Every Complex Problem has a Simple-and Wrong-Solution

Rochel Sylvetsky,

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צילום: ערוץ 7
Rochel Sylvetsky
Rochel Sylvetsky is Senior Consultant to Arutz Sheva's English site and serves as op-ed and Judaism editor. She is a former Chairperson of Emunah Israel (1991-96), CEO/Director of Kfar Hanoar Hadati Youth Village, member of the Emek Zevulun Regional Council and the Religious Education Council of Israel's Education Ministry. She has degrees in Mathematics and Jewish Education.

For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong - H.L. Mencken.

I listened unbelievingly to the news reports of the conversion of minors by the independent rabbinic court established by Rabbi David Stav, candidate in the previous elections for the Chief Rabbinate who has many accomplishments to his credit that make Judaism user-friendly to the general population. This initiative, however, in my humble opinion, is not going to be one of them.

I could write about how sad it is to create independent conversion courts, as though we are still in the Diaspora instead of in a Jewish state where national halakhic issues can be decided by a Chief Rabbinate after thousands of years, but that is not my point. I could also write about how these conversions will in all probability not be recognized by anyone else (the comparisons to Rabbi Chaim Druckman's courts is unfounded, as the criticism they faced was from extremely stringent hareidim).

Far be it from me to argue halakhic issues on any level,  certainly not those that influence the future of Israel and the Jewish people - that is the province of renowned Torah Sages in the rabbinic hierarchy. But as a former head of a youth village with a conversion institute that functioned under the aegis of the Religious Kibbutzim and the Chief Rabbinate, I can at least speak from experience.

The children who came before the private court yesterday are in the religious school system, so the problem of their being non-Jewish is acute.  However, their mothers do not want to convert, according to the reports. That is an even more acute problem. This situation has been discussed in depth by the Chief Rabbinate, which said explicitly that the simple solution is wrong.

Converting the candidates while they are youngsters without their mother converting was rejected by the Rabbinate. To me, the very idea is mind-boggling.

Think about it. What are we doing to them?

Imagine this scenario: One of these converted children, who is enrolled in a religious school, invites a religious classmate friend for lunch, an invitation which is accepted since now he is Jewish. His mother, a non-Jew, is in charge of the kitchen.  Who does the shopping? Who is careful about meat and milk, supposing that she has purchased another two sets of dishes for this child?

Halakhically, he, a Jew, is supposed to turn on the stove or oven to allow them to eat food being prepared by a non-Jew, as is the case in many restaurants and hotels, but he has been in school all day and is really hungry. Mom loves him and has begun cooking earlier so the food is ready when he arrives. Is the meal he serves his friend kosher? Do the friend's parents grasp the situation?

And when he is alone at home, how strong does this youngster have to be to keep kosher? How long is this "light the stove" routine expected to last?

What if the family enjoys chicken Kiev made with butter, like my Russian neighbors in the absorption center did, and which was their right as non-Jews? On which dishes will they eat? What does he eat for supper, falafel?

What about the family outing in their new car on Shabbat? When not yet converted, he could go along. Now, are they going to stop their Saturday trips, is he going to stay home alone or is he going to live a lie? If he is in a religious school, his friends do not ride on Shabbat. But how long will this child stand up to temptation, even if his observant schoolmates sometimes invite him to shul and lunch?

Or do we secretly expect him not to keep kosher and not to observe Shabbat, even though we have announced – that is, I heard Rabbi Stav proclaim in Hebrew – that there is no conversion without the acceptance of mitzvot. 

Maybe these youngsters are being converted because of a deep theological connection to the Jewish faith even if their mitzvah observance is fraught with difficulty.  Elementary school kids?

What happens on Yom Kippur? I remember an 18 year old converted student coming to us for Tisha B"Av because her family ate and she couldn't take it.  I remember a sixteen year old whose grandmother cooked on Shabbat and who asked me for a Shabbat hotplate. Both of them had just converted and were old enough to live with the commitments they had made and manage their own food. They had a chance of succeeding, at least.  Everyone else who converted lived in the youth village and was surrounded by an observant environment 24/7, so that sometimes, rarely, younger students who were very sincere, were able to convert. 

Usually, we waited till they were older, in the upper grades, before conversion.Why not wait until high school and offer Judaism as a course, as preparation for conversion as a teenager? 

If it is crucial to convert them as minors, before they are obligated by the mitzvot because of less stringent demands for minors, perhaps we could wait to see if they choose a religious junior high school, which at least is a kind of commitment.

This is a terrible problem brought upon Israel by previous governments whose Immigration and Absorption Ministers wanted to dilute the strength of religious Israelis and allowed 300,000 halakhically non-Jewish people to enter the only Jewish state there is. Yvet Liberman's party, aimed at these Russian voters, was the answer to the left's prayers – he wanted civil marriage, instant conversion, exactly what the left wanted for Israel.

The whole situation is unrealistic. The low rate of conversion is mostly due to a justified lack of interest. No one can expect 300,000 people to want to become Jews. What for? Why should they limit their menus and vacation pursuits? In Israel, they have equal rights, as they should, it doesn't say religion on one's identity card, and most of their neighbors are not religious. So the complaints about the Chief Rabbinate's courts are highly exaggerated. I worked with them and recall only one student who was rejected (after she surprised us all and mentioned that she is awaiting the Second Coming…).

Yes, their Hebrew speaking sabra children are the big problem, but they are also just children living with a non-Jewish mother. The wrong solution is worse than no solution. 

What does being Jewish mean? After this conversion of children, so reminiscent of the Hanaton children, I just don't know.