Earlier this month, an Orthodox couple flew from the United States to Israel to be married in the Jewish state. When they arrived, they discovered they had a problem on their hands. The woman had converted to Judaism, and despite the fact that the converting rabbi in the United States was himself Orthodox, he didn’t appear on the Israeli Chief Rabbinate’s short list of approved foreign rabbis.
Getting married by a rabbinate-approved rabbi would have required jumping through a series of bureaucratic hoops, if it were possible at all.
And so, recalled Rabbi Seth Farber, himself an Orthodox rabbi and a member of the Israeli rabbinate, the couple elected to be married in Israel by an Orthodox rabbi — but not a member of the rabbinate. Farber asked that the couple not be identified for reasons of privacy.
“From the perspective of the Israeli rabbinate, it appears that there is little difference at this point between conversions taking place under Orthodox auspices and non-Orthodox auspices — unless your rabbi happens to be on the list,” said Farber, director of Itim, an organization that helps Israelis maneuver through the rabbinate’s bureaucracy.
The question of “Who is a Jew?” was very much on the Israeli government’s agenda several years back, but since the intifada began in 2000 the issue has slipped off the radar screen in favor of security issues, Gaza withdrawal and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s West Bank “convergence” plan. With the Israeli High Court of Justice due to take up the question later this year, the issue could resurface.
In the past, problems were limited largely to those who had converted with Conservative or Reform rabbis. But this month the rabbinate, an Orthodox establishment that decides on matters of conversion as they relate to marriage and divorce, said it would recognize only Diaspora conversions by one of the 15 to 20 rabbis on its list.
All other conversions must first be checked out by the rabbinate, often leaving converts who wish to get married in Israel with a choice of getting married elsewhere, going through the conversion process again, trying to find a rabbinical court in another area of Israel that is more lenient or being married by someone not recognized by the rabbinate.
Israeli observers say the development has become an unfortunate equalizer between the Orthodox and non-Orthodox in Israel.
“The Orthodox, ultimately, are in the exact same precarious position as the Reform and Conservative movements here,” Farber said. “Ultimately you’re going to find that Orthodox Jews can’t get married here, like their Conservative and Reform brethren.”
Rabbi Basil Herring, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Council of America, a worldwide association of Orthodox rabbis, said it remained unclear to what extent this conversion issue represented an official policy change.
“All we know for now and for sure is that certain converts” — converted by all kinds of Orthodox rabbis, and with letters of reference or certification from all kinds of rabbinical courts — “who come seeking confirmation of their status as Jews, are being referred for further clarification and review,” he told JTA in an e-mail exchange.
Even converts with reference letters from rabbis on the rabbinate’s list are being reviewed and sometimes rejected, he said.
According to those with knowledge of the situation, for two decades the U.S. Orthodox community had an unwritten understanding with the Israeli rabbinate where mutual respect for each other’s conversions was the rule. Insiders say the clerk to a former chief rabbi rarely updated the list of approved rabbis because he had wide knowledge of Diaspora rabbis and a large network of people who could vouch for rabbis abroad.
As such, hundreds of Orthodox rabbis from outside Israel didn’t seek a spot on the list because they knew that their certification by the Beth Din of America, which is associated with the RCA, would suffice. Today, as the rabbinate reverts to stricter reliance on the list, the list is extremely small and outdated.
The move has some non-Orthodox rabbis in the United States concerned.
“I think it is a step backwards,” said Rabbi Joel Meyers, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly, the Conservative movement’s rabbinic arm. “While I’ve read nice statements my Orthodox colleagues here have made about the Chief Rabbinate attempting to standardize procedures, that’s hardly the case.”
“What I see happening is a further hardening of requirements,” Meyers added. “For certain, if the rules are shifting for the Orthodox, it would then become harder for us to achieve equity.”
In Israel, though, Conservative rabbis don’t seem too worried.
“Here in Israel it’s not an issue and not a concern,” said Rabbi Andrew Sacks, director of the rabbinic branch of Israel’s Conservative movement. “There’s no expectation of recognition on the part of the rabbanut; we’re not looking for it. The expectation is recognition from the Interior Ministry.”
The ministry, which determines who is a Jew for purposes of immigration to Israel, recognizes non-Orthodox conversions performed abroad and “leaping conversions” — cases where Israeli citizens or residents study in Israel but then convert with Reform or Conservative rabbis abroad, Sacks said.
Israel’s High Court has scheduled a hearing for August on the issue of non-resident conversions.
“The reason we don’t have any expectation for the rabbanut is that we feel that every rabbi has the right to recognize or not recognize the conversions of others,” Sacks said. “We maintain that right and so do the Orthodox.”
According to Stanley Davids, president of the Association of Reform Zionists of America, the move is simply the latest public display of why the Chief Rabbinate as an institution is “problematic for the Jewish people,” exercising a level of interference “which I regard as utterly inappropriate.”
There is “a lack of understanding inside of Israel in general, not just as regards the Chief Rabbinate, as to the impact of decisions of Jewish identity issues that reach far beyond the borders of Israel,” he added.
Rabbi Yigal Krespel, an aide to Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar whose office oversees conversion issues defended the rabbinate’s policies, saying that for years is has only worked with an approved list of Orthodox rabbis.
When there are new rabbinical courts they must “measure up and fill out a questionnaire before they can be accepted,” he said. “This is all done to help them, to recognize them.”
Krespel said he was surprised at any protest by American rabbis. “Why should anyone be offended by this? I don’t understand. We give full recognition to those who deserve it but between that and deciding who can convert is a long road.”
The issue appeared unlikely to make the agenda of U.S. Jewish groups meeting with Olmert, currently on his fist visit to the United States as Israeli prime minister. But Jewish officials say Olmert is familiar with the U.S. Jewish community and sensitive to its position.
“I think Olmert attaches great significance to relationships with the Diaspora,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, which will meet with Olmert on Wednesday along with a delegation from the United Jewish Communities and, possibly, other Jewish groups.
Herring, for his part, said the RCA “has every intention of resolving this matter in consultation with all of the parties, including the Prime Minister’s Office, the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, and any other rabbinic groups and officials who have a constructive role to play, be they in America, Israel or Europe.”
“We will in all likelihood be traveling to Israel for this purpose in the weeks ahead,” he said. “We all owe it to the good of the Jewish people, collectively and individually, to make every effort so that this matter be resolved, or at least ameliorated, sooner rather than later.”
Staff writer Dina Kraft in Jerusalem contributed to this report.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.