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Conversion Crisis Goes Beyond Rabbi Lookstein

Conversion Crisis Goes Beyond Rabbi Lookstein

Rabbi Seth Farber
Rabbi Seth Farber

Since last Thursday, when The New York Times reported that the Israeli Rabbinate rejected a conversion performed by Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, rabbi emeritus of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun on the Upper East Side and one of the senior members of the American Orthodox rabbinical establishment, there has been an outcry around the world against the rabbinate.

In the Knesset, in public and private forums, in the press and in my inbox, literally thousands of people have expressed their frustration as to the injustice perpetuated by the rabbinate. But what is there to do? 

The reactions from the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA), The Jewish Federations of North America, various members of the Knesset and government ministers in Israel, and much of the press, have fallen into two categories. One focuses on the personal aspect, questioning how the rabbinate of Israel could not recognize a sincere convert and a rabbi who is the veritable representation of Orthodoxy in America. Thus, the JFNA press release, in calling on the rabbinate to recognize Rabbi Lookstein and the legitimacy of the conversion, stated: “The Petach Tikva Bet Din’s denial of the legitimacy of this convert, who has embraced the Jewish People and undertaken to live a full Jewish life, undermines that fundamental principle (of accepting the convert). Moreover, the Bet Din’s rejection of one of America’s leading Orthodox rabbis is an affront to the country’s entire Jewish community.”

The other response sees this as being part of a greater rift between the rabbinate and American Orthodoxy. The RCA, the largest U.S. group of Orthodox rabbis, expressed “regret [at] the angst caused to this righteous convert, as well as the vulnerability felt by many righteous converts who feel that their legitimate status as Jews remains always subject to scrutiny.” It called on the Chief Rabbinate and the Israeli religious courts to be sensitive to all converts. 

There is a certain irony in the RCA statement because the members themselves may have contributed to the vulnerability converts feel by having delegitimized the conversions of many of its own rabbis. This was done over the last decade by creating the “Geirus (Conversion) Standards Procedures” (GPS), which essentially centralized conversion in the United States. Rather than relying on the local rabbi to determine whether a convert is eligible for Orthodox conversion, the RCA chose to put the power in the hands of a select few rabbis, who operate under written protocols. 

The GPS was overseen in its inception by Rabbi Barry Freundel, now in jail for secretly spying on women in the mikvah. He cut an unwritten deal with the chief rabbinate, preventing most North American RCA members from performing conversions in Israel, and even the U.S.

The conversion in question was performed by Rabbi Lookstein independently, outside the purview of the GPS. The fact that the RCA is willing to stand by his performing the conversion highlights a certain internal inconsistency within the group’s position.

Still, both the RCA and JFNA statements see the main problem as the insensitivity of Israel’s rabbinate. They disagree on how narrow the problem is: for the JFNA it is a Rabbi Lookstein issue, and for the RCA the issue is a bit wider.

Now I am certainly not one to claim that the Chief Rabbinate is innocent. Over the last year, ITIM, the organization I founded which helps Israelis navigate the bureaucracy of the religious courts, has sued the rabbinate four times — twice for overcharging for religious services (ketubot and mikvahs), once for not allowing women religious autonomy in mikvahs, and once for not allowing women to serve in legal positions in rabbinical courts. In each of those cases, we were able to demonstrate to the satisfaction of the court that the rabbinate had overstepped its bounds.   

And yet, in the present circumstance, I’m concerned that the narrow responses issued to date are missing the major point.

The question of “Who is a Jew?” is wider than the rabbinate. At a critical time in American Jewish history, with increasing assimilation and feelings of disenfranchisement from Israel among young people, can we rely on Israel’s rabbinate to resolve the Who is a Jew question — even if, in the end, they do recognize Rabbi Lookstein and/or a few additional converts?  

If Israel really sees its role as the homeland for the Jewish people, then it is Israel’s government, not Israel’s rabbinate, that must take responsibility.

On Monday, at a Knesset hearing of the immigration and absorption committee dealing with these issues, I asked the minister of diaspora affairs how Israel could spend hundreds of millions of shekels a year to keep diaspora Jews connected, yet reject the credentials of its biggest champions.

“What price is the present coalition willing to pay to enable American Jews to feel connected to Israel?” I asked, adding: “Maybe it’s time to take the power away from the rabbinate for the sake our Jewish peoplehood.”

The fact that Rabbi Lookstein’s conversion was rejected by the rabbinate should give us pause to think about the future of the Jewish people. At present, a few Orthodox clergy in the U.S. and Israel are controlling the question of “Who is a Jew?” for an entire nation. This is intolerable. 

If Israel’s government really seeks to preserve the diaspora, then the acts of alienation must cease immediately. I’ve lost hope in the rabbinate understanding this message, but I still believe Israel’s government gets it.

The time has come for Jews around the world to speak out — not only against the rabbinate but against those who give the rabbinate the power to delegitimize. American Jews must speak up and say that converts are fully part of our people and that dismissing one Jew means dismissing all Jews — and if Israel cannot accept that, it loses its moral standing. Only then can we repair the damage already done to the fabric of our people. 

Rabbi Seth Farber is the founder of ITIM, a not-for-profit Israeli organization that helps Israelis navigate the religious bureaucracy.

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