Rabbinate's new Jewish ID demands stymieing marriage plans, immigrants say
By Raphael Ahren • Ha'aretz
Immigrants applying for marriage licenses are being asked by local rabbinical courts to produce ritual wedding contracts from their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents or other often unattainable documents to prove their Jewishness, Anglo File has learned.
One rabbi close to the affair called the new process "unprecedented humiliation," and said it was the direct consequence of new guidelines to prove Jewishness the Chief Rabbinate recently implemented.
"During the last few weeks, we've seen a dramatic increase in calls from people who fundamentally have a strong Jewish identity but have their Jewish identity challenged," said Rabbi Seth Farber, the head of Itim, a nonprofit group helping Jews navigate Israel's religious bureaucracy. "They came on aliyah and are shocked that as far as the [rabbinical court] is concerned they're not Jewish ... This is the first time in Jewish history that people are being asked in an unprecedented manner to prove their Jewishness. And there are no standards for proving it."
Farber pointed to the absence of clear criteria in the new guidelines as to which documents would suffice.
"Every time [the rabbis in the local court] ask for something different, it's complete chaos," he added. "Sometimes they ask for three [generations of] ketubot (Jewish marraige contracts ), another time they ask why your birth certificate doesn't state that you're Jewish. They have no clue that in America birth certificates don't contain such information."
One woman was told to undergo a conversion process because the rabbi in the religious council questioned the authenticity of her paperwork "without even asking the most basic questions" or making any other efforts to assert her Jewishness, Farber added.
The Rabbinate responded that it had not received specific complaints but is ready to adapt its guidelines if Farber's claims are substantiated.
Israel lacks any framework for civil marriage, forcing couples to either go through the Rabbinate or marry abroad. Couples have long complained of the difficult process of convincing the Rabbinate's marriage department of one's Jewishness, forcing many immigrants to produce hard-to-obtain documents or letters from overseas rabbis recognized by the Rabbinate.
But the new guidelines - which automatically send marriage candidates whose parents did not wed in Israel to a local rabbinical court to attest their Judaism - make the process even more distressing, according to Rabbi Michael Melchior, an Orthodox former Labor MK and chief rabbi in Norway.
Melchior, too, received many complaints from distressed couples, he said, relating the story of one immigrant woman who has four Jewish grandparents.
"Nobody ever doubted this, but she can't satisfy what they want from her," he said. "They don't accept the letter from the [Scandinavian] rabbinate anymore, even a very Orthodox rabbinate doesn't count anymore. The [rabbinical court] said there's nothing wrong with the letter but it doesn't count for anything, we need birth and death certificates for three generations."
Melchior says he understands a rabbi's need to demand some kind of proof in certain cases. "But that people have to have birth and death certificates for three generations - I don't know anybody who has that," he said.
Progressive Jewish groups say they plan to fight the new regulations, opening another front in their battle against what they see as an attempted takeover of religious life in Israel by the ultra-Orthodox. This week, leaders of the Reform and Conservative communities here and in the United States harshly condemned a bill that would effectively give the Haredi-dominated Rabbinate sole authority over conversions to Judaism.
The local Reform Movement's Israel Religious Action Center told Anglo File they approached the State Attorney's office and Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman demanding the cancellation of the new rules when they were issued in May.
"These regulations were written without jurisdiction. Regulations that have legal implications can only be issued and signed by the minister," said Nicole Maor-Center, who directs IRAC's legal aid center for new immigrants.
IRAC sent two letters to the Rabbinate's legal adviser, asking him to revoke the new regulations. If no one responds to their communication within one week, the group will petition the High Court of Justice, she said yesterday.
Avi Blumenthal, an assistant to Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger, told Anglo File their legal advisers had looked into the matter and concluded the Rabbinate has the right to establish procedural guidelines.
The Rabbinate says the new rules were instituted to protect brides and grooms-to-be from corrupt private individuals or organizations attesting people's Jewishness that often charge large amounts of money to attest to someone's Jewishness. In the past, several local rabbinates had sent couples to such people, who also often have stringent demands, Blumenthal said. Now, only certifications by recognized rabbinical courts are being accepted, he added.
Blumenthal denies the new rules made life more difficult for candidates. They do not require proof of Judaism for three generations, he said, adding he was unaware of cases where this was asked.
"If one [local] rabbi did something improper and didn't follow our regulations we'll invite him" to discuss the matter, he told Anglo File. "If there are specific instances [of exaggerated demands] and we find the claims to be justified we will discuss them and we will find a solution."
However, a handful of couples that recently filed for a marraige license told Anglo File their interaction with the Rabbinate was burdensome, with one person calling it "complicated and ugly."
One American-born woman, who filed for a marriage license two weeks ago and now finds herself struggling to document her Jewishness, told Anglo File she hesitates to reveal to certain people she's having issues with the Rabbinate.
"Perhaps some of them might think I'm not legitimately Jewish. That is a weird feeling," she said. "It's alienating."
She says she considered marrying overseas to circumvent the Israeli system, "But that's just not the way I imagined my wedding," she said.
Eran, who was born in Israel and moved to New Jersey, has a birth certificate stating he is Jewish. Yet when he filed for a marriage license earlier this month - he is marrying an Israeli in Israel and considers moving back here - the Rabbinate questioned his Jewishness.
"My family is not observant, and since I taught Judaism for so many years they jokingly call me the family rabbi," Eran, 39, said. "For someone to say to me prove that you're Jewish is chutzpah."
Since his parents came to Israel from Communist Poland, they no longer have their ketubah, he says, adding that he is currently struggling to think of another way to demonstrate he's a Jew. "It's impossible to prove these things, but I shouldn't even have to prove them."
For many Jews, their wedding is the first time they interact with the Rabbinate, Melchior said. "It should be a meeting that brings them to feeling uplifted, to a feeling of a Judaism that can be important to their lives," he said. "Instead it becomes a nightmare. And it's totally unnecessary, that's what's so absurd. It's as if we're asking new immigrants not to come to this country."
What's in a birth certificate?
Immigrants from Western countries have been hit especially hard by the Rabbinate's new guidelines, according to Rabbi Seth Farber, of the Itim organization. As opposed to immigrants from the Former Soviet Union - where birth certificates indicated a person's religion - Western newcomers are often at a loss about what additional papers to give a rabbinical court to prove their claim.
"There is an enormous gap between the expectations of the Rabbinate and the window they have on the landscape of American or British Jewry," said Farber, who was born in New York and now lives in Ra'anana. "Rabbis serving in the rabbinical courts think that there are records there like there are here, but there are no official rabbinical courts in America. And the vast majority of Jews are not affiliated with the Orthodox community. There is no one in the Rabbinate who is an expert of North American Jewry who can help people navigate the system."
Farber thus considers calling on the Rabbinate to appoint a "troubleshooter" for North Americans who do not know how to prove their Judaism. He also believes there should be a review of the guidelines, as currently they are not clear about what constitutes conclusive evidence of one's background, he said.
Rabbinate official Avi Blumenthal told Anglo File that if Farber can show his claims to be true, the rabbis would consider issuing new guidelines specific for U.S. Jews.
"We don't barricade ourselves, we are not obstructive. On the contrary, we are happy when people tell us about problems," he said.