Conversion in Israel: An Arduous Journey

Jumping through hoops may look easy to this observant couple who sought an Orthodox conversion in Israel.

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Reprinted with permission from The Jerusalem Report, September 9, 2002.
 
Until age 22, Yigal (Igor) Klebansky, born and raised in Tbilisi in the former Soviet republic of Georgia, had no religious identity and hadn’t given much thought to the fact that his maternal grandfather, Boris Klebansky, was Jewish. The family, he says, was a jolly mix of different nationalities. Boris, who died in 1978, never mentioned his heritage, married an Armenian woman of Syrian descent; their daughter–Yigal’s mother–wed a Russian man who disappeared from the family’s lives. Yigal, who was given his mother’s surname, Klebansky, but retained his paternal Russian nationality, continued the intermarriage tradition; his first wife was a Georgian non-Jew.
 
But in 1992 on a trip to Baku, Azerbaijan, Yigal stumbled on a course on Judaism sponsored by the American Joint Distribution Committee (JDC). “I was blown away,” he recalls today. “I felt a strong Jewish connection.”
 
By the mid-1990s, Yigal, now deeply into Judaism and working for the JDC full-time, was divorced and remarried to Chana, an observant Georgian Jew. He began to actively pursue conversion options, but could not afford frequent trips to Moscow’s chief rabbi, Pinkhas Goldschmidt, the sole converting authority at the time. In the meantime, he and Chana lived as traditional Jews, observing the Sabbath and the dietary laws, and eventually immigrating to Israel in 1999 with their baby daughter, Yosefa.
 
The first time he was reminded of his Russian roots, says Klebansky, was when he arrived in Israel and an Interior Ministry clerk in Bat Yam, a Tel Aviv suburb, corrected his attempt to register himself as Jewish. “It’s true, I wrote Jewish on the form because that’s how I felt, how I lived, what my wife and child were. I intended to undergo conversion anyway because I want to do it right and I want to be circumcised. But the clerk said, ‘No way. You’re Russian.'” And that’s what was written.”
 
Klebansky began attending Orthodox conversion classes at the Russian immigrant Mahanayim center in Jerusalem, became strictly observant (“we bought a Shabbes clock [a clock used on the Sabbath to turn on and off lights at preset times], a hot plate, everything”) and was told to start going to a local Orthodox synagogue, which he did. “But I felt uncomfortable because I couldn’t be counted for a minyan [a quorum of 10 for prayer]. I’d have to tell people, ‘Look you have to wait for one more person because according to halakhah [Jewish law], I’m a goy [non-Jew].’ People would say, ‘You’re a goy, really? Wow.’ I stopped going.”

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Netty Gross is a senior writer at the Jerusalem Report.

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