So you say you’re a Jew … Prove it!

Writing in the New York Times Magazine, Gershom Gorenberg reports on the struggles of American Jews forced to deal with the Israeli Chief Rabbinate. The problem, Gorenberg asserts, is that proving you are Jewish to the Israeli religious establishment has become increasingly difficult – “especially if you came to Israel from the United States.”

In recent years, the state’s Chief Rabbinate and its branches in each Israeli city have adopted an institutional attitude of skepticism toward the Jewish identity of those who enter its doors. And the type of proof that the rabbinate prefers is peculiarly unsuited to Jewish life in the United States. The Israeli government seeks the political and financial support of American Jewry. It welcomes American Jewish immigrants. Yet the rabbinate, one arm of the state, increasingly treats American Jews as doubtful cases: not Jewish until proved so.

More than any other issue, the question of Who is a Jew? has repeatedly roiled relations between Israel and American Jewry. Psychologically, it is an argument over who belongs to the family. In the past, the casus belli was conversion: Would the Law of Return, which grants automatic citizenship to any Jew coming to Israel, apply to those converted to Judaism by non-Orthodox rabbis? Now … the status of Jews by birth is in question. Equally important, the dividing line is no longer between Orthodox and non-Orthodox. The rabbinate’s handling of the issue has placed it on one side of an ideological fissure within Orthodox Judaism itself, between those concerned with making sure no stranger enters the gates and those who fear leaving sisters and brothers outside.

According to Seth Farber, an American-born Orthodox rabbi who helps Israelis navigate the rabbinic bureaucracy, the Chief Rabbinate’s have become so strict that “80 percent of federation leaders probably wouldn’t be able to reach the bar.”

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