Rabbinate official appears to blacklist alumni of liberal Orthodox yeshiva
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Rabbinate official appears to blacklist alumni of liberal Orthodox yeshiva

Rabbi Asher Ehrentreu rejects proof-of-Judaism letter from graduates of New York’s Chovevei Torah; Rabbinate denies claim it’s a matter of policy

Marissa Newman is The Times of Israel political correspondent.

Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, located at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale in New York. (Courtesy, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah/JTA)
Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, located at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale in New York. (Courtesy, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah/JTA)

A official in the Chief Rabbinate said the state-run body does not recognize proof-of-Judaism letters for new immigrants that were issued by rabbis who studied in New York-based Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, founded by liberal Orthodox rabbi Avi Weiss, according to a recent internal memo.

But a spokesperson for the Chief Rabbinate on Monday denied the statement was a matter of internal policy, saying the Rabbinate evaluates the letters on a case-by-case basis, and citing past cases in which Chovevei Torah graduates’ documents were accepted by the authority.

In the correspondence dated March 4, obtained by the ITIM organization, Rabbi Asher Ehrentreu, a senior member of the administration of the Rabbinical Courts, rejected a document produced by Rabbi Akiva Herzfeld on behalf of a female congregant.

“Rabbi Akiva Herzfeld is a member of the union of Chovevei Torah rabbis who call themselves Modern Orthodox and are not recognized by the Chief Rabbinate,” the senior rabbinical official wrote to the Haifa rabbinical court. “I cannot determine the Jewishness of the claimant based on a recommendation by the aforementioned rabbi and I ask the rabbinical court to instruct the claimant to contact me for a comprehensive clarification.”

The woman in question was only received as Jewish by the rabbinate after receiving another letter of proof from a Boston rabbinical court, according to ITIM.

“I wrote a letter knowing the individual was Jewish and was shocked when she received a phone call saying that the Rabbinate knew better.  Their behavior is inexcusable,” said Herzfeld, according to a statement.

Rabbi Avi Weiss leading a vigil and march in New York City, in remembrance of the three Israeli boys who were kidnapped and killed in the West Bank days earlier, June 30, 2014. (Andrew Burton/Getty Images via JTA)

In response, the Chief Rabbinate said in a statement that it “does not reject rabbis or groups of rabbis based on their association with this community or any other.”

“For years, documents that came to the Chief Rabbinate from rabbis affiliated the Chovevei Torah community were approved,” it said.

Spokesperson Koby Alter added that a boycott of Chovevei Torah graduates was “really not a policy,” and said the Rabbinate examines the letters individually, occasionally rejecting letters from rabbis whose vouching had been approved in the past.

The Rabbinate has no way to vet whether the American rabbis producing the letters are Chovevei Torah graduates, he said.

In July 2017, JTA published an internal Rabbinate “blacklist” of some 160 rabbis, including several prominent American Orthodox leaders, whom the Chief Rabbinate does not trust to confirm the Jewish identities of immigrants.

Rabbis from 24 countries, including the United States and Canada, were on the list. In addition to Reform and Conservative rabbis, the list includes Orthodox leaders like Weiss, father of the Open Orthodoxy movement from the Riverdale section of New York.

The Chief Rabbinate later said the list was misconstrued and was not a blacklist.

“The Chief Rabbinate has repeatedly claimed that there are no blacklists. However, the testimony of an Orthodox rabbi was rejected only because he belonged to an institution that the Rabbinate doesn’t respect,” said ITIM director Rabbi Seth Farber on Monday. “The rabbis’ behavior in this case is first and foremost, dishonest.”

According to the organization, the internal directive on Chovevei Torah graduates indicates the Rabbinate “continue to reject the halachic authority of at least 124 Orthodox rabbis in the United States.”

In October 2013, in a widely publicized case, the Israeli Rabbinate rejected the halachic authority of Weiss, when a couple from his congregation who had immigrated to the Jewish state sought to be married in Israel.

The move sparked widespread outrage that Weiss, a longtime synagogue leader in New York who had vouched for the Jewishness of many Israeli immigrants in the past, was suddenly having his reliability called into question.

The Rabbinate backed down in January 2014 and said it would accept Weiss’s testimony.

In order to get married in Israel, immigrants must provide the Rabbinate proof of their Jewish identity, often in the form of a letter from a rabbi in their home community.

Weiss founded liberal Orthodox rabbinical seminary Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, and has pioneered a number of controversial innovations in the Orthodox world, including with his decision to ordain women as clergy through a religious seminary called Yeshivat Maharat.

Amanda Borschel-Dan, Times of Israel staff and JTA contributed to this report.

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