JV Exclusive Interview With Prof. Benjamin Ish-Shalom, Founder of Beit Morasha
Based in Jerusalem, Beit Morasha is an educational institution like no other. Among its various initiatives, it runs men’s and women’s Beit Midrash programs (the latter boasting an “Advanced Halacha Program” specifically for women). Beit Morasha also has a college where they groom Israel’s next generation of leaders. In fact, this school, Beren College, just named its new Center for Public Policy and Ethics in honor of former New York City Mayor Ed Koch, at an>a ceremony held last week in Manhattan. But what really sets Beit Morasha apart is its cutting edge work in the areas of Jewish identity and conversion policy.
One of the ways Beit Morasha seeks to foster unity among the Jewish people, and strengthen the Jewish state, is by facilitating the conversion of Israeli immigrants who are not yet Jewish according to Torah Law, but who possess a sense of Jewish identity stemming from cultural and/or familial ties to the Jewish people. These immigrants, who choose to live in Israel, to defend Israel by serving in the nation’s military, and to become contributing members of Israeli society, are already considered zera Yisrael (“seed of Israel”), and as such, explains Professor Benjamin Ish-Shalom, the organization’s founder and president, they deserve “friendly access” to the conversion process as administrated by Israeli rabbinate. In an exclusive interview with the Jewish Voice, Prof. Ish-Shalom discusses Beit Morasha’s unique (if somewhat controversial) initiatives in greater detail.
When asked about the overall mission of Beit Morasha, Prof. Ish-Shalom describes the organization as “an academic institution which also has social and cultural interests, and serves the community, in Israel and abroad, in light of our values and messages.”
“The main interest of our academic activities and publications is to sanction Jewish identity, religious pluralism, and to empower and develop young Jewish leadership both in Israel and abroad,” says Ish-Shalom. Describing some of the ways Beit Morasha interacts with Israeli society at large, he explains: “We work with national organizations, work strategically with the IDF, training Israeli army officers, developing with them Jewish ethics, and dealing with dilemmas and questions of moral values in warfare.”
This reporter was still trying to wrap his mind around the very idea of kosher pluralism, that is, reaching out to Jews of different affiliations (or no affiliation) while remaining faithful to halacha. How, for example, to approach olim from the Former Soviet Union for conversion, when they may have no intention to maintain an Orthodox standard of observance, traditionally considered one of the basic, if not the basic requirement for conversion?
Prof. Ish-Shalom explained that Beit Morasha operates under the logical assumption that all new olim under Israel’s Law of Return have “an attachment, a connection to the Jewish people,” and that “most of them want very strongly to belong to the Jewish society in Israel.”
“The mainstream of the halachic tradition,” he went on to say, “with its wide spectrum of opinions and approaches, and its flexibility, allows us to face this new challenge that we have never faced before.”
“Most of these people are not observant, not religious in the traditional sense,” Ish-Shalom admitted. “But they have a strong sense of religious identity, a strong sense of belonging to the Jewish people.”
“They do accept central components of the Jewish tradition; they celebrate Jewish holidays, like the average Israeli. […] They respect the Jewish tradition and love Jewish family life.”
The professor went on to describe the positive, enthusiastic feedback he and his colleagues have received from converts who have come to embrace the Torah way of life to varying degrees. “I do think and I deeply believe that the mainstream of halachic tradition and its rules allows us to welcome and embrace these people, and to allow them to convert to Judaism and integrate into the Jewish people.” He cited as support for his approach to conversion the work of Israeli Knesset Member and noted (albeit controversial) Chareidi Torah scholar Rabbi Chaim Amsallem, specifically his halachic sefer Zera Yisrael.
We asked Prof. Ish-Shalom if, by converting people with a sense of Jewish identity but, in some cases, no intention of maintaining a strict adherence to halacha, he isn’t doing them (and by extension all Jews) more spiritual harm than good. The professor replied in traditional Jewish fashion, answering a question with a question.
“We can convert children [of gentile origins being raised by Jews], who are not obligated in mitzvot, al da’at beit din [under the authority of a rabbinical court]. How can we do that? We put them in a situation in which they are obliged to observe mitzvot even though they were not required [to do so previously]. We put them in that situation, in which it may be a negative factor for them in the future and not a positive one.”
“The answer,” explains the aptly-named Ish-Shalom, “is that the conversion is a zechut [merit] for the convert, for the child. Because he will have the opportunity to choose, to observe the commandments.”
Converts are like all other Jews, says Prof. Ish-Shalom, in that they observe mitzvot of their own free will.
“This is a wonderful phenomenon,” he says, “that testifies to the beauty of Judaism, by hundreds of thousands of people who could choose, and they chose to be Jewish.”
Prof. Ish-Shalom went on to describe the various ways in which Beit Morasha fosters greater unity in Israeli society. In their batei midrash, they train rabbis specifically to work with Israeli rabbinical courts (military and civilian) on matters relating to conversion.
Referring to these initiatives, Ish-Shalom announced that his organization had recently trained 25 rabbis as dayanim (judges) for conversion courts. “Among these rabbis were seven of Russian descent who speak Russian fluently!” Ish-Shalom proudly explained that these rabbanim were trained at Beit Morasha’s Triguboff Institute.
Having now gained some insight into the fascinating story of Beit Morasha and their progressive yet halachically-rooted efforts to bring Israeli society together, to the benefit of Jews everywhere, there was one more issue of current interest to discuss.
Last week (after this interview was conducted), Beit Morasha held a gala event on Manhattan’s East Side, wherein they introduced the institute’s work to an American audience, and at the same time honored the achievements of former New York City mayor Ed Koch, naming a school at Beren College in his honor. “From your perspective,” we asked, “what was Mayor Koch’s contribution, that you are honoring him at this year’s gala?”
“We’ve known Ed Koch for many years,” says Ish-Shalom. “We appreciate him for his courageous Jewish leadership. His pride of Jewishness. Standing for Israel and the Jewish people […] in complicated times. And for his commitment to Jewish identity, and the state of Israel, we wanted to honor him and give recognition. Therefore we are going to dedicate a center for public policy and Jewish ethics at Beren College of Bet Morasha, and name it the Ed Koch Center for Public Policy and Jewish Ethics.”
“As a matter of fact,” Ish-Shalom adds, “this initiative was agreed upon by the Prime Minister, who sends his congratulations and greetings.” And indeed he did so, via video. Vice Prime Minister Moshe Ya’alon came to the event on behalf of the State of Israel, and gave to Mayor Koch a proclamation in the name of Israel’s government.
We at the Jewish Voice would like to wish Professor Ish-Shalom and Beit Morasha ongoing success in their endeavors. May they continue to grow from strength to strength, bringing ever more chizuk (inspiration), achdut (unity), and ahavat Yisrael (love of the Jewish people), to the nation they serve.