At least two area Conservative rabbis found their names on a so-called “blacklist” compiled by the Israeli Chief Rabbinate rejecting their 2016 letters confirming people’s Jewish identities for aliyah. In order to get married in Israel, Jews must first have their Jewish identity confirmed by a rabbi according to Jewish law. The rabbi then sends a letter to the Israel’s Chief Rabbinate in order to authorize the immigrant.
JTA recently obtained a copy of the list, which includes more than 166 rabbis from 24 countries. Sixty-six of the names are U.S. rabbis, 60 of whom were confirmed.
Rabbi Paul Schneider of Chizuk Amuno Congregation in Pikesville said he had “no idea” why he was on the list.
“I’m not aware of any other Rabbi Paul Schneider; there may well be some, but I assume it’s me,” he said.
Schneider said he writes about one such confirmation letter a year that then gets submitted to the Chief Rabbinate.
“Over the years I have written many letters on behalf of people in the community who needed such letters when they were making aliyah, and it was always my pleasure to write letters affirming that they are Jewish,” he said. “People would simply come to me and ask me to write a letter on their behalf, testifying that they are Jewish, that they have a Jewish mother or that they were converted according to Jewish law. So, with pleasure, I’m always delighted to write such a letter.”
Schneider said the Chief Rabbinate did not inform him that he was on the list or give him any explanation of why.
“But I saw that I was in very good company,” he said, referring to another local name on the list — Rabbi Steven Schwartz of Beth El Congregation in Pikesville.
When asked if he would change his approach in future letters, Schneider laughed.
“I guess I would simply indicate to them that my name did appear on such a list and they may want to ask another rabbi,” he said. “But the bottom line is, I have no idea why I’m on that list.”
Israel’s Chief Rabbinate is often at odds with Conservative and Reform rabbis, who the Orthodox Rabbinate does not accept as truly Jewish. Although, some Orthodox rabbis did appear on the blacklist, according to JTA.
In response to the release of the list, the Chief Rabbinate’s spokesman, Kobi Alter, said in a phone interview that “there is no list of unrecognized rabbis” and did not respond to a follow-up inquiry via email. Last year, the rabbinate promised to release criteria regarding which rabbis can be approved. Alter said that the criteria are still being composed.
One midlevel bureaucrat at the rabbinate, Rabbi Itamar Tubul, handles every claim. In an email to ITIM obtained by JTA, Tubul wrote that letters are approved “based on a collection of data, not based on the name of the rabbi,” and added that “unequivocally, the attached names do not imply recognition or rejection of other rabbis not mentioned here.”
Schwartz said he found out about the list and his inclusion on it the day it came out. He started to get texts and emails and then went to have a look for himself.
“It is not the kind of thing that one takes seriously, as I already knew that the Orthodox Rabbanut in Israel did not think all that much of my rabbinic status,” Schwartz said. “Truth be told, I was surprised they put any Conservative rabbis on the list at all.”
Schwartz said he assumed his inclusion on the list was about his conversion-related status.
“I suspected that rabbis who were put on the list had worked with Jews by choice who later decided to make aliyah, and then the rabbis wrote supporting letters for that process,” he said. “I’ve done that many times over the years although generally not more than two to four times in the course of any given year.”
“Jews by choice” are people who have converted to Judaism according to Torah law, which is a long and rigorous process. But anti-convert sentiment is real, from some who do not consider such converts authentic Jews.
Asked whether he would change anything about the way he wrote the confirmation letters, Schwartz was ambivalent.
“There isn’t all that much to those letters quite frankly, so there wouldn’t be much to change about them,” he said.
Another Baltimore-area name on the list was Orthodox Rabbi Jacob Max, formerly of Liberty Jewish Center, now Moses Montefiore Anshe Emunah (MMAE) Hebrew Congregation. Rabbi Max died in 2011.
The publication of the list comes on the heels of a clash between American Jewish leaders and the Chief Rabbinate over how to determine Jewish identity. In June, Israel’s cabinet advanced a bill to give the Chief Rabbinate authority over all official Jewish conversions within Israel. Following an outcry from Jewish leaders in the United States, the bill was shelved for six months. A plan for an egalitarian prayer space at the Kotel was also recently delayed.
For his part, Schneider said he is “not a big fan” of the Chief Rabbinate in Israel.
“Being placed on this list does not increase my love for this particular institution,” he added. “Also knowing that some recent decisions in the Knesset have been as a result of pressure from religious parties that I know are supportive of the Chief Rabbinate, and those decisions are very detrimental to non-Orthodox folks. This is not a great season for love for the Chief Rabbinate.”
Schwartz had a similar reaction. “They’ll go their way, and I’ll go mine,” he said about the Chief Rabbinate. “Although, it is a shame there is such tension within the Jewish community around these status issues.”
Ben Sales, a JTA staff writer, and Dan Schere, Washington Jewish Week’s political reporter, contributed to this article.