Jason Herman, an Orthodox rabbi from New York, was not surprised to discover his name on a blacklist of 160 rabbis whose letters certifying the Jewishness of candidates for marriage in Israel had been rejected by the Chief Rabbinate. After all, he did, in fact, have such a letter rejected four years ago.
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What surprised him more is that the Chief Rabbinate allowed him to officiate at the wedding of the woman on whose behalf he had written the letter. The Chief Rabbinate, which has sole jurisdiction over Jewish marriages in Israel, requires that anyone registering to marry in the country provide a letter from a rabbi certifying that he or she is Jewish and single.
How did she eventually get approved to marry in Israel? The answer to that question reveals yet another surprising element in the story. At Herman’s recommendation, the woman approached an Orthodox rabbinical organization in Chicago, considered trustworthy by the Chief Rabbinate. Its rabbis did not know her nor did she know them, but they agreed to write the letter on the basis of recommendations from two rabbis who did. One of those rabbis was Herman. That’s right – the same rabbi whose letter was rejected served as her reference.
“From a personal perspective, I found this rather amusing,” said Herman, who serves as the spiritual leader of the West Side Jewish Center and is currently in Israel. “I mean it’s ridiculous that they wouldn’t accept my letter but were willing to let me perform the wedding in Israel.” (Incidentally, it was not the only wedding he has received approval from the Chief Rabbinate to perform in Israel.)
At the same time, Herman said, he finds it disturbing that Jewish couples interested in marrying in Israel should face such challenges. “There are many Jews out there who don’t have relationships with rabbis,” he said. “They only know one, or maybe they don’t even know an Orthodox rabbi. And then they find one, and the letter he writes on their behalf is rejected. So how are they supposed to prove what they need to prove? It’s a major problem.”
The Chief Rabbinate’s list, which surfaced this week, includes rabbis from around the world, including many who were not ordained by the Orthodox movement. It is not clear why their names would appear on such a list, since the Chief Rabbinate does not even look at letters from rabbis who are not Orthodox.
Herman, who also serves as the executive director of the International Rabbinic Fellowship, an organization of Orthodox rabbis from around the world, has been a practicing rabbi for 12 years. He said he has written “a dozen or two” letters on behalf of candidates for marriage in Israel.
Herman said that none of his other letters had been rejected by the Chief Rabbinate. In all the other cases, he said, as best as he could remember, the candidates were Orthodox and members of his congregation. The woman on whose behalf he had written the rejected letter, however, was not Orthodox. Because she was a personal friend and she knew that she would need to get a letter from an Orthodox rabbi to vouch for her being single and Jewish in order to marry in Israel, he said, she had approached him.
“Until my letter was rejected,” he said, “I had never heard of another case of an Orthodox rabbi having such a letter rejected, but now I know there are many.”
Presumably, many of the other Orthodox rabbis on the list found their names there because of letters they, too, had written on behalf of non-Orthodox Jews. Since his letter was rejected, Herman said, he has been directing all individuals who request a reference letter for the Chief Rabbinate to the Chicago Rabbinical Council, which he said “will write pretty much for anyone.”
Other organizations in the United State that provide a similar service for Jews seeking to marry in Israel who do not have an Orthodox rabbi who can vouch for them include the following: the Beth Din of America, the Rabbinical Council of California, the Council of Orthodox Rabbis of Greater Detroit, and Agudas Harabonim.
After Herman wrote the letter for his non-Orthodox friend, he received a call from Rabbi Itamar Tubul, head of the Chief Rabbinate’s personal status division and the official responsible for deciding who can and who cannot marry in Israel. After answering several basic questions – like where he was ordained and whether his synagogue was affiliated with the Orthodox movement – Herman was asked to send Tubul a copy of his ordination certificate. The New York rabbi was convinced it had all gone smoothly until several days later he received a phone call from his friend, who tearfully reported to him that the letter had been rejected.
Within the next month or two, the Chief Rabbinate Council is expect to approve a list of criteria that will determine which Orthodox rabbis outside of Israel will be recognized in the country for the purposes of marriage and conversion. It promises that letters from rabbis who meet these criteria will automatically be approved.
Herman, meanwhile, is not getting his hopes up. “I suspect that even after the rules become clear, there will still be people who will not be able to get married in Israel,” he said.