The state-appointed chief rabbis of Israel’s two main Jewish streams on Wednesday appointed members to a committee which will define the criteria according to which the Rabbinate will recognize conversions to Judaism performed abroad by Diaspora rabbis.

The Ashkenazi and Sephardi chief rabbis, Yitzhak Ysef and David Lau, convened a meeting Wednesday with the Chief Rabbinate Council and the Supreme Rabbinical Court to determine which overseas rabbis and their converts would be accepted by all the rabbinic courts in Israel. Previously, municipal city courts could rule on the issue.

The chief rabbis appointed five rabbis to the committee, including three judges from the Supreme Rabbinical Court — rabbis Aharon Katz, Shlomo Shapira and Yitzhak Elmaliach.

Elmaliach served on the court that in July disqualified a conversion performed by the New York Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, the rabbi who also converted Ivanka Trump, the daughter of US President-elect Donald Trump, before she married.

Jared Kushner and wife Ivanka Trump attending the “Manus x Machina: Fashion In An Age Of Technology” Costume Institute Gala at Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, May 2, 2016. (Mike Coppola/Getty Images for, via JTA)
Jared Kushner and wife Ivanka Trump May 2, 2016

The high-profile case was one the factors that led to the rabbis setting up the committee.
Elmaliach has in the past faced strong criticism from Mavoi Satum, a nonprofit organization helping women denied a get, or Jewish divorce, for controversial rulings he had made in divorce cases.
The other two members of the committee are rabbis Yitzhak Ralbag, Lau’s father-in-law, and Yehuda Deri, elder brother of Shas MK Aryeh Deri.

Rabbi Yitzhak Ralbag seen during a Swearing-in ceremony of the Rabbinate Council at the president's residence in Jerusalem on October 31, 2013. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Rabbi Yitzhak Ralbag

The head of Itim, an organization that helps Israelis navigate the state’s religious bureaucracy, was quick to condemn the decisions of the chief rabbis. Rabbi Seth Farber, founder and director of Itim, said the decision “gives cause for concern, especially when looking at the committee members and their history.”

“One of the committee members served on the bench of the Supreme Rabbinical Court that rejected the conversion overseen by Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, one of the most influential and senior Orthodox rabbis in the United States. Another one has been operating behind the scenes for years rejecting conversions from North America and is partially to blame for the chaotic situation that has been created.”

Farber claimed that despite their stated intention to ease the plight of converts, the Chief Rabbinate may have made it worse. He called for the rabbinate to enter into dialogue with the Jewish communities of the Diaspora and recognize the challenges facing local synagogue rabbis in their fight against intermarriage and assimilation with an eye toward building trust with Jewish communities around the world, not disenfranchising them.

Lau said according to the new system, local rabbis abroad will first need approval by the heads of organizations like the Conference of European Rabbis and the Rabbinical Council of America before being considered by the Israeli rabbinate.

The chief rabbi singled out the Beth Din of America headed by Rabbi Gedalia Schwartz as a reliable organization. The Beth Din is affiliated with the RCA.

 Nevertheless, even though that Beit Din wrote a letter of support for Lookstein in June, Lau explained why he cannot accept conversions performed by Lookstein, even as he had promised in July that conversions performed by Lookstein would be recognized. Last week his Sephardi counterpart Yosef made a similar promise.

Any rabbi who is a member of the RCA will need the approval of the Beth Din of America for any matter pertaining to Jewish identity, including divorce and conversion, Lau said. That body will be the final arbiter of Jewish status for America.

However, “Rabbi Lookstein, as we know also in Israel, is not prepared to accept the authority [of the Beth Din of America],” Lau said. “He is a member of the RCA but he will not allow the RCA to rule for him.”

Gedalia Dov Schwartz (Screen capture: YouTube)
Gedalia Dov Schwartz

In effect this means that Ivanka Trump’s conversion would not automatically be recognized by the Israeli rabbinate.

Lookstein, 84, is now rabbi emeritus of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun in Manhattan after serving as senior rabbi there since 1979. Schwartz, 91, and has headed the Beth Din since 1991.
Lau also proposed creating a register of marriages and conversions from abroad — in effect a list of who is a Jew, which would allow those people and their children automatic recognition as Jews by the Israeli rabbinate.