The Chief Rabbinate of Israel blacklisted 160 rabbis worldwide and about 60 from the United States, from all streams of Judaism, whose letters affirming immigrants’ Jewish identities for the purpose of rituals such as marriage and conversion were rejected during 2016. The list was acquired and published by JTA earlier this week.
A total of six New Jersey rabbis were on the list, including George Nudell, who just retired from Congregation Beth Israel, a Conservative synagogue in Scotch Plains, and Baruch Goodman, who runs the Rutgers University Chabad House, as well as Alberto Zeilicovich of Fair Lawn, Alfredo Winter of Vineland, and Arthur Weiner of Paramus.
The tangible effect of the blacklist is that conversions carried out by diaspora rabbis on the list would be rejected by Israel’s Chief Rabbinate, which make it difficult for converts who make aliyah to get married in Israel.
Rabbi Michael Pont’s first reaction to seeing his name on the list of rabbis blacklisted by the Israeli rabbinate was, “I’m excited!” he recalled in a conversation with NJJN. The Marlboro Jewish Center’s Conservative rabbi added, “I just can’t believe they know who I am. The whole thing is a little bizarre.” He acknowledged that colleagues have been texting him messages of support, like “way to go.” The list included several rabbis Pont was familiar with, including Irwin Groner, a rabbi he grew up with in the Detroit area.
“I’m honored to be in the company of the rabbis on this list,” he said.
Turning serious, he said, “I think it’s said that the rabbinate is so inhospitable to rabbis they don’t approve of that they can’t trust a rabbi from another stream for something so basic.”
Beyond expressing their incredulity, several of the rabbis whose names were included on the list told NJJN that there is little justification for the decision. As Nudell wrote in an email to NJJN, “The Chief Rabbinate does not know me, they have never been in contact with me, and have never had opportunity to speak with me or question me. On what basis have they issued their decision?”
He added, “For a long time I have not held the Chief Rabbinate of Israel in high regard, because they seem to play politics with the enforcement authority granted to them by the Jewish state. The blacklist is yet one more instance of my astonishment at their tactics, and my sense that their credibility is flawed.”
While Nudell points out the irony of appearing on the list just as he is retiring, several of the rabbis included are way beyond retirement; in fact, they are dead.
The blacklist also includes some prominent Orthodox rabbis, including Avi Weiss, founder of the open Orthodox seminary Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, and Yehoshua Fass, cofounder of Nefesh B’Nefesh, an organization that facilitates making aliyah.
Both Pont and Nudell pointed out that the move only alienates diaspora Jews and those whose paths are not the same as that of the Chief Rabbinate. “It sends a clear message that our way is the only valid way of being Jewish,” said Pont.
“I think we have always had different ways of understanding tradition. I believe in shivim panim l’Torah,” he said, referring to the idea that there are 70 faces of Torah. “Having different perspectives is healthy. It’s part of what makes Judaism rich. No one individual or group has all the answers.”
And he thinks it’s ironic, considering the effects of his actions. “All I did was write a letter on behalf of a congregant saying ‘Yes, this person is Jewish and should be able to emigrate to Israel,’” he said. “I’m encouraging people to live the Zionist dream.”
Said Nudell, “I look forward to the day when Jews of all denominations find ways to build a stronger, more cohesive, and inclusive Jewish community. It is time to stop using political authority to divide and insult Jewish people.”