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In Israel, a group of government rabbis decide who is officially Jewish. The designation is critical. It affects marriage options and the status of children. But the rules exclude hundreds of thousands of Israelis who consider themselves Jewish. Now a rival rabbinical group is challenging the system with a new path for converting to Judaism. NPR's Emily Harris reports.
LIHI: (Foreign language spoken).
AMIT GOLDSTEIN: (Foreign language spoken).
EMILY HARRIS, BYLINE: Seven-year-old Lihi loves swimming and dancing and playing with her dad's phone. Israelis Amit and Regina Goldstein adopted Lihi from Ukraine when she was a toddler. They didn't know her religion, but that didn't matter says Amit Goldstein because she's now their child, and they're raising her Jewish.
A. GOLDSTEIN: She lives in a Jewish house, in a Jewish family. We do keep the hagim, the holidays. We don't work Shabbat, you know, the basics. And that's what she knows.
HARRIS: But if Lihi's national ID doesn't say she's Jewish when she's an adult, Lihi would have to leave Israel to get married. There are no civil marriages here. Her children would not be considered Jewish. Amit Goldstein says he didn't want his daughter to feel different from mainstream society or from her siblings.
A. GOLDSTEIN: It's important for us that she would be also like them, like us.
REGINA GOLDSTEIN: No doubts.
A. GOLDSTEIN: No doubts.
HARRIS: The Goldsteins could have converted Lihi through Israel's official rabbinate, but they didn't want to. It would have required certain displays of faith, such as attending religious school or following strict dietary rules that conflict with the Goldsteins' largely secular Jewish life. Regina Goldstein.
R. GOLDSTEIN: It's kind of hopeless because it's, like, common knowledge that you have to convert all your life around, or you have to stand there and lie.
HARRIS: Even religious Jews have run into trouble. Ya'akov Lasri, a devout Jew his entire life, sat in on official conversion classes for more than a year while his wife attended. She's a Ukrainian immigrant, born Catholic. They married abroad. In what should've been the couple's final interview, a rabbi asked him this.
YA'AKOV LASRI: (Through interpreter) How is it that you, a religious person active in synagogue, is sleeping with a goya?
HARRIS: Goya means a non-Jewish woman. In this context, it's derogatory. The couple quit the official process, as more than half of those who sign up do. Eventually, they and the Goldsteins turned to a new, alternative way to convert to Judaism in Israel.
SETH FARBER: This initiative is a game changer.
HARRIS: Seth Farber is an Orthodox rabbi and a key force in the new conversion court, which requires knowledge of Judaism but gives more latitude in how it's practiced. These conversions are not recognized by Israel, but they challenge the system.
FARBER: Whether this will bring down the rabbinate or not, that remains to be seen.
HARRIS: The new court is mainly targeting Israeli immigrants from the former Soviet Union, some 350,000. A third of the million who moved here in the 1990s were Jewish enough to easily become citizens, but they and their children, including Israeli soldiers, are not Jewish enough for the official rabbinate's stricter interpretation. Rabbi Farber.
FARBER: We've created, in Israel, a fifth column of people who are serving our country and are fully part of our country, but our country doesn't recognize them.
HARRIS: He says this also alienates Israel from less religious Jews around the world.
FARBER: They don't feel connected, and it's not only about the security thing. It's about their personal status.
HARRIS: Farber wants more Israelis to be active, religious Jews. And one of the top critics of the new conversion court doesn't question the religious credentials of the organizers. Here's the thinking of Ziv Maor, a former spokesman for the government rabbinate. He says this new court could open the door for all kinds of conversions. In his eyes, that means mixed marriages and a real threat to the future of Judaism.
ZIV MAOR: There is no gas chambers, and there's no death. And there is no sorrow. There is only happiness of a young couple and their families that wants to be together. And I appreciate it. But the unfortunate result is that their children and grandchildren will no longer become Jews.
HARRIS: Maor argues converts should be held to a higher religious standard than those born into Judaism. Plus, he argues, since these conversions are not official, they don't end Israel's debate about who is Jewish.
MAOR: This dispute will be, probably, between great camps of great rabbis, but eventually, there is a person in the middle of it. When a person wishes to become Jewish, they should be on the safe side.
HARRIS: Rabbis behind the new court recognize this problem, but they call it temporary. Their aim is to convert so many people that Israel's government or courts cannot ignore them any longer. Emily Harris, NPR News, Jerusalem.
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