She Doesn't Live Here Anymore

Israeli Flag "Seven years ago, I arrived here as a Jewish and Zionist woman," she says teary eyed while packing her suitcases. "Now I am leaving Israel because in the eyes of the Chief Rabbinate I am not a Jewish woman, and when I myself am already not so sure I am so Zionist."

By Smadar Shir • Yediot Achronot
April 30th 2010

Jessica Fishman no longer lives in Israel. Exactly a week ago she cleared out her rented apartment in central Tel Aviv, put the dog she called Jinji she picked up off the street, in the cage, and together they flew to her parents in Colorado. She has no plans, either on the personal or professional plane, but she needed the warmth of her family to rebuild her identity.

"Seven years ago, I arrived here as a Jewish and Zionist woman," she says teary eyed while packing her suitcases. "Now I am leaving Israel because in the eyes of the Chief Rabbinate I am not a Jewish woman, and when I myself am already not so sure I am so Zionist."

Her seven years in Israel were not a bowl of cherries. But Jessica, age 29, did not break. "To be a new immigrant is to go to war every day. It is a nightmare. It isn't a matter only of concessions and reductions in quality of life and comforts, but getting used to many difficulties including a lonesome life style. Even in the most frustrating times I said to myself that this is my time and the suffering will pay off, because the good follows bad. I volunteered, I studied, I worked, I served two years in the IDF, I met a boy, we were about to get married, I thought I finally was starting my own family. Look the new immigrant's biggest fear is where will we be for the holidays? Who will invite us for meals? And indeed when everything looked like it was falling into place, that seven black years were behind me and I can look ahead ˆ the door slammed in my face."

Suzie Fishman, Jessica's mother, who came to Israel to help her daughter with parting arrangements, shrugs in defeat.

"I ran a kosher home, I sent my two daughters to Jewish schools and I never hid from them the fact that I am a convert," she explains in English. "I always told them: "there are people who were born as Jews and never did anything to enrich the wonderful religion. I did: "I chose, I converted, I immersed myself in a mikvah. Today for the first time in my life, I do not regret this, but I am certainly sorry. I never wanted my conversion to destroy their lives."

Suzie (62), Jessica's mother, grew up in a Christian family in Missouri. "My mother was very religious, and every Sunday she took me to church," the mother recalls. "But in high school I started to move away from religion." In the framework of studies for becoming a registered nurse she met Leslie Fishman, who became a pediatrician. "We dated for two years, and when he received his certification in Minneapolis, MN, he proposed marriage. I knew he was Jewish before then, but between the two of us religion did not play a significant role. Love made me flexible. I need to convert? No problem. This was much harder for my family than for me, in particular my mother. My two parents were prejudiced, and my mother worried she would lose me, which actually happened. She respected my husband but the conversion separated them."

Fishman went through conversion with a reform rabbi in Saint Louis. "I did not know much about the various streams of Judaism, but Leslie explained to me that the orthodox are less progressive than the reforms in their approach to women, and therefore we chose a reform rabbi. I studied kosher laws and holidays and customs. Leslie came from a home in which the Judaism was a cultural and social matter more than religious, and it turned out that I learned things that he never knew. At the end of the process I immersed myself in the mikvah. Most of the reform conversions don't include immersion, but the rabbi explained to me that the mikvah will increase the chances that my conversion will be recognized in Israel, a question which at that time did not concern me at all. I received a certificate that I am a Jewish woman and I chose the Jewish name Shulamit, which is derived from the word shalom = peace."

In their home in St. Paul MN, Suzie was in charge of giving their daughters a Jewish education: Jessica (Tamar) and her younger sister Sheina, who lives today in New York. "We lived ten minutes walk from the conservative synagogue "Beth Jacob" led by Rabbi Morris Allen," Jessica recalls from her childhood. "Every Shabbat we walked to the synagogue, even when it snowed, and after prayers the children split up into classrooms where they learned Bible. My father was on the synagogue's board of directors, and my mother volunteered for Hadassah. She lit candles every Friday night, she built the sukkah on Sukkot and she taught me why we fast on Yom Kippur and why we light candles on Chanuka. For the seder night there was a big celebration, the whole family came to our house, and until today Passover is my most favorite holiday."

When she was three years old, her mother went through a Bat Mitzva ceremony. "For a year she studied and I applauded when she read from the Torah," Jessica recalls, who until sixth grade learned in a Jewish school. Because of her father's work the family moved to a small city in New York, and she remembers herself in the local supermarket, looking for food items on whose packages was written OU, specifying they were kosher. Summer vacations she spent in "Herzl Camp", and at age 14 she went with her parents and sister for a first visit to Israel. "We toured all over and I loved it," she says smiling. "In particular Tel Aviv. Even then I announced to my parents that one day I will return to Israel forever." Two years afterward she came to Israel for six weeks in the framework of the conservative youth movement. "We prayed three times a day, and every meal ended with the prayer after meals. "I was not so devout," she confesses, " but it interested me to see Israel from the point of view of people my age."

While studying communications and business management at Indiana U. she came to Israel again, learned for a half a year at Hebrew U. and at age 22 returned to Israel in the framework of a nine month volunteer project. "I worked in an absorption center in Ashkelon with Ethiopian children and I prepared young Israelis for their high school graduation exams in English. Afterward we moved to Migdal Ha Emek, we set up a chocolate milk house for children, I worked in a village for children at risk in order to contribute as much as possible," she stresses. "In the framework of the volunteer project I met Nachman Shai, who was then IDF Spokesman, I told him who I am, and he promised to help me. Two weeks later I received a phone call, someone asked to speak with Jessica Fishman Daughter of Eliezer. It took me a minute to understand that they meant me," She laughs. "They asked me to enlist in two weeks, I sought to postpone the enlistment until I finish the Hebrew class and finally they told me "Hey you can't choose the date of your enlistment according to what is comfortable for you, this is the army." I flew to my parents for a month and a half, I organized documents, I made Aliyah, and at age 23 I started to serve in IDF Spokesman."

"We were worried about her," her mother comments. "This was during the second intifada, it was dangerous, but we were very proud of her. She fulfilled her Zionism and her Judaism.:"


For two years Jessica served as an aide in the Unit For Strategy and Initiatives. "Until today I am forbidden from telling too much about what I did there," she relates. "I thought that I would be Israel's spokesperson for the foreign press, but this was only one aspect of work in the unit, which prepared in advance ways of coping with atrocity scenarios. As a lone soldier woman I rented an apartment, I found friends and every day, when I dressed in uniform, I felt my Israeli identity getting stronger. When I was discharged I wanted to make a long trip abroad like everyone after the army. Instead of flying to India I flew to my parents, who had moved to Colorado, I went skiing and I returned home, to Tel Aviv."

She worked in an advertising office, started to study for a master's degree in business management in the interdisciplinary center in Herzliya and for the first time started to read in Hebrew. "They told me to start with books that I did not know in English, so I started with CATCHER IN THE RYE and from there I moved to BAGEL WISDOM. Reading in Hebrew took more time, but there was great satisfaction.

Two years ago she met M, who almost became her husband. "A friend told me about a guy who wanted my advice," she relates, "I assumed this was someone planning Aliyah. The first time I met M I was amazed that he had such good Hebrew. Later I understood that this was an alibi for a date. We fell in love. He is a fun loving guy who works in strategic marketing. We took a biking trip, his family adopted me like a daughter and I felt that finally I found a home. When we started to talk about marriage I told him that my mother was a reform convert, which the orthodox rabbinate in Israel did not accept. This I learned in the army. M said he did not want our children to suffer and asked me to convert. I was opposed. I claimed "Why should I convert? Am I not Jewish? After all I contributed more to the country than many who wear the kipa who refuse to serve in the IDF. These discussions became arguments and soured our relations."

According to her, M's mother used to say: "I love Jessica as if she is my daughter, but your children will suffer, they will not permit them to get married in Israel," And she applied indirect pressure. In the final analysis Jessica phoned her parents and asked them to try to obtain a certificate of validity for her mother's conversion. And then the blow struck.

Rabbi (advocate) Uri Regev, director of Hadush (Freedom, Religion, Equality) stated unequivocally: "Israelis born in Israel who want to get married go to the Religious Council, bring two witnesses who verify they are Jewish and single and the marriage is registered. When new immigrants want to get married, they are sent to Rabbinical court to verify their validity for marriage, and it demands that an orthodox rabbi from the place they live will verify that the party making the request is Jewish and single."

Suzie Fishman relates: "One day we received a phone call from an orthodox Rabbi who asked to know the names of my parents, and I understood that he does not realize I am a convert. So I told him that since the conversion I am called Shulamit daughter of Avraham. At that moment he stopped talking to me. My husband raised the telephone receiver in the next room, and the Rabbi continued talking but only to him. The orthodox Rabbi claimed that Reform conversion isn't valid and that Jessica is not a Jewish woman because the Jewish spirit was not in my womb when she was conceived. I broke out weeping. This was the first time that someone dared state to me that I who chose to be Jewish, am not Jewish."

"My father phoned me immediately after the talk with the rabbi," Jessica continues. "He reported to me about the nuances of the conversation and wept like a child. My father said that he felt he was raped. He wept and said Jessica I am so sorry we have not managed to help you get out of this trap."

In November Jessica said goodbye to her mate (it was no longer pleasant between us. The arguments killed the love") And she decided to leave Israel. "I felt that the country betrayed me, humiliated me and spit in my face."


Jessica's story is a sad human saga, strong and powerful, that exemplifies the growing crisis between Israel and Jewish leadership in the US, "says Rabbi (advocate) Uri Regev. According to him the thing that causes the crisis is the proposed law on conversion from MK David Rotam from Israel Beiteinu, chairman of the Knesset constitutional committee. "His proposed law is aimed, as it were, to increase the number of orthodox converts in Israel, but in fact it grants for the first time to the chief rabbinate the authority over conversion in Israel, and it is liable to cause Reform and Conservative converts ˆ who are the decisive majority of converts in the US ˆ not to be recognized as Jews even for the purpose of the Right of Return," Regev cautions.

MK Rotam, who landed in New York this week for a series of meetings with heads of Federations and Jewish communities about the proposed law of conversion, was sorry to hear that Jessica Fishman already left Israel. "She is correct," he said. "Her case is scandalous. It hurts me to hear that a young woman who contributed so much to Israel was forced to leave, and this is exactly what my law seeks to correct."

"How will your law correct the problem Fishman experienced?"

"If my law is passed, instead of going through a long process of conversion Jessica will be able to turn to the Rabbinical Court of the metropolitan rabbinate that we want to establish. The metropolitan rabbinate will examine her knowledge of Judaism, and in the worst case will convert her one more time in a swift way."

But Jessica Fishman does not want to go through another conversion, either long or short. According to her she is Jewish.

"This problem is beyond my law. It relates to the Chief Rabbinate which recognizes only orthodox conversion. Jessica can still get married in Israel with a reform Rabbi. If she fell in love with a young man who is not prepared to get married to a young woman whose mother went through reform conversion, she needs to address her reasoning to the young man with whom she fell in love. Not to me and not to the establishment. If my law is passed, Jessica would be able to register in the couples registry and get married. It is correct that with regard to orthodoxy there will be problems for her children, but she can say: "I am a Jewish woman and my children are Jewish like me, and hope that they will choose to marry Israelis who don't object to reform conversion."

Jessica is leaving and is very angry about it especially toward the rabbinical establishment. "This is not Jewish behavior, this is antisemitic behavior that causes discrimination. Everyone thinks that the proposed new law relates to Russians and foreign workers, and they don't understand the extent to which it is likely to influence people like me, Americans who came to Israel out of Judaism, Zionism and idealism. I came to Israel because I thought it is a country where everyone is Jewish, but this beautiful dream was shattered. It is finished. My case is already lost, but I agreed to tell my story in the hope that it will raise public consciousness about the matter. I intend to build a new life in the United States, and I have no doubt that I will only marry a Jewish man. What will happen when my children want to immigrate to Israel and get married to Jews here? God bless. I can only hope that by then they will solve the problem."

Translation by yonatan silverman

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