3 famous faces who have struggled with Jewish conversion

By
June 26, 2017 15:43

As a contentious debate over conversion recognition flares, take a look at some high-profile converts who have struggled with the policies of the ultra-Orthodox Chief Rabbinate.

3 minute read.



Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner.

Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner.. (photo credit: FILIPPO MONTEFORTE / AFP)

Since the Book of Ruth, converts have played a major role in Jewish life, culture and faith. But a new bill which was advanced on Sunday for Knesset approval would create a much more difficult path for many converts to overcome.

To say the bill is controversial is an understatement.

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The law would give the Chief Rabbinate total control over Jewish conversion in Israel, essentially allowing the ultra-Orthodox-controlled religious establishment to decide who and who is not considered a Jew. Jews who converted through independent Orthodox, Reform, and Masorti (Conservative) rabbinical courts would no longer be able to register as Jewish in the Interior Ministry.

Yisrael Beytenu, a secular political party with a large Russian-Jewish base, told The Jerusalem Post that they are considering appealing the bill, which would then force the entire cabinet to approve it before passing it through to the Knesset. The conversion law would significantly impact Jews from the Former Soviet Union, many of whom first came to Israel with Jewish ancestry but not the documentation required by the Chief Rabbinate to prove Jewish affiliation.

In the past couple of years, many famous names have opened up about their struggles with the policies of the Chief Rabbinate.

Ania Bukstein

ANIA BUKSTEIN debuts on ‘Game of Thrones.’ (Courtesy)


While one of Israel's most celebrated and talented actresses, international audiences will best know Bukstein from her role as Kinvara on Game of Thrones. Kinvara is a Red Priestess, a high ranking leader of her religion. Off screen though, Bukstein is struggling against religious authorities. While not a convert, Bukstein is a prime example of the problems Russian Jews face due to the strict policies of the Chief Rabbinate in regards to who is and who is not considered a Jew. She was born in Moscow before the fall of the Soviet Union and made aliya with her family when she was eight. When Bukstein was in the process of getting a marriage license, the rabbinate asked her to "clarify her Jewishness" after seeing that she was born in the former Soviet Union. In 2014, she discussed her horrible treatment in front of the Knesset Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs Committee. She called the process "a ridiculous farce" caused by "an outdated and unresponsive monopoly." Bukstein declared that the Chief Rabbinate's strict definition "doesn’t only deny us our basic rights to marriage and a family, it denies us and distances us from our Judaism."

Elizabeth Banks

Elizabeth Banks (Reuters)

Banks is a true Hollywood bombshell beauty. Blonde, witty, with a fierce intellect. She has often discussed being Jewish on talk shows, but it was during an interview on Marc Maron's WTF podcast that she opened up about the details. Banks first got to know her future husband at his AEPi -- a Jewish fraternity -- parties. They got married after a decade of dating and her conversion process took about as long. However, she never finished the process entirely. “I did not have my mikveh, so technically I’m not converted,” she admitted on the podcast. Banks said that since she has been practicing Judaism for so many years, the rabbinical finalization felt unnecessary. “My kids go to Jewish pre-school, we only celebrate Jewish holidays, I love seder," she elaborated. “Frankly, because I’m already doing everything, I feel like I’m as Jewish as I’m ever going to be.”

Ivanka Trump

Ivanka Trump (credit: REUTERS)


The daughter and top advisor of US President Donald Trump is probably the world's most famous Jewish convert. But even the daughter of the US president is not above the burden of the Chief Rabbinate. Trump converted to Judaism before her marriage to Jared Kushner in 2009. Her conversion was overseen by Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, an Orthodox rabbi based in New York. However doubts were cast on whether Israel would recognize Ivanka's conversion after another of Lookstein's converts was denied. Nicole Zeitler, born to a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother, went through the conversion process with Rabbi Lookstein and soon after moved to Israel. The religious authorities then refused to grant Zeitler a marriage license, questioning Lookstein's legitimacy. After the Rabbinate decided in December 2016 to review the process for recognizing Orthodox conversions conducted overseas, a source from the White House transition team told The Jewish Week that "an approval by the Chief Rabbinate is seen as making for a closer personal relationship between the Trump family and Israel, and it is a step that is warmly welcomed." Zeitler ultimately reconverted and got a marriage license.


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