Israel Asks Foreign Rabbis to Prove They're Jewish

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A conservative rabbi holds up a Torah scroll during synagogue services.Credit: Masorti Foundation for Conservative Judaism in Israel

Danya Ruttenberg, a young and prominent American rabbi, was shocked a few weeks ago when she was asked to provide proof that she was Jewish in order to extend her stay in Israel.

If she wanted to remain in the country legally until the end of her husband’s sabbatical year, Ruttenberg was told by an Interior Ministry official, she would need – like all visitors seeking to extend their visas or get resident status – to   produce a letter from a rabbi certifying that she was Jewish. “But I am a rabbi,” she protested.

That wasn’t good enough.

Even more disturbing, as far as she was concerned, was the attempt by the government to restrict her stay in the country when her husband and all three of their children hold Israeli citizenship, in addition to U.S. citizenship.

Beyond all that, Ruttenberg wonders, why should the government need proof of her Jewish credentials if she isn’t even planning to immigrate to Israel?

Eventually, the Interior Ministry agreed to extend her tourist visa, but only for another three months – and not until the end of the school year, as she had requested.

“The whole thing was simply Kafkaesque,” says Ruttenberg, a Conservative rabbi from Chicago who has been named in past years one of the 50 most influential women rabbis by the Jewish Daily Forward and one of the 36 most influential Jewish leaders under age 36 (“36 Under 36”) by The Jewish Week.  She was ordained in 2008.

“I’m in a position of privilege, because the main problem for me is that all this going back and forth to the Interior Ministry has taken up a lot of my valuable time,” says Ruttenberg, who is living in Jerusalem this year. “It makes me wonder what non-Jewish spouses of Israeli citizens have to go through.”

Ruttenberg is not alone. Other rabbis who have visited Israel, studied in the country or applied for citizenship under the Law of Return are routinely told that their ordination certificates carry no weight whatsoever in determining whether or not they are Jewish. Without letters from recognized rabbis validating their Jewish credentials, they are not allowed to extend their visas in the country beyond three months.

Rabbi Sarra Lev, a member of faculty at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, spent a year in Jerusalem as a fellow the Mandel School for Educational Leadership about 10 years ago. When she tried to change her tourist visa to a student visa, Lev, who was ordained by the Reconstructionist movement in 1996, was asked to provide her parents’ marriage certificate as proof of her Jewish origins. “I told them that the rabbis tore it up when my parents got their gett [divorce certificate] and that I could bring them the gett as proof, but they said that wasn’t good enough.”

In lieu of her parents’ marriage certificate, Lev said she was asked to provide a letter from a recognized rabbi overseas confirming that she was Jewish. She produced a letter from Rabbi Joel Hecker, a graduate of Yeshiva University, which was also rejected by the Interior Ministry. “I was told that he wasn’t on the ministry’s list of recognized rabbis, and when I asked who was, they told me they couldn’t tell me,” recounts Lev. “After being sent away from the Interior Ministry four times, I finally went to someone who knew someone who knew someone who was able to help me.”

Today, she is able to laugh about the experience. “But at the time, it was pretty traumatizing,” she says.

Minna Bromberg and her husband Alan Abrams immigrated to Israel in August 2014. Bromberg, a graduate a the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College, a pluralistic institution that is not affiliated with any of the main movements, had served as a congregational rabbi in Reading, Pa., where they lived before making aliyah, and her husband was ordained by the Conservative movement. “Even though we are both rabbis, I could not write a letter for him certifying that he was Jewish, and he could not write one for me,” she says.

Still, she says, by virtue of being rabbis, they were better placed than most candidates for immigration to obtain the required letters proving their Jewishness. “We have lots of friends who are rabbis as well, so it makes things easier.”

Nicole Maor, a lawyer with the Israel Religious Action Center – the advocacy arm of the Reform movement in Israel – has decades of experience representing tourists, students and new immigrants with status problems in Israel. “It may sound off the wall, but the fact that you have a rabbinical ordination certificate doesn’t count for much with the Interior Ministry,” she says.

Is it only female rabbis from the non-Orthodox movements whose Jewish credentials require proof? Most definitely not, says Shaul Farber, an Orthodox rabbi and the executive director of Itim, a non-profit that helps individuals navigate Israel’s religious bureaucracy.  “When I moved to Israel, my rabbinical ordination certificate wasn’t considered proof that I was Jewish either,” he says. “How would Yeshiva University give me ordination, I asked the Interior Ministry, if I weren’t Jewish? That didn’t help.”

The Interior Ministry did not respond to a request to comment on why it requires ordained rabbis to provide proof that they are Jewish.