Jessica Fishman says she doesn’t want to talk politics. The slender 30-yearold would rather talk about the past, about her dreams to make aliya, her service in the IDF Spokesman’s Office, her years as a student at Herzliya’s Interdisciplinary Center and as a 20-something living in Tel Aviv. She would rather talk about almost anything instead of discussing the story’s end, where dejected and defeated, she left Israel with her life hanging in tatters around her.
But for the past few months, Fishman has forced herself to do just that, to show how Israel’s current conflict between the definition of who is a Jew for the purposes of immigration and who is a Jew for the purposes of marriage ultimately led to the collapse of her Zionist dream.
On a brief visit, Fishman discussed just that, reflecting on her experiences leading up to her return to the US, and about the warm hug she received from Israelis only as she was about to leave. And she tried to explain how she planned to pick up the pieces, spending the months after her return finishing the book that she started on her experiences as an immigrant, and resettling her life in Colorado, light years away from the white city on the Mediterranean that she had called her home for almost a decade.
She grew up in St. Paul, Minnesota, in what she describes as “a very Zionistic family.” Her parents were pillars of the Jewish community – her mother was the regional president of Hadassah, her father was president of the local Jewish community center and their synagogue. The Fishman children followed a classic route of synagogue on Shabbat and Jewish day school education. The Fishman family’s first trip to Israel was when she was 13, and she fell in love.
Her family’s support of Israel was strong enough to bring her back to live in Jerusalem at the height of the second intifada.
THEN A COLLEGE student in the US, Fishman decided that unlike most foreign students, she wasn’t intimidated by the bombs, and participated in a Hadassah-sponsored Hebrew University study abroad program whose numbers had been decimated by low participation due to parents’ and students’ security concerns. Fishman was one of 10 young women out of the 40-person program who participated in the 2001-2002 session, continuing her studies at the Hebrew University even after a bombing in the Frank Sinatra Cafeteria killed nine people and wounded more than 70.
She returned to Israel again, this time immediately after graduating college. She participated in the year-long Otzma volunteer program, teaching English to Ethiopian immigrant children in absorption centers in Ashkelon and Migdal Ha’emek. By the end of the year, it was clear to her that her future was here, and she decided that the next step would be to realize her dream of serving in the IDF.
“Everyone told me that I was too old to join the army, but I knew that I wanted to work in the IDF Spokesman’s Office,” she recalled. “I came from a journalistic and marketing background, and I thought that it would be the place where I could make the best contribution.”
Initially encountering obstacles, Fishman contacted future MK and former IDF spokesman Nachman Shai, who helped her realize her goal.
“The army experience gets you ready for Israeli society,” she smiled. “I had some difficult experiences, but the army gets your ready for Israeli society in terms of dealing with bureaucracy.”
But although she thought that she had met – and defeated – the bureaucratic beast, she soon discovered that it was lying in wait around the corner.
After her release from the army following a full-length term of service, Fishman worked hard on getting a firm footing in Israeli society.
“I was in ulpan and worked very hard at getting my Hebrew right – I felt like I was finally getting into Israeli society. I did my MBA at the IDC and I finally met an Israeli boyfriend and I thought that things were going well. I had always planned on living here, on starting my family here. After the army, that was the dream that I wanted to realize.”
Her burgeoning relationship seemed to provide the fulfillment of that dream as well. “Even though I knew how hard it would be without having my family here, his family became mine. It was nice to finally not be alone on a Friday night,” she said. “I saw my future falling into place after all the years of trying to be a part of Israeli society. But when it became time to discuss marriage, everything began to fall apart.”
THE FIRST TIME the two discussed her mother’s decades-old conversion to Judaism, “it was completely by accident. His cousin was dating a young man and he said, ‘He’s not really Jewish, his mother converted,’ and then I told him that my mom also converted and I see myself as Jewish, even more so than many Israelis because in Israel the rabbinate is a governmental body, meaning religious identity is black or white. But in the US, there is a rainbow of different kinds of Judaism – there are more shades.”
Following that conversation, Fishman’s idyllic relationship began to take a wrong turn. Her boyfriend began to demand that she convert – this time through the rabbinate. The topic became the dominant one, and they began to fight over the issue on a daily basis.
“I spent a lot of time looking for solutions,” she said. “I found a rabbi who was willing to do an easier conversion, but I couldn’t bow to the rabbinate and say that they had the right to choose my identity. I couldn’t really accept the authority of the Chief Rabbinate, not over me or over Judaism. They don’t own our minds or our Judaism, and I could not give up my principles on that issue.”
Her boyfriend, she complained, understood little of the complex situation surrounding conversion before leaping to judgment. “I had to explain to him the laws and history of the ‘who is a Jew’ question in Israel starting with [David] Ben-Gurion – I explained the duality, that on one hand there is one definition under the Law of Return, and another definition that is rabbinic, which is the strictest possible. In the Jewish sources, it is written that you’re never allowed to remind a convert that they’re a convert, but the rabbinic authorities here do just that. According to the state, I have the obligations of a citizen, but I am not entitled to my full rights and privileges, such as being able to be married here.”
Acquaintances suggested that if her boyfriend consented, the two should simply go to Cyprus for a civil wedding that would be retroactively recognized. “I asked why I should have to go to Cyprus in order to receive more rights there than in Israel, the country for which I gave up so much to live in. It is infuriating and really wrong for a democratic country to maintain such a situation.”
WITH THEIR RELATIONSHIP at a stalemate, the two broke up. “I was brokenhearted,” Fishman recalled. “Losing my future with someone that I loved so much and at the hands of this country that says it is the home for all Jews, but so totally isn’t. It is willing to take money and support from Jews all over the world, but not to see them as full citizens. This attitude is detrimental to the country’s security; we need a Jewish homeland for all Jews, but the threat from the Chief Rabbinate is as big as any external threat, because they are the ones dividing the Jewish people around the world.”
The breakup, together with her painful realization that her mother’s conversion would shadow her entire new life in Israel, proved too much for Fishman. Her family in America saw her emotional turmoil, and her mother and sister flew in to help her pack. “I couldn’t do it on my own – it was like cutting off one of my arms,” she reflected, her eyes studying the view of the Mediterranean. “But I just didn’t have the strength to be here any more.”
A few days after Independence Day, and eight years after immigrating, Fishman returned to the US.
Before returning, she began to search for a way to make sense out of the sudden demise of her dream. After reading an article in The Jerusalem Post that mentioned Hiddush, an organization that supports religious pluralism, she contacted the group and told her story.
“Throughout this whole process, I felt like I was wearing a scarlet C of ‘convert,’ just like Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter. I felt initially like Hester that I had to hide my letter, but now I feel empowered.”
In her last days in Israel, with the conversion issue in the Knesset warming up, Fishman agreed to an interview with a Hebrew-language newspaper. The article was published a week after she returned to America, and she found herself greeted by an outpouring of support from the society that she had felt rejected her.
“People tracked me down on Facebook and wrote me letters about how sorry they were – as well as some making marriage proposals,” she smiled for one of the rare moments in her story. “They told me that they agree that the rabbinic authorities are overstepping their bounds.”
AFTER LEAVING, Fishman said, she “threw myself into the process of writing a book about aliya and my aliya experience.” In the ensuing months, she has finished a first draft with the help of a mentor she met in Israel, devoting hours a day to writing. “It is a book about all of the difficulties, the bureaucracy, but making light of it – using my personal experience, but in a light-hearted way.”
She said that she discusses the conversion issue, but “tried to make as much light of it as I can.” She doubts she will ever return to live here, but will not completely rule it out. “There are parts of me that love the country, but other parts of me that are so disappointed. I hope that my story does not deter people – it is a great country, but it has its problems, and we need to work on fixing them. In Israel, I can get into a taxi, argue with the driver over five shekels, and a moment later, he’ll invite me to dinner and try and set me up with his son. Once I was talking to my banker, and crying about financial issues, and she ended up inviting me over for Rosh Hashana dinner when she found out that I had nowhere to go.”
What Fishman is certain of, however, is that she will stay active in the Jewish community wherever she lives and “work specifically with this issue to prevent other stories like this one.”
When asked what steps she believes need to be taken to prevent other such stories, she is initially uncomfortable, emphasizing that she is not a politician, but then warms up to the issue. “There needs to be more pluralism in Israel – I’m torn – I want this country to stay a Jewish state, but it also needs to be democratic.
I think its time for Judaism within the government to be more progressive, pluralistic and democratic. That requires not having a monopoly in the rabbinate, placing rabbis, but also other professionals in a body like the rabbinate where there are more options for marriage.
The marriage that the rabbinate performs is not a marriage that I want. I don’t want to be bought like a slave. I don’t want to have to get a get. I think its very primitive.”
EVEN BEFORE she and her boyfriend broke up, Fishman had told him that they would need to find a Conservative synagogue for their family, an idea that she says is foreign to many secular Israelis. “There need to be more options. In the US, we’re used to paying for religious services, whereas in Israel its all sponsored by the government, and so people do not experience the other streams.”
Having more options available, she thinks, would not only have solved her crisis, but would actually strengthen Judaism here by “helping to create a more unified and more Jewish country that would be less polarized.”
Jewish unity, said Fishman, should be valued.
“Jews abroad sometimes feel like they don’t have the right to speak up, but without a strong Jewish Diaspora, we won’t have a strong Jewish state – it goes both ways. We need a strong Jewish community that goes back and forth.”
That, she said, is part of the message that she now carries with her. “Now that I”m speaking out, maybe the pain and sorrow I went through can bring about some kind of change.”
The [by]Law of Return
In her last weeks in Israel, Jessica Fishman worked closely with the organization Hiddush – For Religious Freedom and Equality in Israel, in an effort to try to get her story out.
“They were so supportive of me, and were good friends when I was going through everything,” recalled Fishman.
Rabbi Uri Regev, director of Hiddush, says that Fishman’s story may be unique, but that the context is much greater.
“This story should drive home for both Israeli and overseas leadership the fact that people like Jessica can make aliya under the Law of Return, but that doesn’t mean that they will necessarily have the full rights of citizens. When one asks the question of who is a Jew in Israel, there is unfortunately no one answer. The State of Israel extended its embrace to a broader definition of who is a Jew according to the Law of Return, but did not make the rest of the legislation consistent.
“Jessica was registered as a Jewess and received citizenship, but the embrace ends there. When you look at recent developments, you see that even now some Modern Orthodox converts wake up one day and find out that from the perspective of the rabbinate, they are not Jewish enough. More and more municipal rabbis are refusing to recognize even lenient Orthodox conversion.”
Regev said that the conversion legislation currently being examined in the Knesset would not provide any clear solution to Fishman’s situation.
Instead, he proposed, “the State of Israel should grant full legal recognition of conversions from all major streams, as well as the right to marry through both civil marriage and all recognized streams.”
Regev argued that “the clear majority of Israelis support civil marriage and marriage from all major recognized streams.”
Fishman’s story, he said, points to the fact that the current situation constitutes a “violation of basic rights” by failing to provide her with equal opportunity to be married under the law, and equal status under the law relative to other Israeli citizens.