In Israel, When Is A Jew Not Jewish Enough?

NPR/November 10, 2010

When is a Jew not Jewish enough? It's a question that's troubling the Israel Defense Forces these days - and it's affecting a number of American Jews.

Jonathan Leavitt, originally from California, made aliyah - the migration to the Jewish state - this year. Stocky, with blue eyes and a laid-back manner, Leavitt says he came to Israel to serve in the IDF because he believes in the homeland of the Jewish people.

"Upon arriving to Israel, I was excited, a lot of motivation, feeling more Jewish, probably, than I'd ever felt in my whole life, and I didn't know what I was in for," he says.

It wasn't until Leavitt arrived that he was told that according to Jewish law in Israel, he isn't considered a Jew.

"I can recall the lady working behind the desk asking me what religion I practiced, and I thought that was an odd question, coming from them in Israel. And I said, 'I'm Jewish, obviously,' and she replied, 'I'm sorry, we can't put that into your ID.' And I said, 'Why? I have a letter from my rabbi, I've been bar mitzvahed.' And she said, 'According to the rabbinate, you are not Jewish enough,' " he recalls.

The problem was Leavitt's mother. She was not born a Jew; she converted.

That's not an issue to a family like the Leavitts. Like most Jews in the U.S., Leavitt's family belongs to the more liberal branches of Judaism, the Reform or Conservative movements.

In Israel, however, religious life is dominated by the Orthodox and increasingly the ultra-Orthodox.

Unless those seeking to join the Jewish faith undergo Orthodox conversion, they are simply not legally recognized as Jews in Israel, and that applies to their offspring as well.

Jewish Identity Questioned

The fight came to a head this summer when American Jewish leaders succeeded in shelving a bill in the Israeli Knesset, the parliament, because it would have given even more control over conversions to the ultra-Orthodox community in Israel.

But the issue is far from resolved.

Leavitt says having his Jewish identity questioned has left a bitter taste in his mouth. "I thought to myself, what did I come here for if I'm not going to be allowed to be a part of this culture? I can fight for them, I can die for them, I can go to the army and give up my life, and give up my freedom, but I don't have the same rights?" he says.

"I'm not Jewish enough for them, and it was heartbreaking," he adds.

Another American immigrant in the IDF is facing the same situation. He's from the Northeastern United States but doesn't want his name used for fear of repercussions. "Even the Israeli Jews who are entirely secular, [who] don't observe anything and really have no connection to their Jewish religion, are considered more Jewish than I am," he says.

The army offers its own three-month conversion course for those serving. Those who pass will be considered Jewish by the Israeli government, with the right to get married and be buried in Israel.

The young man from the American Northeast is going to take the course.

"For me, I made aliyah, I'm going to live here, so for me it's a bit more important to really be able to function entirely in every way in Israeli society. I can get married, I can do all of the things that Israeli Jews can do," he says.

Conversion Course Under Fire

A recent editorial in the ultra-Orthodox newspaper Yated spoke out against the "massive industry of fake conversions conducted by the army."

The complaint is that the ultra-Orthodox believe that those who take the IDF course won't be what they consider observant Jews.

"The suspicion is that not everybody who was converted in the army really was agreeable to accept this obligation, and if so, the whole ceremony is void, is empty," says Mordechai Noigershtal, an ultra-Orthodox rabbi.

He says making someone Jewish through conversion needs to be done according to the strictest interpretation of Jewish law.

"The Reform movement took the term of conversion and transformed it into a totally different thing. So if you want to do something else, do, but don't use the same term because it's a cheating," Noigershtal says.

Levi Weiman-Kelman, the rabbi of a Reform congregation in Jerusalem, says the ultra-Orthodox are holding Diaspora Jews hostage to their own interpretation of things. "You have to understand how little the Orthodox here care about world Jewry," he says.

And Weiman-Kelman says now they are turning their sights on one of Israel's most sacred institutions, the army.

"One of the things that really blows my mind is that here it is, 60 years after the Holocaust, and one of Israel's greatest problems is that people want to become Jewish," Weiman-Kelman says. "Who would have imagined that one of the fights we would be having now is that there are people who want to become Jewish and we are turning them away?"

He says the fault lines between the different strands of Judaism are growing, and that is dividing the Jewish world.

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