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Who Can Be a Jew?

The shocking revelations last fall that a respected Orthodox rabbi spied on and exploited women studying for conversion led to two concrete outcomes: The rabbi, Barry Freundel, is serving more than six years in prison, and the Orthodox rabbinical group that should have stopped his shameful behavior is trying to reform itself.

In a report issued on July 6, the Rabbinical Council of America recommended that would-be converts be given a clear sense from the outset of the timeline and requirements for conversion, and that the conversion curriculum be standardized. In doing so, the RCA affirmed its 2007 decision to centralize the Orthodox conversion process — a decision championed at the time by Freundel himself.

For that reason, RCA critics said the reforms are bound to fail if they keep in place the same system run by the same people who enabled Freundel to secretly record converts and other women in his synagogue’s ritual bath, for which he pleaded guilty to 52 counts of misdemeanor voyeurism and will forever be known as the peeping-Tom rabbi.

“I remain extremely concerned about the welfare of anyone who chooses to convert within the RCA’s inherently flawed system,” Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld of Ohev Sholom — The National Synagogue wrote on Facebook.

But two of Freundel’s many victims, who participated in drafting the report, said they believe the centralized system can be reformed because, for the first time, the rabbinic leadership listened to them and other converts.

“Hopefully, under the umbrella of the RCA, converts won’t be relying on individual rabbis any more,” Bethany Mandel told the Forward. “You don’t want to have your entire Jewish identity hinge on a man who turns out to be a sexual predator.”

Coincidentally — or is it ironically? — on the day before the RCA issued its report, the Israeli Cabinet also acted on the issue of conversion. But instead of taking a halting, potential step forward, the Cabinet bent over backwards to please its ultra-Orthodox members so far that it fell flat on the ground.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Cabinet repealed legislation passed last year that would have allowed municipal rabbis to set up their own conversion courts, a decentralizing move that chipped away at the monopoly of the rabbinate only modestly — but evidently too much for the Shas and United Torah Judaism parties in his fragile coalition.

This was such a major step backward that even Natan Sharansky, chief of the Jewish Agency for Israel, roundly condemned it. So did the Anti-Defamation League: “This disappointing decision will negatively impact tens of thousands of Israelis seeking to convert … including some who served in the Israel Defense Forces, and also exacerbates ongoing tensions with Jewish communities outside of Israel advocating for an alternative to the central rabbinate’s obstructionist and cumbersome conversion process.”

Then, just to exacerbate those tensions further the very next day, David Azoulay, the religious services minister, spouted off — again — about the un-Jewishness of Reform Jews, igniting another cycle of condemnations by the ADL and others. Netanyahu tried to distance himself from Azoulay’s outrageous comments, too, but who can believe him? Just the day before, his Cabinet gave Azoulay’s ministry the big prize of controlling Israel’s rabbinical courts.

So we have the centrist Orthodox rabbinical group in the United States at least attempting to open its arms to would-be Jews and the leaders of the Jewish state of Israel folding theirs in arrogant dismissal, not only of converts, but also of the largest Jewish denomination in America.

The government’s hypocrisy is breathtaking. It pours millions of dollars into promoting Jewish “peoplehood” and accepts billions of dollars in contributions from American Jews of all backgrounds, but woe to those same Jews if they wish to marry in Israel and can’t produce documentation of their religious inheritance dating back generations. Or if they want Conservative or Reform rabbis to officiate. Or if an Orthodox rabbi who oversaw their conversions was deemed unacceptable.

The recent awarding of the $1 million Genesis Prize to Michael Douglas captures this hypocrisy perfectly. Netanyahu and others fawned over Douglas, who eagerly returned the favor, gushing about his newfound Jewish identity and how he realized, as he told the Los Angeles Times, that it’s “not about how religious you are. It’s about the tribe.”

Ah, but he’s not officially a member of the tribe, not with a non-Jewish mother. Neither is his son, born of his non-Jewish wife. His celebrity obviously buys him privilege, but the same isn’t true for the many Israelis of similar parentage who actually put their lives on the line militarily defending a state that, if they die, won’t allow them to be buried next to a Jew.

Douglas’s questionable Jewish heritage will not stop him from living a full Jewish life of his choosing in America. If one synagogue won’t accept him, there’s another down the road that will. But Jewish identity is entwined with citizenship in Israel, so that issues of conversion and intermarriage are elevated, controlling everyday decisions in life and in death.

Netanyahu often says that he is the leader of the nation state of the Jewish people, but that sweeping claim is belied by the countless ways his government allows the rabbinate to narrowly and sometimes cruelly define who gets to be a Jew. He condemns Azoulay, but then enhances his power. At some point this equivocation must end.

He may want to follow the lead of the RCA, which declared Reform Jews “our brothers and sisters” after this latest attack. From them, it’s more believable.

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