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Israeli Rabbis Reject Most Orthodox Conversions in U.S. and Other Countries

Allan C. Brownfeld, Editor
Special Interest Report
September - October 2006

Israel’s government-sponsored rabbinic courts have been ordered by the Chief Rabbinate to stop recognizing conversions and divorces performed by most Orthodox rabbis in the U.S. and other countries.  
This decision, notes The Forward (May 26, 2006), “escalates the longstanding ‘Who Is A Jew’ conflict to a new and previously unforeseen level. The new rule means that persons who underwent an Orthodox conversion abroad will have to be converted again in Israel in order to be recognized as Jews by Israeli rabbinic courts. Jewish women who received an Orthodox divorce overseas and wish to remarry in Israel will have to ask their ex-husbands for another divorce certificate, known in Hebrew as a get, if the first one was approved by Orthodox rabbis not recognized by the Israeli rabbinate. Diaspora rabbis must be examined by a special tribunal appointed by the Chief Rabbinate for their conversions and divorces to be recognized. Recognition of divorces additionally requires that the Diaspora rabbi attend a brief training program to learn Israeli standards.”  
The rabbinate will continue to recognize the practices of some 50 senior Orthodox rabbis around the world. These rabbis, whose names appear on a list prepared several years ago by previous chief rabbis, will not be required to take the exams.  
The new system was approved by Sephardic Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar, chairman of the Chief Rabbinate Council. Amar was elected in 2003 for what is usually a 10-year term.  
According to The Forward, “Israel has long angered American Reform and Conservative rabbis by refusing to recognize their conversions and divorces as valid, instead giving Orthodox rabbis exclusive jurisdiction over personal status matters. That system has had the backing of the largest Americas Orthodox rabbinic group, the Rabbinical Council of America, which sees itself as an ally of the Israeli Chief Rabbinate. The Rabbinical Council of America has not reacted officially to the new rules, which appear to disqualify most of its members. ... One Council official interviewed by the Israeli daily Ha’aretz but not identified said the ‘impression created is that Rabbi Amar is trying to become a sort of Jewish pope.’”  
Editorially, the International Jerusalem Post (May 26-June 1, 2006) declared: “Sometimes it seems that our Chief Rabbinate must be actively searching for ways to embarrass itself, the Jewish state and the Jewish people. What other explanation can there be for the latest revelation that the rabbinate will not automatically recognize conversions and divorces performed by respected Orthodox rabbis abroad? That the Rabbinate and other Orthodox institutions continue to dismiss the legitimacy of, and often even refuse to dialogue with, their non-Orthodox counterparts is bad enough but hardly new. Now the boycotting game has turned on the boycotters, as the Israeli rabbinate has employed these same tactics to defend its turf against American Orthodox rabbis.”  
The Post concludes: “It is hard to know where to begin in condemning this unconscionable behavior by an institution representing the Jewish state. The rabbinate should be promoting ties with the Diaspora, not serially undermining them. Our chief religious body should be welcoming Jews by choice, not insulting them and driving them away. ... The rabbinate of the Jewish state should be at the forefront of facilitating the choice of Judaism, rather than adding to the already excessive layers of impediments.”

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