MELISSA BLOCK, host:
When is a Jew not Jewish enough? That's a question that's troubling the Israeli defense forces these days. And as NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro reports, it's affecting a number of American Jews who moved to Israel.
Mr. JONATHAN LEAVITT: Upon arriving to Israel, I was excited, a lot of motivation, feeling more Jewish, probably, than I'd ever felt in my whole life, and didn't know what I was in for.
LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: Jonathan Leavitt is originally from California. He made�aliyah�- the migration to the Jewish state - this year. Stocky, with blue eyes and a laid-back manner, Leavitt says he came here to serve in the IDF because he believes in the homeland of the Jewish people. It wasn't until he got here that he was told that according to Jewish law in Israel, he isn't considered a Jew.
Mr. LEAVITT: I can recall the lady working behind the desk asking me what religion I practiced, and I thought that was an odd question, coming from them in Israel. I said, I'm Jewish, obviously, and she replied to me, well, I'm sorry, we can't put that into your ID. And I said, why? I have a letter from my rabbi, I've been bar mitzvahed. And she said, according to the rabbinate, you're not Jewish enough.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: The problem was Leavitt's mother. She was not born a Jew; she converted. That's not an issue to a family like the Leavitts. Like most Jews in the U.S., Leavitt's family belongs to the more liberal branches of Judaism, the Reform or Conservative movements. Here in Israel, however, religious life is dominated by the Orthodox and increasingly the ultra-Orthodox. Unless those seeking to join the Jewish faith undergo an Orthodox conversion, they are simply not legally recognized as Jews here, and that applies to their offspring as well.
The fight came to a head here this summer when American Jewish leaders succeeded in shelving a bill in the Israeli Knesset, because it would've given even more control over conversions to the ultra-Orthodox community in Israel. But the issue is far from resolved. Leavitt says having his Jewish identity questioned has left a bitter taste in his mouth.
Mr. LEAVITT: I thought to myself, well, what did I come here for if I'm not going to be allowed to be a part of this culture? I can fight for them, I can die for them, I can go to the army and give up my life, and give up my freedom, but I don't have the same rights. I'm not Jewish enough for them. And it was heartbreaking.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Another American immigrant in the IDF is facing the same situation. He's from the Northeastern U.S., but doesn't want his name used for fear of repercussions.
Unidentified Man: Even the Israeli Jews who are entirely secular and, you know, don't observe anything and really have no connection to their Jewish religion are considered more Jewish than I am.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: The army offers its own three-month conversion course for those serving. Those who pass will be considered Jewish by the Israeli government, with the right to get married and be buried in Israel. The young man from the American Northeast is going to take it. But the army's conversion course is coming under fire.
A recent editorial in the ultra-Orthodox newspaper�Yated�spoke out against the, quote, "massive industry of fake conversions conducted by the army." Their complaint is that they believe those who take the IDF course won't be what the ultra-Orthodox consider observant Jews.
Rabbi MORDECHAI NOIGERSHTAL: The suspicion is that not everybody who was converted in the army really was agreeable to accept this obligation, and if so, the whole ceremony is void, is empty.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Mordechai Noigershtal is an ultra-Orthodox rabbi. He says making someone Jewish through conversion needs to be done according to the strictest interpretation of Jewish law.
Rabbi NOIGERSHTAL: The Reform movement took the term of conversion and transferred it into a totally different thing. So if you want to do something else, do, but don't use the same term because it's cheating.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Levi Weiman-Kelman is the rabbi of a Reform congregation in Jerusalem. He says the ultra-Orthodox are holding Diaspora Jews hostage to their own interpretation of things.
Rabbi LEVI WEIMAN-KELMAN: You have to understand how little the Orthodox here care about world Jewry.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: And he says now they're turning their sights on one of Israel's most sacred institutions, the army.
Rabbi WEIMAN-KELMAN: One of the things that really blows my mind is that here it is, like, 60 years after the Holocaust, and one of Israel's greatest problems is that people want to become Jewish. Who would have imagined that one of the fights we would be having now is that there are people that want to become Jewish and we're turning them away?
GARCIA-NAVARRO: He says the fault lines between the different strands of Judaism are growing, and that's dividing the Jewish world.
Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News, Jerusalem.