Israel’s Chief Rabbinate doesn’t trust list to vouch for engaged couples’ Jewishness
By Rick Press
Special to TJP
In 2017, the notion of a “blacklist” — particularly one involving rabbis — seems almost unthinkable.
And that may explain the howls of complaint surrounding last week’s revelation that Israel’s Chief Rabbinate had compiled a list of 160 rabbis — 66 from the United States and at least one from Texas — who, essentially, would not be trusted to vouch for the Jewishness of immigrants wishing to get married in Israel.
Itim, the immigrant advocacy group that filed a freedom of information request to acquire the names, dubbed it a “blacklist,” and the group’s leader, Rabbi Seth Farber, said it reflects the ultra-Orthodox Rabbinate’s distrust of Jewish communities beyond Israel’s borders.
“It’s telling 160 Jewish communities around the world ….your rabbi is not a rabbi,” Farber told the Associated Press. “The baseline assumption is that no one can be trusted.”
Kobi Alter, a spokesman for the Chief Rabbinate, was in full damage-control mode Wednesday, insisting that the list was not an attempt to delegitimize the rabbis but rather was a reflection of requests that were rejected in 2016 because of missing documents or technicalities.
“Every case has a different explanation,” he told NPR.
Reactions from rabbis who made the list were mixed: some were perplexed, some defiant, others outraged.
Rabbi Kenneth D. Roseman, rabbi emeritus at Beth Israel Congregation in Corpus Christi, said he was unsure why he made the list but he viewed his inclusion with “a wry smile” and “contempt for the corruption in the Haredi,” the ultra-Orthodox sector of Israeli society that controls the rabbinate.
“The publication of this list will only alienate even more diaspora Jews who want to support Israel,” said Roseman, who served as senior rabbi at Temple Shalom in Dallas for 17 years before moving to Corpus Christi. “Too often, they go through traditional motions, but ignore the essential ethical values of Judaism.”
Roseman was in prominent company. Rabbi Adam Scheier of Montreal, who is close with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, was on the list. So was Daniel Krauss of Kehilath Yeshurun Synagogue in New York, where U.S. President Donald Trump’s daughter, Ivanka and her husband, Jared Kushner, were congregants. (Another former Texas rabbi, Alberto Zeilicovich, was also on the list. The Argentine-born leader of Congregation Beth Shalom in Fair Lawn, New Jersey, was formerly rabbi at Congregation Ahavath Sholom in Fort Worth.) Also, on the list was Houston’s beloved Rabbi Joseph Radinsky of United Orthodox Synagogue.
“I have received a number of congratulatory letters from colleagues, many asking how they could have the ‘honor’ of being on the list,” said Roseman in an email. “When I announced my listing to the congregation (Friday) night, there was applause and approbation.”
A group of 13 California rabbis even sent a letter to the Rabbinate asking that their names be added to the list, as a show of solidarity.
Rabbi Brian Zimmerman of Beth El Congregation in Fort Worth was not on the “blacklist,” but he believes the fallout surrounding it should be a cautionary tale.
“We’ve always known that our decisions would be challenged by a very small group in Israel. But ultimately this is about power. It’s not about religion,” said Zimmerman. “This is why you should separate synagogue and state.”
The Chief Rabbinate has sole jurisdiction over many aspects of Jewish life in Israel, including marriage, divorce and burials. And the ultra-Orthodox group has rejected thousands of requests from international rabbis in recent years.
Israeli Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau said in a letter of apology that “the list’s intention was not to invalidate rabbis, God forbid, but rather to invalidate letters that raised doubts and questions.”
But Roseman and many others weren’t buying that explanation.
He said, if asked, he wouldn’t hesitate to write another letter on behalf of a congregant.
“I’ll tell the truth,” he said, “and if some Haredi in Israel doesn’t like the way I dot my “I” or cross my “t,” that’s too bad.
“The Chief Rabbinate may want to hold the line in opposition to the modern world,” he added, “but that strikes me as effective as if a peewee football team were to play the Dallas Cowboys. They will eventually disappear from power; their days are numbered. as they should be.”
Zeilicovich had an opinion on the matter as well.
“It’s clearly a dividing policy, and it’s very, very sad that the State of Israel is telling a huge part of the Jewish people you are not recognized here,” said Zeilicovich. “I have more religious rights in a non-Jewish country, like the United States, than in my own Jewish country.”
Zeilicovich returned from Israel on Monday and he said tensions were running high iafter the blacklist was released. Conservative and Reform Jews were making their voices heard.
“There was a huge outrage. The fact that rabbis are being discriminated against by the Rabbinate, it is very concerning. And it’s not just the rabbis it’s the Conservative movement. They disenfranchise Jews,” he said. “And who are they, who gave them the power to do that? They’ve got political power. This is a political problem, not a religious problem.”