A Quiet Revolution |

American Jewish Groups Forge Partnership With Israelis to 'Dethrone’ Chief Rabbinate

Leading U.S. organizations met recently to explore how to end rabbinate’s monopoly over marriage; Orthodox Rabbinical Council of America opposes initiative.

Debra Nussbaum Cohen
Debra Nussbaum Cohen
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Debra Nussbaum Cohen
Debra Nussbaum Cohen

NEW YORK – Leading American Jewish groups are readying a major campaign against the singular control wielded by the chief rabbinate on matters of personal status in Israel. As the North American Jewish federation system considers its strategy, a new coalition is also being organized by the American Jewish Committee, which plans to partner with Israeli groups working toward ending the chief rabbinate’s monopoly over marriage.

A meeting convened January 21st by the AJC included people involved with a wide range of Jewish groups, from the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College to the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly and the “open Orthodox” Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, as well as the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, UJA-Federation of New York and the National Council of Jewish Women. Pointedly missing was anyone from the centrist Orthodox Rabbinical Council of America, which works closely with Israel’s chief rabbinate on conversion- and marriage-related matters.

“The overall goal is to have American Jews and Israelis working in partnership toward the ending of rabbinic monopoly,” said Steve Bayme, director of AJC’s Contemporary Jewish Life Department, which convened the gathering, in an interview. “No one is saying abolish the office or end their authority completely. It’s a matter of having recognized alternatives.”

The 40 or so people in attendance “all agreed that the goal was to dethrone the Chief Rabbinate, but the question was how to get there,” according to minutes from the meeting obtained by Haaretz.

“Freedom to Marry” tops their agenda because, while terms like “religious pluralism” don’t resonate with Israelis, confining marriage to the rabbinate’s Orthodox approach is alienating both to the large number of Israeli couples who leave their country to wed and to American Jews whose commitment to Israel is, according to studies, becoming increasingly attenuated. The Israeli religious pluralism advocacy group Hiddush created an interactive online map that puts into stark graphic elief the fact that Israel is the only democracy in the world that does not offer its citizens civil marriage.

“There is growing alienation around our children and grandchildren not being able to marry in Israel [because they don’t meet the chief rabbinate’s stringent criteria for proving they are Jewish]," said Nancy Kaufman, CEO of the National Council of Jewish Women, which has 90,000 members and supporters, in an interview after the AJC meeting. “We haven’t been talking together about it until now, but the timing feels right.”

“More than half of the children growing up in American Jewry would be told by Israel ‘you ain’t Jewish’ or ‘ain’t Jewish enough’ and would not have a seat at the table. That should sensitize anyone who cares about Israel,” said Rabbi Uri Regev, president and CEO of the Israeli religious pluralism advocacy group Hiddush, who spoke about the issue at a gathering on the issue last week convened by the New Israel Fund. Hiddush is at the center of a growing network of Israeli groups addressing the issue, Regev said. In the U.S., the AJC is in the process of hiring a full time employee to coordinate efforts here.

The critical question is “Is Israel the Jewish state for all Jewish people?” said Jerry Silverman, CEO of the Jewish Federations of North America, in an interview. “It has significant impact as we look at this generation, the next generation and their connection to Israel. Our goal is to have Israel at the heart of Jewish identity and connection, and this is a barrier.”

Recent problems encountered by American Jews who have made aliyah and tried to get married in Israel reflect a growing gulf between the chief rabbinate’s requirements and the reality of Jewish life for most American Jews, say those involved.

“It is very important that Israel not constantly signal that most of us aren’t really Jewish and that only those who meet the ultra-Orthodox standards are going to be considered part of the family. That seems to everyone to be a very precarious situation that should change,” said Rabbi David Rosenn, NIF’s executive vice president.

‘Not an internal Israeli matter’

“There are those who might say this is an internal Israeli matter, that it’s none of our business,” said Susie Gelman, a former president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and, with her husband Michael Gelman, co-chair of the 2013 JFNA General Assembly, held in Jerusalem. He continued the thought in a joint interview, “but Israel is the nation state for all Jews wherever they are found.” He is immediate past chair of the JFNA’s executive committee and a member of the Global Planning Table, which will next discuss its strategy on marriage choice on March 31st. “Israelis won’t be under the tyranny of the (chief) rabbinate,” he said. “It’s becoming a bigger and bigger problem.”

The nascent AJC coalition produced a statement saying its mission is “to strengthen religious freedom and equality in Israel, allowing for full exercise of freedom of conscience, in matters of personal status, as befits a democratic and Jewish state, and as would enhance Israel’s ties to world Jewry.” Its immediate objective is “to create a coalition of Israeli and American Jewish organizations and individuals in support of Israeli-based initiatives to encourage recognized alternate options to the Chief Rabbinate’s exclusive authority over Jewish marriage, divorce, and, by extension, conversion to Judaism.”

The RCA is “very happy to be excluded from the [AJC] initiative because we don’t agree with it,” said Rabbi Mark Dratch, the rabbinical group’s executive vice president. “Jewish law has certain minimal standards in order to be married and somebody has to oversee that. An institution like the chief rabbinate’s office is probably good to do that. Many improvements can be made to the chief rabbinate to be more user-friendly in order to increase respect for religious practice. Our feeling is that it requires improvement of the chief rabbinate, but not an overhaul.”

JFNA’s strategy, currently being planned, will be deployed in the next six months and include education for both American and Israeli Jews around the issue, Silverman said. “It’s important for American Jews to understand what’s at stake here and why it should matter,” said Susie Gelman. According to Silverman, JFNA “will be working with a coalition of the willing where there’s high interest in this both with federations and foundations and other organizations and driven by Israeli organizations in a strategic way.”

The issue is finding traction now for several reasons. Israeli polls indicate new interest in finding alternatives to the chief rabbinate’s control over marriage, and several bills relating to civil marriage and civil unions are currently being considered in Knesset. Israel seems to be signaling new interest in engaging with American Jewry, reflected in the recently announced $1.4 billion plan by the Israeli government and Jewish Agency to invest in building Jewish identity and Israel-Diaspora connections. Pressure from American Jewish leaders proved effective on several recent issues, including a reversal of the chief rabbinate’s decision to disqualify veteran modern Orthodox Rabbi Avi Weiss from testifying on behalf of someone’s Jewish status, to efforts to provide access to part of the Kotel to Women of the Wall and egalitarian Jews.

“The message coming from Jerusalem is an invitation to engage that is different than the tone one heard often in the past,” said David Mallach, managing director of UJA-Federation of New York’s Commission on the Jewish People, who attended the AJC meeting. “That has resonated very positively among a lot of people in the American Jewish community feeling there really is a desire to change the rhetoric and the nature of the relationship.”

The breadth of interest in moving forward as one Jewish community is unprecedented, say some.

In the past, “the organized Jewish world has stayed far away from these issues,” said Yehuda Kurtzer, president of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, who attended the NIF briefing. What’s happening now is a “quiet revolution.”

“I’ve been in this field for decades and I don’t think we’ve ever pulled together in such a strategic, organized manner,” said Hiddush’s Regev.

And there is interest in moving forward quickly.

“There’s a tremendous time imperative to do something now with this so high on the agenda for this government and organizations,” said Rebecca Caspi, senior vice president for global operations and director general of JFNA’s Israel office.

“The time is now,” said Susie Gelman. “There’s definitely a perception that this is the time to move ahead on this and make something happen. We’re optimistic. There will clearly be forces lined up against any changes in the status quo but hopefully those on the right side of history will prevail.”

A Jewish wedding (illustrative).Credit: Dreamstime
Susie Gelman, a former president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington , with her husband, Michael Gelman, co-chair of the 2013 JFNA General Assembly.
Steve Bayme, director of AJC’s contemporary Jewish life department.