The judges of the Supreme Rabbinical Court cast continued doubt on the conversions of Rabbi Haskel Lookstein on Wednesday, during an appeal hearing on a case that has generated outrage within Diaspora Jewry.
The conversion of a woman who converted through the Orthodox Lookstein, formerly the renowned rabbi of Manhattan’s Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun, was rejected by the Petah Tikva Rabbinical Court last week, and the judges of the Supreme Rabbinical Court ostensibly defended the lower court’s decision during Wednesday’s hearing, although it has not yet issued a ruling.
“There are institutions that have been recognized as permitted [to convert] and there are rabbis who deal with conversion, but this is not institutionalized and there is also a list – and Rabbi Lookstein isn’t on it,” said one of the rabbinical judges.
The earlier decision was apparently made because the Petah Tikva Rabbinical Court asked Rabbi Yitzhak Peretz, head of the state conversion system, his opinion on the matter as well as that of the Chief Rabbinate.
Peretz said Lookstein was not on the list of US rabbis approved by the Chief Rabbinate as qualified to convert, while the Chief Rabbinate itself said that he was.
Despite a representative of the Chief Rabbinate explaining to the judges that Lookstein was definitely approved, and despite the explicit approval of Chief Rabbis David Lau and Yitzhak Yosef in the last 24 hours, the judges of the Supreme Rabbinical Court continued to side with the Petah Tikva court’s approach.
The rabbinical judges presiding over the case were Rabbis Nahum Gurteller, Yitzhak El-Maliach and Maimon Nahari, all of whom are temporary appointments made by Yosef.
“The US is a massive country and there are millions of Jews there,” they said. “We have a Chief Rabbinate that ties everything together and says who is a rabbi and who is not. In the US everything is broken, and therefore the rabbinate is trying to make things orderly and establish things and chose institutions that were checked.
It’s not clear that all the rest are bad or not good, just that they are not on the list,” the Supreme Rabbinical Court judges said.
Rabbi Seth Farber, director of the ITIM religious services group representing the convert, said the hearing demonstrated the need for “fundamental change” in how the Chief Rabbinate deals with the credentials of Diaspora rabbis.
“The declarations of the chief rabbis is too little, too late in the current context,” said Farber. “If they really want to change this dismal situation, they should have acted by now to put in order the operations of the Department for Marriage and Conversion of the Chief Rabbinate so that it functions with transparency and efficiency, with clear criteria and open lists of recognized rabbis.”
On Wednesday morning, some 150 people gathered outside the offices of the Chief Rabbinate in Jerusalem to protest against the Petah Tikva Rabbinical Court’s rejection of the conversion performed by Lookstein.
The decision has generated widespread indignation from Jewish leaders in the US and activists in Israel who say the incident reflects a wider rejection by the religious establishment in Israel of the religious legitimacy of Diaspora Jewry.
Numerous prominent public figures turned up to the rally, including Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky, prominent modern-Orthodox leaders Rabbi Shlomo Riskin and Rabbi Chaim Brovender, as well as MKs Elazar Stern, Aliza Lavie and Yehudah Glick.
Speaking to The Jerusalem Post, Sharansky said that he was personally familiar with Lookstein because of his participation in the struggle for the rights of Soviet Jews under communist oppression in the 1970s and 1980s.
“I am not here to defend Rabbi Lookstein’s good name which goes before him, but rather I am here to fight for the good name of the State of Israel,” said Sharansky.
“We are at the height of the struggle against the delegitimization of Israel, when our enemies are trying to disconnect the generation of our [Diaspora] youth from the State of Israel, and we say all the time to them through our various emissaries that there’s no reason to be embarrassed about this connection. But suddenly the State of Israel itself says to them, ‘Your leaders and your rabbis are not our leaders and not our rabbis and we don’t recognize them.’ This is a severe injury to the status of the State of Israel among World Jewry.”
Lau has rejected criticism of the Chief Rabbinate in this current case, noting that it advised the Petah Tikva court to accept Lookstein’s conversion, advice that was ultimately rejected.
Farber said however that the recent decision highlighted the “chaotic” approach of the Chief Rabbinate in dealing with these concerns.
He added that ITIM deals with dozens of similar cases every year in which the credentials of Diaspora rabbis are rejected, including several new cases in the last few days in which Orthodox conversions have been rejected by the Chief Rabbinate’s offices.
“US Jewry is offended by this and it widens the gulf that already exists for other reasons,” said Farber. “It says to the average Jew, ‘Not only do we not represent your policies, but you’re not even welcome here, we don’t even recognize your identity or your religious leadership, and that’s unacceptable.”
Kehilath Jeshurun is a tony modern- Orthodox synagogue on Manhattan’s Upper East Side that counts Ivanka Trump and her husband, Jared Kushner, as members. Trump, daughter of presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, converted under Lookstein’s auspices