Identity Theft: An National Epidemic
by David Breakstone
In the last episode of “Veronica wants to get married,” Yair finally proposed.
Those following the story breathed a sigh of relief. We’d been watching the love blossom between them week after week for more than three years and were tired of asking ourselves if anything was ever going to change. Then suddenly we got our answer with a dramatic twist that completely stunned the boyfriend, who also happens to be one of our children.
“I want to so much,” Veronica responded hesitantly. “But I’m not sure you will after what I’m about to tell you.”
Yair looked at her quizzically.
“I’m kind of not Jewish,” she stammered.
Veronica, it turns out, is one of those 300,000 immigrants from the former Soviet Union who arrived here under the Law of Return as a child of a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother.
Though she came at the age of 12, received a Jewish education in an Israeli public school, celebrates the Jewish holidays with family and friends, and served in the army, she has been plagued for nearly a decade by the knowledge that should she die in the service of this country, she’d be denied a Jewish burial. Even worse, she knew that when the time came, she would be denied a Jewish wedding. So when Yair proposed to her, she trembled with dread.
It’s not that Veronica didn’t want to convert. But in an earlier installment, she discovered that the doors of the rabbinical courts were closed to her, as she was unable to commit to a strictly Orthodox lifestyle, including the stipulation that she date only observant men. Still, she was not prepared to relinquish the profound tie she felt to the Jewish people and the Jewish state. For his part, Yair couldn’t imagine having anything less than a traditional Jewish wedding, nor could he conceive of having non-Jewish children. The season ended with them not knowing what to do.
Fortunately, I did. One call to the Masorti (Conservative) Movement culminated in Veronica’s conversion before a Masorti Beit Din, after a period of intensive learning and heightened engagement with mitzvot. “We were enveloped with such warmth, by people who cared so much about us, who were so sensitive to our predicament,” a radiant Victoria told a gathering of the Jewish Agency Board of Governors last week.
Yair was equally effusive. Educated in Israel’s secular school system and thus well aware that he, too, had a great deal to learn, he accompanied his fiancée to every study session. “It’s brought me closer to the tradition,” he told the group. “Even before we began, it was really important for us to have a halachic wedding, to establish a home in Israel faithful to the values we were both brought up on, and to bring up our children with these values as well – a love of Judaism, Zionism and the Jewish people.”
Yet this Jewish state of ours would deny them the right to do so. The conversion certificate Veronica received from the Masorti Movement after she emerged from the mikve with tears in her eyes is not recognized by the Chief Rabbinate, the only institution in this country with the authority to register Jewish marriages.
So the Jewish wedding they had their hearts set on would have to be performed by a Masorti rabbi. They would be married in the eyes of God, but not of the Jewish state. And a generation from now, when their children are ready to be wed, the story will repeat itself.
As if this weren’t bad enough, Interior Minister Eli Yishai has now put forward a plan that would make things even worse. I’m trying not to take it personally, but it does appear that he has it in for my daughter-in-law. After an arduous, 15-year journey at the end of which she was finally able to claim her Jewish identity, he’s suddenly plotting to pluck it away from her again.
A word of background.
In 2002, the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee determined that the nationality rubric on our identity cards would be replaced with a line of asterisks. That decision was in response to Yishai’s refusal (he was interior minister then as well) to comply with a Supreme Court ruling that Reform and Conservative converts must be registered as Jews. To avoid a coalition crisis, the problematic clause was voided. Now he is pushing to reinstate it in a manner that would allow those who so wish to have “Jewish” inscribed on their documents – unless, that is, they have undergone non-Orthodox conversions. If implemented, it would mean that those who had struggled to find their identity as Veronica did would abruptly have it stolen from them, delegitimizing the sort of Judaism practiced by a majority of Jews around the world.
Now Kadima MK Nachman Shai has asked to be written into the script. Some 10 days ago he launched a Conversion Caucus in the Knesset intended to ease the process of Orthodox conversion.
While I appreciate his intent, the initiative is too narrow in scope, as he rejects any suggestion that he also work to validate the multifaceted nature of Jewish identity. “When we start dealing with Reform and Conservative conversions, we’re lost,” he said. I would argue just the opposite: Without such conversions, we’re likely to lose many of the 300,000 immigrants and their 90,000 offspring who find themselves in the situation that Veronica faced a year ago.
Also attempting to work within the system is Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman. Speaking last week at the conclusion of a course training rabbis in these matters, presumably with an eye toward leniency, he noted that “the obstacles Israel places to conversions are a national disaster.” He hopes to integrate the 20 graduates into the state-sanctioned system to alleviate the plight of those entry into the Jewish collective. But even should he succeed in doing so (which is highly doubtful, given past experience), I fear that his well-intentioned efforts will amount to too little, too late. He would be better off heeding his own lament: “We have all forgotten the Torah’s command to love the convert.”
No, not all, Mr. Minister. Those celebrating Veronica’s and Yair’s wedding this week are testimony to that. I can only keep dreaming that the example we set will be embraced by all who are determined not to become victims of identity theft. Congratulatory messages may be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.
David Breakstone is vice chairman of the World Zionist Organization and a member of the Jewish Agency Executive; the opinions expressed are his own. Published courtesy of the author.