Court: Rishon rabbi must explain referrals to private firm

High Court demands that Rabbi Yehuda David Wolpe explain why he sends couples seeking to register for marriage to a private company for clarifications about their Jewish ancestry.

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February 1, 2013 03:30
3 minute read.
Gavel

Gavel from Reuters 370. (photo credit: REUTERS/Chip East)

The High Court of Justice demanded on Thursday that Rishon Lezion Chief Rabbi Yehuda David Wolpe explain why he sends couples seeking to register for marriage to a private company for clarifications about their Jewish ancestry.

ITIM, a religious rights lobbying group, filed a petition with the court against Wolpe and the Am Levadad company earlier this week. They have till March 10 to respond.

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Jews seeking to marry in Israel must provide proof of their Jewish ancestry to register for marriage. In general, this requires the presentation by each prospective spouse of his or her parents’ marriage certificate.

But many people, especially immigrants; people whose parents married abroad; and converts, encounter serious obstacles in this process from local rabbinates, ITIM said.

If in doubt, the Chief Rabbinate allows local rabbinates to refer a couple to a rabbinical court to clarify the details of their Jewish ancestry through the presentation of various documents, and this is the only authorized address for such matters.

ITIM’s petition said that Wolpe has for years referred such couples to Am Levadad and that he conditions their marriage registration on the company’s approval. Am Levadad charges each couple NIS 250.

“This procedure entails not inconsiderable costs in time and money and, according to the plaintiffs, is accompanied by serious injury to personal dignity, privacy, confidentiality and the right to marry,” the petition claimed.

It demanded that the court ask Wolpe to explain the practice and asked for an interim injunction against the rabbi to prevent him referring anyone else to Am Levadad until the matter has been ruled upon.

The court did not, however, grant the injunction in Thursday’s decision.

In one case involving one of the seven co-plaintiffs with ITIM to the petition, a person seeking to register for marriage who had been formally confirmed by the Tel Aviv Rabbinical Court as Jewish was referred by Wolpe to Am Levadad.

“It is unconscionable for a municipal rabbi not to accept the authority of a rabbinical court,” said ITIM director and Orthodox rabbi Seth Farber. “It’s an outrage that municipal and state taxes go to pay his salary, and the State of Israel needs to have normal marriage registration bureaus which are not controlled by renegade rabbis.

“Allowing Rabbi Wolpe to continue with this practice evinces a complete lack of will to stop isolationists and fundamentalists from imposing their own will on the system,” Farber added.

Wolpe told The Jerusalem Post he had not received any notification of the High Court petition against him and that he did not wish to comment on the matter.

Rabbi Naftali Shraiber, one of the owners of Am Levadad, claimed in conversation with the Post that local rabbinical courts and rabbinates had in the past not carried out sufficient background investigations into people whose Jewish status was in question, and continued to do so.

Am Levadad deals almost exclusively with people originating from the former Soviet Union or the former Eastern bloc.

“Thousands of approval certificates of Jewish status were handed out in the past without sufficient checks, and unfortunately some of them were given to people who were not Jewish,” said Shraiber, himself from the former Soviet Union.

He also argued that rabbinates and rabbinical courts sometimes rule against the advice of their investigators, and that forcing the decision of these bodies on the municipal rabbi was against the law.

Shraiber added that he and the two other Am Levadad employees were experts in the field of clarifying questions of Jewish status, specializing in the history and languages of Jewish communities in FSU.

He added that the firm was a professional organization and that it provided an approachable and pleasant service.

Shraiber added that neither he nor Am Levadad had received notification of the petition.


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