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How Do You Prove You’re a Jew?

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Author Topic: How Do You Prove You’re a Jew?  (Read 947 times)
Tovah Silverstein
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« on: March 04, 2008, 01:23:14 am »

And as Farber points out, the reign of doubt at the Israeli rabbinate began as it was becoming steadily less likely that an American Jew would be able to dig an Orthodox marriage contract out of her mother’s drawer. In the generation after World War II, most American Jews moved away from even a nominal connection to Orthodoxy. Today, young American-born Jews are likely to be two or three generations removed from any tie with Orthodoxy.

Strikingly, the rabbinate’s doubts extend even to Orthodox rabbis in America. “They’re not familiar with them,” Friedman told me. “They say: ‘The rabbis in the United States, in England, aren’t the kind we know. Someone can define himself as an Orthodox rabbi, but really he’s Reform.’ ” A marriage registrar given a letter from an Orthodox rabbi abroad certifying that a person is Jewish is now expected to check with the office of Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar, which maintains a list of diaspora clergy whose letters are to be trusted. The list is not publicly available. If the rabbi who wrote the letter is not on the list, the applicant is asked for other proof or referred to the rabbinic courts.

Converts, even the children of converts, potentially face greater difficulties, because the rabbinate has also become more skeptical about Orthodox conversions performed abroad. What’s more, under pressure from Chief Rabbi Amar, the main association of Orthodox clergy in the United States, the Rabbinical Council of America, is establishing its own regional rabbinic courts for conversion. A recent council position paper warns that the group makes no commitment to stand behind conversions performed by other rabbis. The paper also stresses that converts are expected to accept Orthodox religious law, or Halakhah.

The policy has divided the American group. Advocates say that standardization will ensure that converts are accepted by all religious Jews. A former council president, Marc Angel, a sharp critic, told me the group “decided to capitulate” to Amar and robbed individual rabbis of their prerogative to measure the needs and commitment of prospective converts. “The rabbinate in Israel has put the Orthodox rabbinate” — meaning Orthodox rabbis in the United States — “on the same level as Reform rabbis,” Angel said. He now advocates a position once unthinkable among R.C.A. rabbis: Israel would be better off if it instituted civil marriage and cut the state’s ties with the rabbinate.

Not surprisingly, leaders of non-Orthodox denominations in the United States sound both pained and vindicated when discussing the rabbinate’s policies. “There is quite an irony in this,” Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, told me. In the past, “Orthodox authorities in America have basically defended the system, and they’ve embraced this religious monopoly as being important and necessary, thinking all the while that it was directed primarily against us, us meaning the non-Orthodox community.” Now their own bona fides are in doubt.

Arnold M. Eisen, chancellor of the American Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary, stresses the damage to Israel-diaspora relations: “All the data shows a growing rift between American Jews and Israeli Jews, and the younger you are as an American Jew, the less that you care about the state of Israel. This is just terrible. And one of the reasons for it — not the only reason, but one of the reasons for it — is this kind of insulting treatment of the majority of American Jews by the Israeli rabbinate.”

Seth Farber, a pragmatic idealist, does not expect either the rabbinate or the basic disagreements about who is Jewish to disappear. What he rather desperately believes, he said, is that “a conversation has to begin” on how Orthodox Jews — including the rabbinate — and non-Orthodox Jews can agree “to trust each other” despite the disputes. The Israeli rabbinate, that is, should trust a Reform rabbi’s testimony that a person’s mother is Jewish. For Farber, there is a price to overwhelming doubt: It means “writing thousands of people, if not hundreds of thousands, out of the Jewish world.”

With no grand compromise in the offing, Farber works on individual cases. Over the last five years, he said, he helped more than 100 people prove to the rabbinate that they were Jewish. The amount of detective work he undertakes demonstrates his own dedication. But it also shows how difficult it can be for people from typical American Jewish backgrounds to provide evidence of an identity they regard as self-evident.

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