Rabbi Gil Steinlauf was confused at first when he saw his name in a Facebook post with a link to an article about 160 rabbis who
had been blacklisted by Israel’s Chief Rabbinate.
“I was a little incredulous,” said Steinlauf, senior rabbinic adviser to Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, and who in 2014 came out as gay. “I read the list and there was my name.”
The names, including several prominent American Orthodox leaders, appear on a list of rabbis whom Israel’s haredi Orthodox-dominated Chief Rabbinate does not trust to attest to an immigrant’s Jewish identity.
The list, made public on Sunday, includes Reform and Conservative rabbis, like Steinlauf.
The Chief Rabbinate controls all Jewish marriage in Israel, and immigrants who wish to wed there must first prove they are Jewish according to Orthodox law — whether they were born Jewish or converted. This proof often comes via a letter from a community rabbi attesting to the immigrant’s Jewish identity. One midlevel bureaucrat at the rabbinate, Rabbi Itamar Tubul, handles every claim.
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.
Steinlauf said he has written letters in the past attesting to the Jewishness of congregants who were making aliyah and has never received pushback from the Rabbinate. He said he does have a conversation with prospective converts who are moving to Israel.
“I’m obligated to tell people that the Rabbinate doesn’t accept my conversions as kosher.”
He then explains that the conversions he performs are according to Jewish law, but they aren’t considered valid by the Chief Rabbinate, because it doesn’t recognize Conservative Judaism.
Steinlauf said that the blacklist shows that Israel takes a “reactive stance” toward those interpreting the Torah
in different ways from the haredi Orthodox establishment.
“That’s what you’re seeing in the ultra-Orthodox world, and the tragedy in the modern state of Israel is that the official Rabbinate is guided by this very fearful worldview, and I think it is tearing into the soul of Jews across the world,” he said.
Steinlauf said he did not know why his name is on the list. “I have been outspoken on a number of progressive issues, so I can only imagine that my name had been associated with things that have been outspoken.”
Also on the list is Rabbi Gerald Serotta, executive director of the InterFaith Conference of Metropolitan Washington.
“I have no idea why I am honored to be on this list with such distinguished colleagues, living and deceased,” said Serotta, a Reform rabbi.
The Chief Rabbinate’s antipathy to Reform and Conservative rabbis is well documented. Its distrust of some Orthodox rabbis abroad was seen last year when the rabbinate omitted several prominent Orthodox figures from a list of rabbis it trusts to confirm the authenticity of Jewish conversions.
The Rabbinate sent the list to Itim, a nonprofit group that guides Israelis through the country’s religious bureaucracy, and was obtained by JTA. In 2015, Itim filed a freedom-of-information request in a Jerusalem municipal court demanding a list of approved foreign rabbis, and received this list as part of that case.
Rabbi Seth Farber, Itim’s executive director, called it a blacklist because it shows which rabbis the rabbinate has not trusted in the past. He has called repeatedly for greater transparency in the rabbinate’s evaluation of rabbis, and said the way it is being handled is a “stain on the state of Israel.”
“They’re effectively creating a blacklist,” Farber said.
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.
In an email to Itim obtained by JTA, Tubul, the rabbinate official, 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.”
Israel’s Ashkenazi chief rabbi, David Lau, said he didn’t know about the list before it was sent out. In a public letter Sunday, Lau called the list damaging and sounded incredulous that it was composed without his approval.
And on Tuesday, Moshe Dagan, the director-general of the rabbinate, said the characterization of a blacklist is misleading. In a letter to the Orthodox Rabbinical Council of America obtained by JTA, Dagan wrote that the proof-of-Judaism letters were rejected for a range of reasons, and that the list questioned the documentation, not the individual rabbis. Dagan added that these rejections were sometimes temporary.
Ben Sales is a staff writer for JTA News and Features. Dan Schere is WJW’s political reporter.