Strains of the Israeli national anthem “Hatikvah” overpowered the sounds of morning rush hour as some 200 protesters demonstrated outside the Supreme Rabbinical Court at the entrance to Jerusalem on Wednesday morning.
The protest was organized by former students of New York Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, the former principal of the Ramaz High School and spiritual leader of the large Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun, whose conversion last year of a 31-year-old American immigrant named Nicole was rejected last month by the Petah Tikva rabbinate when she attempted to register for marriage with her Israeli fiancé.
Nicole’s rejected conversion has become an international media affair because Lookstein, who apparently does not appear on the rabbinate’s elusive list of “approved” rabbis, also converted Ivanka Trump, leading to much speculation of whether the grandchildren of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s grandchildren would be considered Jewish in the State of Israel.
Attended by Jewish Agency head Natan Sharansky and several members of Knesset, the demonstration was held just prior to a hearing for an appeal at the Supreme Rabbinical Court on Nicole’s case. According to the ultra-Orthodox website Kikar Hashabat, a ruling is not expected to be announced on Wednesday.
At the pre-hearing demonstration, amid chants of “Ha’am doresh sovlanut barabanut” (the people demand tolerance in the rabbinate) and calls decrying the rabbinate’s “extremism,” a series of speakers including Efrat Chief Rabbi Shlomo Riskin took up a large white megaphone in support of Lookstein. Lookstein, from a long line of prominent rabbis, is considered one of the foremost Modern Orthodox rabbis of his generation.
In addition to his spiritual and halachic (Jewish law) leadership, during the 1970s Lookstein was also a crusader for the Russian Prisoners of Zion, and has continued to be an activist for humanitarian rights throughout his long career.
In an interview with The Times of Israel, former Prisoner of Zion Sharansky said that while it is a “lovely story” to say that once Lookstein fought for Sharansky and now Sharansky is fighting for Lookstein, there is “no need” to fight for Lookstein’s good name, which is beyond scrutiny.
“I came here as the head of the Jewish Agency who is fighting — that is my job for the government — to fight for the strengthened connection between world Jewry and Israel,” said Sharansky. He said it is the duty of the State of Israel to give Diaspora Jewry the feeling that Israel is their home. Rejecting esteemed rabbis such as Lookstein only pushes world Jewry away.
“What is happening now is the delegitimization of the State of Israel, not by our enemies, but by our own government,” said Sharansky.
Diaspora Jews are surrounded by people who deny the legitimacy of Israel, said Sharansky, and tell them they should be embarrassed to support Israel.
“And we are coming with our emissaries and day and night explain to them how they should be proud of their connection to Israel. And then Israel comes and says, ‘But your leaders are not our leaders. Your rabbis, even the most Zionist of them all, the most halachic in the world — they are not our rabbis. We don’t recognize them.’ All that is left for our enemies is to say, ‘We told you so,'” said Sharanksy.
“I came here to demand that all this process of interference by the State of Israel into the legitimacy of the Zionist religious leadership of American Jewry should be stopped immediately,” said Sharansky.
Others who lent visible high-profile support to Lookstein included Yesh Atid MKs Aliza Lavie and Elazar Stern, American-born Likud MK Yehuda Glick, and former MK Dov Lipman.
They are not the only politicians interested in the outcome of Nicole’s case: After receiving letters from Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein and opposition leader Isaac Herzog, Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau on Tuesday issued a statement affirming Lookstein’s acceptability as a “kosher” Orthodox rabbi. However, the rabbinical court system and the chief rabbis’ offices are two separate bureaucratic bodies, said Lau, effectively raising his hands.
‘Nicole is not the first and will most definitely not be the last’
Rachel Stomel, a representative of Chochmat Nashim, an activist group of religious women seeking social justice, was among the demonstrators in Jerusalem on Wednesday who said Nicole’s case represents a wider issue within the State of Israel.
“Nicole is not the first and will most definitely not be the last… While the rabbinic courts enjoy virtually unchecked power as is granted to them by the state, the public plays a huge part in either reinforcing or challenging that power. We reinforce it when we do nothing. We challenge it when we come out to protests and publicize injustice in the media,” said Stomel after the protest.
Stomel emphasized that this “is a feminist issue, as the majority of converts are female. In general, women and their children are the most vulnerable population when it comes to abuse by the rabbinic courts in terms of conversion, divorce, etc. It’s all connected.”
In a blistering op-ed in The Times of Israel on Wednesday, Bar-Ilan Prof. Adam Ferziger, the author of several volumes on contemporary Jewish religious history, coined the term “Bureaucratic Judaism” for the labyrinth that is today’s Israeli Chief Rabbinate.
“Regardless of the court’s decision, this unfortunate episode is bringing to a head a problem that has been festering especially since 1948: all too often State-sponsored rabbinic functionaries – even those like religious court judges charged with the most sensitive tasks – operate as impersonal clerks that are incapable of accounting for the human element in religious life. The result is a ‘Bureaucratic Judaism’ that is constantly seeking to solidify its control over the lives of Jews, and in the process is increasingly alienating even those who were once its biggest supporters,” wrote Ferziger.
Rabbi Seth Farber, the head of the Israeli nonprofit ITIM, which represents Nicole in the rabbinical court process, told The Times of Israel that his organization has represented dozens of similar cases.
“As the numbers go up, and as people become more and more frustrated, we’ve also realized that we need systemic change. We can’t just solve the individual’s problems,” Farber said. He added that Lookstein and Nicole are “heroes” in allowing the use of their case to highlight the Israeli rabbinate’s systemic problems.
“This is not just the Israeli rabbinate’s problem. This is the Israeli government’s problem. And it’s not just their problem as well. This is a problem for the Jewish people. At a time when assimilation and intermarriage are so great in North America, we need to take action, to make people who feel close to the Jewish people really be able to identify with the State of Israel,” said Farber.
“This is not only about Nicole. It’s about the hundreds of thousands of people who want to feel connected to the Jewish state,” said Farber.