A Tragic Consequence of the Impending Conversion Bill in Israel


By Smadar Shir, Yediot Achronot April 30th 2010,
Edited/Condensed by Masorti Foundation
Translated from Hebrew by Jonathan Adam Silverman

Jessica Fishman no longer lives in Israel. Exactly a week ago, she cleared out her rented apartment in central Tel Aviv, put the dog she called Jinji she picked up off the street in the cage, and together, they flew to her parents in Colorado. She has no plans, either on the personal or professional plane, but she needed the warmth of her family to rebuild her identity.

"Seven years ago, I arrived here as a Jewish and Zionist woman," she says tearfully while packing her suitcases. "Now I am leaving Israel because in the eyes of the Chief Rabbinate I am not a Jewish woman, and when I myself am already not so sure I am so Zionistic."

Her seven years in Israel were not a bowl of cherries. But Jessica, age 29, did not break. "To be a new immigrant is to go to war every day. It is a nightmare. It isn't a matter only of concessions and reductions in quality of life and comforts, but getting used to many difficulties including a lonesome life style. Even in the most frustrating times I said to myself that this is my time and the suffering will pay off, because the good follows bad.

“I volunteered, I studied, I worked, I served two years in the IDF, I met a boy, we were about to get married, I thought I finally was starting my own family. When everything looked like it was falling into place, the door slammed in my face."

Suzie Fishman, Jessica's mother, who came to Israel to help her daughter with parting arrangements, shrugs in defeat.

“I ran a kosher home, I sent my two daughters to Jewish schools and I never hid from them the fact that I am a convert," she explains in English. "I always told them: "there are people who were born as Jews and never did anything to enrich the wonderful religion. I did: "I chose, I converted, I immersed myself in a mikvah. Today for the first time in my life, I do not regret this, but I am certainly sorry. I never wanted my conversion to destroy their lives."

Fishman went through conversion with a Reform rabbi in Saint Louis. “I studied kosher laws and holidays and customs.. At the end of the process I immersed myself in the mikvah. Most of the Reform conversions don't include immersion, but the rabbi explained to me that the mikvah will increase the chances that my conversion will be recognized in Israel, a question which at that time did not concern me at all. I received a certificate that I am a Jewish woman and I chose the Jewish name Shulamit, which is derived from the word shalom – peace."

In their home in St. Paul, MN, "We lived ten minutes walk from the Conservative synagogue "Beit Yakov" led by Rabbi Morris Allen," Jessica recalls from her childhood. "Every Shabbat we walked to the synagogue, even when it snowed, and after prayers the children split up into classrooms where they learned Bible. My father was on the synagogue's board of directors, and my mother volunteered for Hadassah. She lit candles every Friday night, she built the sukkah on Sukkot and she taught me why we fast on Yom Kippur and why we light candles on Chanuka. For the seder night there was a big celebration, the whole family came to our house, and until today Passover is my most favorite holiday."

Summer vacations she spent in "Herzl Camp", and at age 14 she went with her parents and sister for a first visit to Israel. "Even then I announced to my parents that one day I will return to Israel forever." Two years afterward she came to Israel for six weeks in the framework of the Conservative youth movement.

While studying communications and business management at Indiana U. she came to Israel again, learned for a half a year at Hebrew Univ. and at age 22 returned to Israel in the framework of a nine-month volunteer project. "I worked in an absorption center in Ashkelon with Ethiopian children and I prepared young Israelis for their high school graduation exams in English. Afterward, we moved to Migdal Ha Emek; we set up a chocolate milk house for children, I worked in a village for children at risk in order to contribute as much as possible," she stresses. At 23, Jessica made aliya, beginning work as an aide in the IDF’s Unit for Strategy and Initiatives, an office that handles classified information.

As a lone soldier, Jessica I rented an apartment and found friends. “Every day, when I dressed in uniform, I felt my Israeli identity getting stronger.

Two years ago she met M. “We fell in love. He is a fun-loving guy who works in strategic marketing. We took a biking trip, his family adopted me like a daughter and I felt that finally I found a home. When we started to talk about marriage I told him that my mother was a Reform convert, which the Orthodox rabbinate in Israel did not accept. M said he did not want our children to suffer and asked me to convert. I was opposed. I claimed "Why should I convert? Am I not Jewish? After all I contributed more to the country than many who wear the kippa who refuse to serve in the IDF.

In the final analysis Jessica phoned her parents and asked them to try to obtain a certificate of validity for her mother's conversion. And then the blow struck.

Rabbi Uri Regev, director of Hiddush, a new coalition in Israel that advocates for freedom of religious expression and pluralism, stated unequivocally: "Israelis born in Israel who want to get married go to the Religious Council, bring two witnesses who verify they are Jewish and single and the marriage is registered. When new immigrants want to get married, they are sent to Rabbinical court to verify their validity for marriage, and it demands that an Orthodox rabbi from the place they live will verify that the party making the request is Jewish and single."

Suzie Fishman relates: "One day we received a phone call from an Orthodox rabbi who asked to know the names of my parents, and I understood that he does not realize I am a convert. So I told him that since the conversion I am called Shulamit, daughter of Avraham. At that moment, he stopped talking to me. My husband raised the telephone receiver in the next room, and the rabbi continued talking, but only to him. The Orthodox rabbi claimed that Reform conversion isn't valid and that Jessica is not a Jewish woman because the Jewish spirit was not in my womb when she was conceived. I broke out weeping. This was the first time that someone dared state to me that I who chose to be Jewish, am not Jewish."

"My father phoned me immediately after the talk with the rabbi," Jessica continues. "He reported to me about the nuances of the conversation and wept like a child. "

In November Jessica said goodbye to her mate and decided to leave Israel. "I felt that the country betrayed me, humiliated me and spit in my face."

“Jessica’s story is a sad human saga, strong and powerful, that exemplifies the growing crisis between Israel and Jewish leadership in the US,” says Rabbi Regev. According to him, the thing that causes the crisis is the proposed law on conversion from MK David Rotem of the Israel Beiteinu Party and chairman of the Knesset’s constitutional committee. “His proposed law is aimed, as it were, to increase the number of Orthodox converts in Israel, but in fact, it grants for the first time to the Chief Rabbinate the authority over conversion in Israel, and it is liable to cause Reform and Conservative converts – who are the decisive majority of converts in the US – not to be recognized as Jews, even for the purpose of the Right of Return,” Rabbi Regev cautions.

Jessica is very angry, especially toward Israel’s rabbinical establishment. "This is not Jewish behavior. This is behavior that causes discrimination. Everyone thinks that the proposed new law relates to Russians and foreign workers, and they don't understand the extent to which it is likely to influence people like me, Americans, who came to Israel out of [a love of] Judaism, Zionism and idealism. I came to Israel because I thought it is a country where everyone is Jewish, but this beautiful dream was shattered. It is finished. My case is already lost, but I agreed to tell my story in the hope that it will raise public consciousness about the matter. I intend to build a new life in the United States, and I have no doubt that I will only marry a Jewish man. What will happen when my children want to immigrate to Israel and get married to Jews here? God bless. I can only hope that by then they will solve the problem."