Jennifer and Aharon were nervous. Their wedding was just three days away. Over a hundred guests were expected. But there was one problem: According to the Israeli Chief Rabbinate, Jennifer and Aharon, immigrants from the US, were not kosher for marriage.
Aharon Greenberg had married and divorced a non-Jew. Aharon's Orthodox rabbi in Tucson verified that. He also verified that Aharon was Jewish. But since Aharon's rabbi was not recognized by the Israeli rabbinate, neither was Aharon.
Jennifer Michelle Zeichner also had an Orthodox rabbi who could testify she was Jewish and single. He is a former regional director for the National Council of Synagogue Youth (NCSY) from the Detroit area.
Jennifer and Aharon received the rabbinate's "not recognized" reply after a month of waiting - and a week before the scheduled marriage ceremony. No explanations were provided, and no advice on how to rectify the situation.
That's when Rabbi Seth Farber, head of ITIM, a private organization dedicated to helping the perplexed navigate Israel's complicated rabbinic bureaucracy, took over.
"I simply got on Google, typed in the name of Aharon's rabbi and within seconds found out how to locate him," recalled Farber.
Farber arranged for Rabbi Neta Tzvi Greenblatt of Memphis, Tennessee, a former student of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein and highly respected and well known in US Orthodox circles, to approve Aharon's rabbi. But Greenblatt was not recognized by the local rabbinate at first. Eventually, a clerk in Jerusalem's religious council called a cousin in the US to find out about Greenblatt.
ITIM's Farber also arranged for the Chicago Rabbinical Council to certify that Zeichner was indeed single and Jewish.
Jennifer and Aharon were deemed kosher to marry on Monday evening. They were married Thursday at Beit Shmuel in Jerusalem.
"New immigrants face enough difficulties and tension," said Farber, himself a US immigrant. "The rabbinate should be doing everything in its power to make things easy.
"But neither the rabbinate nor the religious councils maintain sufficient contact with rabbinical organizations abroad."
Rabbi Yigal Krispel, who heads Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar's office, is responsible for, among other things, maintaining contact with rabbis abroad. Krispel was the one who sent Jennifer and Aharon the "not recognized" notice.
"Rabbi Israel Becker is not on our lists," said Krispel. "So I could not recognize him. We must be very careful and stringent when it comes to marriage and divorce issues," added Krispel. "We have to protect the holiness of the Jewish people."
Krispel admits that he does not have the time or resources to investigate Diaspora rabbis to make sure they fulfill the strict Orthodox standards of the Israeli rabbinate. "In addition to being in charge of verifying rabbis, I am also responsible for running the chief rabbi's office, fielding halachic questions from all over the world and helping manage the special rabbinic courts for conversions," explained Krispel.
Asked for suggestions how to improve the system, Krispel responded, "We need a budget for one or two people who could do the research needed to investigate Diaspora rabbis who do not appear on our lists."
Farber believes the situation is just going to get worse. "We have tens of thousands of 'birthright' youth who visit Israel every year. Some of them are going to want to make aliya and, eventually, get married in Israel. The rabbinate is simply incapable of dealing with these kinds of numbers," he said.
Aharon says he is angry with the rabbinate. "Those rabbis discourage olim from getting married here. I can understand why there are so many people who support Shinui these days.
"The rabbinate needs to show more leniency. People like me and Jennifer are committed enough to the Jewish people to make aliya. Why do we have to continue to prove our Judaism?"