Israel’s Supreme Rabbinical Court on Wednesday night ruled it does not recognize conversions by US Orthodox rabbi Haskel Lookstein, forcing a woman seeking to get married to reconvert and calling into question other people converted by Lookstein, including the daughter of Republican presumptive nominee Donald Trump.
The court rejected the appeal of an American woman, identified only as Nicole, who had an Orthodox conversion in New York by Lookstein and is engaged to an Israeli man. Nicole had her status as a Jew rejected by the local rabbinical court in her fiance’s hometown of Petah Tikva in Israel after the two tried to register for marriage.
In the decision on Wednesday, the court said Nicole would have to undergo a giyur l’chumra — an expedited conversion — in order to get married. The couple, with the prodding of the rabbinical judges, and having set the wedding for some six months from now, agreed., though they and religious freedom activists expressed dismay over the decision.
Citing the lack of an official list of American rabbis recognized to give Orthodox conversions, the rabbinical panel insisted in the proceedings that it does not recognize Lookstein’s conversions and that all must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.
“I don’t know what the quality of Lookstein’s conversions are, the approval of the chief rabbi is insufficient… because there is no list of official rabbis and no order,” a rabbinical judge was quoted as saying in a statement by ITIM, the religious freedom group that represented Nicole. “Every conversion must go through a rabbinical court.”
The Chief Rabbinate, which is distinct from the rabbinical courts, has backed Lookstein — a prominent New York rabbi who formerly manned the pulpit at Kehilath Jeshurun, a Modern Orthodox synagogue on Manhattan’s Upper East Side — as have many other prominent officials, including at a rally in central Jerusalem last week.
As part of her fresh conversion, which appeared from the ITIM statement to have been completed already, Nicole testified that she is committed to Judaism and to maintaining an Orthodox lifestyle. The rabbinical court accepted her testimony as “sincere” and will allow her to marry.
“I feel humiliated. 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,” she said.
She also implored the judges to reconsider.
“I ask that even if I do pass this process today, you would still recognize Rabbi Lookstein’s conversion. For if you don’t, you should know that myself, and many others like me, would lose their trust in the Rabbinate,” she said.
Israeli Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau said prior to the appeal that he recognizes conversions performed by Lookstein. That includes Ivanka Trump, converted under Lookstein’s auspices in 2009, and who attends Kehilath Jeshurun with her husband, Jared Kushner.
Rabbi Seth Farber, the head of ITIM, an organization that helps Israelis navigate Israeli religious bureaucracy and is assisting the woman in her appeal, said in response that “it is a sad day for converts and it’s a sad day for the relations between Israel and American Jewry.”
“The rabbinical judges, in their decision, have degraded the convert, but not only her, they also degraded hundreds of Diaspora rabbis and their congregations,” he said.
Farber said he would continue to protest the decision.
Jewish Agency head Natan Sharanksy head Natan Sharanksy, who rallied on Lookstein’s behalf earlier this month, warned the move could have a chilling effect on Israel’s place as a center of world Jewry.
“Today’s decision by the Supreme Rabbinical Court, which effectively delegitimized a prominent rabbi in the American Jewish community, demonstrates why Israel is in danger of being delegitimized as a center of religious authority in the eyes of world Jewry,” he said in a statement. “I call on the Government of Israel, which recognizes the vital importance of the Israel-Diaspora relationship, to take immediate steps to change the attitude of Israel’s religious authorities toward the spiritual leaders of the Diaspora.”
Nicole, the woman at the center of the row, told The Times of Israel two weeks ago that the entire affair had turned into “a nightmare.”
“I just want to get married, I want to start my life. They [the Petah Tikva rabbinate] are putting my whole life on hold,” Nicole, 31, said in her first interview since the media storm erupted. “My fiancé is religious, I am religious. I want my children to be considered Jewish… That’s the whole point of the conversion.”
“I am Jewish. It’s not fair that I would be considered otherwise. It’s very frustrating, I want to cry. All I want to do is have a Jewish family,” she added.