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Poll reveals immigrants' surprising attitude toward conversion reform

Only a small percentage of immigrants and children of immigrants from the former Soviet Union are deterred from converting because the process is difficult, the Am Echad NGO finds.

One of Religious Affairs Minister Matan Kahana's main reforms focuses on the conversion process, which he says requires a complete overhaul. Kahana argues that Israel is home to half a million immigrants from the former Soviet Union and children of FSU immigrants who are not Jewish according to religious law, and that making the conversion process more accessible will help grant them official Jewish standing.

However, according to a new survey of several hundred immigrants and children of immigrants conducted by the Am Echad ("One People") NGO, not only are the proposed reforms bringing the non-Jewish immigrants closer to the Jewish faith, they even deter them from converting, to a certain extent.

The survey polled 508 immigrants and children of immigrants, 21% of whom are not Jewish under Jewish law or are unsure of their standing with the rabbinate, and found that only 13% were interested in converting under any process. Two-thirds of the children of immigrants polled responded that they had no desire to convert.

Nearly 40% (39.3%) of all respondents said they did not want to convert because they were already Jewish, and 37% said they either felt no need to or had no desire to convert.

The poll indicated that the proposed reforms to the conversion process are making conversion less appealing and creating greater uncertainty, with only 12.7% of respondents said the reforms would make them consider converting and 66.2% saying they would not. Another 21% said they did not know if they would convert if the reforms are enacted.

Of the respondents who said they would not convert, 56.8% said they saw no need or had no desire to convert.

Am Echad argues that Kahana is talking about non-Jewish immigrants rather than listening to their opinions. The organization points out that his solution is to make conversion more accessible, despite the fact that the survey showed that only 5% of respondents cited the difficulty of the conversion process as the main obstacle to conversion, with another 5% expressing "loathing" for the Chief Rabbinate.

Some respondents saw the proposed reforms as a potential solution to these issues. When respondents who said they planned not to convert if the reforms were enacted were asked why, only 2.9% cited the length of the process, and 1.9% said it was because of their feelings about the rabbinate.

Jewish law mandates that converts to Judaism observe all the religious commandments. When potential converts were asked if they intended to observe religious commandments, 45% said they would keep kosher, 15% said they would refrain from travel on Shabbat, and 25% said they would attend synagogue prayers. Only 10% said they would not observe any commandments.

"We conducted the survey because we wanted to confirm the gut feeling in the Russian-speaking community that someone is speaking in their name. As someone born in Moscow and a Russian speaker, it was obvious to me these would be the results," said Leah Aharoni, director of Am Echad in Israel.

"Minister Kahana claims that only if we make it easier for the 500,000 immigrants from the FSU who aren't Jewish to convert, will they convert, but that's obviously incorrect. He's playing this card for the sake of a narrow political interest, to bring down the rabbinate, and ignoring the huge damage he is doing to the rabbinical institution in Israel and the world. A solution must be found for half a million people without going over their heads, and considering their desires and needs," Aharoni said.


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