This year, Israel is celebrating the unique contribution of Eliezer Ben Yehudah and the genesis of the renaissance of the Hebrew language. To that end, a conference on the Hebrew language will be held in the coming weeks in Rishon Letzion, the city which housed the Haviv School, the first educational institution to teach all subjects in Hebrew. In many respects, Rishon was a pioneer city in many aspects of Zionism, which is why I am so troubled by the actions of its current chief rabbi, who is anything but modern.

In recent months, Rishon’s chief rabbi has stated clearly and publicly that he will not recognize conversions performed in the IDF. But now, he’s gone a step further. In recent weeks, I’ve been approached by a number of individuals who were born Jewish, and brought documentation from the Israeli rabbinical courts to Rishon certifying their Jewishness. In each of the cases, the individuals were told that the Israeli rabbinical courts’ documents were insufficient, and that a private “investigator” of Jewishness had to review all the documents. (I should add that from my
encounters with the investigator in question, his methods and approach are questionable and highly unprofessional). In one case, the Chief Rabbi even opened a lawsuit in the rabbinical court against a couple in order to “disprove” their jewishness.

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From a legal perspective, this behavior is outrageous. While the local rabbinate is charged with opening marriage files, the law is clear that only rabbinical courts can determine personal status. Your Jewishness cannot be “undone” by a local rabbi.

But it is not only the law that concerns me. I don’t understand how the Rishon municipality continues to support its (aging) rabbi. While symbols are important, they cannot take the place of substance, and more and more, local residents of Rishon are being written out of the Jewish people.

Unfortunately, the Israeli Chief rabbinate is not willing to discipline municipal rabbis in any meaningful way and it might not even be within their authority to do so.

Essentially, the actions of the Rishon rabbi are reminiscent of the dark ages, and completely defy the celebrations of the Zionist renaissance. Without wanting to offend the memory of Eliezer ben Yehuda, I would say that it’s a “shondeh."

For the time being, the staff that works with me at ITIM has managed to arrange alternative marriage registrations for those individuals who are prevented from opening files in Rishon. I’m still looking for ideas on how to prevent the local chief rabbi from continuing his practices of alienating good Jews, and would be happy for suggestions. But at a time when we celebrate the rebirth of the Hebrew language, we should temper our celebrations with the knowledge that in some circles, full Jews are being written out of the Hebrew people.

 

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