October 22, 2018

Angeleno pushes effort on recognizing conversions

When Lorin Fife converted to Judaism some 30 years ago, his experience with the Orthodox rabbis who presided over his year of study and conversion ceremony was one of warmth and acceptance.

Rabbi Shmuel Katz, who spent decades as the head of Los Angeles’ Orthodox bet din (rabbinic judicial panel), completed the ritual with a simple message. “Basically, my charge was to be the best Jew I could be,” Fife said.

Fife has done that.

The retired general counsel to SunAmerica, Fife currently chairs the Israel-Tel Aviv Partnership for The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and co-chairs The Federation’s Israel and Overseas Pillar.

He and his wife, Linda, who serves as co-chair of LimmudLA, lived in Israel for three years, and the elder of their two sons, Yoni, 29, was born there. Yoni went back to Israel to serve in the Israel Defense Forces at the height of the Second Intifada.

And it was Fife who last week proposed that the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI), where he sits on the board of governors, pass a resolution urging the Israeli government to bring the conversion process back to one that is as accepting and moderate as his own.

Representing The Los Angeles Federation at the JAFI meeting, Fife was moved to action by a recent escalation in Israel’s ongoing conversion crisis. The implications are societal, as well as personal, for Fife, a past president of the Conservative Adat Ari El in Valley Village.

Last May, Israeli rabbis retroactively annulled an Orthodox conversion where the convert did not observe all the mitzvot according to Orthodox interpretation. The ultra-Orthodox rabbis have since annulled all conversions by Israel’s National Conversion Court — led by moderate Orthodox rabbis — going back to 1999, affecting thousands of people.

The move was condemned by moderate Orthodox rabbis and most of the Jewish world, warning it could wreak havoc on families who had been living under the assumption that they were Jewish, especially thousands of Russian immigrants.

Fife sought to channel the resulting outrage into a call for those who believe in a more expansive gate to Jewish peoplehood to speak up against religious coercion.

“It has become apparent that secular Israelis basically have no connection to Judaism at all, and it’s become more and more apparent to the great mass of Israelis that it is important to be able to recognize the pluralistic approach that exists in the Diaspora,” Fife said in a phone interview after the meeting in Jerusalem.

He put forward a motion at JAFI’s annual assembly calling on the Israeli government to recognize conversions from any stream of Judaism and to establish a conversion authority separate from the chief rabbinate.

While his motion received a near-unanimous approval at the plenary on “The Conversion Crisis,” by the time it reached the resolutions plenary later that evening, it had already been revised and the dissent had organized.

Some of the dissenters opposed the motion on the grounds that the status quo is acceptable and should not be tampered with. Others, including JAFI Chair Richard Pearlstone, felt the wording needed to be more nuanced, so as not to derail ongoing efforts to establish an independent conversion authority.

Yaakov Ne’eman, a former government minister who has been overseeing that effort since the 1990s, threatened to resign if Fife’s resolution were passed.

Fife’s resolution was ultimately defeated, and more moderate twin resolutions were passed.

The resolutions call on the Israeli government to establish courts of “Jewish law which will base themselves on appropriate, moderate and tolerant prior halachic decisions to allow the conversion process to move forward.”

The resolutions also call for the establishment of an independent conversion authority. The General Assembly of the United Jewish Communities, meeting just after the JAFI conference, passed a similar resolution.

The Jewish Agency, which was the government in prestate Palestine and now runs auxiliary agencies mostly in the social realm, still holds some sway over the Israeli government, but its resolutions are nonbinding.

Still, Fife is encouraged that the resolution, even in its toned-down form, made it into the daily newspaper, Ha’aretz, and that the discussion had people paying attention.

“My hope is that by continuing to pursue this issue with sensitivity and dignity and thoughtfulness, we can transform this from something ugly into something beautiful and a good thing for the Jewish people,” Fife said.