HomeNewsboxIsrael Rabbinical Authorities Promise Clarity in Conversions Abroad

Israel Rabbinical Authorities Promise Clarity in Conversions Abroad

JERUSALEM — After years of obfuscation and a high-profile dispute concerning an esteemed New York rabbi who converted Ivanka Trump, Israel’s rabbinical authorities announced this week that they would convene to establish clear criteria for recognizing Orthodox conversions done abroad.

The rabbis also said that under the new criteria, Ms. Trump’s conversion, which had been in some doubt in Israel, likely would be considered legitimate.

More broadly, advocates of the rabbinical reform said they hoped the outcome of the discussions, to start in coming days, would resolve an issue that has long vexed Israel’s relationship with American Jewry.

The growing divide between Israel’s increasingly strict religious establishment and the more liberal, non-Orthodox branches of Judaism that attract the majority of Jews in the United States has been vividly illustrated in recent years by disputes over rituals. But even some Americans who have undergone Orthodox conversions to Judaism have encountered trouble getting approval to marry — or divorce — in Israel.

The problem burst into the public domain this summer when an American woman, Nicole Zeitler, became engaged to an Israeli man shortly after her Orthodox conversion in New York, only to have the local rabbinical court in the fiancé’s hometown reject her status as a Jew when they tried to register for marriage.

The case raised a furor because the rabbi who oversaw Ms. Zeitler’s conversion, Haskel Lookstein, one of the most respected Orthodox rabbis in New York, had previously converted Ms. Trump, the daughter of President-elect Donald J. Trump, and officiated at Ms. Trump’s 2009 wedding to Jared Kushner.

In a statement this week, Israel’s chief rabbis acknowledged the need for “serious reform” and said they, the country’s rabbinical council and the rabbinical court judges would prepare a formal list of criteria for recognizing conversions performed by foreign rabbis. Once a rabbi is recognized, all of that rabbi’s conversions will be recognized and no longer subject to the scrutiny of local Israeli rabbis.

Mentioning Ms. Trump by name, the statement added that in a case like hers, there would be no need for any further clarification or investigation.

The rabbinical authorities pledged a year ago to work on criteria for recognizing rabbis abroad after Itim, an Israeli organization that has been critical of the rabbinate and lobbied on behalf of foreign converts, filed suit against the rabbinate in a Jerusalem civil court.

Itim represented Ms. Zeitler in her battle against the rabbinical authorities, which went to the Supreme Rabbinic Court in Jerusalem. Under its decision, she was married in September, but only after she had agreed to a demand by the Supreme Rabbinic Court to make a special declaration and undergo a second immersion in a ritual bath to have her conversion recognized.

Rabbi Seth Farber, the director of Itim, who officiated at Ms. Zeitler’s wedding, said, “I’m gratified that the rabbinate has recognized that its policies are harmful both to individuals and to Israel’s relationship with diaspora Jewry.”

The breadth of the council to be convened was “unprecedented,” Rabbi Farber added, indicating the seriousness of the issue. But he said there was also a chance that the new criteria, if too stringent, could make things worse, given what he called the rabbinical council’s “history of myopia” and lack of understanding of American Jewry.

“If the rabbinate fails to produce criteria, or if the criteria continue to erode the relationship between the Israeli government and world Jewry,” Rabbi Farber said, “Itim will pursue litigation to force the rabbinate to act responsibly.”

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