AJC’s Steven Bayme assesses impact of Rotem conversion bill

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

The controversial conversion bill authored by Knesset member David Rotem might be “well-intentioned,” but if passed it would give the sole authority over conversion validity to Israel’s Chief Rabbinate, which could have a serious impact not only within the State of Israel, but on the status of conversions in the Diaspora, according to Steven Bayme, national director of contemporary Jewish Life for the American Jewish Committee. Bayme was the guest speaker at last week’s 65th Annual Meeting of the St. Louis Region of the American Jewish Congress (AJC), which was attended by about 75 members and guests at the Center of Clayton.

Bayme, whose responsibilities at the national AJC include overseeing Jewish family issues, Jewish education and Israel-Diaspora relations, brings solid credentials to his position. He holds undergraduate degrees in history from Yeshiva University and a doctorate degree in Jewish history from Columbia University. He is currently a visiting associate professor of history at the Jewish Theological Seminary and he co-authored, with Manfred Gerstenfeld, “American Jewry’s Comfort Level, Present and Future.”

Robert Newmark, president of the St. Louis Region of AJC and Nancy Lisker, executive director, as well as a number of people who attended Bayme’s talks in St. Louis, praised his erudition, vast range of knowledge and an ability to discuss complex issues in a clear and concise manner. This quality was especially evident as he discussed the controversial Israeli conversion bill that was introduced by Rotem in an effort to make it easier for about 310,000 Israeli Jews from the former Soviet Union to validate their status as Jews under Israeli law.


About one-third of the 1 million Jews who arrived in Israel from the former Soviet Union from the 1970s through the 1990s, do not meet the criteria set forth in halacha, or traditional Jewish law. Halacha defines a person as “Jewish” if he or she is born to a Jewish mother, or who has converted to Judaism. The two Orthodox Chief Rabbis of Israel have a near monopoly on defining the validity of conversions, but the Rotem bill would give the Chief Rabbis “an absolute monopoly” on such issues, while actual conversions would be carried out by local rabbis. In recent years, the Orthodox rabbinate has become increasingly strict in its requirements for a conversion to be valid, even threatening the status of conversions that may have taken place many years ago.

Bayme said he wanted to discuss the conversion bill controversy within “three contexts”: the development and growing influence of ultra-Orthodox Jews or Haredi, in Israel over the past three decades; the problematic status of 310,000 Russian Jews and conversion practices in Israel. He noted that from Israel’s founding in 1948, until the 1980s, ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel “had a defensive agenda, of trying to protect what they had” from being reduced. “But from the 1980s onward, the attitude of the ultra-Orthodox shifted from defensive to an offensive mindset seeking the transformation of Israeli society.”

Bayme added that while the Haredi constitute about 7 percent of the total Jewish population of Israel, “25 percent of today’s Israeli kindergarten students are Haredi.” Back in 1989, some 21 percent of male Haredi refused to serve in the Israel Defense Force; today, 62 percent refuse, a 300 percent increase. In 1989, 20,000 ultra-Orthodox males were not in the IDF; today the number is 60,000, Bayme said.

Some have suggested that Israel faces challenges from two minorities: the Arabs and the ultra-Orthodox, “and in the opinion of some, the ultra-Orthodox pose a greater threat to the character of the Jewish State than do the Arabs.”

Turning to the status of Russian Jews in Israel, Bayme noted that of the million Russian Jews who came to Israel during the 1980s, 310,000 have questionable Jewish status because they have neither Jewish mothers nor have they converted to Judaism.

Regarding attitudes toward conversion, Bayme said there are two perspectives among rabbinical authorities regarding conversion. “The more restrictive position insists that all 613 mitzvot must be accepted and followed strictly from the start. The more inclusive perspective believes in teaching the converts a few major concepts and a few minor concepts and then teach the rest over time,” after the conversion has taken place.

Rotem, the Knesset member who introduced the current conversion bill is a member of the Yisrael Beitenu Party, which was founded largely by Russian Jews. “Rotem was attempting to find a path for a more inclusive approach to the conversion of Russian Jews, but elements of his bill would potentially have the opposite effect by giving the more restrictive Chief Rabbinate of Israel a virtual monopoly over the status of conversions. The actual conversions under his bill would be officiated by local rabbis.”

Bayme said that Rotem’s efforts were “well-intentioned; his goal was to bring in the 310,000 Russian Jews, and his efforts had the support of Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, a distinguished Modern Orthodox rabbi. But if the bill would extend the partial monopoly of the Chief Rabbis to a total monopoly, do you make things better or worse? Rotem and Riskin were seeking a compromise and were not attempting to affect conversions outside of Israel, but the potential effect would indeed affect Diaspora conversions as well.”

The Rotem bill has been vigorously opposed by Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis in both Israel and the United States, as well as by some Modern Orthodox rabbis. Both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Natan Sharansky, director of the Jewish Agency for Israel and an icon of the Russian Jewry movement, are opposed to the legislation. As a result, Bayme pointed out, a six-month moratorium on the bill has been put in place “for a cooling off period and to give time for alternative approaches to be developed.

In his remarks and in a later interview with the St. Louis Jewish Light, Bayme said that it would be best if the Rotem bill were withdrawn altogether, and that the best approach would be something similar to the Israeli Conversion Commission of the 1980s chaired by Yuval Ne’eman, a distinguished political leader and scientist. “That proposal, and a similar one worked out by a group of rabbis from all streams of Judaism in Denver, neither of which were implemented, would have respected a pluralistic approach to teaching converts, with each stream teaching their own converts, but all conversions would be performed in accordance with halacha, or a traditional interpretation of Jewish law.”

Bayme took note of the case of the highly respected scholar, the late Emil Fackenheim, whose son was formally converted under the auspices of a Bet Din (Rabbinical Court) in Toronto, but the conversion was invalidated 28 years later, in 2009. “For so much of American Jewry,” Bayme said, “Jewish identity is bound up with Israel. One has to question if American Jews could continue to identify with an Israel whose rules of conversion are controlled by Haredi leaders for whom we have no mutual empathy?

“We also must ask about the future role of such groups as the American Jewish Committee, and other American pro-Israel groups, whose activism is a major ingredient in maintaining a pro-Israel U.S. foreign policy. Would such activities continue with the same enthusiasm if these conversion policies were adopted? It is a positive development that Netanyahu and Sharansky oppose the Rotem bill, and that it has been withdrawn for the six-month cooling off period.”

Ronni Handelman, a member of the AJC Board of Directors, praised Bayme’s talk for its clarification of complex issues. “I have heard Steven speak before, and he is always informative and interesting.” Rabbi Mordecai Miller of Brith Sholom Kneseth Israel said, “I learned much more about the Rotem bill and its implications from Bayme’s speech, and I understand the implications a lot better as a result.”