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."
 
israelKlebansky 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."
 
Instead, he started to drop in at the Conservative synagogue in his Givat Massuah neighborhood, where he was never quite counted for the minyan, but was welcome to participate. Soon his wife, who had since given birth to a second daughter, Tami, started coming with the kids. "We enjoyed the services. It was very lovely." Eventually the Conservative rabbi wrote a letter, required by the rabbinical conversion court in Jerusalem, affirming that Klebansky attended a synagogue.
 
But when he presented the letter to his Mahanayim teachers, Klebansky says they politely but firmly asked him to leave their program, telling him that a Conservative minyan was unacceptable. "They said, 'Are you kidding? Is this a joke? You're not embarrassed?'"
 
Klebansky then began a conversion course at an innovative tripartite Orthodox-Conservative-Reform institute created in 1999 by the Neeman Committee, a panel headed by former finance minister Yaakov Neeman. He completed the course last December and went to open a file at the conversion court, which cost 500 shekels. His attending clerk-rabbi quizzed him lightly on basics such as Rosh Hashanah ritual. He was also asked to recite several blessings, including the blessing after a meal in which bread has not been served. Klebansky said he could not recall that blessing, the Al Hamihyeh.
 
After a number of weeks, Klebansky received a response. Nothing was mentioned of his failure to know a particular blessing. Rather, it was in the form of a question: Which day-care center did his children attend? When Klebansky replied that his daughters were registered at the secular WIZO nursery, he was told they would have to be transferred to an Orthodox day-care center. "It upset me," says Klebansky, "that this is what they objected to. But I agreed to change nurseries."
 
In May, Klebansky and his wife, who wears a head covering in strict Orthodox fashion, were invited to come for a formal interview before a tribunal consisting of three rabbinical judges. "We sat there for three hours," he recalls, "and I answered practically everything satisfactorily." But in the final moment of the interview, Klebansky was asked for the name of his synagogue. He told them. "They said I had to leave the Conservtive synagogue and the community if I want to be a Jew. I had to go back to an Orthodox shul and bring a letter affirming that I was a member. My wife and I were in shock."
 
In late July, the Klebanskys faced another rabbinic tribunal. He was tense. As instructed, the Klebanskys now sent their kids to a modern Orthodox preschool, and Yigal had started praying at an Orthodox synagogue. But he'd refused to bring a rabbi's letter to that effect. "That was just too humiliating," he says.
 
The last interview again focused on Yigal's knowledge of blessings for food and other rituals. Synagogue affiliation was pointedly not raised. After an hour and a half of quizzing, the rabbis stood and pronounced Yigal Jewish. Now all that's left is circumcision, immersion in the ritual bath and--by the rabbis' request--remarriage in Orthodox fashion to Chana, a condition that Yigal says he's not sure he will fulfill. "We may opt for a Conservative ceremony," he says.
 
Klebansky admits that his "enormous" desire to become a Jew quelled any feelings of anger he harbored at the converting rabbis. "They couldn't deter me. I want to be circumcised and belong to my people." But, he fears, few immigrants in his position would be willing to stick it out this long and say the same.

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Netty Gross is a senior writer at the Jerusalem Report.