JERUSALEM — Critics of Israel’s chief rabbinate have long complained that scores of American converts to Judaism have trouble getting approval to marry in Israel. Now, one such case with a celebrity connection could break open the rabbinate’s longstanding secrecy over which foreign rabbis are approved to conduct conversions.
The case involves an American who, shortly after her Orthodox conversion in New York, became engaged to an Israeli, only to have the local rabbinical court in his hometown reject her status as a Jew when they tried to register for marriage.
As it turns out, the rabbi who signed the woman’s conversion certificate also converted Donald Trump’s daughter Ivanka, and officiated at Ms. Trump’s 2009 wedding to Jared Kushner, the newspaper publisher now planning the presumptive Republican nominee’s potential transition to the White House.
The rabbi, Haskel Lookstein, is one of the most respected Orthodox rabbis in New York, where he has led Manhattan’s Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun for decades, after taking over the pulpit from his father. He recently received an honorary doctorate from Israel’s Bar-Ilan University in recognition for what it called “the influential role he has played in deepening Jewish values and heritage among American Jewry.”
The case raises the question of whether Ms. Trump — who said in a Vogue magazine interview last year that she and her husband were “pretty observant,” keeping kosher and the Jewish Sabbath — would be accepted as Jewish herself in all quarters in Israel.
More broadly, it illustrates a growing divide between Israel’s increasingly strict ultra-Orthodox religious establishment and many Jews abroad over the age-old question of “who is a Jew” that has complicated Israel’s relationship with the diaspora for decades.
The Israeli rabbinate, which controls Jewish marriage and most Jewish burial sites in the country, does not recognize non-Orthodox streams of Judaism like Reform and Conservative, with which the majority of affiliated American Jews identify. In rejecting Rabbi Lookstein’s conversion and those of others in similar positions, the rabbinical authorities now risk alienating Jews abroad who practice modern Orthodoxy according to Halakha, or Jewish law.
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“Ten years ago, if an Orthodox rabbi in good standing performed a conversion, it would have been a given that it would be accepted here,” said Rabbi Seth Farber, the founder of Itim, an Israeli organization that has been critical of the rabbinate and is pressing the case of Rabbi Lookstein’s American convert.
He added, “I’d say this is unprecedented in Jewish history, that one group of rabbis rejects another.”
Itim handles up to 150 cases a year of modern-Orthodox converts from the United States who are struggling to get married in Israel or are experiencing other issues with the religious establishment. As Rabbi Farber put it, “Almost everyone has problems nowadays.”
The American convert, who is appealing her case to Israel’s supreme rabbinical court, declined to be interviewed, and the rabbis discussed her situation on the condition that she not be identified in order to protect her privacy.
Her supporters said that she converted just over a year ago, after about a year of study, and soon met the man who would become her fiancé in Petah Tikva, a bedroom community near Tel Aviv. The rabbinical court there first ruled in April that her conversion was invalid.
After a preliminary hearing in the supreme rabbinical court in Jerusalem, Rabbi Itamar Tubul, the director of the chief rabbinate’s department of personal status and conversion, wrote a letter to the Petah Tikva court saying that the conversion certificate signed by Rabbi Lookstein was “approved by the chief rabbinate of Israel.” (Two other Kehilath Jeshurun rabbis also signed the certificate.)
But the Petah Tikva court issued a second ruling against the conversion on June 8, saying that it had found no mention of Rabbi Lookstein on its lists of approved rabbis.
Rabbi Lookstein, 84, is now in an emeritus position at Kehilath Jeshurun, which has a membership of 1,100 families, and is considered one of the most established and mainstream Orthodox rabbis in America.
In a telephone interview, he said that this case was a first for him, though he was not aware of anyone else who had been converted by him or his colleagues at Kehilath Jeshurun who then tried to marry in Israel.
“The irony is that this woman is very meticulous about her religious observance,” Rabbi Lookstein said. “She is as Jewish as I am, and as Jewish as the rabbis signed on the certificate, except in the eyes of the Petah Tikva rabbinate.”
“The bottom line,” he added, “is that the rabbinate in Israel is not respecting and honoring the work of the Orthodox rabbinate in America on conversion.”
Rabbi Lookstein said he expected that the woman would ultimately win her appeal and be able to marry in Israel. “But the battle is taking so much out of this woman and causing such pain at a time when she should be happiest in her life,” he lamented, adding that the Petah Tikva rabbis were perpetrating “a terrible sin” because ”the Torah is very explicit that a convert should be treated with love and never afflicted.”
The case has not only roiled American Jewish leaders and Israeli critics of the rabbinate’s monopoly, it has unfolded into a byzantine power struggle between the Petah Tikva court and Rabbi Tubul’s department, with each side accusing the other of overstepping its authority.
Rabbi Tubul said that the office of the chief rabbinate was “in shock” over the challenge posed by the local Petah Tikva court and that he had advised the convert to appeal to the supreme rabbinical court in Jerusalem.
Rabbi Tubul denied that the rabbinate was rejecting modern Orthodox rabbis, and said that “dozens” of rabbis in America were approved to conduct conversions.
The list of such rabbis has long been shrouded in secrecy. Itim, Rabbi Farber’s group, recently sued the rabbinate in a Jerusalem civil court to force it to make the list public. The rabbinate provided a partial list of rabbis it said had been certified over the previous six months; Rabbi Lookstein and other major Orthodox rabbis in the United States were not on it.
Rabbi Tubul said that he was pushing to have a list of approved rabbis published on the chief rabbinate’s website. Among the main criteria for getting on the list, he said, are that rabbis overseas be ordained in a seminary recognized for high standards of learning, and conduct themselves and their congregations according to Orthodox religious law.
Rabbi Lookstein received his ordination in 1958 from the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary in New York, which is part of Yeshiva University.
“People who do their work in a God-fearing manner and with clean hands will receive the recognition of the chief rabbinate of Israel,” Rabbi Tubul said.
SLIGHT, bespectacled and friendly, Rabbi Itamar Tubul makes an unlikely frontiersman. But his colleague Ziv Maor, a spokesman for Israel’s chief rabbinate, argues that as head of the department of personal status and conversions, Rabbi Tubul plays as big a role in protecting the state as the Israel Defence Forces. On his desk in Jerusalem lie the testimony of a rabbi in Finland and a ketubah (marriage certificate) from Germany. Rabbi Tubul’s job is to determine whether the subjects of these documents, and many others, are Jewish.
Who is a Jew? This question is becoming ever more pressing for Jews around the world. It looks like a religious issue, but is bound up with history, Israeli politics and the rhythms of the diaspora. Addressing it means deciding whether assimilation is a mortal threat, as many Jews think, or a phenomenon to be accommodated. The struggle over the answer will shape Israel’s society, its relations with Jews elsewhere, and the size and complexion of the global Jewish community.
For Orthodox Jews like Rabbi Tubul, the solution is simple and ancient: you are a Jew if your mother is Jewish, or if your conversion to Judaism accorded with the Halacha, Jewish religious law. Gentiles might be surprised that for Jews by birth this traditional test makes no reference to faith or behaviour. Jews may be atheist (many are: apostasy is a venerable Jewish tradition) and still Jews. Joel Roth, a Conservative rabbi at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, likens this nativist criterion to that for American citizenship: Americans retain it regardless of their views on democracy or the constitution. Some strict rabbis even think that a child is not Jewish if born to a devout mother but from a donated gentile egg.
As some Jewish leaders privately acknowledge, this formula has uncomfortable racial undertones. Their response is that it causes no harm to others. Perhaps, but in the secular world it can be awkward. A few years ago, for example, state-funded Jewish schools in Britain were obliged to change their admissions codes after they were judged to have violated the Race Relations Act. And the halachic rules are increasingly troubling to Jews themselves.
For many Israelis, the rabbis are the problem. In a concession designed to widen support for the new state, when Israel was founded its secular rulers left matters of marriage, divorce and burial in the rabbinate’s hands. It decides who is eligible for these rites, as well as carrying them out—so would-be brides and grooms must demonstrate their Jewish credentials. Supplying the necessary documents and witnesses can be inconvenient and galling: people resent having to prove what they know to be true. Immigration has made the system seem not just irksome but unsustainable.
For example, the Ethiopian Jews who migrated to Israel in the 1980s-90s, risking their lives and losing relatives along the way, have faced persistent doubts as to whether they are properly Jewish in doctrine and descent. “I feel that I’m the Jew I want to be,” protests Fentahun Assefa-Dawit of Tebeka, an advocacy group for the 130,000-strong community. “I don’t want anyone to tell me how to be Jewish.” Western migrants, too, are sometimes doubted. The rabbinate considers some American rabbis too lax to vouch for their congregants and rejects their testimonies; it deems many overseas conversions inadequate. Many Israelis worry about the impact of such disdain on the diaspora’s political and financial backing for their state.