Despite Pressure, Israel's Top Rabbinical Court Won't Recognize Conversion by U.S. Rabbi

A woman converted by American Orthodox Rabbi Haskel Lookstein - who also converted Ivanka Trump - will have to undergo a quick second conversion to erase any doubts about the validity of the original.

Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky (center), MK Yehuda Glick (right) and Rabbi Dov Lipman rally in front of rabbinical court in Jerusalem, July 6, 2016.
Lior Mizrahi

Despite pressure from both rabbis and politicians, the Supreme Rabbinical Court upheld a lower court’s decision on Thursday not to recognize a conversion performed by an influential American Orthodox rabbi, Haskel Lookstein.

The court nevertheless said it would allow a young woman he converted to register for marriage with her Israeli fiancé – but only on condition that she undergo a quick second conversion, known as a giyur l’chumra, to erase any doubts about the validity of the original.

For this purpose, the rabbinical court judges made her reaffirm in their presence that she accepts the Torah and its commandments, said her lawyer, Elad Caplan. She will also have to immerse in a ritual bath, but the judges said they would not make her do so twice: It is standard for brides to immerse themselves before their wedding, and the judges said this pre-wedding immersion would also count as her immersion for the purpose of conversion.

The woman said she felt “humiliated,” but acceded to the judges’ demands for fear that doing anything else, including petitioning the High Court of Justice, would end up delaying her wedding, which is due to take place in another two weeks.

In response to the ruling, Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky said that "today’s decision by the Supreme Rabbinical Court, which effectively delegitimized a prominent rabbi in the American Jewish community, demonstrates why Israel is in danger of being delegitimized as a center of religious authority in the eyes of world Jewry."

Sharansky had previously demonstrated against the lower court's ruling to reject Lookstein's conversion.

"I call on the Government of Israel, which recognizes the vital importance of the Israel-Diaspora relationship, to take immediate steps to change the attitude of Israel’s religious authorities toward the spiritual leaders of the Diaspora," he said.

A few months ago, when the woman sought to register to marry at the rabbinate, she was told she needed a rabbinical court’s confirmation that her overseas conversion was valid. That much is standard practice. But in a decision that generated shock waves both in Israel and abroad, the Petah Tikva Rabbinical Court unexpectedly declared that not only was the woman’s conversion invalid, but so were all other conversions performed by Lookstein, who is considered one of America’s most influential Orthodox rabbis.

Lookstein heads the Kehilath Jeshurun synagogue in New York and formerly headed one of the city’s leading religious high schools, Ramaz. One of his most famous converts is Ivanka Trump, daughter of the Republican Party’s candidate for the U.S. presidency.

The Petah Tikva court justified its decision on strictly procedural grounds: Lookstein doesn’t appear on the rabbinate’s list of recognized American rabbis. But in so doing, it opted to ignore the fact that in an unusual move, the Chief Rabbinate had submitted a written request that it approve both Lookstein and the convert.

The court’s decision consequently infuriated the Chief Rabbinate, which said there are no grounds for disqualifying Lookstein.

The woman appealed, and was summoned to two hearings at the Supreme Rabbinical Court. During the first, some 200 people, including rabbis, Knesset members and former students of Lookstein, demonstrated outside the courthouse.

At the second hearing, on Wednesday, the court announced that it would make no decision on whether Lookstein’s conversions were valid in general. With regard to the woman in question, it said it would approve her marriage, but only on condition that she undergo the new conversion.

The court said it decided not to address the general validity of Lookstein’s conversions for the same reason that the lower court had sweepingly disqualified them: the fact that he doesn’t appear on the rabbinate’s approved list.

But the Chief Rabbinate denies that Lookstein isn’t on the list. In a statement issued on Wednesday, it said it would “continue to recognize Rabbi Lookstein’s conversions, as has always been the case.”

Rabbi Seth Farber, whose ITIM organization represented both the woman and Lookstein, said the court’s decision “casts a heavy cloud over the conversions of thousands of people converted by Orthodox rabbis in the U.S. This is a sad day for the converts, and it’s a sad day for relations between Israel and American Jewry. The rabbinical court judges humiliated the convert in their decision, but not her alone; they also humiliated hundreds of rabbis in the Diaspora and members of their congregations.”