Israeli rabbinical high court rejects Lookstein conversion

Marcy Oster

JERUSALEM (JTA) — Israel’s highest rabbinical court rejected a conversion performed by prominent American modern Orthodox Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, upholding the decision of a lower rabbinical court.

On Wednesday, the Supreme Rabbinical Court held a second appeals hearing on the rejection of the woman’s conversion in April by the Petach Tikvah Rabbinical Court, where she applied for marriage registration with her Israeli fiancé.

At the hearing, the three rabbinic judges said all conversions performed in America were suspect, according to Rabbi Seth Farber, founder of Itim, an organization that helps Israelis navigate Israeli religious bureaucracy.

The woman, named Nicole, was required to make a public declaration of faith and accept the yoke of Jewish law, the equivalent of a second conversion. Before Nicole made her public declaration, according to Farber, the judges interrogated her on her religious observance and belief in God. The judges then agreed that she was an official convert and signed off on the marriage, which is due to take place in six weeks.

“I feel humiliated,” Nicole said in a statement provided by Itim. “What they are saying is that they don’t recognize my Judaism. I love Rabbi Lookstein, he is my rabbi, he led me into the Jewish world and I don’t want his conversion to not be recognized.”

Lookstein, who told JTA last week that Israel’s rabbinical courts should accept the authority of a wider range of Orthodox rabbis, said the judges violated Jewish law by treating Nicole poorly. Lookstein is the former spiritual leader at Kehilath Jeshurun, a tony modern Orthodox synagogue on Manhattan’s Upper East Side that counts Ivanka Trump and her husband, Jared Kushner, as members.

“I am outraged at the abuse of a perfectly fine Jewish woman who should have been treated with the utmost sensitivity and instead was humiliated,” Lookstein told JTA on Wednesday. “They will have to answer to God on Yom Kippur for how they treated this young woman. They have violated a huge number of commandments.”

The case has shined a light on how the haredi Orthodox-dominated Chief Rabbinate in Israel has begun to alienate even its Orthodox allies. The Chief Rabbinate has never recognized non-Orthodox rabbis or ceremonies, and in the past few years it has questioned the credentials of a few leading liberal Orthodox rabbis.

In 2013, the Chief Rabbinate rejected — then later accepted — a conversion by New York Rabbi Avi Weiss, who founded the liberal Yeshivat Chovevei Torah. Last year it threatened to revoke the appointment of American-born Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, who advocates progressive Orthodox policies, as chief rabbi of the West Bank settlement of Efrat.

Israeli Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau said prior to Nicole’s first appeal hearing on July 6 that he recognizes conversions performed by Lookstein. Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef also has said he recognizes the validity of Lookstein’s conversions.

“The Chief Rabbinate of Israel welcomes the High Court’s ruling, which allows Ms. N. to get married,” read a statement Wednesday from the Chief Rabbinate. “As was clarified last week, the Chief Rabbinate will continue to recognize Rabbi Lookstein’s conversions, as it always has.”

Farber said the court’s decision casts doubt over whether the Chief Rabbinate and the modern Orthodox community in America can continue to work in partnership.

“It casts a shadow over every Orthodox conversion in America,” he told JTA. “That’s an embarrassment not just to the halachic system. It’s an embarrassment for the State of Israel.”

Jewish Agency for Israel Chairman Natan Sharansky, who last week joined Lookstein’s call for the rabbinical courts to accept a wider range of Orthodox rabbis, said the ruling “demonstrates why Israel is in danger of being delegitimized as a center of religious authority in the eyes of world Jewry.”

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