Between Donald Trump and the Israeli Rabbinate, Rabbi Haskel Lookstein Had a Tough Month

Lookstein has been angrily attacked and loyally defended, buffeted by two storms in two countries: the reaction to Trump among American Jews, and the battle between modern Orthodoxy and the ultra-Orthodox dominated Israeli rabbinate.

Rabbi Haskel Lookstein.
YouTube Screenshot

Rabbi Haskel Lookstein led a peaceful and rather charmed existence until recently. At the helm of Manhattan’s East Side synagogue Kehillat Jeshurun and the Harvard of New York’s Jewish day schools — Ramaz — for decades, he has had a long and storied career as a respected and beloved second-generation spiritual leader, presiding over the blossoming of Modern Orthodox Jewish life in Manhattan.

But at the age of 83, thanks to Donald Trump and the Israeli rabbinate, Lookstein has been on a turbulent roller coaster ride of publicity for the past month. He has been both angrily attacked and loyally defended, buffeted by not one, but two storms in two countries: the anxiety-ridden reaction to Trump among American Jews, and the pitched battle between modern Orthodoxy and the ultra-Orthodox dominated Israeli rabbinate. 

If all had gone as planned, Lookstein’s 15 minutes of international fame would have climaxed this week, when he would have delivered the invocation at the Republican National Convention. He had been asked by to do so by his congregant Ivanka Trump, who converted to Judaism under his tutelage after falling in love with observant real estate scion Jared Kushner, to whom she is now married.

Reaction among congregants and graduates of his school to the announcement that he would address the RNC was quick and fierce — with multiple online petitions immediately springing up from members of his community expressing “outrage” that Lookstein would lend his moral backing to a figure like Donald Trump who “openly spouts racist misogynistic rhetoric” and “advocates torture and the expulsion of millions of families.” 

Shira Dicker, a Manhattan writer, the mother of two Ramaz graduates who considers the rabbi a mentor and a friend, said her family was “completely upset by his agreement to appear at the convention celebrating a man like Donald Trump the combination of Rabbi Lookstein and Donald Trump is the very definition of treyf.”

“It is a shocking deed for a respected, esteemed Jewish leader to lend credibility to a man who is the antithesis of everything that Judaism stands for and a real force of destruction for our great nation,” Dicker wrote when she signed one of the petitions, imploring him to change his mind. “You are a great man. Your name and reputation and legacy must be redeemed.”
When Lookstein reversed course and withdrew from the convention in less than 48 hours as a result of this pressure, she felt “overwhelming relief and pride.”

In the short 48 hours between the announcement of his appearance and his withdrawal, she said, the Manhattan Jewish community had been buzzing over the controversy — both over whether Lookstein should have agreed to appear at the convention, but also the harshly-worded angry language of the petitions. Dicker said she had been “dismayed” by the “reflexively defensive and offensive reaction to some people who thought that to question or question or criticize Rabbi Lookstein was a horrible shanda, a sign of disrespect.”

One Republican pundit — though a critic of Trump — lamented the successful pressure campaign on Lookstein to stay away from the convention, and said that an opportunity was missed to see the rabbi deliver a message to the Trump camp. Bethany Shondark Mandel wrote in The Forward after Lookstein released the invocation he had planned to deliver, that the rabbi’s words would have “schooled” Trump. 

His blessing was to have contained the message: “We thank you for our constitutional government that has created and fostered the American ideals of democracy, freedom, justice and equality for all, regardless of race, religion, or national origin. Almighty God: We know that we are living in very dangerous times, when all of these blessings are threatened from without, by forces of terror and unimaginable brutality, and from within, by those who sow the seeds of bigotry, hatred and violence, putting our lives and our way of life at risk.”

Shondark Mandel wrote that, “For (Lookstein) to stand on the RNC stage and deplore the tactics of Trump, a man who has done more to tear this country and his own party apart than any other politician in modern memory, would have been a sight to behold. Sadly for the Republicans present, and for all those who might have watched the subsequent coverage on air, we won’t hear the important message that Lookstein would have delivered.” 

Lookstein himself, however, had characterized his cancelled invocation as an “apolitical” prayer, not as a pro- or anti-Trump political message, writing in a letter to his congregation that when his name was listed as a convention speaker, “the whole matter turned from rabbinic to political, something which was never intended.”

Lookstein, she noted. had previously stood firm against criticism when he agreed to participate in an interfaith prayer service commemorating U.S. President Barack Obama's inauguration in 2009, and was rapped by the Rabbinical Council of America. But the focus of the RCA’s wrath  wasn’t national politics — but internal Jewish religious politics. Lookstein was criticized for agreeing to offer a Jewish prayer in an interfaith service held in a church.

It is on these grounds — excessive liberalism — that Lookstein has found himself in the crosshairs of conservative elements of the Israeli rabbinate, when a local court refused to validate the Jewishness of a woman who — like Ivanka Trump and hundreds of others — had converted to Judaism under his auspices in New York, and now wanted to marry and make her life in Israel. 

Lookstein, only days before he was so roundly attacked over Trump, had witnessed hundreds rallying to his defense in Israel and abroad after the Supreme Rabbinical Court upheld the lower court's decision not to recognize the conversion, determining that Lookstein’s convert could only be legally married in Israel if she converted again, including a second immersion in a mikveh, or ritual bath. 

The decision, seen as an insulting slap in the face to mainstream Modern Orthodox U.S. Jewry, personified by Lookstein,  incurred the fury of Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky, who in uncharacteristically harsh words, said the rabbinate’s refusal to recognize a rabbi as respected as Lookstein “demonstrates why Israel is in danger of being delegitimized as a center of religious authority in the eyes of world Jewry." 

Sharansky not only spoke out for Lookstein, he actively participated in a demonstration outside the Chief Rabbinate protesting their blacklisting of Lookstein. It was symbolic payback for the days decades earlier when Lookstein was an activist leading protests on Sharansky’s behalf when he was a political prisoner in the former Soviet Union, and, after his release, joining with him to permit free emigration for the rest of Soviet Jewry. 

As difficult as those times were, there may be a twinge of nostalgia for the two men remembering the struggles of the Cold War. As daunting as the challenges were back then, it was a rare moment when all Jews — in the United States and Israel, Republicans, Democrats, non-Orthodox, Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox — were fighting on the same side for the same cause. 

As Lookstein’s difficult month has made clear, it’s impossible to say the same today.