According to Israel’s Interior Ministry, Having Smicha From An American Rabbinical School Does Not Sufficiently Prove Jewishness To Get Citizenship Or Extended Visas
Shmarya Rosenberg • FailedMessiah.com
A prominent Conservative rabbi from the US, staying in Israel for a year with her Israeli-American husband and their three dual citizen children, was told by Israel’s Interior Ministry that she would have to leave the country immediately unless she could prove her Jewishness, Ha’aretz reported.
“But I am a rabbi,” Danya Ruttenberg told the Interior Ministry.
The Interior Ministry didn’t care. It also didn’t care that Ruttenberg’s husband and three children all hold Israeli citizenship.
Get us a letter from a rabbi certifying that you’re Jewish, the Interior Ministry said, or you’ll have to leave Israel.
The Interior Ministry eventually capitulated. But it only agreed to extend her tourist visa for three months – not until the end of the school year. So she’ll have to go through the process at least two more times if she wants to stay in Israel with her family during her husband’s sabbatical.
Ruttenberg previously made the Forward’s list of the 50 most influential women rabbis and was named as one of the 36 most influential Jewish leaders under age 36 by The Jewish Week. She’s been a rabbi for seven years.
“I’m in a position of privilege, because the main problem for me is that all this going back and forth to the Interior Ministry has taken up a lot of my valuable time. It makes me wonder what non-Jewish spouses of Israeli citizens have to go through,” Ruttenberg told Ha’aretz. She also called the Ministry of Interior’s behavior “Kafkaesque.”
Rabbis – apparently all or most non-Orthodox– who visit Israel, study in the country or apply for citizenship under the Law of Return, are routinely told that their ordination certificates cannot be used to vouchsafe their Jewish status.
Rabbi Sarra Lev teaches at the Reconstructionist Movement’s rabbinical college. Ten years ago, she was named a fellow by the Mandel School for Educational Leadership in Jerusalem, which was co-founded by Israel’s Ministry of Education, and came to Jerusalem to spend a year there.
When she tried to convert her tourist visa to a student visa, the Ministry of Interior refused to do it. It demanded she provide proof of Jewishness, and her ordination and status as a prominent rabbi – even a prominent rabbi recognized as such by the Ministry of Education – wouldn’t count.
The Ministry of Interior demanded she get them a copy of her parents’ ketubah (Jewish marriage certificate).
“I told them that the rabbis tore it up when my parents got their get [Jewish bill of divorce] and that I could bring them the get as proof, but they said that wasn’t good enough,” Lev told Ha’aretz.
So the Ministry of Interior demanded Lev get a letter vouching for her Jewishness from rabbi it recognized.
Lev got a letter from a prominent Reconstructionist rabbi,Joel Hecher.
The Interior Ministry rejected Hecher’s letter.
“I was told that he wasn’t on the ministry’s list of recognized rabbis, and when I asked who was, they told me they couldn’t tell me,” Lev said.
That list was kept secret for years and at one point the Interior Ministry even denied such a list was being maintained. Israel’s chief rabbinate also has a list like this that it held secret, and it sometimes denied its existence, as well.
“After being sent away from the Interior Ministry four times,” Lev continued, “I finally went to someone who knew someone who knew someone who was able to help me.”
Minna Bromberg and her husband Alan Abrams are both rabbis. She was ordained by the nondenominational rabbinical school of Hebrew College while he has ordination from the Conservative Movement.
Bromberg was a congregational rabbi in Reading, Pennsylvania until she and her husband immigrated to Israel in August of last year.
“Even though we are both rabbis, I could not write a letter for him certifying that he was Jewish, and he could not write one for me,” she says of her experience with the Interior Ministry.
Seth Farber is a Modern Orthodox rabbi. He heads ITIM, a nonprofit that helps people navigate Israel’s byzantine, often haredi-controlled, bureaucracy. He told Ha’aretz the problem isn’t confined to non-Orthodox rabbis or to female clergy only.
“When I moved to Israel, my rabbinical ordination certificate wasn’t considered proof that I was Jewish either. How would Yeshiva University give me ordination, I asked the Interior Ministry, if I weren’t Jewish? That didn’t help,” Farber,who is beardless and dresses like an average Israeli male, with no outward signs of religiosity other than a kippah (skullcap), said.
The Interior Ministry did not respond to a request from Ha’aretz to explain its policy.