Jewish Agency Chief: Israel Undermining Diaspora Jewish Leaders

Demonstration follows refusal of Israeli rabbi to accept conversions performed by Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, a prominent modern Orthodox rabbi in New York.

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

Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky participated in a demonstration outside the Chief Rabbinate building in Jerusalem on Wednesday, saying that Israel was "damaging the authority of Jewish leaders" in the Diaspora.

Sharansky was one of some 150 demonstrators protesting the recent decision of a rabbinical court in Petach Tikva to reject a conversion performed by Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, a prominent modern Orthodox rabbi from New York.

It coincided with the opening of an appeal by an American woman in the Supreme Rabbinical Court against a lower court's decision to forbid her from marrying in Israel. The lower court's ruling was based on its refusal to recognize her conversion by Rabbi Lookstein – and, in effect, all conversions by the rabbi. The hearing has since been completed, and a ruling is expected in the coming days.

Another conversion performed by Lookstein was that of Ivanka Trump, daughter of the presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, in 2009.

The demonstration was organized by Israeli students of Rabbi Lookstein, graduates of the Ramaz school in New York, and ITIM, the non-governmental organization that is representing the appellant in front of the rabbinical court. It was attended by rabbis from the liberal trend of Orthodoxy, as well as a number of Knesset members, among them Yehuda Glick (Likud,) Aliza Lavi and Eliezer Stern (both from Yesh Atid.)

Sharansky told Haaretz that he had decided to take the unusual step of demonstrating against a state-run institution because he feared the Chief Rabbinate was putting Israel’s relations with Jewish communities abroad in great jeopardy.

“We have been investing so much to fight the BDS movement on college campuses, where Jewish students say they are embarrassed to be associated with Israel,” said Sharansky. “Our message is that there is nothing to be embarrassed about, and then the Chief Rabbinate comes along and tells them that their leaders are not leaders and their rabbis are not rabbis. These voices must be stopped.”

Decades ago, while Sharansky was serving a sentence in a Soviet jail for dissident activities, Lookstein was one of the key activists in the international movement to free him.

“It is nice to say that Rabbi Lookstein used to fight for me and now I am fighting for him, but he does not need me to defend him,” said Sharansky. “His life is not on the line, and neither is his reputation. The reason I am here today is to demonstrate against those whose actions are delegitimizing Israel in the eyes of the Jewish world.”

The demonstration was also addressed by Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, who clashed with the Chief Rabbinical Council about one year ago when it attempted to remove him from his post of community rabbi in Efrat, a West Bank settlement.

"How is it possible not to accept the conversions of one of the world's leading rabbis?" Riskin asked. Addressing the Petah Tikva rabbi who refused to accept Lookstein's conversion, he said: "Who are you to question him? I have questions for you. What a hutzpah!"

Meanwhile, the two Chief Rabbis of Israel decided at the last moment on Wednesday to absent themselves from a scheduled committee meeting to resolve a crisis with the secular court system over the election of religious judges (dayanim.)

An hour before the meeting was due to begin, Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef informed the committee chairman, Minister of National Infrastructure, Energy and Water Resources Yuval Steinitz, that he would not be attending due to a change in the time that the committee was due to meet.

His cancellation was followed by those of Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau and Knesset member Yisrael Eichler, the three ultra-Orthodox representatives on the nine-person committee. Steinitz has not yet announced whether the meeting will go ahead, though there seems to be little point as the rabbis would be able to demand revisions of any vote taken.

The committee was expected to nominate six permanent dayanim to the Supreme Rabbinical Court, following a High Court ruling that all temporary nominations to the court will be frozen in mid-July if permanent members aren't appointed.