“Who is a Jew?” is a uniquely Jewish question. It is a question that epitomizes the Jewish people and culture. It is a philosophical question that embodies the history of Jewish debate. It is a question of belonging that symbolizes Jews as a minority. It seems like a theoretical question, until your Judaism is in doubt. The question “Are you a Jew?” is a much more personal question and it is a question that many more Jews are being asked. In Israel, American Jews who made Aliyah or are living in Israel are finding that the burden of proof for proving Jewishness is getting increasingly heavy.
When it came time for Julia to get married, she was prepared to fight to prove her Jewish identity. She had moved to Israel three years prior, from the East Coast of the United States, and had gotten used to things always being harder in Israel. But she was not prepared for what she would face.
As someone who keeps a kosher home, doesn’t drive on Shabbat, and considers herself religious, it was important to Julia to have an Orthodox wedding with the Israeli Rabbinate. She is proud of her Jewish heritage, which she can trace back to her great, great grandfather who was an Orthodox Rabbi. However, she knew that her heritage would be hard to prove because of a gap in documents. The gap is a result of her great grandmother and great grandfather being institutionalized, which was the regrettable practice at the time for people born deaf. Being institutionalized, her great grandparents did not form a connection with Judaism, which meant that they did not leave a paper trail, such as a Ketuba or tombstone, for Julia to prove her Jewishness decades later.
Knowing that as an American Jew the Rabbinate would scrutinize her files, she went to the Rabbinate armed with pictures of her great, great grandparents’ tombstones, her parent’s Ketuba from a Reform Rabbi, her Bat Mitzvah certificate, letters testifying to her Jewish identity from two people in her community, and a letter from her Rabbi from the Conservative movement. However, all of this proof was not enough for the Rabbinate and she was refused approval of her Jewish identity.
Speaking of the letter from her Conservative Rabbi, Julia said, “The Rabbi who knows me the most is from a Conservative synagogue. So, I thought it was better to get a letter from someone who really knew me, which was obviously a mistake. It is better for (the Rabbinate) to get a letter from a Rabbi who they know but doesn’t know me whatsoever,” Julia said, still distraught about the treatment she received.
The refusal by the Israeli Rabbinate to accept a letter from a conservative rabbi doesn’t only hurt Julia, but it impacts the entire Conservative movement. Conservative Rabbi Menachem Creditor of Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley, California and co-founder of ShefaNetwork and KeshetRabbis said, “For me as a Rabbi to be so marginalized by the religious authorities of my own sacred home demonstrates that the Jewish exile hasn’t ended yet and that the perpetrators of Jewish exile today are largely Jews. The State has only begun to acknowledge the corrupt form of Judaism that has reigned in the State of Israel and that it is going to take a lot more work to end the exile being perpetrated by Jews at Jews. Secular politicians have an obligation to the global Jewish people that they are beginning to acknowledge.”
After a long and painful process, and only about three weeks before the wedding, Julia finally did receive approval to get married in Israel. However, the process has left her with a deep scar. “It was equally frustrating and offensive to my identity. My whole family is Jewish. I have never once in my life doubted my Jewish identity. It was so shameful. It really made me feel ashamed. This is so not Jewish.”
Julia probably does not take any solace in the fact that she is not alone in this struggle. There is a systematic and epidemic distrust from the Israeli Rabbinate towards American Jews and Rabbis from non-Orthodox streams of Judaism.
Morgan, just like Julia, is a Jewish American immigrant to Israel who got engaged to an Israeli. While Morgan was opening up her marriage file at the New York Rabbinate so she could get married in Israel, her fiancé simultaneously went to his local Rabbinate in Northern Israel. They both faced obstacles related to Morgan being able to prove that she is Jewish.
In New York, Morgan was dealing with a variety of obstacles - from the Israeli Rabbis not understanding that religion isn’t listed on a driver’s license to them not appreciating the fact that Morgan’s mother, who grew up in the projects of New York had faced a lot of anti-Semitism growing up and was more focused on surviving than finding a kosher grocer. While Morgan and her extended family members were being interrogated by the Beit Din in New York, a Rabbi in Israel explained to her fiancé that Morgan’s parents are the equivalent of goyim because they were married by a Reform Rabbi in Los Angeles and affiliate with the Reform Jewish movement.
Speaking about the refusal of the Israeli Rabbinate to accept Reform Judaism as a legitimate form of the religion, Reform Rabbi Steven Z. Leder, Senior Rabbi at Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Los Angeles, California and recently named among the "Top 50 Influential Rabbis in America" by Newsweek stated, "I have little doubt that the rabbinical authorities who impugn the status of Reform and Conservative Rabbis, their congregations, and those who convert to Judaism within them, have gladly accepted financial assistance offered to Israel by those very same Jews and given countless sermons about the importance of unity among the Jewish people. This makes these Rabbis, in a word, hypocrites."
The Rabbi who called Morgan’s family goyim explained to her fiancé that she would need to provide documents that show her Jewish heritage for the past three generations. When her fiancé asked this Rabbi how the Rabbinate knew that he was Jewish, since his father had been born on the way to Israel from Yemen without any documentation, the Rabbi refused to give a reason.
Morgan says that one of the toughest parts of this process was that the Rabbinate approached the issue from the “assumption that we aren’t Jewish. They were asking questions to try to trap us, which is so insulting. I was so disgusted. This whole process for the privilege to be married in Israel made me feel as if I didn’t even want to come here anymore. How dare you question my mother and me like we are not Jews! It is a scourge on Israel what they are doing to people, to olim (immigrants), to people who served in the army. It all just disgusts me.”
The entire process to prove that she was Jewish enough to get married in Israel took Morgan approximately a year. After eventually getting a letter through a connection, Morgan can now joke about the experience. “I was making a good six figures in New York, and I’m coming here. Who else but a Jew would do this?”
The Israeli Rabbinate’s refusal to accept letters testifying to an American Jewish immigrant’s Jewish identity from Reform, Conservative, and even some streams of Orthodox Rabbis as sufficient proof is a growing trend and one that is well-known among the immigrant community in Israel, but not well known among American Jews.
“I think Israel’s religious decisions are under the radar for most of the young American Jewish population because most of the young American Jewish population is already distanced from Israel for other reasons,” explained Rabbi Creditor. “We can’t afford to continue distancing these young Jews for both political and religious reasons. It probably is a good thing that young Jews don’t know about those things yet. But as soon as they find out it is an absolute barrier to any sense of connectivity with the State of Israel.”
In recent years, there has been more coverage related to isolated incidents of the Israeli Rabbinate denying Reform and Conservative converts the right to get married, but these are reported as issues that mainly impact converts and their descendents. However, these stories show that converts are simply the canary in the coal mine. When the Israeli Rabbinate refuses to recognize conversions of Reform, Conservative, or other streams of Judaism, it is not a directed offense against converts; it is an affront against American Judaism as a whole. It is an assault against the legitimacy of the leaders, the Rabbis, and the members of one of the strongest Jewish communities in the world.
It is an issue that impacts many, if not most American Jews. According to the 2000-2001National Jewish Population Survey, in the United States there are 1.3 million Jews in Conservative household and 1.7 million in Reform households. This means that, just like Julia and Morgan, more than three million American Jews could face obstacles proving their Jewish identity and potentially be denied the right to get married in Israel. But surprisingly, the American Jewish community, one of the strongest supporters of Israel, is not demanding that Israel reciprocate that support.
Rabbi Creditor explains that being critical of Israel can by synonymous with being a Zionist. “It is absolutely essential that American Jews be engaged in Israel’s safety and life. What makes anybody an authentic Zionist is that they love their Jewish people, they love their Jewish family. And we are free thinkers. We should continue to be free thinkers who love our family. I raise my voice loudly, to demand of my homeland that it treat me like family. And in return, I model that kind of respect and love through everything that I do. My commitment to Israel is what gives me the right to demand of Israel that it treats me with respect.”
Jessica Fishman moved to Israel from the US in 2003 and writes the Aliyah Survival Blog, an irreverent portrayal of life as an immigrant in Israel. Her new book, Chutzpah and High Heels: The Search for Love and Identity in the Holy Land, will be published soon.