A rabbinical court in Israel. Photo by Dudi Vaaknin.
A rabbinical court in Israel. Photo by Dudi Vaaknin.
featureReligion

Will alleged misconduct by Israel’s Chief Rabbinate invalidate conversions abroad?

It is unclear what will become of those who were converted without proper vetting since the state effectively recognized their conversions before suspicions were raised.

Israel’s Civil Service Commission recently conducted an investigation against officials in the Chief Rabbinate for allegedly improperly adding foreign rabbinical courts to the list of recognized conversion bodies, putting the status of the converts in doubt.

The commission’s Investigations Department scrutinized senior Rabbinate officials on suspicion that they acted in their official capacity to benefit an associate of a member of the Chief Rabbinate Council. 

The suspicion is that a private rabbinical court abroad belonging to that associate was added to the list of recognized conversion courts illegally. Additionally, it was investigated whether the director general of the Rabbinate defied the Rabbinate’s legal counsel after he instructed that this court be removed from the list.

A senior prosecutor from the High Court of Justice Department in the State Attorney’s Office testified in the commission’s investigation, saying, “Political elements exerted pressure and tried to take advantage of me.”

It is unclear what will become of those who converted in those courts since the State of Israel effectively recognized their conversions before suspicions were raised that they were potentially acting without proper vetting. The affair was exposed following monitoring by the ITIM—The Jewish Life Advocacy Center, an NGO that filed a petition on the matter to the High Court.

The State of Israel recognizes conversions performed by rabbinical courts abroad only if the court was approved by a committee in the Chief Rabbinate of Israel and meets extremely stringent measures. Converts turn to the state after converting abroad if they wish to immigrate to Israel under the Law of Return, or if they want the state to recognize their marriages.

Generally, converts prefer to turn to a court recognized by the State of Israel, and state recognition of rabbinical courts is considered a prestigious status symbol in Jewish communities abroad. State recognition also has financial implications for the court, which operates as a private business.

In 2021, the then-religious services minister, Matan Kahana, appointed the Chief Rabbinate’s legal adviser as his ministry’s acting director general, leaving the legal adviser position vacant. The legal adviser serves as the “gatekeeper” at the Rabbinate, including on the committee responsible for recognizing rabbinical courts abroad.

The Civil Service Commission stated: “An investigation file was opened against the director general of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, during which the Disciplinary Investigations Department conducted many investigative actions. This included taking testimony from relevant parties and questioning suspects in the case, including the director general. As is customary, at the end of the investigation, the case was transferred to for review.”

The Chief Rabbinate of Israel responded: “The actions of the Rabbinical Courts Recognition Committee were carried out lawfully and met all required standards. The petition filed lacks any factual basis, and its hollowness speaks for itself. The Sephardi Chief Rabbi [Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef] is not a member of the committee, and has no special connection to the approved courts.”

Unlike the commission’s response, the Rabbinate stated that “the director general was not investigated, but rather summoned to testify.”

Attorney Ela Sakat, head of ITIM’s Legal Department, said, “It is frustrating and infuriating to see how the Chief Rabbinate exploits the power and authority granted to it by the State of Israel to provide benefits to associates, without having to meet any of the rules that the Rabbinate itself established. It seems rules only apply to those not close to the trough.

“It is not enough for the Rabbinate to conduct itself this way within the country’s borders, but it is also working to export the same conduct to Jewish communities abroad and the rabbinical courts located there. The recently filed High Court petition seeks to put an end to this.”

Originally published by Israel Hayom.

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