You’d be hard pressed to find even one American Jew who hasn’t heard of Philadelphia cream cheese. Not only is it an extremely popular brand that is tasty and has great texture, but it also boasts kosher certification by Chabad’s OK, which is accepted in Jewish communities worldwide.
As a result, it was quite surprising when, a few days before Shavuot this year, the Chief Rabbinate’s Kashrut Department announced that if stores want to keep their kosher certification, they may no longer sell Philadelphia cream cheese. This product, along with a few other cheeses with OU certification, was banned from being sold following the cancellation of their approval by Israel’s Chief Rabbinate. Thus, cheeses that are eaten in many haredi Jews’ homes in the US have been taken off the shelves in Israel for lack of appropriate kashrut certification.
Apparently with no connection, it was recently made public that Israel’s religious courts are refusing to recognize the Jewishness of a woman who was converted under the supervision of Rabbi Haskel Lookstein in New York. “The aforementioned rabbi is not recognized by the Israel Chief Rabbinate to perform conversions,” the rabbinical judges claimed, and told the woman she would need to undergo another conversion here in Israel.
For those readers who are not familiar with Rabbi Lookstein’s background, he began serving as a rabbi at Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun in 1958 after receiving rabbinic ordination from Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik.
This is one of the largest and most well known congregations in the city, and I personally was lucky enough to be a guest there and even speak from the pulpit. I was hosted for meals that Shabbat by the incredibly hospitable Rabbi Lookstein and his wife, Audrey.
At each meal, we all went around the table and introduced ourselves and then the rabbi blessed each and every one of us in song, remembering all of our names. In addition to being a true Torah scholar, Rabbi Lookstein is also an esteemed Jewish community leader who inspires everyone he comes in contact with.
He is one of the most influential rabbis in the US, and has served as president of the New York Board of Rabbis, chairman of the National Rabbinic Cabinet of UJA and president of the Synagogue Council of America. He also was a commissioner of the New York City Human Rights Commission.
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In addition to fulfilling these roles, Lookstein is also extremely politically active. He made a number of trips to the former Soviet Union to visit refuseniks, supported families who made aliya to Israel, and helps in any way he can in his capacity as a rabbinical judge.
“Rabbi Lookstein has profoundly impacted the strength of the American Jewish community’s values and heritage. He’s an inspirational leader, and his modern Orthodox approach and dedication to advancing Jewish education have played a tremendous role in shaping the next generation of Jewish American leaders.”
This statement was written by the committee at Bar-Ilan University that awarded him an honorary doctorate last month.
It would be bad enough if we assumed that the refusal by the Israeli haredi rabbinical judges to recognize Rabbi Lookstein’s conversions was a form of harassment towards Modern Orthodox rabbis and nothing more. But the reality is actually much more grim. This ruling, in fact, actually does not reflect any coherent policy. There are constant power struggles within the conversion department of the rabbinical courts that have more to do with ego than anything else.
Rabbinical judges are constantly aiming to express their superiority over other rabbis by rejecting their decisions, and coming up with even stricter rulings. Of course, the converts are the ones who get hurt by these actions, even though the Torah preaches that we must be extra sensitive with them since they are vulnerable.
It is clear as day to me, as well as to others who are familiar with the details of this case, that these specific rabbinical judges did not even bother to do a Google search to find out who Rabbi Lookstein is and what role he plays in the American Jewish community. They could care less.
In the meantime, the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) has announced that they view the ruling as “an insult to American Jews nationwide.”
Once again, we find that the hundreds of millions of dollars that Israel is spending on strengthening relations with the Diaspora have gone down the drain since, at the end of the day, a haredi clerk at the rabbinate can revoke recognition of rabbis and rabbinical courts overseas with the stroke of a pen and wedge a massive barrier between us.
The slap in face of American Jewry echoes each time anew. One moment they’re taking away someone’s kashrut certification, another time they’re refusing to recognize a conversion. The common denominator is clear – we’ve been given power and we will take advantage of it in any way we can. Neither halachic reasoning nor the status of the Diaspora Jewish community is taken into consideration to any extent.
It’s important to remember that these are official decisions of the State of Israel. This is what happens when authority has been placed in the hands of people who scorn our country and the values we hold dear.
They despise the IDF, the Israel Police, the idea of equality for women, all Jewish denominations that are not haredi and, yes, Diaspora Jewry, as well. Recent events are just one example of a greater trend.
They also didn’t notice which name they were crossing off the swiftly diminishing list of acceptable rabbis. Philadelphia cream cheese is a brand-name that can be found in many American haredi households.
In the same way, Rabbi Lookstein also happens to be a brand-name of spiritual leaders within the American Jewish community.
Of course, this decision will soon be reversed. But we must not be satisfied with the reversal of this one decision. The time has come for the State of Israel to free itself from the shackles of the haredi-run Chief Rabbinate, which is busy engaging in power struggles.
Decisions regarding family and religious matters should be ruled on by a more appropriate body. We need to install new leaders who know how to deal with the current challenges facing modern-day Israeli society and can promote a welcoming type of Judaism in all fields: kashrut supervision, conversion, marriage, and divorce. We need more leaders like Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, who can offer hope to the thousands of young Jews if we want them to feel positive about their Judaism and to strengthen Israel–Diaspora relations.
The Israeli Chief Rabbinate took Philadelphia cream cheese off the shelves, and now they’re trying to cancel Rabbi Lookstein and the thousands of Jews living in Israel and around the world who were converted by him. In response, we must place on the shelf a new rabbinate that will uphold a Judaism we can all feel a part of.
The author is a Yesh Atid MK and is a former head of the IDF Human Resources, during which time he oversaw a program to convert non-Jewish IDF troops to Judaism.Translated by Hannah Hochner.
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