Engel Goes to Bat for Rabbi Avi Weiss in Letter to Netanyahu

The New York congressman expresses concerns to Netanyahu over the Chief Rabbinate’s decision to reject Jewish status letters written by the rabbi.

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The New York congressman who represents Rabbi Avi Weiss expressed his concerns to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over the Chief Rabbinate’s decision to reject Jewish status letters written by the rabbi.

Rep. Eliot Engel, the senior Democratic member of the U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee, wrote in a letter to Netanyahu dated Jan. 10, “This trend of rejecting status letters written by Rabbi Weiss and others undermines the bond between Diaspora communities and the state of Israel, and I fear may ultimately lead to the wholesale prohibition on community rabbis in the Diaspora from participating in the religious life of Jewish people in Israel.”

Weiss not only lives in Engel’s congressional district but the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale that Weiss led for nearly 40 years and the Yeshivat Chovevei Torah rabbinical school he founded are located there.

Late last year, the Chief Rabbinate of Israel rejected a letter vouching for the Jewishness of an American couple marrying in Israel written by Weiss, as well as the letters of at least 10 rabbis in other cases.

A letter vouching for a couple’s Jewishness and singlehood has been required for decades from couples wishing to marry in Israel.

The Chief Rabbinate decided several years ago that it would no longer automatically recognize conversions performed by Orthodox rabbis in the Diaspora, and agreed to accept those of a limited number of approved rabbinical courts, or batei din.

Engel said he is concerned that the Chief Rabbinate’s decision to reject Weiss’ letter “is simply the latest instance of the broader marginalization of the many diverse streams of Judaism in Israel. If Rabbi Weiss’ credentials are rejected — an Orthodox leader with decades of experience — what does that portend for other strands of American Judaism?”

Engel left for Israel Sunday as part of Vice President Joe Biden’s delegation to the funeral for former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

Congressman Elliot Engel.Credit: Natasha Mozgovaya

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