The Conversion 'Blacklist'

Last week, the Israeli Chief Rabbinate released a ‘blacklist of American rabbis whose conversions they deem inadequate in establishing Jewish identity and Israeli citizenship. This action is only one in a series of attempts for the Israeli Rabbinate to seize undue control of Jewish identity and how it is defined across the world.

In light of these events, JOFA has convened an online panel of professionals with first hand experience in dealing with the conversion process. Through this online conversation we hope to raise awareness about the issues at stake and propose methods for navigating conversion issues across national borders.
The Conversion 'Blacklist'
  • Thank you all for joining this critical conversation. I'm going to jump in as everyone can see your bios linked above. I'm curious to know, as all of you are coming from a unique perspective to this conversation, what do you think others might not understand? What are others missing in seeing the full picture of this situation?

  • The so-called blacklist has nothing to do with conversion. It is a list of rabbis whose letters of Jewishness for those born to a Jewish mother other than Sara Imeinu, were rejected by the Rabbanut for the purposes of marriage. 

    This blacklist related to marriage, not conversion. It's all very complex, I know. I will try to explain.

    When a person comes to register with the Rabbanut to marry, they must prove they are Jewish.

    A person whose mother was married through the Rabbanut has an easy time. He brings the ketuba or marriage certificate of his mother and that's it.

    For a person whose mother was married in chu"l it's much more complex. The Rabbanut, at least on the books, does not accept a ketuba from chu"l as sufficient evidence. Other documents are necessary, such as a letter from a chu"l rabbi attesting to the person's Jewishness, or the Jewishness of his mother. It is these letters that were rejected from some rabbis.

    I note tangentially that in practice, most frum people from chu"l do not run into this problem because they have protectzia. Frum people from chu"l only run into this problem if they go to register at a Rabbanut that actually follows the book (Tzohar, for example) or if they don't have protectzia. Chilonim from chu"l, on the other hand, run into huge problems.

    One further point:

    This blacklist has nothing to do with establishing citizenship. Again, it's a blacklist of the Rabbanut, not of the Ministry of Interior.

    The MOI has sole authority in establishing who has the right to make Aliyah and become a citizen. The Rabbanut has no say in that matter.

    This is very confusing, I know. It doesn't help that there are certain אינטרסנטים which at times spread disinformation to the press.
  • Rabbi Lau (Chief Ashkenasic rabbi) claims that the list is made up of rabbis who did not give in their paperwork properly (their letter wan't on synagogue letterhead or they were missing forms etc. ) and that it has nothing to do with trusting them as rabbis.

    I do not believe this to be accurate as at least one rabbi on the list said that they never had any paperwork rejected or that they have not needed to submit any paperwork as none of their congregants even considered getting married in Israel.

    We had this problem last year with one of Rabbi Lookstein's converts. Rabbi Lookstein (of KJ and Ramaz school in Manhattan)  was not recognized by the Beit Din in one of the cities (Petach Tikva) and although he is not on this list his assistant rabbi is.  

  • For me personally as a convert, the whole situation is just further proof that no conversion is safe. I suggest to people who are planning on converting - if they have no immediate plans for making aliyah in the next few years - to convert with whomever they feel comfortable. Especially after the Rabbi Lookstein situation - nothing is guaranteed.

    Converts should choose rabbis to work with based on their comfort and spiritual connection - not someone they think would be acceptable to Israel if their kids decide to make aliyah in twenty years.     

  • It is true that the "Black list" that was published is not about rabbis who are or aren't recognized as rabbis who can do conversions for the purpose of Aliya, but the issues are tied together because they all come from the same source: the Rabbinate's aspirations to become the sole authority over Jewish status in the Jewish world. Alongside this "black list" of rabbis whose testimony of one's Jewish status is not accepted by the Rabbinate are many other initiatives by the rabbinate to expand its authority beyond the letter of the law, and assume control over determining Jewish identity for all Jews in the world.

    I have two things to point out:

    First, modern orthodox communities are now feeling the true meaning of the rabbinate's monopolistic power, something they did not see as a problem in the past when the non-orthodox streams were the ones that experienced the exclusion. The outcome of the current rabbinate policies is that there will be one central Jewish authority - like the pope for Catholics - that will decide over Jewish matters.

    And second point, this situation creates an opportunity to unite forces, all denominations, and bring in Israelis of all streams as well, to create a real shift in the paradigm that there is one central national religious institution in Israel.

  • I agree with Bethany. Rabbi Seth Farber from Itim has been working on resolving this issue for  a few years already. I certainly hope that it will be resolved as soon as possible and will not drag out for 20 years. Unfortunately there have been many people with good Halachic conversions that have had to reconvert as well as people who were born Jewish who have had to convert in order to get married in Israel. This has to stop. There was a quote in the Hebrew magazine "Kippa" that said that Rabbi Lau (now the Chief Rabbi) was not even on the list of rabbis who could vouch for the Jewishness of someone who was getting married when he was the rabbi of Modiin!

  • I have so many questions based on what has already been said! I find it fascinating that some of you have suggested that a resolution is underway. What would a resolution look like? What does that mean?

  • I can only reflect on the resolution I am working towards: dismantling the monopoly of the Rabbanut in marriage, divorce and burial and allowing freedom of (or from) religion. This will lead to expansion of the ספרי יוחסין that already exist, which, in my opinion, is not a tragedy.

  • It was good to see protests when Rabbi Lookstein's conversions were called into question. BUT What frustrated me (and several other converts I spoke with) was the fact that they took place when a rabbi - Lookstein - was disrespected. Where were the protests when this was happening to converts for years? It was only when the reputation of a respected rabbi was called into question by the Rabbinate did the Jewish community stand up and take notice and say enough. 

    The Rabbinate has power because the Israeli public grants it to them. The Israeli public should start making clear they no longer have a blank check. 

  • Unfortunately most of the Israeli public only concerns themselves with what affects them. Even at the rally for Rabbi Lookstein almost everyone who participated was an oleh (immigrant) or tourist. These issues don't affect a lot of Israelis who marry other native Israelis and many secular Israelis leave the country to get married and don't deal with the rabbanute at all. The conversion issues in Israel mostly focus on the community from the former Soviet Union and that population doesn't concern most Israelis either.

  • That was a bit disheartening... Should this conversation solely be about conversions and the Rabbanut? Are there area over which the Rabbanut has control which most Israelis are, to be blunt, fed up with? 

  • Hashgacha Pratit headed by Rabbi Aaron Leibowitz has slowly been moving the Kashrut certifications away from the Rabbanut so there is hope for change! Unfortunately, many Israelis do not want to get married in Israel as they don't want the Rabbanut imposing a religious wedding on them. I think that really is a shame. Tzohar is helping those who do want to have a religious wedding feel more comfortable.

  • Tzohar does very important work. That said, they are the Rabbanut. In a more appealing wrapping and more approachable in terms of their customer service for sure, but they are most definitely the Rabbanut. They will not stray from the Rabbanut rule book even to the point that they will not marry the converts of Rabbi Stav himself. For religious people who almost always have protectzia in their local Rabbanut, Tzohar can be a much less pleasant experience.

  • Wow-- okay you went there! Feel free to respond everyone. Did Chuck just hit the nail on the head? 

  • Tzohar will not solve the problems of the Rabbanut but they do make a chiloni  (not observant) couple feel much more comfortable with having a religious wedding which is a step in the right direction.

  • We have a mix of panelists here, as we are comprised of Israelis and Americans. Should that matter in this conversation?  Should diaspora Jewry have a say in this area of Israeli politics? 

  • Politics should be totally separate from religion. Therefore, the Jews from abroad who have the opportunity to move to Israel through the right of return if they so choose should be able to have a say in what goes in the religious sector.

  • I wan to go back to Tzohar - I agree with Chuck - they are part of the Rabbanut - they are no an alternative to the rabbanut. So for all those Israeli couples who were not recognized as Jewish enough by the rabbanut, they are not a solution. and they are not a solution to couples in which one is an oleh from FSU and has only a Jewish father but was brought up Jewish, served 3 years in a combat unit at the IDF etc. and they are not a solution to orthoodx couples who want a ceremony where the woman says a blessing under the huppa...and of course Tzohar doe not solve the problem of reform or consdrvative couples who want their rabbi to perform their marriage ceremony. ALL these couples are interested in a traditional Jewish wedding (at least in appearnce), since this is part of their identity and culture, as well as religion. Untill the rabbinate stops being a monoploy, there will not be a solution to all of them.

  • To be honest, as an already married American woman, it's irrelevant to me if the Rabbinute thinks I'm Jewish. 

  • As we are about to wrap up, any closing thoughts? Something that has yet to be addressed? 

  • As we are about to wrap up, any closing thoughts? Something that has yet to be addressed? 

  • There is a lot of work that needs to be done and we must continue to raise awareness both in Israel and abroad.

  • I don't want this all to end, however. I was talking with a friend of mine at American Jewish University about everything that is going on -- the conversion issue being a part of it. As we were talking -- and I was kvetching about what I consider to be a conversation about the issues of conversion that is being defined too narrowly. That is to say, the issue is one that at its center is Halacha as defined by the Orthodox -- even the most liberal Orthodox.

    Rabbi Stav, for instance, has said, very explicitly that he does not consider any rabbis outside the Orthodox to have the authority for a conversion. I don't mean to get into the discussion of who does have the authority. My point is that responding to Halacha narrows the conversation, and, in my mind, doesn't consider the whole question of what is conversion all about, anyway. Why do we want someone to convert? As a community, with all the various factors in what the makeup of community is, what are we looking for when we demand that a person convert before becoming a full-fledged member -- before becoming "one of us"? 

    It would seem to me that there is a need for consensus of what we consider the place of conversion in the structure of our society. We need to bring together people who represent the spectrum of Jewish life to study and discuss the question so that a direction can be mapped. This process would not be short. It should be given the time to allow for in-depth study that would inform the ensuing conversation -- perhaps being sponsored by a consortium of institutions, including universities like Brandeis, perhaps the sectarian seminaries, and other Jewish schools of higher learning. 

    Would this process actually make a difference? I am not sure, but, it would certainly change the tenor of our endless and frustrating conversation.
  • I want to thank everyone for taking part in this panel. I so value your time and perspectives. I think that this is only the tip of the iceberg, but hope that the conversations keep happening to better the status quo, which is simply not working.