Nicole and Zohar are just your typical American-meets-Israeli Jewish love story. And as is the case with countless American immigrants to Israel, their path through religious bureaucracy to a joyous huppah has turned rocky and nigh-impassable.
“It’s a nightmare,” Nicole told The Times of Israel this week.
After they got engaged and Nicole joined her husband-to-be in Israel, they found that her May 2015 conversion performed by esteemed American Orthodox Rabbi Haskel Lookstein was not accepted by the Petah Tikva rabbinate.
The news broke in a New York Times article, after which the rabbinate’s rejection of Nicole and implicit questioning of Lookstein’s Orthodox credentials were met with angry disbelief across the Diaspora. The high media exposure came in no small part because Lookstein also converted Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s daughter Ivanka, and officiated at her 2009 wedding to media mogul Jared Kushner.
Through the rejection of Nicole, the Israeli rabbinate is also essentially questioning Ivanka’s Judaism and that of Trump’s grandchildren.
Nicole’s case is set for appeal on Wednesday morning at the Jerusalem-based Supreme Religious Court.
On Tuesday afternoon, Chief Rabbi David Lau issued a statement in response to letters received from Speaker of the Knesset Yuli Edelstein and head of the opposition Isaac Herzog, saying that the Israeli chief rabbis’ office recognizes all of Lookstein’s conversions.
Lau said he believes Nicole’s conversion will be upheld at Wednesday’s hearing and is “convinced that the position taken by the chief rabbinate will be presented,” but emphasized that his office and the rabbinical court system are two different religious bureaucratic bodies.
Nicole and Zohar are represented by the non-profit ITIM group, which aids new immigrants in navigating Israel’s labyrinth of religious bureaucracy. Nicole, who has been in Israel a few short months and doesn’t yet speak Hebrew, feels they would be lost without ITIM’s guidance.
“I just want to get married, I want to start my life. They [the Petah Tikva rabbinate] are putting my whole life on hold,” said Nicole, 31, in her first interview since the media storm erupted. As a religious woman, she is firmly set on marrying in an Orthodox wedding. Today, she just hopes it can happen in the Jewish state, which she now calls home.
“My fiancé is religious, I am religious. I want my children to be considered Jewish… That’s the whole point of the conversion,” said Nicole. “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.”
‘I just want to get married, I want to start my life’
Taking Nicole’s story as one more example of how the rabbinate is driving a wedge between Israel and the Diaspora, a group of grassroots activists is planning a protest Wednesday morning ahead of the hearing to underline its universal importance.
“The extreme stringency that the rabbinic courts are undertaking hurts the Jewish identity in the State of Israel. Rather than inclusion and listening, the religious establishments are building higher walls that keep people away from their Judaism,” wrote protest organizers in a rallying cry for attendance.
Calling the Israel-Diaspora connection “of tremendous strategic value,” the organizers said, “We cannot allow the Israeli Rabbinic courts to damage this and we must strengthen and preserve it.”
As they face Wednesday’s hearing, what is the worst-case scenario for Nicole and Zohar? That Lookstein’s conversion will be dismissed and the rabbinate will rule that she must reconvert in Israel.
That, said ITIM head Rabbi Seth Farber, is not an option.
“If they insist on her doing another conversion, then I will counsel her to go to the [secular] Supreme Court, on Thursday. Anything short of them fully recognizing her conversion will bring us to the Supreme Court,” said Farber.
Nicole, a Jew twice over
What is somewhat ironic about the whole case is that when she was growing up in the US, Nicole always felt Jewish, she told The Times of Israel this week. She had “a Jewish last name” and Jewish friends, and her family celebrated holidays by going to the synagogue.
“We did the sort of stuff your typical American Jewish family would do,” said Nicole with an audible shrug in a phone conversation.
And even though Nicole’s father is Jewish and her mother, who is no longer alive, was not, in the US with its majority non-Orthodox community Nicole was fully accepted as Jewish.
In 1983, the Reform movement, “sensitive to the human dimensions” of rising levels of mixed marriage, passed a Resolution on Patrilineal Descent, in which, “The Central Conference of American Rabbis declares that the child of one Jewish parent is under the presumption of Jewish descent. This presumption of the Jewish status of the offspring of any mixed marriage is to be established through appropriate and timely public and formal acts of identification with the Jewish faith and people.”
However, when she was in her early 20s, Nicole relocated to New York City and began moving in more observant circles. When she began dating, she soon realized that to marry and raise Jewish children, she would have to convert: Orthodox Jewry only accepts matrilineal descent, as per halacha, or Jewish law.
Nicole — who was raised as a Jew by her Jewish father and even attended a Chabad synagogue from age 13 — was therefore not considered Jewish, and any future progeny would be faced with the same halachic dilemma. However, paradoxically because Nicole wanted to prevent any future children from having Jewish identity problems, she is now in a limbo-like situation in the Jewish state.
The road to Orthodox conversion
Nicole’s Orthodox conversion process started about five years ago when she set up a meeting with Rabbi Haskel Lookstein of Manhattan’s Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun, and KJ’s director of Education and Outreach, Rabbi Elie Weinstock. Lookstein, she recalls, asked her how she identifies herself religiously.
“I said absolutely, if you were to ask me right now, I’m Jewish. They were very happy about that,” said Nicole. She said the rabbis then described the steps toward conversion, including what classes she would take. They said she would need to start living as an Orthodox Jew and told her all the commandments that entails.
“I had to go to synagogue every Shabbat to start to become familiar with the prayers and atmosphere — the people and the congregation. Three hours every Shabbat, for almost two years,” said Nicole. “It was intense, but it was lovely; I really enjoyed it.”
Lookstein, who comes from a respected line of prominent Orthodox rabbis, took over the reins of Kehilath Jeshurun from his father, Rabbi Joseph Lookstein, in 1979 after serving under him for almost 20 years.
Today there are about a dozen well-known Orthodox synagogues in Manhattan, according to ITIM’s Farber. That is thanks to the Lookstein family, which basically built up Orthodox Jewry there from scratch. Whereas previously the more established Jewish communities were Reform, “Lookstein’s father and grandfather created a center for Orthodoxy, an island for it, in Manhattan,” said Farber.
With approximately 1,100 families on its membership roster, Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun was an obvious choice for Nicole. Weinstock is well known for his “highly developed Beginners Program,” as noted by the Orthodox Jewry’s Rabbinical Council of America’s website.
The synagogue holds several prayer services simultaneously, catering to participants’ varying levels of Jewish literacy and Hebrew. Jews who are becoming more religiously observant or potential converts learn the texts and subtle choreography of Orthodox prayer.
Nicole said she slowly graduated from the beginner’s minyan (prayer quorum) to the intermediate, where she remained for several years due to her lack of Hebrew. “To me it was a pretty intense service,” she recalled.
A rude awakening
Nicole fulfilled the requirements for conversion in May 2015, immersed in the ritual bath (mikveh) and received a certificate attesting to her kosher conversion in front of an Orthodox religious court (beit din).
When she presented the certificate at the Petah Tikva rabbinate, however, she said she was met with suspicion.
“They asked is my rabbi Orthodox. I said yes. ‘But is he really Orthodox?’ they repeated. They said, ‘Why didn’t you go to the beit din of some religious university?’ I said, ‘This is my rabbi and he is Orthodox, and he is able to convert me. Who else would I go to?'” said Nicole, becoming indignant at the memory.
‘They asked if I ever gave my rabbi money. I didn’t understand what they were saying. I said, “No, why would I?”‘
“They asked if I ever gave my rabbi money. I didn’t understand what they were saying. I said, ‘No, why would I?’ They said, ‘Did he ask you for money to convert you?’ I told them the only money I ever gave was $250 to the mikveh for the immersion that I had to pay. I made the check out to the mikveh, not the rabbi,” said Nicole.
“My father, who is my Jewish side of the family, and his sister, whom I’m very close with, cannot believe what I am doing. A part of them feels like, ‘What? Who’s telling you you’e not Jewish?'” said Nicole.
What makes Nicole’s case even more bizarre is that Rabbi Itamar Tubul, the head of the Israeli Chief Rabbinate’s personal status division who decides which American rabbis are qualified to vouch for Jewishness, wrote the Petah Tikva rabbinate that Lookstein’s testimony is kosher. His letter went unheeded, and this is the basis of the hearing on Wednesday.
According to the grassroots organizers of the early morning protest, who are coordinating their efforts alongside ITIM’s Farber, this is just typical behavior faced by converts from abroad.
“Converts from many communities around the world are now treated with suspicion and are denigrated when they request that the State of Israel recognize their conversions in order to marry here. This is in contradiction of the basic commandment to ‘Love the Convert,'” said the organizers. Further, dismissing Lookstein harms the unity of the Jewish People, they said.
Lookstein was one of three rabbis who was invited by US President Barack Obama to his traditional National Prayer Service inauguration breakfast. An ardent Zionist, he was recently awarded an honorary doctorate from Bar-Ilan University for “the influential role he has played in deepening Jewish values and heritage among American Jewry.”
Both Weinstock and Lookstein are members in good standing of the Orthodox movement’s RCA. The latter sometimes takes controversial positions, acknowledged Farber, as he did in the case of the Obama prayer breakfast, which was multi-faith and held in a church.
Lookstein’s Orthodox practice is beyond scrutiny, said Farber, but “it’s clear he has this attitude that sometimes you have to break the rules where there’s a bigger game at stake.”
‘What happened to Nicole highlights the chaos that characterizes recognizing Jews from overseas and the rabbinate, and that is something that we cannot sit quietly about’
And for Farber and the concerned activists, there’s a lot at stake with Nicole’s case.
“What happened to Nicole highlights the chaos that characterizes recognizing Jews from overseas and the rabbinate, and that is something that we cannot sit quietly about,” said Farber.
It is this oft-overlooked injustice is what compelled Nicole to tell her story.
“If we could change the system here even a little bit, so it’s better for the ones who come after me, is why I’ve chosen to do this. There could be a change made, even the slightest change and it’s for the best,” said Nicole.
Farber’s ITIM has put forth a proposal to streamline the recognition of immigrants’ Jewish status.
“We believe that as long as the rabbinate is in power, it should not be checking into individual rabbis, but trusting institutions such as the RCA,” said Farber, emphasizing that several institutions should be called upon to provide lists of members in good standing.
Farber added that there has to be much greater trust between the Israeli rabbinate and non-Orthodox communities in the Diaspora.
“The assimilation rates in America are so high and the disaffection is so great. If people come to convert, even if the rabbinate doesn’t accept them as fully Jewish, there ought to be a recognition of this as a significant step to joining the Jewish people and be treated in a much more respectful fashion than they are today,” said Farber.