The Israeli Chief Rabbinate cuts slack to no one, not even if you are the daughter of a man who may become the next president of the United States.
The issue of the rabbinate’s notoriously difficult conditions for recognizing Jewish conversions performed abroad was back in the spotlight this week after the religious body rejected the Jewish status of a woman whose conversion was authorized by the same rabbi who converted Ivanka Trump, daughter of presumptive Republican nominee for the US presidency, and who officiated at her wedding to Jared Kushner in 2009.
Trump had completed her Orthodox conversion to Judaism that same year, under the direction of Haskel Lookstein, a revered modern Orthodox rabbi in New York and leader for the past 58 years of Manhattan’s Congregation Kehilat Jeshurun, which has over 6,000 members, among them Trump and Kushner.
An American woman, who had an Orthodox conversion in New York with Lookstein and was engaged to an Israeli man, had her status rejected as a Jew by the local rabbinical court in her fiance’s hometown of Petah Tikva in Israel after the two tried to register for marriage.
The case raises the question of whether the rabbinate would recognize the conversion of Trump, who in a Vogue interview last year said she and her family were “pretty observant,” keeping kosher and observing the Sabbath.
Trump is reported to have taken the moniker “Yael,” a popular Jewish women’s name, after her conversion. Yael was an Old Testament woman who, according to the story from Judges 5:24-27, killed enemy general Sisera by driving a tent peg though his head, enabling the Israelites to gain victory in a war.
In its decision against the unnamed New York woman, the rabbinate indicated that it does not recognize conversions performed by Lookstein, as his name does not appear on a list of approved rabbis.
A rabbinical judge with the Petah Tikva court was quoted by the Hebrew news site Ynet as saying that the rabbinate “did not find the rabbi in question as authorized to perform conversions,” adding that the woman had to go through the conversion process in Israel.”
The decision is being appealed to the supreme rabbinical court with the help of ITIM, an Israeli organization founded by Rabbi Seth Farber that aids Israelis in navigating the state’s religious bureaucracy.
Farber said the case was “unprecedented in Jewish history, that one group of rabbis rejects another.”
The “non-recognition of Modern-Orthodox Rabbis in the United States is a blow to the thousands of Jewish people who belong to one of the most significant denominations of American Jewry today, threatening to drive them away from Israel. This is also an unjustified and illogical act, since these rabbis are not only equal to other Orthodox rabbis in Israel, but sometimes even superior to them in religious level and on their level of public contribution to the Jewish community,’ he said in a statement.
“Ten years ago, if an Orthodox rabbi in good standing performed a conversion, it would have been a given that it would be accepted here,” Farber was quoted by The New York Times as saying. “Almost everyone has problems nowadays,” he added.
The case has also pitted the rabbis at the Petah Tikva court against the head of the Rabbinate’s department of personal status and conversion.
After a preliminary hearing at the supreme rabbinical court, Rabbi Itamar Tubul wrote a letter to the Petah Tikva court saying that the conversion certificate signed by Lookstein was “approved by the Chief Rabbinate of Israel,” a ruling that Petah Tikva rejected, arguing that his name did not appear in its lists of rabbis approved for conversions and that it stood by its initial decision to reject the woman’s status.
Lookstein accused the Israeli rabbinical court of disrespecting the work of the Orthodox rabbinate in the US.
“The irony here is that this woman is very meticulous about her religious observance,” he told The New York Times.” She is as Jewish as I am, and as Jewish as the rabbis signed on the certificate.”
“The bottom line is that the rabbinate in Israel is not respecting and honoring the work of the Orthodox Rabbinate in America on conversion,” he added.
Lookstein said the woman was likely to win her case on appeal but that the ordeal has caused her great pain. He accused the rabbis of perpetrating “a terrible sin” because “the Torah is very explicit that a convert should be treated with love and never afflicted.”