Ivanka Trump and other Orthodox Jewish converts to fall under new guidelines

(RNS) Israel's two chief rabbis are promising new guidelines that will make it possible to determine whether a conversion performed outside of Israel would be valid in their eyes.

Ivanka Trump, daughter of President-elect Donald Trump, walks with her husband, Jared Kushner, through the lobby at Trump Tower in New York on Nov. 18, 2016.   Photo courtesy of Reuters/Mike Segar

JERUSALEM (RNS) Ivanka Trump and thousands of other Orthodox converts to Judaism should be automatically recognized as Jewish under a landmark set of guidelines Israel’s Chief Rabbinate has promised to create.

Israel’s two chief rabbis announced on Wednesday (Dec. 7) that for the first time, they will establish a transparent set of criteria laying out which Orthodox rabbis in the Jewish diaspora have the authority – in their eyes – to perform conversions.

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The announcement follows a 2015 Jerusalem court petition by the advocacy group ITIM, which has long demanded that the rabbinate — the authority on all Jewish matters in Israel — release its list of approved rabbis and publicly share its vetting process.

Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, left, at a 2015 Jewish Week gala in his honor. Photo courtesy of The Jewish Week

Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, left, at a 2015 Jewish Week gala in his honor. Photo courtesy of The Jewish Week

For more than a decade the rabbinate has challenged the validity of many conversions performed by American Orthodox rabbis, including some carried out by Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, the rabbi who converted Trump.

Trump’s conversion hasn’t been subjected to the rabbinate’s scrutiny because she has not sought its stamp of approval.

The rabbinate’s questioning of diaspora rabbis’ credentials has forced a wedge with Orthodox Jews in the diaspora, who assert the rabbinate, an Israeli government institution, has no authority over their rabbis and institutions.

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Rabbi Seth Farber, founder of ITIM, expressed both hope and skepticism, noting that the rabbinate made a similar promise exactly one year ago in response to ITIM’s court petition. The rabbinate shared an incomplete list with ITIM in April.

By fighting for the rights of converts and others, American-Israeli Rabbi Seth Farber, the founder of ITIM, has become a thorn in the side of Israel's religious establishment. Photo courtesy of ITIM

American-Israeli Rabbi Seth Farber, the founder of ITIM, fights for rights of converts. Photo courtesy of ITIM

“On the one hand this announcement is an enormous victory because this is the first time in this 11-year battle that the rabbinate acknowledged their behavior has been incredibly destructive to people’s lives and in need of serious reform.”

If the rabbinate fails to deliver on its promises, “we will continue to pursue legal action, this time in the High Court,”  Farber said.

Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef said the reform “is expected to stop the suffering of many converts who have been through a conversion abroad when they come to register for marriage and divorce in Israel.”

From now on, he said, every conversion approved by a rabbi on the rabbinate’s list will be automatically approved.

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For example, Yosef added, the conversion of Ivanka Trump, the daughter of the president-elect of the United States, would be legitimized without the need for further checking.

(Michele Chabin is RNS’ Jerusalem correspondent)

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