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Don’t divorce American Jewry

A sense of Jewish responsibility freed Soviet Jews; now, it must unify world Jewry across the Israel-Diaspora divide

Decades ago, a New York rabbi came to visit the Jewish refusniks in Moscow. He walked miles on Shabbat to attend different meetings, and inspired his listeners — battle-worn activists fighting against impossible odds — by talking to them about Jewish heroism. Unlike the Greek and Roman heroes, he said, Jewish heroes aren’t celebrated for their physical virility. They can be weak, flawed and sometimes haggard, but their spirit… Their spirit is strong. Their spirit shines through.

Oppressed by a regime they couldn’t hope to overpower, the rabbi’s listeners took his words to heart, and felt connected to their heritage. They felt empowered. They felt hope.

Years later, the same rabbi converted a young woman named Nicole in his Beit Din in the United States. When Nicole came to Israel, hoping to marry her Israeli fiance, the Petach Tikvah Beit Din rejected her conversion. The rabbi in question, they informed her, doesn’t appear on the Rabbinate’s “approved Orthodox rabbis” list. Therefore, her conversion isn’t valid.

Ironically, the rabbi who converted Nicole isn’t exactly an anonymous figure. Rabbi Haskel Lookstein is one of the most beloved and prominent leaders of American Modern Orthodoxy, a man who inspired and led thousands of Jews in Manhattan, and served as the legendary principal of The Ramaz School for many years. In 2008, he was celebrated by Newsweek magazine as as the most influential Orthodox pulpit rabbi in the United States in 2008.

But Rabbi Lookstein’s reputation and followers, achievements and credentials, meant nothing to the Petach Tikva Beit Din.

What mattered to them was that rabbi Lookstein wasn’t on the list.

A list compiled by some local bureaucrats in Israel, miles away from Rabbi Lookstein’s community.

A list that the Rabbinate refuses to disclose.

This morning, 250 people gathered at a Jerusalem street corner to protest the slur against Rabbi Lookstein, and the Rabbinate’s treatment of Nicole. Ramaz alumni stood with Members of Knesset Yehuda Glick, Elazar Stern and Aliza Lavie. Former member of Knesset Dov Lipman and Rabbi Shlomo Riskin conversed with activists from near and far. People carried signs and chanted slogans. “We are all Rabbi Lookstein,” declared one sign, “albeit a tad taller.”


But the issue at stake, as my father Natan Sharansky said at the rally, isn’t really this particular case. Nor is it the reputation of Rabbi Lookstein per se. Due to Rabbi Lookstein’s fame, Nicole’s case will probably be quickly resolved. The Rabbinate already hastened to declare that it respects and acknowledges Rabbi Lookstein’s credentials.

The issue at stake is far broader: the relationship between the State of Israel and the Jewish communities abroad. This fiasco brought to light just how arrogant Israel’s religious establishment can be. It highlighted just how dismissive it can be of world Jewry.

Why should the Rabbinate decide who is or isn’t a legitimate Orthodox rabbi in the US? The Orthodox movement in America has its own standards and procedures to ordain rabbis. Why should the Rabbinate (without any transparency or accountability, mind you) pass judgment on the legitimacy of rabbis abroad, instead of relying on the judgement of the Orthodox movement in the US? If a man received rabbinic ordination from an Orthodox institution, and is acknowledged as such by the Orthodox Jewish community around him, why does he need the approval of a bureaucrat thousands of miles away?

Inbal Freun's sign aptly captures the issue at stake: "don't divorce American Jewry
Inbal Freund’s sign aptly captures the issue at stake: “Don’t divorce American Jewry


By relying on the judgement of some bureaucrats in Jerusalem, who know close to nothing about American Jewry (otherwise, they would have put Rabbi Lookstein on the list), instead of on the standards of the Orthodox movement in the US, Israel sends a worrying message. Instead of telling communities abroad “you are our partners and we respect you as such,” we are basically saying “our judgement is better than yours.” Instead of nurturing our relationship with them, we treat them as inferiors, and alienate them.

Why would they want to be our partners after that?

We wax eloquent about how Israel is the home of the whole Jewish nation. But our laws and bureaucracy belie our declarations. We expect world Jewry to stand with us in our war against the de-legitimization of Israel. But our disrespect towards the Jewish communities abroad sabotages our aspiration for a united front.

When Rabbi Lookstein traveled to Moscow, he did so because he believed that “kol Yisrael arevim zeh la-zeh” — all of Israel are responsible for one another. The plight of his brothers and sisters in Russia was reason enough to leave his comfortable New York home and walk for miles through Moscow’s freezing streets.

Nowadays, we in Israel ask our brethren in the Diaspora to fight with us in the name of the same principle. We ask them to share our struggle, to be responsible for us, and to stand proudly by Israel’s side. Our enemies, as my father pointed out in his speech, try to sway Diaspora Jewry against us. “This is not your state,” they tell them in the media and on campuses, in editorials and in heated debates. “You shouldn’t identify yourself with them; you shouldn’t defend them; it’s not your problem.”

When we alienate world Jewry, when we treat them as somehow less legitimate than ourselves, our enemies can say, “See? We told you so.”

Today, it’s up to us to show that “kol Yisrael arevim zeh la-zeh” works both ways. It’s our turn to demonstrate that we embrace our brothers and sisters abroad, support their procedures, and respect their institutions, communities, and worth.

This morning, we did so by attending a rally. But as Jack Levy (the MC of the rally and a Ramaz alumnus himself) said at the end, symbolic gestures aren’t enough. It’s up to us, as Israel’s citizens, to ensure that our laws will reflect our respect and appreciation of our Jewish partners abroad.

About the Author
Rachel is a Jerusalem-born writer and speaker who's in love with her city's vibrant human scene. She writes about Judaism, parenting and life in Israel for the Times of Israel and Kveller, and explores storytelling in the bible as a teacher and on 929.
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