Israeli rabbis ‘disqualify’ ex-NJ educator
For former Kushner principal Scot Berman, a ‘dismissive’ rejection
Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News
Rabbi Scot A. Berman, the founding principal of Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School, says his credentials have been questioned by rabbinic authorities in Israel who lack an understanding of North American Jewry.
Berman, who led the Livingston school from 1996 until 2004, became the latest North American Orthodox rabbi to have his credentials questioned by the Israeli rabbinate, which declared him ineligible to determine the Jewish bona fides of American couples marrying in Israel.
“I am a rabbi in good standing with the Rabbinical Council of America,” Berman said in a Jan. 13 phone conversation with NJJN from Canada, where he has headed Toronto’s Bnei Akiva schools and is now an educational consultant. “I am a recognized Jewish educator and leader for 30 years. My Orthodoxy has not been questioned in any way. It was surprising to learn that I should not be trusted.”
The Chief Rabbinate traditionally seeks “status letters” vouching for the Jewishness of American couples who intend to marry in Israel. Late last year, the rabbinate rejected a status letter written by Rabbi Avi Weiss of Riverdale, NY, as well as the letters of at least 10 rabbis in other cases.
[In a letter sent Wednesday, Jan. 15, the Chief Rabbinate said it will accept letters from Weiss confirming the Judaism of those who wish to wed in the country. “I appreciate that this injustice has been corrected and am deeply grateful for the overwhelming support I received from all over the world,” Weiss said in a statement.]
Last week, in an interview with the Jewish Week, Berman went public with news of his rejection in hopes of putting pressure on the rabbinate — Rabbanut in Hebrew — to ease its scrutiny of Orthodox rabbis in the Diaspora.
Berman said he was “outraged” and “surprised” to learn that his status letters were not acceptable.
Unlike Weiss — a Modern Orthodox rabbi who has tested the boundaries of his movement by opening an alternative rabbinical school and ordaining Orthodox women as clergy — Berman has neither courted publicity nor flouted the rules of the Orthodox establishment.
Berman declined to say how he learned he had been disqualified, but said his name was among four submitted by a couple who wished to marry in Israel and who were asked for the names of rabbis who could vouch for their Jewish status. On Jan. 7, he received a copy of an e-mail dated Oct. 16, 2013, that “clearly originated” with Israel’s Chief Rabbinate, plainly rejecting him for the purpose of attesting to the couple’s bona fides.
The explanation provided in the e-mail, he said, was that he is an educator and not the rabbi of a congregation, and on that basis, he does not have the tools or avenues by which to clarify the Jewish identity of individuals.
“That explanation bespeaks a lack of understanding the Rabbanut has of North American Jewry,” Berman said. “In North America, principals of schools are as much aware of the lives of their constituents, or more so in some cases, as are synagogue rabbis, and principals are typically rabbis who serve as educators and religious figures.”
He said he felt the language of the rejection “reflects a general attitude that the Rabbanut has to the Diaspora, specifically the North American established Jewish community.” He described that attitude as “dismissive. It smacks of mistrust of North American Orthodoxy.”
He decided to speak out, he said, because “publicizing the arbitrary disqualification of my credentials brings pressure to bear on the Rabbanut.”
He added that he hopes others similarly affected will raise their voices. “The more rabbis who speak out, the more enlightened the community will become regarding the Rabbanut’s attitude toward North American Jewry,” he said.
Rabbis from the Reform and Conservative movements have long complained about the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate’s monopoly on religious affairs in Israel. Most Orthodox rabbis have remained aloof from that debate; however, many Orthodox rabbis quietly objected when the Chief Rabbinate decided several years ago that it would no longer automatically recognize conversions performed by Orthodox rabbis in the Diaspora.
Berman is hoping for the success of the RCA’s current negotiations with the Chief Rabbinate to accept the qualifications of rabbis in good standing with the RCA. “I look forward to hearing an announcement. It would be a milestone if such an agreement could be reached,” he said.
He does not plan to respond directly to the Rabbanut, he said, but added that he would “love” to have the chief rabbi apologize for how he was treated. However, he said, “I don’t expect that.”