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The blacklist bombshell

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In what may be a new low in Israel-Diaspora relations, or a nothing-to-see-here rubber stamp, depending on your point of view, 10 rabbis who live, or lived, in Canada, have found themselves on a list.

This isn’t the usual internecine bickering between Jewish denominations or rabbinic groups. The “blacklist,” as media around the world quickly dubbed it, originates from no less than the powerful Chief Rabbinate of Israel and targets foreign rabbis that the rabbinate does not trust to confirm the Jewish identity of immigrants.

The list was prepared by an official in the chief rabbinate’s office who is responsible for determining whether individuals born abroad and registering to marry in the country qualify as Jewish, according to religious law.

It was released by ITIM, an advocacy organization that helps people navigate Israel’s rabbinical bureaucracy, which it obtained through a freedom of information request.

Observers have noted that the appearance of such a list, even if unsurprising, sharpens tensions between Israel and the Diaspora, as well as between the Orthodox establishment in the Jewish state and everyone else.

It again cuts to the heart of the interminable “who is a Jew?” debate.

The list singles out 160 rabbis from 22 countries. In addition to Reform and Conservative rabbis, the tally includes Orthodox leaders such as Avi Weiss of New York and Yehoshua Fass, co-founder and executive director of Nefesh B’Nefesh, a group that, ironically, encourages and facilitates immigration to Israel.

Graduates of ultra-Orthodox yeshivot are also on the list, the Jerusalem Post reported.

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The following are rabbis in Canada deemed ineligible to authenticate the Jewishness of their congregants and community members who move to Israel and wish to marry there:

Rabbi Alan Green (Conservative, Winnipeg); Rabbi Lawrence Englander (Reform, Mississauga, Ont.); Rabbi Wilfred Solomon (Conservative, formerly of Vancouver, now in Jerusalem); Rabbi Yossi Sapirman (Conservative, but ordained Orthodox, Toronto); Rabbi Philip Scheim (Conservative, Toronto); Rabbi Erwin Schild (Conservative, Toronto); Rabbi Mordechai Glick (Orthodox, formerly of Montreal); Rabbi Wilfred Shuchat (Orthodox, Montreal); Rabbi Adam Scheier (Orthodox, Montreal); and Rabbi Sid Shwarz (location unknown). The original (Hebrew) list had 12 Canadian rabbis, two of whom didn’t make it into the translated document: David Seed (Toronto, Conservative) and the late Steven Saltzman (Toronto, Conservative).

According to a JTA tally of the 66 U.S. rabbis on the list, at least one-fifth of them are Orthodox, including one alumnus of the Baltimore haredi seminary Ner Yisroel. Yet the vast majority of American rabbis named are Reform and Conservative, according to JTA.

An Israeli couple poses for their wedding pictures in Jerusalem. The Chief Rabbinate of Israel controls all Jewish marriage in the country and immigrants who wish to wed there must first prove they are Jewish according to Orthodox standards. Hadas Parush/Flash90

A report in Ha’aretz, citing a spokesperson for the chief rabbinate, said the names on the list were of rabbis whose letters of certification for immigrants were rejected for marriage registration purposes in 2016.

The Chief Rabbinate of Israel controls all Jewish marriage in the country and immigrants who wish to wed there must first prove they are Jewish according to Orthodox standards – regardless of whether they were born Jewish, or converted.

The rabbinate denies it’s a blacklist, saying that any number of things could have been wrong with the rabbis’ letters and that it didn’t necessarily mean to impugn those who wrote them.

“It doesn’t necessarily mean that the chief rabbinate will reach the same conclusion when it comes to other documents issued by these rabbis,” the spokesperson, Kobi Alter, told Ha’aretz.

The rabbinate’s rejection of Reform and Conservative Judaism is well documented. It does not accept letters of certification from non-Orthodox rabbis, for example.

Thus, Rabbi Scheier of Montreal’s Congregation Shaar Hashomayim stands out on the list, as he’s the only working Orthodox rabbi at an Orthodox synagogue in Canada to appear on it (Rabbi Wilfred Shuchat, now 97, whose name is also on the list, was an institution at Shaar Hashomayim for 46 years before he retired in 1993).

In a Facebook post, Rabbi Scheier, a past president of the Montreal Board of Rabbis, was blunt: “I’ve been blacklisted. I do not know why I am on the list; I do not know for which case I (was) deemed an unacceptable authority. Neither I, nor members of my community, nor my local rabbinic colleagues, were interviewed by the rabbinate as it made this decision.”

“Empowering an incompetent and exclusionary chief rabbinate (is) unacceptable,” Rabbi Scheier wrote.

He told The CJN that he has written “many, many” letters of Jewish status, mostly for the purpose of moving to Israel, over his 13 years at the synagogue.

‘I DO NOT KNOW WHY I AM ON THE LIST; I DO NOT KNOW FOR WHICH CASE I (WAS) DEEMED AN UNACCEPTABLE AUTHORITY’

He explained that these letters are kept on file often cited later, if someone wants to get married.

Rabbi Scheier said he was not surprised or distressed about his inclusion on the list. “It’s common knowledge that the chief rabbinate has taken a rejectionist position toward Diaspora rabbis,” he said.

“I would choose any day to be included on a blacklist together with some truly extraordinary and devoted rabbis, than to be on an authorized or approved list compiled by the chief rabbinate,” he added.

Montreal’s rabbinate has pushed back. So has Rabbi Scheier’s traditional Orthodox synagogue, which counts 1,300 families as its members.

The list “is nothing short of disgraceful,” Rabbi Lisa Grushcow and Rabbi Mark Fishman, co-presidents of the Montreal Board of Rabbis, said in a statement.

The inclusion of Rabbi Scheier’s name “is an affront to the Montreal rabbinic community in particular,” the board added.

The rabbis hope for “a time where the coercion of religion is no longer a part of Israeli religious life.”

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At the same time, Shaar Hashomayim president Claire Berger wrote a letter on behalf of her synagogue that she forwarded to Israel’s consulate in Montreal, asking Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel David Lau to apologize to those on the list “for publicly discrediting their rabbinic standing.”

The synagogue also called on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “to take the necessary steps to ensure that Diaspora Jewry no longer encounters systemic rejection from the chief rabbi’s office.”

The synagogue assured its members that letters written by Rabbi Scheier attesting to their Jewish status “are valid and accepted” by Israel for the purpose of immigration, which is overseen by the ministry of the interior.

For Toronto Rabbi Scheim of Beth David B’nai Israel Beth Am Synagogue, the list has “changed nothing.”

The several letters he writes each year “have always been accepted by the foreign ministry for the purposes of aliyah, but never by the rabbinate for the purposes of marriage.”

“When requested to write a letter for marriage purposes, I have indicated that my letter won’t help,” Rabbi Scheim told The CJN via email. “Thus, the person seeking to be married in Israel needs to have his/her Jewishness authenticated by a total stranger, rather than by the rabbi he/she has known his/her entire life. An unfortunate state of affairs, but nothing new here.”

Rabbi Scheim is also president of the Rabbinical Assembly, the umbrella organization for Conservative rabbis, which said in a statement that it “proudly” stands by its rabbis on the list.

“This ‘blacklist’ is far less a reflection of the esteemed rabbis it names (as much) as it further diminishes the stature of the chief rabbinate in its continued actions that sow division and discord among Jews worldwide, and in particular, between Israel and the Diaspora,” the statement said.

Rabbi Sapirman of Toronto’s Beth Torah Congregation remarked that he too was surprised to be listed “in the company of so many outstanding rabbis and leaders of all denominations. I fully expected that the ‘tycoons of religion’ would find fault in my desire to create a bigger tent for the Jewish People.”

Rabbi Schild of the Adath Israel Congregation in Toronto, however, told The CJN that he is not concerned by the “blacklisting” and doesn’t care “what the ultra-Orthodox say about me.”

He said he remains “tolerant of the intolerant,” but acknowledged that “when people have to be separated (into categories or differences), it’s bad” and that all Jews should be allowed to fully participate in Jewish life in Israel, “as long as they adhere to the commonality of God.”

The appearance of the list comes on the heels of other events that inflamed tensions between Israel and the Diaspora.

Late last month, Netanyahu’s cabinet announced that it was cancelling last year’s agreement over creating a pluralistic prayer space at the Western Wall.

The government also announced it was advancing a bill that would remove the authority that local rabbinic courts have over conversions, and instead delegate control to the ultra-Orthodox Chief Rabbinate of Israel. But following an outcry from Jewish leaders abroad, the bill was shelved for six months.

Hours after the list was revealed by several news sources on July 10, Rabbi Lau angrily said it was released without his approval or knowledge.

In a letter to Moshe Dagan, director-general of the rabbinate, Rabbi Lau said he was “astonished to discover this list,” that it was “unthinkable” a clerk would create such a document of his own accord and demanded that the clerk be reprimanded.

“The results of this are very serious,” the letter continued. “First of all, an employee in the chief rabbinate cannot decide on his own to publicize who the rabbinate approves or not. Secondly, the damage this does to certain rabbis cannot be exaggerated – including to the chief rabbinate.”

For his part, Rabbi Scheier stood by his belief that he’s been blacklisted.

He cited the lack of due process and transparency, no communication with the rabbinate and the absence of an appeal process.

“The only conclusion I can reach is: if a congregant of mine was rejected, it was because of me and not because of the case particulars. If that’s not the definition of a blacklist, then I don’t know what is,” he said.

As well, he says his congregants “now possess the knowledge that their rabbi is not an accepted authority in the eyes of Israel.” Absent corrective measures from the chief rabbinate, “my name remains included alongside many worthy rabbis on a blacklist.”