Israel’s New Rules: Orthodox Rabbis' Conversions Abroad May Not All Be Kosher

Only conversions conducted by select, established Orthodox bodies will be recognized, according to regulations being drafted by the Chief Rabbinate

Moshe Dagan, director-general of Israel's Chief Rabbinate, at a session of a Knesset committee, on February 13, 2018.
Olivier Fitoussi

Orthodox conversions performed by congregational rabbis in Jewish communities abroad will no longer be recognized for the purpose of marriage in Israel, according to new regulations being drafted by the country's Chief Rabbinate. The new rules stipulate that only conversions performed under the auspices of a select number of established Orthodox organizations and institutions worldwide will merit such recognition.

Speaking at a Knesset hearing on Monday, a senior representative of the rabbinate said that the new rules were still awaiting final approval by the council that governs his institution, which controls all matters involving marriage and divorce among Jews in Israel.

However, Moshe Dagan, director-general of the rabbinate, indicated that only conversions performed under the auspices of the following institutions and organizations would pass muster in Israel: The Rabbinical Council of America, the Union of Orthodox Rabbis in the United States, the Conference of European Rabbis, the Rabbinical Centre of Europe, the Chief Rabbinate of the United Kingdom and the Chief Rabbinate of France.

“Under the new criteria, only rabbinical courts that sit permanently or have three permanent judges will be recognized,” he told the Knesset Committee for Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs.

He said a committee appointed by the rabbinate had drafted a detailed list of criteria for recognizing conversion courts abroad, in consultation with the major Orthodox rabbinical organizations and institutions located outside Israel. He rejected requests by several Knesset members, however, to share the entire list until he received approval from the legal advisers of the rabbinate.

Until not long ago, Orthodox conversions in the United States were typically overseen by congregational rabbis. These rabbis were responsible for forming and also sitting on the three-man rabbinical courts required for conversions, often on an ad-hoc basis. Hoping to conform with the more stringent rules of conversion applied in Israel, in 2007, the Rabbinical Council of America – the largest Orthodox rabbinical body in the country – established a network of 11 regional conversion courts that adhere to uniform policies and standards.

Since then, Orthodox conversions overseen by congregational rabbis in the United States who do not belong to the RCA have in numerous cases, though not all, been rejected by the rabbinate. Once the new regulations receive final approval, however, such conversions will automatically be rejected.

“This is an attempt to superimpose the centralized Israeli model for conversions onto the Diaspora,” said Rabbi Seth Farber, the founder and executive director of ITIM, an organization that advocates on behalf of converts in Israel. “The end result will be that local synagogue rabbis in America will have been stripped of much of their power.”

In Europe, he said, many Orthodox conversions are also overseen by local community rabbis, but the majority are performed under the auspices of large centralized organizations and institutions.

Under the Law of Return, which determines eligibility for immigration to Israel, all converts qualify – regardless of whether their converting rabbis were Orthodox, Conservative or Reform – so long as they are members of an established Jewish community. That does not mean, however, that the converts will be automatically recognized as Jewish for the purpose of marriage or burial by the rabbinate. The rabbinate does not recognize any Conservative or Reform converts. Nor does it recognize all Orthodox conversions performed abroad, especially if the converting rabbis are known to hold progressive views.

The Knesset committee meeting was originally called to address the rabbinate’s ongoing failure to provide a list of criteria it uses for approving letters of certification of Jewishness from rabbis abroad. In July, the rabbinate came under fire when news broke that it maintained a list of rabbis whose letters certifying the Jewishness of their congregants are rejected. The names of 160 rabbis appeared on this list, including the director of community education at Kehilath Jeshurun in Manhattan, where Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter, converted before she married Jared Kushner.

Individuals registering to marry in Israel must provide proof that they are Jewish if their parents were not married under the auspices of the rabbinate. Typically, such certification is provided by their congregational rabbis abroad.

In February, Dagan had promised to present the Knesset committee with a complete list of the criteria within a few months. However, he told the panel Monday that the list was still not ready and that, meanwhile, the rabbinate’s top priority was obtaining approval for the list of recognized rabbinical courts abroad that it had formulated.

The rabbinate has argued that it maintains no “blacklist” of rabbis from abroad and that the list made public in July merely contains the names of rabbis who have had their certification letters rejected. Many of the rabbis on the list, it insists, have also had letters approved, and so, they are not being targeted personally.

A letter made public on Monday, however, indicates otherwise. Written by a representative of a local branch of the rabbinate’s Office, it rejected a letter of certification of Jewishness for a woman seeking to wed in Israel because the rabbi who submitted it, Akiva Herzfeld, was affiliated with Chovevei Torah, a prominent modern Orthodox yeshiva based in New York.

In his letter, the rabbinate's representative wrote: “I cannot determine the Jewishness of this woman based on this rabbi’s recommendation.”

Rabbi Avi Weiss, the founder of Chovevei Torah and a prominent figure in the modern Orthodox community, has also had his own letters of certification – as well as his conversions – rejected by the rabbinate.