Family Matters: In Israel, Baby Steps
Every year, hundreds of secular Israelis who choose to adopt a child face a complicated dilemna: ensuring that their child is considered Jewish by their society and state.
Corinne Ganach nearly died trying to become a mother. Ten years of unsuccessful fertility treatments wreaked havoc on her body and shattered her heart. But in the end, Ganach and her husband, Victor, got what they had been praying for: a baby.
Adopted from Romania as an infant, Omer quickly became the joy of their lives. The couple thought that at long last they would be like any other Israeli family.
But Omer was born to a non-Jewish mother. When the Ganachs went to convert him—a process they imagined would be straightforward since they are both Israeli Jews—they were told by a beit din (rabbinical court) that deals with conversion issues that they would have to raise their son as an Orthodox Jew.
“I’m Jewish—I feel it very deeply,” says Corinne Ganach, “but I am not Orthodox. Am I supposed to change my whole life?”
Every year, hundreds of Israeli parents face the same dilemma.
Since the passage of a law in 1998 regulating the international adoption process, the number of Israelis choosing to become parents this way has been steadily rising, now averaging about 250 adoptions a year. Virtually all the infants—adopted primarily from Eastern Europe and South America—were born to non-Jewish women. The vast majority of adoptive parents are, like the general Israeli population, Jewish, but not Orthodox. Some 40 percent are single women.
All these parents are told the same thing when they ask about conversion: Your children must become Orthodox or forget about being Jewish—at least until they become adults and can decide for themselves.
“It’s especially hard for [parents who adopt] to hear this,” says Vered Navon, mother to a Guatemalan-born child. “Our children are already different because they were not born to us. All we strive for is to be a ‘normal’ family. How can we be that if our children aren’t Jewish?”
Until the late 90’s, parents who wished to convert their children faced even more stringent demands. They, too, had to become religiously observant. It was this predicament that prompted a small group of adoptive parents to challenge the system 11 years ago in the landmark “Hanaton case.” Unwilling to become Orthodox and unwilling to give up on conversion, these parents turned to the Conservative movement, which subsequently converted their children in a ceremony at the movement’s Kibbutz Hanaton. When the Interior Ministry refused to accept the conversions, the families, represented by the Conservative movement, brought their case before the High Court of Justice.
The result of the lawsuit, which dragged on for years, was a proposal to send the adoptive parents to an already functioning but little known, special rabbinical conversion court for minors with a mandate to make the conversion process as smooth as possible. This became the national solution for adopted children, and the majority of the parents from the Hanaton appeal ultimately chose that route.
“When we began operating [as the unofficial national court], we succeeded in converting 50 children in the first month,” recalls Rabbi Yosef Avior, who heads The Center for the Convert (Ha’Mercaz Le’Mitgayer). “There were families who had been waiting seven years to convert their children.” The center is located at the Yeshiva Or Etzion at Mercaz Shapira, a religious Zionist community north of Ashkelon, and was founded by Rabbi Haim Druckman, a former member of Knesset (National Religious Party) and head of the Conversion Authority, which is under the Prime Minister’s Office (see sidebar, page 56).
With his long, white, wispy beard, thick glasses and knitted kippa, Avior looks like the traditional religious figure of authority, but he makes it clear that he would rather ease than intimidate his visitors “I want the conversion experience to be positive,” he explains, recounting a midrash about the biblical Rachel and her anguish over not giving birth until late in life. “I know that many women who come to see me have been through tremendous suffering and it is incumbent upon me to be gentle in my dealings with them.”
Indeed, many adoptive parents describe Avior as a warm and welcoming man. “For me, the whole experience was positive,” says Tali (some of those interviewed did not use their real name to protect their children). Avior converted her Ukrainian-born daughter. “Although I’m secular, I felt as though he really wanted to help me.”
The Center for the Convert represents an overt change in style and a subtle change in substance. Avior does not demand that adoptive parents become observant if they wish to convert their non-Jewish children.
“We don’t expect the father to wear a shtreimel or the family to move to Bnei Brak,” he says. What does the beit din expect? That the child be raised as an Orthodox Jew. Specifically, Avior asks parents to commit themselves to four principles: keep a kosher kitchen, observe Shabbat and Jewish holidays according to Orthodox halakha, attend synagogue on Shabbat and holidays and educate the child in a religious state school.
The majority of the country’s Jews send their children to secular, not religious, state schools, and in Israel’s highly polarized society, it’s rare for non-Orthodox parents to send their children to a religious school or vice versa.
“How could I send my child to a religious school and continue traveling on Shabbat?” asks Victor Ganach. “He would be confused and feel different from everyone else.” Until recently, that left the majority of Israelis who adopt with the following choices: Raise their child according to a belief system different from their own; give up on conversion (until the child grows up); or lie.
Avior likes to believe that most parents choose the first option and ultimately are grateful. He regales listeners with stories of families from secular kibbutzim who ended up making their kitchen kosher, keeping Shabbat and eventually sending their child to a religious school on a neighboring kibbutz. “‘What values, what an environment—it’s so wonderful there,’” he says, quoting a mother, who was delighted with her son’s new religious school.
The message is clear: avior does not demand that parents become observant, but in the course of raising their adopted child as an observant Jew, he hopes that they, too, will see the light.
“More and more parents feel that we love them and want to help them, and they end up identifying with the path we propose to them,” he says. But some adoptive parents tell a different story.
“We didn’t want to succumb to the religious establishment that demanded we change our lifestyle—so we never converted our son,” says Uzi, who adopted Gal from Romania 11 years ago. Gal, who is being raised as an Israeli Jew, is approaching bar mitzva age, and his parents are worried about what to tell him—he still doesn’t know he is not Jewish.
“Telling Gal the story of his adoption was easy,” says his father. “But this? How do I explain to my son that his country doesn’t consider him Jewish?”
Others choose, reluctantly, to lie.
“When I came to the court to convert my son, I just nodded and agreed to all their conditions—and wrote a letter to that effect, too,” recalls Adi, a psychologist. “I wasn’t alone. I stood outside the court with another dozen parents like myself, [exchanging] tips on how to make the best impression with the least number of lies.
“It was awful because I am not a person who lies,” says the Tel Aviv mother, echoing a story told by many. “I did it because I don’t want my child to be different.
“For a long time after the conversion,” she adds, “I lived in fear that maybe they would come to my house and check the fridge to see if everything was kosher.”
She need not have worried.
“We don’t check up on people,” Avior says. “I assume that whoever is sitting across from me is worthy of my trust.” Though he acknowledges that some—a small minority, he insists—are deceitful.
Parents who lie are eventually exposed if they adopt another child and come back to Avior to convert their new baby. If their older child is not enrolled in a state religious school, Avior will not convert the second one.
That’s what happened to the Ganachs, who recently adopted a sister to Omer, now 7, who is enrolled in a regular state school and receives private lessons from a rabbi. Victor Ganach, who describes himself as a traditional Jew who attends synagogue, says he was deeply hurt by the rabbi’s refusal to convert his daughter and feels betrayed by the religious establishment.
Avior has little patience for stories like these. “They brought this anguish upon themselves,” he snaps. “If the parents had kept their promise…they would have no problem today. Lessons are not enough. The child must experience a Jewish religious life.”
But for Ganach that is hard to accept. “My children are being raised in a traditional home while my neighbor doesn’t even fast on Yom Kippur,” he asserts. “Are his children considered more Jewish than mine?”
Yes, says Avior. “Someone born to a Jewish mother has Jewish genes even if the mother does not observe mitzvot. But for someone not born to a Jewish mother, the genes have to be built—and we must do it right.
“Ordinarily, it is adults who convert of their own free will,” Avior explains. “But the halakha offers us the privilege of converting minors, as long as their parents abide by certain standards.”
In the meantime, adoptive parents have found another option in the wake of a 2002 High Court ruling. Israel’s Ministry of Interior was forced to register as Jewish anyone converted according to the guidelines of a recognized Jewish community in Israel or abroad—including both the Reform and Conservative movements.
On a bright summer day, just north of Tel Aviv, nine parents walk hesitantly into the choppy sea, each one clutching a baby. Among them are Corinne and Victor Ganach and Vered Navon. Within minutes, their infants are dunked in the water, their heads fully submerged once, twice, a third time.
“Welcome to the Jewish people,” calls out Rabbi Yehoram Mazor from the Reform movement’s beit din as the group of parents completes the ritual immersion of the newly adopted children.
“These youngsters will all be registered as Jewish in their Israeli identity cards, but they will not be regarded as Jewish by the chief rabbinate—a potential problem if they want to marry in Israel,” explains Rabbi Michael Boyden, head of the Reform beit din in Israel. “We explain this to parents,” he says, noting that the children can later undergo Orthodox conversion as adults or marry abroad in a civil ceremony.
“As a secular Israeli, I knew I could not meet the demands of Rabbi Avior,” says Navon, “and I can’t lie. When the Reform beit din asked me why I wanted to raise my child as a Jew, I said that’s my identity, my history, my heritage, and I want to pass it on to him.
“That satisfied them. They didn’t demand that I commit myself to going to synagogue. I feel a great relief, as though I was heard.”
“For adoptive parents, the most problematic requirement of Rabbi Avior’s conversion court is that they must send their children to a religious school,” notes Nicole Maor, a lawyer for the Reform movement in Israel. “The rabbinate is, in effect, saying that the State of Israel’s regular Jewish day schools are not Jewish enough.
“I think it’s outrageous,” she continues, “that the state does not stand up to the chief rabbinate and say: ‘How dare you claim that!’”
Maor, who heads the legal desk of the movement’s Israel Center for Religious Action, was one of those responsible for the High Court challenge that led to state registration of non-Orthodox conversions. She also helps adoptive parents do the paperwork required to have a Reform or Conservative conversion registered by the Interior Ministry. The number of adoptive parents choosing such conversions is steadily rising, from about 15 between 2002 and 2004 to over 50 since 2004—with 9 conversions in June 2006 alone.
“We’re going to see more and more Reform and Conservative conversions as people adopt their second child,” Maor predicts.
Avior claims that this is a drop in the bucket and that at least 85 percent of adoptive parents convert their children through his conversion court—the only one sanctioned by the rabbinate. He dismisses the remaining 15 percent as “a handful of argumentative people.”
But the 85 percent who “don’t argue” include Adi and others like her, who agreed to the conditions but do not abide by them. Their children may be in for a disturbing surprise.
“If, as adults, it becomes clear that the parents haven’t educated them in a religious framework, then there is a question mark about the conversion,” notes Avior, explaining that the chief rabbinate, which has sole authority over marriage of Jews in Israel, is unlikely to permit them to marry Jews.
While liberal Jews may find Avior’s criteria to be draconian, some haredi authorities consider his conversion court to be overly lenient, and have repeatedly tried to shut it down; they even succeeded in causing delays of several months.
“I do everything according to the halakha,” says Avior in his defense, “but I try to be a mensch about it.”
Caught in the middle of the dispute are Israel’s youngest converts.
The fact that they are still in diapers has not stopped them from unknowingly assuming a key role in a religious, legal and social debate that just won’t quit: Who is a Jew in Israel?
Becoming a Jew in Israel
The status of adopted children is just one aspect of conversion—a highly charged issue that has, over the years, nearly brought down Israeli governments and soured Israel-diaspora ties.
Ottoman law, which comprises part of the foundation of Israeli law, determined that the “head of the religious community,” in this case, the chief rabbi, is the authority on matters of conversion (and most life-cycle events). Only Orthodox conversions, and not even all of them, have been recognized by successive chief rabbis.
The decades-old battle to give recognition to non-Orthodox conversions has been played out in the High Court of Justice, where the Reform and Conservative movements scored key victories, and in the Knesset, where haredim have tried to pass increasingly stringent legislation. It was just such a tug of war that prompted the formation of the Ne’eman Commission in 1999, charged with finding a solution to the issue of adult converts. Rabbi Haim Druckman (above), dean of Yeshiva Or Etzion, headed a parallel commission that dealt with children. He proposed sending adoptive parents to a conversion court for minors, which he would oversee (Rabbi Yosef Avior has been its head since 2004). The Ne’eman Commission led to the formation of the Joint Institutes for Judaic Studies, where potential converts study with teachers from all three movements but are converted only by chief rabbinate-approved rabbis.
Since the Joint Institutes was never endorsed by the rabbinate, most potential converts found themselves again at a dead end after completing their studies. Several government leaders, notably former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, viewed this situation as a missed opportunity to add hundreds of thousands of Jews to Israel’s population. In July 2004, Sharon removed responsibility for the conversion courts from Sefardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar and placed it under the authority of the Prime Minister’s Office. He also appointed Druckman—seen as more flexible than his haredi peers—to head the new Conversion Authority.
Since then, the number of adult converts has increased, but the arrangement caused tension between the rabbinate and the Conversion Authority, with the former refusing at times to sign conversion certificates (a power they still hold). The authority has also been criticized by haredim for being overly liberal. At a recent conference on conversion in Jerusalem, Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, one of the most respected haredi halakhic authorities, called for the dismantling of the Conversion Authority, which he accused of “having the sole purpose of encouraging non-Jews to convert.” Many haredi rabbis speaking at the conference castigated the Joint Institutes—and questioned the validity of its converts because it employs Conservative and Reform teachers.
The issue is not just ideological but also practical: At stake is the allocation of power and money to officials associated with different religious political camps, notably National Religious Zionists versus Shas haredim.
Meanwhile, last May, in a move that stunned American Orthodox rabbis, the chief rabbinate announced it would not accept conversions performed by several rabbis from the Rabbinical Council of America, which represents the largest branch of Orthodox Jewry in the United States. The rabbinate also declared that only conversions conducted by rabbis who undergo special exams in Israel would be valid. The two sides subsequently reached a compromise, agreeing to establish a commission to draft a list of rabbinic courts authorized to perform conversions. —L.E.F.