Launched in 2001 with courses held in Jerusalem and Zichron Ya’akov, the Nativ short-term immersion program utilizes classroom experiences, field study, tours, assignments, projects, and seminars on the Shabbat and other aspects of Jewish holidays and culture. Upon completion of these prerequisites, the immigrant soldier then meets with a military rabbinate and subsequently spends several sabbaths with a Jewish host family to better experience the customs of the Shabbat and local Jewish customs first hand with hopes of being better able to integrate these customs into his own life.
Operating in conjunction with the Office of the Prime Minister of Israel, Friends of the Israel Defense Forces and the Genesis Philanthropy Group, the Nativ program has served nearly 1,700 immigrant soldiers and takes nearly a month and a half to complete with an optional extended conversion program available to those seeking additional studies or cultural experiences.
Due to struggles to finance the program on the order of NIS 20 million ($5.6 million USD), the Nativ program was nearly disbanded multiple times in the past several years despite having immense interest on the order of hundreds of immigrant soldiers just from the former Soviet Union alone seeking conversion to the Jewish faith, the Times of Israel reported. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Israeli Education Minister Naftali Bennett worked out last minute funding however from several government and local agencies to preserve the program for future students.
It used to be that the IDF encouraged all immigrant soldiers and their children to pursue the course and at least attend an informational seminar. However, because of the feedback from non-Jewish soldiers feeling pressured into taking the course despite differences in faith, the course in its entirety is not mandatory for immigrant soldiers, and soldiers are no longer required to attend the minimum of the informational seminar.
A second Times of Israel report summarized one “conversion story” of Katya, born in Russia to a non-Jewish mother and Jewish father, according to a blog written by the host family:
“...After a few minutes, we were called back into the court. The rabbis announced that they had reached a decision. Katya, who will soon be known as Eliya, will be accepted as a Jew!” the host family wrote. “As the announcement was made, Katya was overcome by emotion, and burst into tears. She was then asked to rise and repeat a statement affirming her desire to adhere to the tenets and customs of Judaism. She then recited the first verse of the Shema. All in in the room were swept up in the emotion of the moment.”
“In the complicated, frenetic, and often messy Israeli reality of today, extremism, intolerance, anger, and disillusionment influence the religious experience of many,” the host family’s blog post continued. “Witnessing both the yearning and sincerity of a prospective convert, and the sensitivity, patience, and love expressed by the rabbinic court gave me the feeling, that sometimes, in this holy land, religion can indeed be a beautiful thing.”
Written by Erin Parfet