Israel to Publish Criteria for Recognizing Rabbis Who Perform Conversions Abroad

Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
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President-elect Donald Trump sits with daughter Ivanka Trump. 2016
President-elect Donald Trump sits with daughter Ivanka Trump. 2016Credit: David Paul Morris, Bloomberg
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz

Leaders of Israel’s rabbinical establishment will convene next week to begin drawing up a list of criteria for recognizing Orthodox rabbis abroad who perform conversions, possibly ending an issue was has threatened the conversions of America's most prominent rabbis, including the one who converted the daughter of President-elect Donald Trump.

In a joint statement, the country’s two chief rabbis, Yitzhak Yosef and David Lau, said the objective was to “put an end to the phenomenon of complaints about conversions undertaken by rabbis from recognized Jewish communities abroad that are not approved.” (Yosef is the chief Sephardi rabbi, and Lau is the chief Ashkenazi rabbi.)

Israel's Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef (L) and Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau.Credit: Moti Milrod

This overhaul of the system, they said, “should spare considerable anguish” to Jews of choice converted abroad who come to marry or divorce in Israel.

Israel’s Chief Rabbinate does not recognize conversions performed by Reform or Conservative rabbis. Individuals converted by Reform or Conservative rabbis, therefore, cannot marry legally in Israel.

Under the current system, the file of every Jew of choice who immigrates to Israel is examined by a state-sanctioned rabbi to determine whether the conversion is valid, with no consideration given to the identity of the converting rabbi. In quite a few cases in recent years, individuals converted by prominent Orthodox rabbis abroad have been told that their conversions were invalid and that they would have to go through the process again to marry in Israel or to qualify for immigrant benefits under the Law of Return.  Typically, no explanations are given.

In their joint statement, the two chief rabbis said that under the new system they envision, all conversions undertaken by rabbis who meet their criteria would be automatically approved.

Last year, a woman converted by Haskel Lookstein, a prominent Modern Orthodox rabbi from New York who also happened to convert Ivanka Trump, was told that her conversion was invalid when she went to register to marry. Her appeal against the ruling was denied by Israel’s supreme rabbinical court, and eventually, this woman went through a second symbolic conversion so that she could marry in the country.

Under the new system, the chief rabbis said in their statement, the president-elect’s daughter would be recognized as Jewish in Israel with no questions asked. “Under this proposed new plan, in which only the identity of the converting rabbi needs to be checked, her conversion would be validated with no further examinations required,” it said, suggesting that Lookstein had already been approved.

Just a few months ago, the Chief Rabbinate rejected the conversions of four Jews of choice who had recently moved to Israel. They had all been converted by a leading Orthodox authority – Rabbi Gedalia Dov Schwartz, head of the Beth Din of America and the chief presiding rabbinical judge, or dayan, of the National Beth Din of the Rabbinical Council of America. In these cases as well the previous case, no explanation was given for the decision.

Participating in next week’s gathering, along with the two chief rabbis, will be all the members of Israel’s supreme rabbinical court, as well as the entire board of the Chief Rabbinate’s office.

In April, under pressure from a legal suit, the Chief Rabbinate for the first time published a list of foreign rabbis that meet its approval. The list was far from comprehensive, however.

The suit was filed in the Jerusalem District Court by ITIM, a non-profit that helps immigrants challenged by Israel’s religious bureaucracy.

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