The amazing case of Louis Shapiro

Louis always knew he was Jewish - until he made aliya and registered for marriage in the Chief Rabbinate.

Jerusalem chief rabbinate 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Jerusalem chief rabbinate 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
While all’s well that ends well, this story could have ended in a less favorable manner, or not ended at all. On June 22, Einav Oren and Louis Shapiro will be tying the knot, after Haifa’s Rabbinic Court recently approved what was obvious to Shapiro throughout his procedure there – that he was Jewish. Convincing Israel’s rabbinic institutions of Shapiro’s birthright took hard work, creative thinking, luck and goodwill, and can illuminate the potentially problematic encounter between the North American Jewish narrative and the Chief Rabbinate’s attempts to unequivocally determine who is a Jew.
Shapiro, a native of Wallingford, Pennsylvania, who was brought up as a Conservative Jew and attended Hebrew school, never doubted he was Jewish, nor was he or any of his foremothers a convert. But as an oleh who wanted to marry in Israel as a Jew through the Chief Rabbinate, he had to undergo an inquiry into his Jewishness at the Haifa Rabbinic Court. This is in line with the directives issued by the Chief Rabbinate last April, which demand that marriage registrars send any person whose parents’ wedding was not performed by a rabbinate-recognized body to such a procedure. That means that if the parents of a person applying for a marriage license were not married by a rabbi in Israel, or by a rabbi abroad whose name is on the Israeli Chief Rabbinate’s list of recognized Orthodox community rabbis, they would have to prove they were indeed Jewish.
While the rabbinate’s directives note the necessary documents for such an inquiry, such as birth and death certificates of family members, and state that one should try to bring their mother and maternal grandmother to the hearing, there is no real protocol as to how each such panel can decide. And so Shapiro’s father’s birth certificate, one of his circumcision and the fact that his late mother was buried in a Jewish cemetery were not sufficient, since the Philadelphia cemetery was not an Orthodox one.
What expedited the solution to this case was that the head of the Haifa Rabbinic Court tasked with Shapiro’s case, Rabbi Yisrael Shachor, contacted Rabbi Seth Farber to ask for help.
Besides being an Orthodox rabbi, Farber, who founded and heads ITIM – the Jewish Life Information Center, has a PhD in the history of North American Jewry, which could help him help Shachor get the sufficient evidence as to Shapiro’s Jewish origin.
There is a grain of irony to the fact that the rabbinate’s new procedures regarding Jewishness inquiries might have been in part due to a High Court of Justice petition filed by the same Farber, in the wake of the phenomenon of marriage registrars not recognizing converts as Jews.
The new directives, which strove to put order and unity in an unregulated field that differed from one rabbi to another, state that a person who has proof of their Jewishness from a recognized rabbinic court – i.e. a conversion certificate – will be exempt from such an inquiry. Rabbi Yitzhak Peretz, head of the office of Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar, said at the time that the new directives ensured that marriage registrars would no longer be able to reject state-approved conversions.
Farber – who following a conversation with Shapiro’s father, knew that Louis’s maternal grandparents arrived in the US from Russia in the beginning of the 20th century and were called Louis and Mollie Cooper – immediately contacted ITIM volunteers to help collect the necessary evidence on the family. One such person galvanized was amateur genealogist Susan Lieberman, who managed to track down the manifest of alien passengers of the ship Kassel, which docked in Philadelphia on August 20, 1913. A certain Liber Kuper appears on the list as a “Hbr,” i.e. Jew, with his wife listed as Malka Kuper. Liber Kuper’s 1924 naturalization petition already has his new name – Louis Cooper – next to the old one, though the signature at the bottom of the form was in Kuper’s native Yiddish. Kuper’s arrival in 1913 as well as his wife’s name – which in the meanwhile was changed from Malka to Mollie – are also stated on the official American form.
These and other documents supplied by Farber helped Shachor determine that Louis Shapiro was indeed Jewish and could marry his Israeli fiancée according to Jewish law.
“This is a brand-new area of Jewish law,” Farber said of the need to determine one’s Jewishness, “and there are no direct tools being used. In the times of the Shulhan Aruch, if you said you were Jewish – you were.”
Not all such cases Farber encounters involve the same kind of willing rabbinic collaboration, such as the instance of a South American man who, despite the testimony of a Chabad rabbi ascertaining his mother’s Jewishness, was rejected by the rabbinic court conducting his inquiry. It was only after petitioning to the Supreme Rabbinic Court that the decision was reversed.
“The State of Israel should be offering solutions, not obstacles, in fulfilling its historic role” of being the center of the Jewish world, Farber said.
As he pointed out in a recent article titled “Who Will Be a Jew?”, changes in society – such as emancipation, secularization and non-Orthodox movements – have brought Jewish law to adapt its ways of determining one’s Jewishness. Whereas in days of yore mainstream Judaism maintained that a person who claimed to be a Jew was such until proven otherwise, as was the central position of the Shulhan Aruch, the new attitude – which in the new world of differing Jewish stream is to be considered ultra-Orthodox – demands much more scrutiny.
“Those individuals who come from distances and declare themselves Jewish may be suspect if we have reason to believe that they were not born Jewish or if there is evidence as such,” writes Rabbi Menashe Klein (the Ungvarer Rebbe) in a responsa that appears in his Mishne Halachot series circa 1975, quoted by Farber. Klein, one of the most influential haredi adjudicators of our times, was also requested by then prime minister David Ben-Gurion in the late 1950s to address the famous “who is a Jew” question the young State of Israel was grappling with.
Farber further quotes Klein, who, based on earlier halachic authorities, states that “anyone who comes from a foreign land...needs proof that he is Jewish, even those who observe the commandments and speak our language and know Judaism well,” though Klein does note that in the case of observant people, there is room to take their word. “Certainly when we see in these times that all sorts of people come from all sorts of places we should maintain our uncertainty whether they are of Jewish parentage and we must explore the matter as much as we can,” Klein reiterates.
However, argues Farber, “on the North American scene, the Jewish narrative is well known, and perhaps identifying its salient features – independent of observance – might be sufficient to highlight a hazaka,” or presumption of Jewishness, and proceeds to note “a range of such issues as Yiddishspeaking ancestors to membership in any synagogue or a Jewish wedding in any context two or three generations ago. I am unprepared to state that any non-Orthodox Jew has to provide greater documentation for his Jewishness, simply because his relatives abandoned Orthodox observance,” he writes.
“There has to be a better dialogue and more understanding of the North American Jewish narrative from the Chief Rabbinate,” Farber said. “This is a manifestation of the great challenge of modernity – but the rabbinate is saying that either you play by my insular rules, or you don’t play at all.”
At this point in the conversation, Farber points to an elaborate genealogy map on the wall of his Jerusalem office. A close examination reveals direct lineage from Farber up seven generations to none other than the Hatam Sofer, Rabbi Moses Schreiber (1762- 1839), one of the most influential Orthodox adjudicators, who was famous for his resistance to change in Jewish lifestyle, especially as manifest in the newly forming Reform movement.
“Judaism no longer needs to be be insular; it is now time for a more inclusive Judaism,” he said.
Presented on more than one occasion with questions regarding the procedures determining Jewishness of olim, specifically from North America, the Chief Rabbinate chose to not comment on the topic.
More than anything else, the end of a Shakespearean play is what determines its category, whether it ought to be considered a history, comedy or tragedy. Simplistically put, the nuptials of a young couple at the end of the Bard’s theatrical work makes it a comic, not tragic play. But that doesn’t mean that everything up to that final point was peachy, and one doesn’t need to be a Shylock to realize it.
Making aliya is always a challenge, and having the establishment doubt his Jewishness was almost too much for Shapiro.
“I thought I was going to have an easier time,” the bridegroom said. “It was a bit over the top when it was presented as though I might not be Jewish, that was the straw that broke the camel’s back.”
“I didn’t need any more aggravation with the bureaucracy here, I was highly frustrated and in shock,” said Shapiro. “It made me feel that it was over the top.”
“But there is happy ending here,” he noted.