Though the Israeli Chief Rabbinate might want him out, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, chief rabbi of Efrat, isn't going without a fight.
The former leader of Lincoln Square Synagogue who led the congregation to prominence in the 1970s and '80s said that, should Israel’s Chief Rabbinate attempt to dismiss him as chief rabbi of Efrat, ostensibly because of disagreements over who has authority over Israeli conversions, he would not accept the decision.
“I will remain the rabbi of Efrat for as long as the people of Efrat want me to be their rabbi,” he told JTA on Tuesday. “I don’t believe it’s up to the Chief Rabbinate.”
Riskin also said that the Chief Rabbinate’s conversion policy lacks the support of the vast majority of Israelis. Riskin urged the rabbinate to accept a 2014 government decision reforming Israel’s conversion process.
The Chief Rabbinate has declined to automatically renew Riskin’s appointment and has summoned him for a hearing on the matter on June 29.
On Monday, the local government of Efrat, a West Bank settlement located in the Gush Etzion bloc, unanimously affirmed that it would like him to continue as its rabbi. Should the Chief Rabbinate disagree, Riskin said, he would disregard its decision.
Aside from more liberal conversion policies, Rabbi Riskin is an advocate for women's spiritual leadership in the Orthodox community. In January, he appointed Jennie Rosenfeld, a New York native, as the first female spiritual leader to jointly lead an Orthodox community in Israel.
“There’s a strong need for women’s halachic and spiritual leadership,” said Rabbi Riskin, who handpicked Rosenfeld for the role in Efrat. “Frankly, I jumped at the opportunity to work with her.”
Rosenfeld is being referred to as a manhiga ruchanit, or spiritual adviser.
Riskin, a co-founder of the community of Efrat, expected an automatic reappointment to the Efrat chief rabbi post. He believes the rabbinate has delayed the reappointment mainly because he supports a government decision from last November that devolved authority over Jewish conversion from the Chief Rabbinate to Israel’s city rabbis. The rabbinate has come out publicly against the decision.
Riskin has performed conversions that the rabbinate has yet to recognize. He said the November conversion reform was necessary in order to provide a more flexible path to conversion for hundreds of thousands of Israelis from the former Soviet Union who are not Jewish according to traditional Jewish law, or halacha.
“Jews from the former Soviet Union don’t trust the rabbinate here,” Riskin said.
“I remain very optimistic that the Chief Rabbinate will understand that we’re facing a time bomb with this problem of the Jews from the former Soviet Union,” he said. “We can do a wonderful job converting the children as well as the adults in a warm and welcoming fashion.”
Riskin said he would not change his position in order to gain the reappointment. He called on the Chief Rabbinate to view his conversions as halachically legitimate and said a refusal to do so would be “a very, very big mistake.”
Riskin added that “any rabbinate depends on the acceptance of the overwhelming majority of the people.”
Asked whether the Chief Rabbinate has lost that acceptance, Riskin said, “In the issue of conversion, yes, they have.”