I have a question for Natan Sharansky: If you are fighting for the right of Haskel Lookstein — a revered Orthodox rabbi from New York — to have his conversions recognized in Israel, why are you not fighting for Reform and Conservative rabbis to have the same right?
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In a discussion with the Times of Israel, Sharansky made an emotional and eloquent plea for Israel to accept Lookstein’s conversions. “It is the duty of the State of Israel,” he said, “to give Diaspora Jewry the feeling that Israel is their home. Rejecting esteemed rabbis such as Lookstein only pushes world Jewry away.” Sharansky went on to say that “interference by the State of Israel into the legitimacy of the Zionist religious leadership of American Jewry should be stopped immediately.”
I agree. But what about the Zionist religious leadership of the Reform and Conservative movements? What about esteemed rabbis such as David Ellenson and Elliott Cosgrove in New York, David Wolpe in Los Angeles, and Janet Marder in San Francisco? What about the thousands of other non-Orthodox rabbis who do conversions in America and whose sole desire is for Jews to be Jews, to love Israel, and to embrace Yiddishkeit for themselves and their families? Should not the outright rejection of their conversions be stopped as well?
Let me be clear: I have the greatest respect for Natan Sharansky. The former refusenik is a hero of the Jewish people. He sacrificed his freedom to fight for the right of Soviet Jews to immigrate to Israel. When he finally arrived in Israel in 1986, the Jewish world rejoiced. In recent years, he has served with great distinction as chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, the organization entrusted with strengthening ties between Diaspora Jews and the Jewish state.
And I have nothing but reverence for Rabbi Haskel Lookstein. An Orthodox rabbi and educator now retired from Kehillat Jeshurun, a synagogue in Manhattan, he is a model to us all of what a congregational rabbi should be. Beloved by his students and a leader in the broader Jewish community, he is known for the depth of his learning and the power of his teaching, as well as his modesty and menschlichkeit.
Nonetheless, there was something deeply unsettling about the joint interview that these two leaders gave last Thursday to Ben Sales of the JTA. They were addressing the refusal of the Petach Tikva’s rabbinical court, part of Israel’s government-sponsored Orthodox establishment, to recognize a conversion that Rabbi Lookstein had performed in New York. The individual involved had moved to Israel and was seeking to be married. Given the high regard in which Lookstein is held in America, the Petach Tikva decision generated outrage among mainstream American Orthodoxy. It also caught the attention of the general press because Lookstein is the rabbi who converted Ivanka Trump, the daughter of Donald Trump.
Responding to the controversy in their interview, Sharansky and Rabbi Lookstein offered a solution: Israel’s Chief Rabbinate must broaden the list of “approved” Orthodox rabbis whose conversions would be acceptable in Israel. Sharansky suggested, for example, that conversions be accepted from any Orthodox rabbi with semicha, or ordination, from a recognized Orthodox seminary. Rabbi Lookstein made a similar proposal, adding that graduates of Chovovei Torah, an Orthodox seminary founded in 1999 and not recognized by all Orthodox authorities in the U.S., should be included.
The problem with the Sharansky-Lookstein solution is two-fold. First, while I do not doubt its good intentions, it is appallingly nave. Does anyone believe that the Chief Rabbinate is capable of moving in a more moderate direction? This is the same rabbinate that year after year becomes more corrupt, more bureaucratically entrenched, and more fanatical; the same rabbinate that has driven almost a quarter of all Israelis to marry outside of the country, or not marry Jewishly at all; and the same rabbinate that has blown up the Western Wall compromise after years of negotiation.
Second, what Sharansky and Rabbi Lookstein propose responds to the pain of the Orthodox world while ignoring the pain of the non-Orthodox world. I appreciate the genuine dismay of my Orthodox friends who were livid when a rabbi of Haskell Lookstein’s standing was denied recognition by the State of Israel. But guess what: That is what the non-Orthodox rabbinate has experienced every day for nearly 70 years. The conversions of Reform and Conservative rabbis are not recognized, now or ever. Movements that want only to bring their people to Torah and to draw strength from the Jewish state are cast aside by clerical politics, fake coalitions, and partisan deals.
And while our devotion to Israel is unshakable, we have increasingly restless members, many of whom are beginning to ask: Does Israel have a soul or does it just milk the Jews of the Diaspora for political and financial support? As Rabbi David Hartman told Reform leadership two decades ago: “Israel must stop doing what she has been doing, which is proclaiming to half the Jewish world that its synagogues are houses of whoredom and its whole Jewish life is inauthentic.”
Natan Sharansky has a special responsibility at this moment. He heads the Jewish Agency, whose reason for being is to forge stronger ties between Israel and world Jewry. And he was the author of the original Western Wall plan, which was a daring attempt to unite the Jewish world. But his audacious plan was much reduced by the bargaining that followed, and what the Reform and Conservative movements eventually accepted was far less than what he had proposed. And now, even what remains has been sabotaged by a spiteful and insecure Orthodox establishment.
Haskel Lookstein is one of the great rabbis of our generation, and he deserves Sharansky’s backing; but the non-Orthodox movements deserve it as well. What is required, therefore, is an Agency-led effort, spearheaded by Sharansky himself, that will demand not just pious pronouncements but concrete support from the State of Israel for Reform and Conservative Judaism — and this means formal recognition, a new and better Western Wall deal, substantial financial allocations, and real dialogue with Israel’s leaders on what Jewishness and Torah mean.
Natan Sharansky, the Jewish world needs you again.
Eric H. Yoffie, a rabbi, writer and teacher in Westfield, New Jersey, is a former president of the Union for Reform Judaism.