Israel’s Chief Rabbi Visits YULA

Photo by Peter Halmagyi Israel Meir Lau, the Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Israel, humorously ridiculed the concept of a joint institute with Orthodox, Conservative and Reform rabbis to prepare candidates for conversion in Israel, while appealing to the non-Orthodox branches of Judaism to preserve the unity of the Jewish people.

Such an interdenominational institute, which would still leave the actual conversion process under the Orthodox chief rabbinate’s control, is at the heart of a compromise proposal by the Neeman Committee, and it was endorsed by the Knesset last week.

Lau, speaking on Feb. 24 at the annual tribute dinner of the Yeshiva (adult education) and Yeshiva University (high school) of Los Angeles, drew a picture of a hypothetical Russian immigrant, Natasha, entering the proposed institute, with a faculty consisting of five Orthodox rabbis, one Conservative and one Reform rabbi.

“One rabbi would tell her to keep the Shabbat laws, one will tell her to keep some of the laws, and one will tell her she doesn’t have to keep Shabbat at all,” said Lau, an avuncular figure and engaging speaker. “One rabbi will tell her to keep kosher, and another will tell her it’s all right to eat a cheeseburger. Natasha will be confused. Who will enter such a school?”

The primary conversion problem in Israel is represented by some 200,000 immigrants from the former Soviet Union, who, according to halacha, are not considered Jewish.

In the majority of these cases, said Lau, the father is Jewish and the mother is not.

Since the Reform movement is the only major branch of Judaism to recognize patrilineal descent in determining a child’s Jewishness, why should such offspring require conversion? Lau asked rhetorically.

“By the Reform, they are already Yidn,” said Lau, who spiced his hour-long talk in English with Hebrew quotations and Yiddish aphorisms.

Pointing out that a professor of law or medicine, making aliyah from the United States, must pass the requirements of the appropriate professional association to practice in Israel, Lau argued that similar requirements apply to converts wishing to “enter a family that’s almost 4,000 years old.

“If you want to enter the family, I will guide you,” said Lau. “But if I don’t myself observe kashrut or keep the Shabbat, how can I guide you?”

Lau, a Holocaust survivor, was introduced to 700 enthusiastic listeners at the Beverly Hills Hotel by Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean and founder of both the Yeshiva University of Los Angeles and the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

Earlier, during his one-day visit, Lau dropped in on a YULA class and said that he derived “real Jewish naches” from praying with the students.