Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Am I Jewish?

Monday morning, before going off to shul, I read an article in the Jerusalem Post (not yet online) that recounted the story of a young man from Pennsylvania who wanted to get married here in Israel. His mother was Jewish, so there should not have been any problem. He was wrong. The Rabbinate's rules are that only someone married in Israel, or whose parents were married by an Orthodox rabbi whose name appears on their approved list, is automatically certified as being Jewish. This young man did not fit into either category and his file was sent for investigation to a special office of the Haifa rabbinate. He was required to find photos of his grandparents' graves and copies of their immigration papers, ship manifests of their arrival in the United States and other supporting documents. With the help of Rabbi Seth Farber and the ITIM institute, the task was achieved and our young man was married (barely) on time.

Then it struck me, that had I wanted to get married in Israel I would have been in the same position, or perhaps in a worse position. My parents (ז"ל) were married in Boston by a Conservative rabbi in 1954. So, my file would have automatically been sent for investigation. So I'd have needed to collect documents. Gravestones I have, check. The problem is that my maternal grandparents entered the United States under separate last names, because my grandmother wasn't well. She came under her maiden name, Littwak (אלא מה?), and he came under Czertok. At Ellis Island, he changed his family name to Birnbaum, because Czertok means the 'devil' (and he was less than fond of his father, anyway). So, I would have to stand in front of a bunch of rabbinic inquisitors and make the case that they were both Jewish, and my mother's parents. (Never mind that my Bubbe ע"ה was the embodiment of the nice, little (she was 4' 11") Jewish lady).

Contemplating this possibility, and knowing how officious and mean spirited many of the denizens of the Rabbinate can be, I felt vicariously degraded. A wave of empathy for all those forced to legitimize themselves as Jews before the apparatchiks of the Rabbinate washed over me. Even granting that certification is sometimes required (as with the former Soviet Union), still stories like that reported in the Post (the like of which occur every single day) are unnecessary and insensitive sources of pain, anguish and Hillul Ha-Shem. Jewish Law provides very clear guidelines for establishing identity (such as testimony by witnesses). Relying on the extraordinarily stringent rulings of a noted Hungarian מחמיר like R. Menashe Klein is simply unacceptable for a governmental agency charged with representing the mainstream view of the Torah.

There has to be a better way.


Nachum said...

Just a small point of history: No one ever changed their name at Ellis Island.

Perhaps some of this is because you can't make a rule saying "Extra scrutiny for Russians." I don't know why, and it's pretty bad anyway.

Laurie said...

There is no better way. They have us by the you-know-whats. The leaches and parasites are sucking us dry.

Anonymous said...

Harav Woolf, I am a Brit married in the UK but my kids married here. Fortunately our eidi kiddushin were well known rabbonim so when our kids showed our kesubah to the beit din here, they were waived through. However, in the past I have helped Israeli's who are also given a very hard time by the Rabbanut. The key is to find a sympathetic local orthodox rabbi known to the local beit din and have him intercede. Otherwise you might as well be prepared for months of hell. The alternative is to set up separate batei din which I think may marginally be worse. We are fractured enough don't you think?

Shachar Ha'amim said...

I don't agree with you. I studied in yeshivas throughout my entire life and still had to document my Jewishness. Just like I had to re-take a driver's test even though I had a bona-fide driver's license issued by a state in the USA. I accepted the across-the-board restriction that was implemented regarding new immigrants b/c of a high incidence of fraudulent driver's licenses from the FSU in the early 1990's which led to the change.
I too accept the fact that a decentralized rabbinate with no official bodies in the US - coupled with as high an intermarraige rate as in the FSU - results in the fact that the rabbinate will have to do some checking. BTW, the united syng. in the UK is even more stringent and won't accept much Israeli documentation. So there - each country has to do its own thing.

Mordechai Y. Scher said...

What makes this all the more sad is that just a few years ago this sort of imposition and turmoil was not deemed necessary. I was married in Israel in '82. I got letters from local Orthodox rabbanim who knew my family. One of those rabbanim turned to the RCA in NY as well, and got a letter from them based on his say so. Done.

Where did this list of approved persons come from? Since when did we actually discount the word of a local mara d'atra?

Ridiculous and scandalous.

mycroft said...

"Where did this list of approved persons come from? "

I think it was those who paid money to the CR andformally applied years ago to be on approved lists-remember the policy was to accept certifications through RCA of local Rabbonim. Naturally, I have been told that the list includes those whose hashgacha most of us wouldn't even trust for water and one who has been migayer a few famous people when weddings mysteriously appear. Just more examples of phoniness of CR.

Religion and State in Israel said...

Online version of article here: The amazing case of Louis Shapiro

Rabbi Seth Farber's follow-up blog post: Is being Jewish amazing?

Joel Katz
Religion and State in Israel