Converts and their spouses diversifying Reform Judaism in Israel

Immigrants, largely from the Philippines, are converting to the Reform branch of Judaism and are bringing along their inactive Jewish spouses in the process, adding to Jewish diversity in Israel, reports Judy Maltz in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz (Jan. 5). The new movement of converts are usually Filipino women who “converted to Judaism through the Reform movement, and their husbands or partners are native-born Israelis who grew up in Orthodox or traditional homes, but ultimately abandoned religious practice, only to return to it under the influence of their Jewish-by-choice wives.” For the Reform movement in Israel, it has been a double bonanza. “Our congregations are becoming more diverse and interesting, not only because of these Jews of choice who have been joining, but also because of their spouses,” says Rabbi Gilad Kariv, executive director of the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism. “We now have coming through our gates a new group of native-born Israelis who might not have discovered us otherwise, and this is one of the reasons it is so important for us to embrace Jews of choice.” The Tel Aviv synagogue Beit Daniel is at the epicenter of this new phenomenon, but an increasing number couples with similar profiles can be found at Reform congregations around Israel. “And increasingly, they distinguish themselves as active and devoted members,” Maltz writes.


Behind the trend of Reform growth is the 2002 Supreme Court ruling that permitted anyone converted to Judaism by the non-Orthodox movements to be identified as Jewish in the Population Registry. But while Reform converts may be recognized by the Population Registry, the Orthodox-run Chief Rabbinate does not consider them Jewish, and thus the state does not recognize their marriages unless they also marry abroad. Orthodox conversions are for the most part not a live option for foreign workers in Israel as the Chief Rabbinate would suspect them of being motivated by a desire to obtain permanent status in the country rather than by a genuine interest in Judaism. Since individuals converted to Judaism through the Reform movement in Israel are not entitled to such rights and benefits, these particular converts are not subject to suspicions of going through the process for any material gain. But Martz adds that this distinction doesn’t necessarily mean that Reform conversion was a default choice. As one convert says, “I preferred Reform Judaism because it’s modern, the women sit with the men, and you can dress normally.”