conversion class 248.88.
(photo credit: Hilary Leila Krieger [file])
Sometimes it seems that our Chief Rabbinate must be actively searching for ways to embarrass itself, the Jewish state and the Jewish people. What other explanation can there be for the latest revelation that the Rabbinate will not automatically recognize conversions and divorces performed by respected Orthodox rabbis from abroad?
That the Rabbinate and other Orthodox institutions continue to dismiss the legitimacy of, and often even refuse to dialogue with, their non-Orthodox counterparts is bad enough but hardly new. Now the boycotting game has turned on the boycotters, as the Israeli Rabbinate has employed these same tactics to defend its turf against American Orthodox rabbis.
The Rabbinate will not recognize conversions performed by Orthodox rabbis, including leading members of the Rabbinical Council of America - the main umbrella body of American Orthodox rabbis - except for those rabbis on the Rabbinate's own approved list.
The signature of Rabbi Gedaliah Dov Schwartz, chairman of the RCA-associated Beth Din of America, is no longer accepted unless he personally performed the conversion. "We need to ensure the highest standards," explained Rabbi Yigal Krispel, deputy to Sephardic Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar, to the New York Jewish Week. "Rabbi Schwartz sits in Chicago, while the conversions are performed elsewhere."
This would be comical if it were not so pathetic, not to mention hurtful to real people who are the victims of such petty politics. When Sarah (a pseudonym), who studied for three years at the well-known Orthodox Lincoln Square Synagogue in Manhattan before undergoing an Orthodox conversion, presented her certificate, as well as a document confirming her conversion from the Beth Din of America to the Rabbinate in order to marry her Israeli-born fianc in Israel, she was turned away.
"They rejected my documents straightaway," Sarah told the Jewish Week. "I'm hurt because I studied Halacha and we lead a Jewish life. That the Rabbinate has questioned my commitment to Judaism to such an extent that it has no faith in the rabbis I studied with is deeply disappointing. We could get married in America, but our dream is to get married in Israel... I was converted in an Orthodox beit din. I honestly don't know what's going on here," she said.
We wish that we could be as mystified as Sarah, but the explanation is obvious: The Rabbinate is hamhandedly trying to pretend that it can set standards for the Jewish world as a whole, including the Orthodox movement in the Diaspora.
Nor do the tribulations of the newest Jews end with dismissal of documentary evidence of their Judaism. Rabbi Eliahu Ben-Dahan, the director-general of Israel's National Beit Din, reportedly stated that "no Beth Din of America document will be accepted as proof of Jewishness without the individual convert also appearing before the Rabbinical Court in Israel."
According to this new requirement, foreign converts must be quizzed by an Israeli rabbinical court on Jewish law and religious observance, causing not only logistical problems but also emotional stress.
As Rabbi Seth Farber, the head of ITIM, an Israeli group that helps new Jews navigate through the Rabbinate's conversion bureaucracy, explains, "In most cases, the converts don't even know about the requirement until they arrive in Israel, right before the wedding. No one has informed them or their [Diaspora] rabbi that there is a problem." Farber noted that once, after ITIM intervened, Amar approved a marriage just before the wedding, after his deputy, Rabbi Krispel, had said no.
It is hard to know where to begin in condemning this unconscionable behavior by an institution representing the Jewish state. The Rabbinate should be promoting ties with the Diaspora, not serially undermining them. Our chief religious body should be welcoming Jews by choice, not insulting them and driving them away.
In case the Rabbinate has not noticed, the Jews are a small and shrinking people. The need to protect against insincere impostors seeking to join, assuming it exists, is far outweighed by the need to welcome those who willingly desire to enjoy what Judaism offers their families and the world, and to share in the Jewish fate. The Rabbinate of the Jewish state should be at the forefront of facilitating the choice of Judaism, rather than adding to the already excessive layers of impediments.