In Israel the question of who is Jewish is a very delicate and sensitive area. The criteria needed for citizenship and the criteria applied by the Rabbinate are not the same, and this can lead to some very difficult situations for immigrants. For instance, it is possible that someone could move to Israel but then not be able to get married in Israel as they don’t meet the Rabbinate’s criteria.
To try and rectify this the army offers the Nativ Military Program, a scheme that helps olim, or those who simply don’t meet the Rabbinate’s criteria, convert to Judaism during their service.
It starts with a basic course that lasts six to eight weeks and combines classroom study, one-on-one tuition, weekly trips throughout the country, group Shabbatons, community projects and more. The idea is to strength the Israeli-Jewish-Zionist identity of the participants and prepare them for the next stage of the course.
The Conversion Seminars are available to those who are interested. It is a course of study that is required in order to finish the conversion process and it includes activities and excursions designed to strengthen the attendee’s personal experience. After completing the seminar, the soldiers can then proceed to the Army Conversion Court.
Eligible soldiers are offered the course at the beginning of their service and it takes around 13 weeks to complete. Alternatively, soldiers may come back to it later on.
While this process is not without controversy, it is recognised by the Chief Rabbinate of Israel and regardless of one’s religious opinions, for many it is a vital opportunity that enables them to live a full and happy life in Israel and feel wholly integrated into society.
The same organisation runs conversion courses for the general public as well. Anyone who comes to Israel under the Law of Return will have proved that they had at least one Jewish grandparent. However, to get married in Israel and even to be buried in a Jewish cemetery, it is necessary to prove to the Rabbinate that you have a Jewish mother or that you have converted to Judaism under the auspices of an institution that they recognise.
The Nativ Program runs classes across the country, it is a state sponsored organisation and the classes are completely free of charge.
The courses cover the same topics as the army courses and participants will take part in group activities, trips and learning. However, unlike the army program, the civilian ones are less intensive and normally take up to a year to complete.
A quick search online will reveal a huge amount of debate about the Nativ Program. Some criticise it as being too fast, too easy and open to abuse. Others defend it as an important way to make sure that everyone who considers them self a Jew and Israel their home can enjoy a fulfilling life with the same rights as everyone else.
During your gap year you are sure to consider issues surrounding Jewishness and identity in Israel and the Nativ Program is an important part of this discussion.