My Blog – Open Arms Project

Halacha Education Center (HEC)

Project “Open Arms” – Conversion with a Heart

 

Dedicated in memory of Lilly and Alexander Enten Z”l

 

Introduction

The crisis of conversion is one that is ever prevalent in the modern State of Israel. Thousands of individuals are thirsty for a genuine, embracing, and inspiring Orthodox conversion process, which is simultaneously serious and user-friendly.

Halacha Education Center (HEC) is preparing the launch of a game-changing project, called “Open Arms”, in partnership with Israel’s Conversion Authority, and in full cooperation with the Israeli Chief Rabbinate, both of which have sole jurisdiction over conversion, marriage, and divorce in the State of Israel. Together with several other organizations, we have formed a National Conversion Steering Committee in order to guide the various stages of this project. Clearly, this is a project of historic, national importance to the State of Israel.

Background

Since the fall of the Iron Curtain, over 1,350,000 immigrants have emigrated from the Former Soviet Union (FSU) to Israel, and now comprise approximately 18% of the Israeli population. Under the Law of Return, the State of Israel grants automatic citizenship to anyone who has a Jewish grandparent—even those who are not considered Jewish according to halacha (Jewish law). As a result, some 350,000 individuals currently retain a status of Israeli citizenship, and yet, are not Jewish according to halacha. This number grows by 10,000 with each passing year on account of birth or immigration.

The Challenge

These individuals, many of whom are second and third generation immigrants, have become an integral part of the fabric of Israeli culture and society. They attend Israeli schools, risk their lives serving in the Israel Defense Forces, and contribute to the Israeli economy – but remain non-Jewish according to Jewish Law.

This reality poses two primary challenges.

Firstly, for the first time in the country’s history, the specter of assimilation has raised its head, shaking the very foundations of the Jewish State’s demographic reality. This development poses a major challenge to the country’s social, religious and national makeup.

Secondly, research indicates that only 25,000 individuals have completed the conversion process over the last 25 years. Yet, the same research also indicates that there is a potential for an additional 50,000-70,000 converts per year. For many, this abstention is in no way due to a lack of desire to become official members of the Jewish people. Rather, the current conversion process, which is riddled with numerous technical obstacles, makes it seem complex and even daunting, thus causing them to forgo conversion altogether. Others are living in completely secular environments and have had no exposure to the beauty of Jewish life and living. These individuals, whose ancestors were once persecuted for their Judaism, have never had the chance to explore and connect with their Jewish past, and accordingly, are unaware of the significance of their being part of a Jewish future.

We, at Halacha Education Center (HEC), trust that with the right approach and more suitable tools, these individuals can not only be reached, but also inspired, and that the conversion process be made into one that is both serious and more user-friendly.  

The Current Conversion Process:

The current conversion process requires conversion students to attend 300 hours of classes, twice a week, over the year-long conversion process. This is difficult for most individuals—particularly when dealing with the demands of professional and family life. Additionally, individuals must wait for there to be at least 20 individuals interested in conversion in their specific region in order for a conversion class to commence. In many cases, individuals are left waiting for several months until they can even begin to embark upon the conversion process. In addition, the Conversion Authority requires that conversion students study particular subject matters but no uniform methodology of teaching or material exists. Once the conversion process begins, students who do not successfully pass the conversion hearing are required to continue these classes.

The Project

HEC is an NPO which specializes in creating educational Jewish content that is accessible, experiential and user-friendly. HEC, in partnership with the Conversion Authority, is in the midst of preparing a unique curriculum that shows the beauty of halacha and its relevance in modern society.

The project goal is to raise the yearly number of converts in the State of Israel. Moreover, HEC is desirous of making the conversion process supportive, embracing, and welcoming, which will undoubtedly encourage more individuals to successfully convert.

HEC’s conversion curriculum will ameliorate the conversion process, while preparing them for their future lives as official members of the Jewish people.

The project consists of several stages:

  1. The formation of a steering committee that will help forge a new path for conversion in the State of Israel. The staff will be comprised of HEC staff members, members of the Conversion Authority (including a rabbinical judge from the rabbinical conversion court), and members of conversion schools.
  2. HEC has developed an advanced technological platform called Class-E, which will be the heart of this pilot program. This will enable the process to include distance-learning, thus eliminating to a large extent the problem of intensive attendance requirements. Conversion students will be able to regularly communicate with both conversion teachers and fellow conversion students on a regular basis by means of the Class-E platform.
  3. As such, HEC will provide guided lessons and support for conversion teachers learning the new, digitalized method and curriculum.  

By utilizing a technological platform for the conversion classes, HEC sends the message that Judaism has a relevant and significant place within the 21st century.

This project will be launched in 2018.  

Summary

Our goal is to address the many obstacles that have made the conversion process uninviting and unpopular. This requires new ways of thinking, sophisticated materials and technologies, empowerment of the mentoring families and the creation of a warm, accepting environment that will engender a feeling among the converts that they, indeed, are welcome and embraced with “open arms.”

Project Open Arms is set to launch in 2018.