Shortly after I joined the army, I found myself on a now-happily-defunct excuse for an army base doing a 3 week introductory army course for Olim Chadashim. I shared a room with a lovely Russian guy called Maxim. During the course of one of the chats which we had over the 3 weeks on the base, it transpired that Maxim was not halachically Jewish, having a Jewish father but a non-Jewish mother. "In Russia they call me a dirty Jew; here they call me a dirty Russian" he told me.
In the years that have since passed, I've frequently found myself in the midst of debates regarding the Jewish nature of Olim Chadashim, both around the Shabbat table and in committee at the Knesset. I have come to the conclusion that whilst my peers agree to the definitions utilised by the Law of Return (at least one Jewish Grandparent is enough), they are dismayed by the number of non-Jews who have emigrated as a result. Those in political power usually seem to agree that the answer is to make the idea of conversion attractive which the religious authorities play lip service to but in fact do their utmost to prevent.
This past Shabbat, Mrs Gilly and I had the privilege of welcomng two Russian soldiers who are currently going through the conversion process in an army framework into our home. An announcement had been made at our synagogue that host families were needed and we readily agreed. As part of the conversion process, they spend time learning the theory behind Judaism but are also sent to families to spend Shabattot to see how religious Jews live in practice.
I wasn't really sure what I was expecting of the two lads who turned up but they couldn't have been more pleasant or more interested. It seemed that the previous family that they'd spent a Shabbat with were a little odd and they had been somewhat worried but thankfully my wife is an expert at putting people at their ease and we hope that they were able to gain a proper impression of what a warm, modern orthodox home is all about with plenty of guests, conversation and good food over Shabbat. They took our numbers and we're both hoping that they'll come back again - we'll be sending them parcels to keep their morale up.
When going through the draft process, the army had offered the option of doing a giyur course as part of their initial training and as such, after the most basic of basic trainings they had spent the next few months on Education Corps bases in the North and Jerusalem. The group had a really interesting mix from new immigrants to born and bred Israelis with one common theme; everyone had a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother. Interestingly enough, our two lads were the only boys in the group which set me wondering whether or not this was an active policy - convert all the women of child bearing age and within a generation you've solved a vast social issue by making sure all babies are born to a Jewish mother.
The army is a great leveller and in addition to providing us with security, it does so many other tasks; in taking on the role of assisting young Israelis through the giyur process it shows once again just how versatile it can be and the important role it takes in shaping our society. Our soldiers will soon be going before a Beit Din and will become proud Jews, far more knowledgable about their heritage than many born and bred Israelis. We are happy to have played a very small part in the process.