To get married in Israel, Dima Motel had to bring his family photo album and two of his ancestors’ birth certificates to a rabbinical court.
Then an investigator quizzed his mother in Yiddish. Israel’s Chief Rabbinate often asks Russian immigrants like Motel to prove that they’re Jewish, sometimes requiring documentary evidence that can be hard to obtain. Those who won’t submit to the process or who can’t firmly establish their Jewish bona fides can’t get legally married in the country.
“I felt like it was an invasion of my privacy,” said Motel, 27, who was declared Jewish after three hours of questioning. “It’s called an investigation of Judaism. It seemed like I was accused, but I didn’t do anything wrong.”
Israelis who chafe at procedures like these have rallied around a new source of hope: David Stav, a Modern Orthodox rabbi in the running to be Israel’s next Ashkenazi chief rabbi. Stav has cultivated an image as the liberals’ solution to a Rabbinate dominated by the haredi Orthodox, and he is waging a public campaign in advance of the chief rabbi elections that has won him a strong base of popular support.
“The Chief Rabbinate has arrived at a point where we have to decide whether it will have completed its historical duty or will change itself to the point where it will become a kind of institution that can confront the current challenges of Israeli society,” Stav told JTA.
But even if Stav prevails in the June elections, in which some 150 rabbis and public representatives vote for a chief rabbi, he will have little power to institute reforms – let alone instigate the sweeping changes many Israelis want.
The Rabbinate controls marriage, divorce and conversion for all Israeli Jews, secular or religious. Changes to the way the Rabbinate handles these matters cannot be made unilaterally, even by a trailblazing, reform-minded chief rabbi. Such a chief would be hemmed in by a sprawling bureaucracy, a potentially resistant Sephardic counterpart, and conservative-minded haredi opponents who can be expected to stridently oppose any perceived liberalization in religious standards.
Perhaps mindful of these limitations, Stav has called for a set of changes that focus more on streamlining the Rabbinate’s services rather than reforming them.