Being a convert to Orthodox Judaism in America is much like riding a roller coaster. The initial high many experience after completing a conversion in the mikveh is followed by an inevitable low.
After uprooting and completely altering one’s life, converts reach the high of being told they will be loved and accepted by the Jewish community. For many, and in most circumstances, that is true, but with the Israeli rabbinate, which sets policy for the entire Jewish state, it could not be farther from the truth. It’s a tough low to deal with, to go from being told you will be loved and accepted by all Jews as if you, too, had received the law at Sinai to being rejected by the most powerful rabbinic body in the world.
The men who are supposed to model Orthodox Judaism for all of world Jewry spend not an insignificant amount of time expressly breaking with the Torah on the principle of ahavat ha-ger, loving the convert. These men have the power to strip men and women of their Jewish identities in the Land of Israel, and they wield it indiscriminately and with shocking frequency. The irony is that in doing so, these rabbis are often calling into question others’ religious practices while willfully ignoring the Torah in the process.
On conversion and other issues, the Israeli rabbinate has long ago proved its own illegitimacy. As an American Jew I have the comfort of being able to make such declarations: these men have no power over my life or that of my family. For any American Jew looking to move to or live in Israel post-conversion, that is not the case. My frustrations with the rabbinate as a vocal convert to Judaism are well-known enough for several folks to send me the rabbinate’s latest pronouncement about conversion protocols post-election. Chief Sephardi Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef said of the new standards for recognizing which Diaspora rabbis it trusts to handle Jewish conversions:
This reform is expected to stop the suffering of many converts who have been through a conversion abroad when they come to register for marriage and divorce in Israel. In contrast to the situation in the past, in which some officials in the Chief Rabbinate assumed the authority to check every case individually, now, as mentioned above, every conversion that will be approved by a rabbi who is on the list of the approved rabbis will not be subject to further checking but will be approved automatically. For example, what reached the headlines recently was the issue of the recognition of the conversion of Ivanka Trump, the daughter of the president-elect of the United States. According to the new proposed outline in which you check the converting rabbi only, their conversion would be legitimized without the need for further checking.
The timing of Yosef’s statement could not be more transparent, even to the owner of the most rose-colored glasses in the Jewish world.
The Diaspora has spent the better part of the past decade bending over backward to appease the powers that be in Israel. The Rabbinical Council of America rewrote its entire conversion protocols in order to guarantee that its converts would enjoy automatic and universal acceptance in the State of Israel. Its critics charge that it bent to the will of the rabbinate, though it is clear in my conversations with other converts who decided to go through the RCA’s system, known as GPS, that this was a major draw to their program over that of a more independent conversion court. The RCA bent to the will of the Israeli rabbinate because that is what its converts wanted; we desire acceptance not only in America, but also in Israel. For many converts and conversion scholars alike, having local control over conversions is the ideal, and has historically been how conversions have been conducted. The RCA decided to centralize conversions in order to grant its converts added legitimacy in the eyes of the rabbinate. Nevertheless, Israel’s constant rulings regarding the validity of conversions from American rabbis has made life extremely unpleasant (to put it mildly) for those who have come into its crosshairs.
In an attempt to silence its detractors, who fought against its aloofness and the arbitrary nature of its rulings on conversion, the rabbinate did nothing but prove these allegations correct. In April the rabbinate released a seemingly random and inexplicably incomplete list of rabbis whose conversions it had approved in the past. Even so, the rabbinate admitted that the list was incomplete and that the fact that rabbis (including several highly controversial figures) had been approved in the past in no way indicated that their conversions would continue to be accepted in the future. The list was, in a word, useless. And the rabbinate could not care less.
The Israeli rabbinate has never shown any indication that we American converts matter — that is, until the election of the father of one of our own as president of the United States. Now, suddenly, the rabbinate is committed to making Ivanka Trump feel as though she is welcome in Israel as a full citizen and Jew. Even in the statement regarding these new conversion standards, Trump gets a nod, making crystal clear that it is the issue of her conversion, not that of thousands of other American Jews (many of whom may actually want to move to Israel one day) who have been left jerking in the wind by the rabbinate.
These new standards aren’t about caring for Trump’s feelings; if they were, the attacks against the reputation of her conversion rabbi, Haskel Lookstein, would have been made to cease over the summer. They aren’t about ensuring that any of Lookstein’s other converts feel safe either. These holy men seem to care about one thing and one thing only: power. For the first time, an entity more powerful than the rabbinate cares about conversions, and it’s the president of the United States, his daughter and his son-in-law.
Donald Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, is famously close to the future president and has been a key and trusted adviser throughout his candidacy. He is also a committed Zionist and, it is fair to surmise, cares about the Jewish identity of his wife, who, by extension, determines the Jewish identity of his children. Crossing the Trump family on the issue of Ivanka Trump’s conversion is incredibly unwise, and thus, the rabbinate is suddenly committed to mending its ways regarding its long-standing disrespect of one of the most vulnerable populations in the Jewish world. In so doing, it may be finally doing a service to converts, but it is also proving that its actions prior to Donald Trump’s election were never based on Halacha (Jewish law); they were based on the opposite: blatant disrespect to a population the Torah repeatedly implores Jews to protect as part of a power play. The Israeli rabbinate enjoyed flexing its power against those more vulnerable for the sake of playing politics with other people’s lives. It may get a taste of its own medicine with the election of Ivanka Trump’s father to the White House.
Bethany Mandel writes a regular column on politics and culture for the Forward, usually from a conservative perspective. Follow her on Twitter, @BethanyShondark