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A blacklisted Diaspora rabbi is pleased to find himself in good company

Adam Scheier, rabbi of Leonard Cohen’s Orthodox Montreal synagogue, says the issue is not getting himself off the Israeli Chief Rabbinate’s list, but that there is a list at all

Amanda Borschel-Dan is The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology editor.

Rabbi Adam Scheier, the senior rabbi at Canada's oldest traditional Ashkenazi synagogue, Congregation Shaar Hashomayim, and a member of the Israeli rabbinate's 'blacklist.' (courtesy)
Rabbi Adam Scheier, the senior rabbi at Canada's oldest traditional Ashkenazi synagogue, Congregation Shaar Hashomayim, and a member of the Israeli rabbinate's 'blacklist.' (courtesy)

The rabbi of Leonard Cohen’s Montreal Orthodox synagogue is one of 160 rabbis who have found themselves on a “blacklist” compiled by a bureaucrat in Israel’s Chief Rabbinate. From now on, Rabbi Adam Scheier, the senior rabbi at Canada’s oldest traditional Ashkenazi synagogue, Congregation Shaar Hashomayim, is no longer considered “kosher” in providing testimony for who is a Jew.

The list was obtained from the rabbinate after a protracted legal battle led by the nonprofit Israeli organization Itim, which helps immigrants navigate the bureaucracy of Israeli religious institution. As Itim head Rabbi Seth Farber says in an op-ed, “it has sparked an uproar in Israel and around the Jewish world.”

Coming on the heels of a recent crisis surrounding a the suspension of a compromise that would have facilitated pluralistic prayer at the Western Wall and a stringent conversion bill, it would take far less to spark the already smarting Diaspora.

In a conversation with The Times of Israel on Monday, Scheier said he wasn’t surprised by his appearance on the rabbinate’s list.

“It’s been common knowledge that the Israeli Chief Rabbinate capriciously accepts or rejects rabbis for many purposes, including Jewish status and conversion,” said Scheier.

‘It’s been common knowledge that the Israeli chief rabbinate capriciously accepts or rejects rabbis for many purposes’

Scheier said that he neither knows nor is looking for reasons why he was put on the list and is unaware of a single case of an immigrant who was not approved by the rabbinate in light of the rabbi’s “unacceptability.” Since assuming his post in 2004, Scheier said he has written “dozens and dozens” of letters of Jewish identity for congregants who immigrate to Israel.

“I was neither surprised nor upset to be included in this list with other rabbis for whom I feel high respect. I would certainly choose any day to be included here with my friends and colleagues — truly wonderful and honorable rabbis. I’d prefer that than be accepted on any list acceptable to the rabbinate,” said Scheier.

Scheier is a graduate of the liberal Orthodox Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT), which was founded in 1999 by “Open Orthodoxy” founder Rabbi Avi Weiss, who has had more than a few run-ins with the Israeli rabbinate.

The ties to Weiss are also through Scheier’s wife, Rabba Abby Scheier, who is a graduate of Weiss’s female rabbinic seminary, Yeshivat Maharat. According to the Congregation Shaar Hashomayim website, Scheier “is proud to be the rabbi of the first synagogue to hire a graduate of Yeshivat Maharat,” Maharat Rachel Kohl Finegold.

Montreal-based Maharat Rachel Kohl Finegold (photo credit: courtesy)
Montreal-based Maharat Rachel Kohl Finegold (photo credit: courtesy)

However, Scheier doubts that his ties to Weiss, YCT and Yeshivat Maharat are what put him on the blacklist. “I cannot say what in my leadership or my interests may have put me on this list,” he said.

“I don’t think that I or anyone who has seen the list can guess what the criteria are for the Chief Rabbinate,” he said dryly. “Part of what — at the very least — what the government of Israeli and its citizens should demand is transparency. Transparency is the hallmark of good leadership. The opaque way in which the Chief Rabbinate is run should not be allowed to continue and it should immediately disclose its criteria.”

As a Jewish educator, Scheier is a deep proponent of serious Torah learning: Before leading the Montreal congregation, Scheier helped found and develop the first Orthodox yeshiva in post-World War II Germany.

In Montreal he is beloved by his congregation, which when the list became known took the “formal step of registering our dismay with the Consul General of Israel for Quebec and the Atlantic Provinces, Ziv Nevo-Kulman.”

In the letter, which clarifies that this blacklist pertains only to religious status, not Israeli citizenship, his congregation calls for an apology from “Chief Rabbi David Lau to Rabbi Scheier and the other 159 rabbis on this list for publicly discrediting their rabbinic standing.”

Likewise, the congregation taps the Chief Rabbinate of Israel “to formally apologize to Congregation Shaar Hashomayim for its actions that impact our members and our spiritual leadership.”

Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi David Lau (center) and Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef (right) attend a meeting of the Rabbinate Council in Jerusalem in November 2014. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi David Lau (center) and Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef (right) attend a meeting of the Rabbinate Council in Jerusalem in November 2014. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Finally, the letter calls upon “Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to take the necessary steps to ensure that Diaspora Jewry no longer encounters systemic rejection from the Chief Rabbi’s office.”

Scheier is grateful for his congregation’s embrace and thankful for its efforts to raise awareness of the divisive problem promoted by the Israeli rabbinate of who is the authentic arbiter of Jewish identity.

‘It would not be a success to remove my name and the system continues as it is’

“I think the issues are much larger than my name being included in the list. It’s not about me… It would not be a success to remove my name and the system continues as it is,” said Scheier.

While he is not holding his breath for an apology from the Chief Rabbinate, he’s already received a much more meaningful one from a source he respects.

“One of the most powerful messages for me came from a teacher of mine in Israel, who simply posted one word on my Facebook wall and on all the other rabbis’ walls — slicha [sorry]. And that’s the sentiment we’re hearing from Israelis,” said Scheier.

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