Fed Up With the Chief Rabbinate, Orthodox Rabbis Try an End Run

U.S., Israeli Orthodox rabbis plan to set up court system as alternative to Israel's rabbinical courts.

Orthodox rabbis from the United States and Israel intend to set up an Orthodox court system as an alternative to Israel's rabbinical courts and to the rigorous norms for conversion to Judaism imposed on U.S. rabbis.

Rabbi Marc Angel, past president of the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA), and Rabbi Avraham Weiss spearheaded the initiative following Israel's Chief Rabbi shlomo Amar's restrictions on Orthodox conversions in America.

Angel and Weiss founded the International Rabbinical Fellowship (IRF) to set up an alternative Orthodox courts system, which will also have a branch in Israel.

Several prominent Israeli rabbis have joined this initiative, prompted by the conversion crisis in Israel.

Some three months ago several Israeli rabbis attended the IRF's founding conference. Among them were Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, of the West Bank settlement Efrat, Rabbi Yuval Sherlo and Rabbi Seth (Shaul) Farber, founder and director of ITIM, a non-profit organization that helps potential converts.

Weiss told Haaretz this week that the new organization was founded not because of the conversion crisis in Israel or the U.S. but due to the need for a "free discussion among Orthodox rabbis."

He conceded, however, that conversion will be at the top of the organization's agenda.

Riskin was more resolved. "This rabbinical court system is required to deal with conversions and divorce, two issues whose handling by the Supreme Rabbinical Court is appalling. We plan to set up several branches, including in Israel, or operate a mobile rabbinical court that will hold hearings in various places around the world as required," he said.

Weiss said he did not believe the Chief Rabbinate would boycott the new rabbinical courts' conversions "because we have numerous important rabbis behind us."

"If they don't accept our conversions, we'll go to the High Court of Justice," said Riskin. "In any case, I'd rather be part of a court system that reflects my belief, even if it is not accepted by the Chief Rabbinate."

Both Riskin and Weiss demand that each municipal rabbi in Israel have the authority to perform conversions. A proposal to this effect has been submitted to the Knesset by MK David Rotem (Yisrael Beiteinu).

Rabbi Amar's aide commented: "We don't operate courts overseas.

If the rabbis in the new organization are recognized by the Chief Rabbinate, there will be no problem. If not, they will have to undergo tests in order to be recognized."

Asked about an alternative court in Israel, the aide said: "In Israel there is no possibility of having a rabbinical court outside the rabbinical court system.

The ultra-Orthodox community has a special permit from the prestate era to operate a court that is recognized by the state.

Past attempts to set up additional courts failed, and they will not be approved in future either."

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