Chief rabbinate rejection of US conversion ‘casts shadow over American Orthodox institutions’

Such rejections are being viewed in some quarters as a rejection of the legitimacy of Orthodox Jewish institutions in the US.

A man wears a kippa.  (photo credit: REUTERS)
A man wears a kippa.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
A Jewish convert from the US who made aliyah to Israel had her conversion rejected by the Chief Rabbinate’s department for matrimony and conversion earlier this year, despite having a conversion approval certificate from a rabbinical court presided over by the head of the Beth Din of America, Rabbi Gedalia Dov Schwartz.
Although her conversion was subsequently approved by the Tel Aviv Rabbinical Court, the incident is the latest in a series of such rejections, which are being viewed in some quarters as a rebuff by the Chief Rabbinate of the legitimacy of Orthodox Jewish institutions in the US. Hauna, 24, converted in Minnesota in 2006 with senior Chabad emissary Rabbi Moshe Feller. She received a conversion approval certificate from the rabbinical court of the Chicago Rabbinical Council in 2009 before she emigrated to Israel in 2010.
Schwartz is both the head of the regional Chicago rabbinical court and the most senior rabbinical figure in the Beth Din of America national institution.
After making aliyah, Hauna became engaged and, six weeks before the wedding date, approached her local rabbinate in Herzliya to approve her Jewish status and register her and her fiancé for marriage.
The Herzliya office sent her original conversion certificate from Feller as well as her conversion approval certificate from the Chicago rabbinical court to the Chief Rabbinate’s matrimony and conversion department for its approval in order to process the marriage registration.
But Rabbi Itamar Tubol, the director of the department under the auspices of Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, wrote in a letter to the Herzliya rabbinate that “after verification and clarification the conversion needs to be checked by a rabbinical court as to the essence of the matter.”
After making dozens of phone calls to the department, as well as to the Herzliya rabbinate and the Tel Aviv rabbinate to which she was referred, Hauna eventually went to the offices of the Tel Aviv rabbinate herself to try and resolve the issue.
By coincidence, an attorney for the ITIM religious services advisory and lobbying group was present in order to help with a separate case, but overheard Hauna’s story. The attorney managed to get Hauna an immediate audience with the rabbinical judges who, after asking her various questions such as if she observes Shabbat, approved her conversion and issued the required documentation for the wedding to take place. “I converted in an Orthodox way, but this bureaucracy caused a lot of unnecessary stress, and clearly the way they are working is inefficient, unprofessional, and causes a lot of heartache for many people, not just me, and it doesn’t have to be like this,” Hauna told the Post.
In a response to The Jerusalem Post, the Chief Rabbinate said that Feller was not authorized to serve as a rabbinical judge and that the various officials Tubol spoke with were unaware of his conversion activities.
The Chief Rabbinate added that because the conversion approval certificate was from Schwartz’s rabbinical court they had not rejected the conversion out right but passed it on to the Tel Aviv rabbinical court.
“It should be noted that it is the right of Rabbi Schwartz to approve a conversion just like it is the right of the Chief Rabbinate not to accept it, and it should not be concluded that just because Rabbi Schwartz approves it, the Chief Rabbinate is required to approve it.”
Rabbi Seth Farber, the director of ITIM, called the incident “the pinnacle of incompetency” and labeled the Chief Rabbinate’s response as “characteristic of its total ignorance of Jewish life in the US.”
“This response and attitude is casting a shadow over all American Orthodox institutions and their legitimacy,” Farber told the Post, and also asked why “the officials” with which Tubol consulted did not include Schwartz.
“The Chief Rabbinate is exporting its values and trying to superimpose them on US Jewish life. This represents a further fissure between the Israeli rabbinate and the Jewish world, showing that it cannot even find common cause and commonality with Orthodox Jewry in the Diaspora.
Farber also argued that Orthodox conversions in the US have always been done by local rabbis and ad hoc rabbinical courts, and that the Chief Rabbinate’s refusal to rely on Schwartz’s conversion approval violated the terms of a deal worked out between the Rabbinical Council of America, with which Beth Din of America is affiliated, and the Chief Rabbinate in 2008.
Farber said that, de facto, the deal has not been observed by the Chief Rabbinate for many years, if ever. He cited another recent case in which ITIM filed a request to Tubol’s department in January 2014 for the approval of a conversion, and provided the conversion approval certificate of the Beth Din of America.
According to ITIM, the letter was not answered until June 2015, when Tubol wrote that the Chief Rabbinate did not recognize her conversion without providing further explanation.
ITIM has made four requests in the last four months of the Chief Rabbinate to see the criteria by which the matrimony and conversion department makes its decisions, but has yet to receive the relevant material.
Farber said that ITIM would shortly be filing a law suit against the Chief Rabbinate under the freedom of information law to gain access to the criteria.