JERUSALEM (RNS) When Israel’s Chief Rabbinate told an American immigrant she could not get married in Israel because her overseas Orthodox conversion to Judaism wasn’t “kosher,” she turned to a soft-spoken but determined U.S.-born reformer named Seth Farber.
“I called the rabbi who converted me in New York and he told me to hang up the phone and call Rabbi Farber, because he helps converts deal with the rabbinical courts in Israel,” said Nicole Hillel, the convert.
Farber, a Modern Orthodox rabbi, is the founder of ITIM, an organization that helps converts and others navigate the religious establishment’s legendary bureaucracy through activism and legal action.
The rabbinate is notorious for stalling and sometimes overturning recognition of a person’s Jewish status. That status is a prerequisite for anyone who wants to marry as a Jew, be buried in a Jewish cemetery or, in many cases, become a citizen.
Farber experienced the rabbinate’s stonewalling firsthand after having to wait months for a license to perform weddings.
Israel’s religious establishment is led by ultra-Orthodox rabbis guided by a strict reading of the Jewish legal tradition, called halakhah, at a time when less than 10 percent of Israeli Jews are Haredi, or ultra-Orthodox.
This disconnect, he said, “leads to a lot of tension.”
Farber, whose great-great-great-grandfather was Moshe Sofer (Chatam Sofer), a European rabbi and scholar renowned for his rejection of religious innovation, said his own more pluralist U.S. upbringing convinced him “there must be a better way to counter disenfranchisement.”
Fourteen years after its founding, ITIM’s help center receives about 5,000 calls a year and has become a lifeline for people struggling for official recognition.
“Someone might want to get buried in Israel and the rabbinical courts’ strict reading of halakhah might not allow that,” Farber said. “A woman might want to say kaddish, the memorial prayer, or give a eulogy at a loved one’s graveside but the burial society won’t permit it because she’s a woman. Sometimes we help agunot, women whose husbands refuse to grant them a religious divorce, or people who the rabbinical authorities consider Jewishly illegitimate.”
Farber spends a lot of time at the Knesset, or parliament, where he apprises lawmakers of his clients’ struggles.
He and ITIM’s legal team can also be found in court. ITIM’s recent Supreme Court victories include the recognition of conversions performed in Orthodox rabbinical courts not affiliated with the Chief Rabbinate — for the purposes of Israeli citizenship — and the right of women to use a ritual bath without an attendant being present.
Farber, who also serves as a congregational rabbi in a Tel Aviv suburb, emphasized that he is trying to reform the rabbinical establishment, not topple it.
“I’m an Orthodox rabbi and I believe in the Jewish legal position. But Jewish law should be dynamic and sensitive to diverse situations. Many people believe the only solution is to disband the rabbinate. I believe there is room for the Jewish state to support and provide Jewish religious services, but there shouldn’t be a monopoly.”
Israel’s ultra-Orthodox rabbis see themselves as standard-bearers for the entire Jewish world and regard other interpretations and practices with suspicion.
“They need to have greater respect for the diversity of the Jewish people and understand that outside Israel the religious customs and traditions are radically different,” Farber said.
The rabbinate declined to comment.
Gentle and diplomatic, Farber, 49, a bespectacled father of five, seems like an unlikely person to demand reform from the powerful religious establishment, but rabbinical leaders acknowledge his credentials, even when they oppose his efforts.
A graduate of New York University who received rabbinical ordination from Yeshiva University and a doctorate from Hebrew University, Farber was awarded the “Builder of Zion” award in the Israeli parliament for his contributions as an immigrant to Israeli society.
Founded on a shoestring budget, ITIM now has more than 20 staffers and a $1.7 million budget that comes primarily from private foundations and Jewish federations in the U.S.
In his capacity as a Modern Orthodox community rabbi, Farber has forged strong ties to the non-Orthodox streams and helped organize a rally outside a Reform synagogue after it was vandalized.
And although he is not directly involved in the fight by liberal Jews for a non-Orthodox state-sponsored prayer space at the Western Wall, he supports the struggle.
Daniel Sperber, a Bar-Ilan University expert in the evolution of Jewish law, said Farber “created something new” when he founded ITIM.
“Individual activists have advocated on behalf of converts and others in the past, but not in such an organized way. He is politically adept, legally adept and knowledgeable about Jewish law. He is doing holy work.”
Chuck Davidson, a social activist and advocate for conversion reform, said that while he and Farber differ on strategy, “I consider ITIM one of the most important nonprofit organizations in the state of Israel. He is working within the system and my vision is to bring down the rabbinate, but his work through the courts and the Knesset is making a real impact.”
Nicole Hillel, who was forced to undergo a brief second conversion before the religious authorities deemed her Jewish, urged the religious establishment to be more compassionate.
“There’s the attitude that unless you’re Haredi you’re nothing. This scares away people who might want to become religious and that’s sad,” Hillel said. “We all have to start from somewhere.”
(Michele Chabin is RNS’ Jerusalem correspondent)