Israeli list of unrecognized US rabbis points to rift

Israel's Chief Rabbinate has compiled a list of overseas rabbis whose authority they refused to recognize when it comes to certifying the Jewishness of someone who wants to get married in Israel.

The list, obtained by The Associated Press, includes a number of prominent Orthodox rabbis in North America. Among them are a New York social activist who has advocated for greater rights for women, a Canadian rabbi who is friendly with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and a colleague of the rabbi who converted Ivanka Trump.

The rabbinate, which oversees religious rituals for Israeli Jews, such as weddings, births and burials, would not say why it had rejected the overseas rabbis' credentials or provide the criteria for securing their recognition. But it insisted its decision would not prevent them from re-applying in the future.

The list, which includes 160 rabbis from 24 countries, threatened to deepen a rift between overseas Jewish communities and Israeli religious authorities.

One of Israel's chief rabbis, David Lau, reacted angrily to the publication of the list, saying it had been compiled by a low-ranking bureaucrat without his knowledge.

"How can it happen that a list is publicized without notifying the rabbi, not about the list or about its publication?" a top aide to Lau wrote in a letter to the rabbinate's director general.

He said "it cannot be" that a clerk decides which rabbis are authorized. He also said the list would cause "severe ramifications and harm to certain rabbis, and mainly to the Chief Rabbinate of Israel."

The letter said Lau would deal with the issue with "utmost severity" and expected an explanation this week.

Tensions have already been mounting between the world's two largest Jewish communities since the Israeli government last month froze plans to create an expanded egalitarian prayer section at Jerusalem's Western Wall, the holiest place where Jews can pray.

The rollback of a deal reached last year to open up the holy site to liberal streams of Judaism was seen as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's capitulation to pressure by his ultra-Orthodox coalition partners. Those ultra-Orthodox partners also control Israel's Chief Rabbinate.

In order to marry in Israel, Jews born overseas must provide evidence of their Jewishness to the rabbinate, often through a letter from a rabbi in their country of origin. The Chief Rabbinate takes a strict line.

For instance, it does not recognize the validity of Reform or Conservative Judaism, which is practiced by the vast majority of North American Jews. But the new list included some prominent Orthodox rabbis as well.

Rabbi Avi Weiss, an Orthodox clergyman based in Riverdale, New York, who advocates a "more open and inclusive Orthodoxy," said he was unaware of the list and could think of no reason why he was placed on it.

"The whole thing seems to be nonsensical on every level," Weiss said. He said its existence was "tragic" because it would "alienate" fellow Jews.

Another member of the list, Rabbi Adam Scheier, who leads an Orthodox congregation in Montreal and has ties with Trudeau, called it "an affront to the hard work and devotion of so many of my colleagues — of all denominations."

The list, he said, appeared to be "one of the many cases in which the Chief Rabbinate has carried out its function without transparency or process."

Rabbi Daniel Kraus of Kehilath Jeshurun, a major Orthodox synagogue in Manhattan, also is on the list. Kraus serves with Haskel Lookstein, the rabbi who converted Ivanka Trump. Lookstein's name was not on the list, and while his conversions have been questioned by the rabbinate in the past, they are now accepted.

Also rejected were rabbis teaching at Yeshiva University, the flagship university for the U.S. Modern Orthodox movement, a rabbi with the Chabad movement at Rutgers University in New Jersey, and prominent Modern Orthodox rabbis pushing for greater openness in Judaism.

The list was released following a legal challenge by ITIM, the Jewish Life Advocacy Center, an organization that helps Israelis deal with the rabbinate's bureaucracy. Under court pressure, the rabbinate agreed to release the names of rabbis whose certification letters were rejected last year.

ITIM's founder, Rabbi Seth Farber, said the rejections amounted to a blacklist. "The rabbis who had their letters rejected are essentially being told, 'You aren't rabbis. That is the blacklist term," he said.

Farber charged that the rabbinate has no explicit criteria for determining the Jewishness of people who wish to marry in Israel.

"There's little rhyme or reason," Farber said. "These are peoples' lives at stake."

In a statement, the rabbinate did not use the term blacklist and said letters filed by the rabbis were rejected for "various reasons." It said new marriage applications are examined on a case-by-case basis without reference to previous rejections.

The statement gave no details on what criteria had been used to reject a rabbi's letter testifying to the Jewishness of marriage applicants. It also did not spell out the criteria for approving or rejecting the Jewishness of an applicant.

Rabbi Itamar Tubul, the rabbinate official responsible for determining the validity of rabbinical letters testifying to marriage applicants' Jewishness, did not respond to requests for comment.