Battles over conversion are one of the hardy perennials of Israeli life. Like Old Faithful some bitter dispute about conversion can be counted upon to erupt at regular intervals. Since the arrival in Israel of as many as half a million non-Jews from the FSU, the intervals between eruptions have become shorter and the controversies more contentious.
Israel can simply not afford to have hundreds of thousands of non-Jews marrying and having children, and retain its identity as a "Jewish state," say proponents of relaxed standards of conversion. The rabbis – or at least some of them – acknowledge the seriousness of the problem, which they did nothing to create. But, at the end of the day, they argue, they have no power to alter halacha to serve the interests of the state of Israel, and no fairy dust exists within the confines of halacha for converting such large numbers of people.
The rabbis, predictably, are accused of being insensitive, even cruel. They are portrayed as oblivious to the plight of intermarried families or to those who may have had a Jewish father or grandfather.
Dayan Yechezkel Abramsky, as head of the London Beis Din, already addressed the charge of rabbinical callousness to would-be converts nearly seventy years ago in an article in the Anglo-Jewish press entitled "Two Types of Converts." Far from despising the convert, or failing to appreciate his or her sacrifice, wrote Dayan Abramsky, Judaism greatly honors the convert. Yalkut Shimoni states: "A ger is more beloved [before G-d] that the multitudes who stood at the foot of Sinai. Why? Because the latter would never have taken upon themselves the yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven were it not for the thunder, the flames, the lightening, and the sound of the trumpets that they witnessed . . . ., whereas the former came forward without witnessing any of these wonders . . . .
Another Midrash records Hashem Himself saying of one who accepts Judaism out of a love of Him, "I consider him as one of Israel, nay, even more, I regard him as a Levite." Next week we will read the story of Rus the Moabite, who (along with Na’ama the Ammonite) is the ancestor of Mashiach. Rabbi Akiva, the greatest teacher of the Oral Law, was the offspring of geirim. And every week we study the translation of the Torah into Aramaic of Onkelos HaGer, who defied his uncle, the Roman emperor, to convert.
Count Potocki, a young seminarian and scion of a leading family of Polish nobility, was burned at the stake by the Catholic Church for becoming Avraham ben Avraham. And as long as there were Jews in Vilna, they sang the melody and words he sang on the way to martyrdom: "But we are your Nation, the children of Your covenant."
Such geirim add immeasurably to the Jewish people by providing what is most lacking today – examples of the burning power of a life of Torah and mitzvah observance. Each such ger is a living miracle. They have somehow found the strength and commitment to emancipate themselves from their past traditions, tear themselves from their origins, disown parents and siblings, and regard former relatives as strangers.
But miracles by their very nature cannot be mass produced. The decision to become Jewish is one of the most momentous that a person could ever make, and by virtue of that fact it will always be confined to rare individuals. We honor the ger precisely because we recognize all that he or she has had to overcome to reach that state. And for the same reason must we be careful to guard anything that will dilute or cheapen the value of his or her commitment.
That is what Dayan Abramsky meant when he warned that the great merit of a sincere ger and the love that we must show him or her must not be employed as an argument for relaxing "those laws which surround and protect us like a fence of steel against accepting counterfeit converts."
NOW WE HAVE AN IRREFUTABLE PROOF that concern for the preservation of halachic standards of conversion goes hand-in-hand with the greatest love and respect for the ger. Over the last couple of years, an organization called Eternal Jewish Family, with the generous support of the Lillian Jean Kaplan Jewish Pride Through Education Project, has convened a number of halachic conferences in the United States and Israel in an effort to ensure that a single standard of halachic conversion, based on kabolos ol mitzvos, prevails throughout the Jewish world. That project, under the halachic guidance of Rabbi Reuven Feinstein, has affiliated with nine standing batei dinim that deal with geirus issues around the United States.
But encouragement of a unitary standard of conversion represents only a part of Eternal Jewish Family’s efforts. Indeed it derives from the primary mission of the organization, which is to provide guidance for intermarried couples where the non-Jewish partner has shown an interest in conversion.
Though the general rule is that one must initially push away would-be converts, the Rambam ruled that is not necessary in the case of intermarried couples, R"l, and his ruling has been followed by the greatest of contemporary poskim and gaonim: Harav Chaim Ozer Grodzensky, Harav Moshe Feinstein, Harav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, zecher tzaddikim levrachah and yblt"a, Harav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv. Even so, ETJ does not actively seek out intermarried couples, but waits for couples referred by kiruv professionals, in which the non-Jewish spouse has shown a serious interest in geirus.
EJF has already sponsored one retreat and will be sponsoring another this week.
These retreats feature well-known kiruv personalities, such as Rabbi Mordechai Neugershol and Rabbi Doron Kornbluth from Israel, Rabbi Mayer Schiller, and Rabbi Leib Tropper, the overall director of Eternal Jewish Family and Rosh Yeshivas Kol Yaakov in Monsey.
The retreats thus provide couples in the process of conversion with access to some of the most powerful kiruv personalities in the world, and with the opportunity to share their concerns and experiences with others in the same position. Of the 32 couples who participated in the first retreat, 28 are on the track to full halachic conversion of the non-Jewish partner.
EJF’s efforts helping intermarried couples through the conversion process and to establish fully observant Torah homes gives lie once and for all to the charge that the Torah community is indifferent to the situation of intermarried couples.