Interview | Non-Orthodox Conversion in Israel

By | Apr 05, 2024
Highlights, Interview, Latest, Opinion
Rabbi Galia Sadan holding a Torah

The Reform Movement is the most popular stream of Judaism in the United States, but in Israel—where the Orthodox rabbinate controls many spheres of both religious and civic life—the Reform movement is much less influential.  Reform rabbis had been performing conversions on a small scale for more than 40 years.

In 2010, the Supreme Court decided that non-orthodox converts would be registered as Jews in government records. More recently, in 2021, the court agreed that the state should also recognize non-orthodox conversions for purposes of citizenship.

According to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics, 4.9 percent of residents in Israel (over 400,000) were classified as “no religion” in 2021., The majority of them are immigrants from the former Soviet Union, but many are more recent immigrants from the Philippines or elsewhere. 

It is these people whom Rabbi Galia Sadan, head of Israel’s largest non-Orthodox conversion program, is passionate about serving. “Conversion is my life’s work, my calling,” says Sadan, who has worked for Beit Daniel Synagogue in Tel Aviv since shortly after her ordination in 2003 by the Hebrew Union College (HUC). She is worried that recent statements by Israel’s current right-wing government may signal an end to recognition for Reform conversions. These efforts are being fought by the Israeli Religious Action Center, the legal arm of the Israeli Reform Movement. “If the state of Israel ends the legalization of non-Orthodox conversions, then few people will seek it,” says Sadan. “My life’s work would be ended.”

Moment’s Laurence Wolff spoke to Sadan about her program, her applicants, and what’s changed since October 7.

How does the conversion program at Beit Daniel synagogue work?

The Reform movement in Israel normally converts between 250 and 300 people yearly—women, children and men. In 2021 Beit Daniel converted 200 of this number, which has since increased in 2023 to 250.  

Classes are in four different languages, Hebrew, English, Russian and sometimes Spanish, and held once a week for 90 minutes each. After a year of classes, students are eligible for conversion. For those who were raised and educated in Israel and in Jewish practice, the length of studies may be as short as three months. The main themes of the conversion curriculum are the Jewish life cycle, Jewish traditions, holidays and festivals, Israel’s history and national holidays, the prayer book and prayers, and creating a Jewish home that is meaningful, inclusive and egalitarian. 

The program is partially supported by the state, which provides about $27,200 USD yearly. With this funding, I am able to take my 60 students for a Shabbat weekend in Kibbutz Alpha. Students pay 500 shekels for the course, as well as 300 shekels to join the synagogue (instead of 1000 for regular families). There are other fees, including for their encounter with the Beit Din and for using the mikvah. 

What is the demographic composition of your converts?

Nearly all are women or children. The largest number, over half, come from the Former Soviet Union (FSU).  They are citizens of Israel, many of them with non-Jewish husbands or parents who emigrated to Israel under the law of return, which accepts immigrants who have at least one grandparent who is Jewish.  

Between 70 and 80 minors, some of them infants, are usually converted with their mothers, as well as adopted children from overseas. After conversion, all of the converts’ children can be registered as Jewish. If the children are younger than 12, they do not require classes or learning. Above bar mitzvah age, we ask them to come for around two months of classes. 

We also convert foreign workers who are married to Israelis, mostly Filipinos, but also a few from Nepal, China, Sri Lanka, and Thailand. Most come to take care of elderly Israelis and then meet and marry Israeli men. We sometimes have a few Arab women, most of them married to Israeli Jews, and a few who have decided to leave their religion.

What are the advantages of a Reform conversion for citizens of Israel?

There are deep psychological benefits to conversion. Many of the women from the FSU see themselves as Jewish because their family follows Jewish customs and their father or husband is likely to be Jewish. They were raised in Israel in the Jewish education system, celebrate all the holidays, and serve in the Army. But, since the state of Israel does not recognize patrilineal descent, they and their children are not registered as Jewish.  For those who have lived in Israel for much of their life, they want to be Jewish—to belong to the family, culture, country, and land.

In addition, it is easier to be Jewish (rather than “of no religion” or Arab) in Israel, especially when going through the airport or dealing with the police.

I have asked converts who come here as foreign workers and then marry an Israeli man, “ You were raised in a Catholic country. Why do you want to convert?” One answer, of course, is that their husbands want them to do it. But there is also a personal answer. They appreciate the bonding that families have here, including the traditional Friday night and holiday dinners, when families get together to share their lives.

What is the role of the mikvah in conversion?

Before we had access to the mikvah, we used the Mediterranean as our mikvah. But in 2012 the Supreme Court confirmed that the municipal mikvah had to be open for us.

Now the mikvah has become a powerful experience. For the convert, it’s a path from one stage of their life to another— and it is tactile. To enter the water, immerse, and leave the water is a rebirth, a new path, and a cleansing moment.  

Over the last 10 years, the mikvah has also become very trendy in some Israeli communities. I went to the mikvah before my wedding and before my ordination as a rabbi. Some people use it after an abortion or after escaping an abusive relationship. 

Why do so few men convert through Beit Daniel?

One answer is that the men, if uncircumcised, have to do the brit milah (circumcision), which will cost around 5000 shekels. The state pays only for Orthodox circumcisions, so this is very expensive for middle- or lower-class men who want to convert. 

Last year, the Israel Reform movement canceled this requirement. It is now optional, making Reform conversion more appealing to men. Another reason that few men are converted comes from the special need, because of matriarchal descent, for the mother to convert so that the children will be registered as Jews.  

How do the Orthodox convert people, compared to Reform?

The Orthodox conversion is about teaching people to keep Shabbat and kosher halachically and to follow the many laws and obligations of traditional Judaism. Their converts know nothing about this and so have to learn all of the small details of halacha. The rabbis often keep track of recent converts to ensure that they are observant. They are also leery of converting those who don’t “look” Jewish, such as Filipinos.

In comparison, the year-long Reform conversion school emphasizes personal growth. We talk about the meanings, not the technicalities. We want our converts to observe Shabbat, but they do not have to become halachic Jews. We want them to embrace Jewishness as part of their lives and to raise children in their Jewish home. 

What do converts tell you afterward?  How have they changed?

At the last meeting with the Beit Din, we ask people, “What has changed in your life?” Many say, “I welcome every day with thanks.” This is not something that I said they must do, but they hear it when we talk about prayer. Many start to come to the synagogue, get to know the beauty of services on Shabbat and holidays, and may join the congregation, the community and the movement. Several have joined our board. Two women, one Filipino, the other French, read from the Torah. Another convert is a “shamus,” the facilitator of the honors given on Yom Kippur, when 500 people are in the synagogue.  

I was touched, some time ago, when I led a bat mitzvah celebration, which is still rare, of the daughter of a woman I converted 15 years ago.  Another time, I came to Kabbalat Shabbat and saw a man who had converted in my class a few years earlier. I said, it’s so great that you came, what brings you here? He started crying and said his father had just died. And so, he found a place at our synagogue where he could freely say Kaddish.

What has changed since October 7?

In the wake of the events of October 7th, an increased number of Israelis are seeking conversions.  Some people who had not considered or dealt with their own conversions, or the conversions of their children, who otherwise live Jewishly here in Israel, have begun to contact us seeking a formal process of conversion. For example, an elderly woman from Brazil, Catholic from childhood, who has lived in Israel twenty years and is married to an American who made aliyah to Israel, told us that she needed to express more deeply her identity and sense of belonging to the Jewish people.  So, she came to us and has begun her conversion process.

An additional point of tension coming because of the war is related to soldiers who are patrilineally Jewish but not recognized as Jews by the State. This has, sadly, created complications regarding burial of soldiers killed in combat. Now, increased numbers of young people who are patrilineal Jews have reached out to us to make their Judaism official so as to ensure a burial that aligns with their beliefs. We offer those with strong Jewish identity and who have lived Jewishly in Israel a shortened conversion process.

What do you say to the Diaspora in these difficult times for Israel?

The voice of American Jewry needs to be heard here in Israel—to put pressure on the government, to insist that Israel has to be committed to the fate of Jews in all streams of Judaism. If the current government thinks only about the very small pond called the state of Israel, then they will lose Jewry worldwide. Without worldwide Jewry, in a few decades Israel as a Zionist state could cease to exist.

This is the first time that I and my friends are truly worried about the fate of Israel, and certainly about the fate of the Reform movement in Israel.

Top image: Rabbi Galia Sadan holding a Torah. 

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