Rabbi Druckman’s opponents struck when the Supreme Rabbinic Court (Bet Din Ha’elyon) issued an extraordinary 50-page responsa declaring his NCA conversions null and void.

Moreover, there was a move to “retire” him from his post on the basis of his pensionable age — he is 75. This was somewhat ironic since the leader of the Charedi rabbis, Rabbi Shalom Eliyashiv, is in his mid-90s and no one talks of his retiring. Though Rabbi Druckman did not feel personally threatened, he was deeply disturbed by the court’s pronouncement.

“This irresponsible and baseless move was totally without halachic sanction,” he said in an interview in his office. “The Bet Din have no power to rescind our work. From this point of view, nothing has changed, and we are continuing our work. But their psak [halachic decision] has caused enormous harm among the converts of our programme. Suddenly their conversion is being called into question by the highest religious authority in the land.

“It also impacted on those who were considering conversion. They now think twice — afraid that if they undergo the conversion process, ultimately their conversion will be called into question or rescinded. The fact is that since the summer, fewer people now come to our programme but, God willing, these numbers will increase again.”

Like earlier rabbis dealing with conversion, he considers that it has a different dimension with Jewry’s return to Israel: “It is so much more difficult to convert in the diaspora,” he said. “Rabbi Shlomo Goren [Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi 1973-83] was flexible about conversions in Israel. But he was rigid in his view regarding conversions abroad. As a member of his bet din, I was witness to the fact that on the forms on which he signed for conversions, he would write that this conversion only applies inside Israel.”

For Rabbi Druckman, a declaration by the Conference of European Rabbis voiding conversions of people in Europe by his office solves little. “I understand them. The problems are obvious; the question is how to deal with converts in the diaspora.  Or should we close our eyes to them?”

But he regards conversion as inseparable from the much larger question of massive assimilation which is “the biggest problem faced by world Jewry today, the most salient expression of which is intermarriage. This is another Shoah.

“Jewish leaders in the diaspora point to the increased amount of Jewish education available today. But even in North America, it affects only a small percentage of the Jewish population. The majority are in the process of assimilation.”

As for one recently announced initiative in Israel, to establish a secular court to convert non-Jews, he said: “If it were not so sad, it would be a joke. By definition there is no conversion without halachah. Any attempt to create a national definition of being Jewish is doomed to fail. Citizenship is not a religious category. In England you can be English without subscribing to a particular religious belief. Israel’s situation is unique. Theoretically anyone can be Israeli; but you can’t be Jewish outside halachah.”

But the row that erupted last May did not altogether surprise him. It is, he explains, a consequence of the politicisation of Israel’s religious institutions, and a shift towards the charedisation of Jewish law and practice. The success of any national conversion programme depends on decisions made in the political arena and it is here that the Charedi parties have had the upper hand.

“In the last three coalitions, religious Zionists have been absent from the government of the day, whereas the Charedim and Shas have been members of the coalitions,” he said. “Hopefully in the coming election, when there is an attempt to unite all the religious Zionist parties, we shall regain our strength and presence in the government.”

Snapshot

BORN: Poland, 1932. After escaping the Holocaust, he reached Palestine in 1944.

RELIGIOUS CAREER: Educated under the major Zionist rabbis of the his time, he opened his own yeshivah in 1964, Ohr Etzion, near Rehovot, which he has headed ever since.

POLITICAL CAREER: A Member of Knesset from 1977-89, he was appointed to various ministries including Religious Affairs, Education, Immigration and Absorption. One of his first major projects was to establish the combined army and yeshivah programme, Hesder, in 1977. Director of the National Conversion Authority since 1999.

    Last updated: 1:35pm, January 26 2009