BLACKLIST: Interviews with two Chicago rabbis who the Israeli Chief Rabbinate says it doesn’t trust to vouch for someone’s Jewishness

Rabbi Michael Siegel

By George Castle, Special to Chicago Jewish News

Blacklists are frightening relics of an intolerant past like the Red Scare of the Fifties or the paranoid Nixon White House’s “enemies list” of the early Seventies.

Some who found themselves on blacklists, especially in the witch hunt for communists, lost their livelihoods, temporarily or permanently. In a few extreme cases, they committed suicide. Jews were disproportionally represented among those who got on the wrong side of off-kilter power brokers in the White House, Congress, TV networks and movie studios.

Who would ever believe a blacklist would revive in 2017, with Jews again singled out…by fellow Jews?

The scenario also could be straight out of a Jewish comic’s blazingly satirical routine: a set of rabbis in one country branding another group of rabbis in a second nation as not legitimate in verifying someone’s Jewishness.

Rabbi Steve Mason

Three Chicago-area rabbis – Michael Siegel, Steve Mason and Sam Fraint – were among 160 Orthodox, Conservative and Reform clergy appearing on a list of rabbis whom Israel’s Chief Rabbinate does not trust to confirm the Jewish identities of immigrants.

Rabbis from 24 countries, including the United States and Canada, were blacklisted. In addition to Reform and Conservative rabbis, the list includes Orthodox leaders like Avi Weiss, the liberal Orthodox rabbi from the Riverdale section of New York, and Yehoshua Fass, the executive director of Nefesh B’Nefesh, a group that encourages and facilitates American immigration to Israel.

With the backing of the Israeli executive and legislative branches of government, the Chief Rabbinate controls all Jewish marriage in Israel. Immigrants who wish to wed there must first prove they are Jewish according to Orthodox law — whether they were born Jewish or converted.

This proof often comes via a letter from a community rabbi attesting to the immigrant’s Jewish identity. One midlevel bureaucrat at the rabbinate, Rabbi Itamar Tubul, handles every claim.

When contacted by Chicago Jewish News, Fraint – rabbi emeritus of Deerfield’s Conservative Moriah Congregation – opted not to comment. But Siegel, longtime rabbi at the North Side Conservative Anshe Emet Synagogue, and Mason, rabbi emeritus of the Reform North Shore Congregation Israel in Glencoe, felt strongly enough about the issue to interrupt far-flung vacations for interviews.

“When I first saw such a list, I was shocked,” said Siegel, calling from Camp Ramah in northern Wisconsin. “When I saw my name, I was flabbergasted.  I’ve tried to be a stalwart (advocate) for the State of Israel. I’ve organized innumerable missions to Israel. This felt like a slap across the face.

“The humor of it, the badge of honor of it, faded pretty quickly. It was a remarkably dangerous statement to make.”

Mason has been retired for two years after an 18-year stint as senior rabbi at North Shore Congregation Israel, and 38 years as a rabbi overall. He quickly called back while enjoying the summer on Cape Cod. A Reform rabbi named “Stephen Mason” is the name on the blacklist. Mason did not find another near-namesake rabbi on Google, so he figured he was the marked man. He believed his first name was misspelled from “Steven” in the transliteration from the original Hebrew-language version of the list.

“You would think they would want to encourage people to come make aliyah,” said Mason. “The  rejection list includes Orthodox rabbis. It’s hard to understand why they want to be so exclusive. It’s a political matter, a control matter. A total lack of understanding of how Jewish life is in the diaspora.

“I do not know why they think that way. I am one who believes Jewish people should be as inclusive as possible. It has an impact directly on Jews in the United States and Canada. Why would (Israeli Orthodox) rabbis want to place such distance from us?”

Both Mason and Siegel have written endorsement letters for Jews emigrating to Israel. “Generally young people preparing to make aliyah,” Mason said. “I simply voice for the fact the person is Jewish or (as a product of a mixed marriage) the mother was Jewish.”

Mason said he has never heard whether his letters were accepted by the Chief Rabbinate. Siegel does not recall any of his letters being rejected or returned.

Siegel revealed his place on the blacklist to his congregation via an e-mailed letter that he sent on a Jewish day of fast.

Today is the 17th Day of the Hebrew month of Tamuz. It is a minor fast day which commemorates the first breach of the walls of Jerusalem that quickly led to the destruction of the Second Temple. Our commemoration of the day has an experiential quality. During the course of the fast, we are called upon to imagine what it was like for the people of Jerusalem to experience the sense of impending doom as the Jewish world shattered around them.

“Sadly, Shiva Asar B’Tamuz has far too much of a contemporary feel this year. Instead of an enemy army breaching the walls of Jerusalem, today it is the Chief Rabbinate of Israel and a dysfunctional Israeli political system. Their callous and cynical actions threaten the wall of unity for the Jewish people by challenging the religious legitimacy of the majority of American Jewry. 

I just learned that I was chosen to be included on a blacklist, with the names of 160 Rabbis from around the world, promulgated by the office of the Chief Rabbis of Israel. While the blacklist will have no actual impact on my Rabbinate, its ugly resonance is profound. Chief Rabbi Lau claims to have not known about the formation of the list or its distribution. Unfortunately, the fact is that these detestable acts are fully consistent with the approach of his office.”

Siegel continued, detailing the controversy over an egalitarian prayer area at the Western Wall:

“In the past few weeks, Jews around the world have been shocked to see Israel’s Prime Minister renege on promises made in regard to the creation of an egalitarian prayer space at the Kotel, as well as the development of a conversion program that included the participation of Rabbis from all streams of Judaism. The dangers of the mixing of synagogue and state are fully revealed as we watch the Prime Minister buckle to the pressure of small religious parties in his coalition. At the heart of these insensitive acts is an increasingly brazen ultra-Orthodox community whose contempt for world Jewry is protected and encouraged by the Chief Rabbinate.

“Some people have told me that having one’s name on such a list is a badge of honor, considering the corruption of the Israeli Rabbinate. Others understand the blacklist as part of Israel’s theatre of the absurd and have encouraged me to just laugh about it. As attractive as it is to find the humor in the moment, there are hard questions that need to be addressed: 

“– Shall we simply choose to smile as the Israeli government supports the Chief Rabbinate’s acts of demeaning the Conservative and Reform movements?

“– Where is the humor in seeing our young people being offered another reason to distance themselves from Israel?

“– How can we make light of decisions which treat Jews by Choice as pawns in a bizarre and immoral power struggle?

“– What is funny about casting aspersions onto someone’s status as a Jew when they want to move to Israel because of the synagogue they attended, or the validity of a parent’s Jewish marriage due to the affiliation of the Rabbi who performed the ceremony?

“No, there is little to laugh about when the walls of the unity of the Jewish people are being breached.” 

Siegel applied a further historical perspective to his on-line sermon:

“The relevance of Shiva Asar B’Tamuz should not be lost on any of us today.

“There is another reason for our people to commemorate tragic moments in our history. They serve as a warning for us to ensure that such catastrophes not repeat themselves. Our Rabbis tell us that the Second Temple was destroyed because of Sinat Hinam: Causeless hatred between Jews. Here is the response to those who say that the State of Israel has more important things to concern itself with than the religious sensitivities of world Jewry; our history teaches us that our people’s greatest strength has always been our faith and unity. Without them, we are lost.

The establishment of the State of Israel was one of the great miracles of Jewish history.  It is vital that we remember that Jewish miracles only fully occur when we take part in their fruition, when we are willing to be participants in our own destiny. We have the power to change the trajectory of this moment. There is nothing to be gained by sinking to the level of the Chief Rabbinate and their minions by engaging in vitriol.

“Rather, let us support those who stand for our values in Israel and do everything possible to fight against the religious monopoly called the Chief Rabbinate. We should be supporting the important work of the members of the Masorti Movement (the Conservative Movement in Israel). They have been fighting for our rights against all odds and have succeeded in a remarkable way.  However, this is not a crisis that will end with one well-publicized trip to visit with the Prime Minister. Unless we and the leaders of our Jewish organizations are willing to commit to seeing this struggle to the end, we will not succeed. So let us ask Jewish leaders serious questions in exchange for our support:

“– What is your organization doing to ensure that the religious rights of all Jews are protected in Israel?

“– How are you making your voices heard in the highest levels of government?”

Siegel also announced in the letter that he will visit Israel in August with a group of rabbis with “every intention of making my sense of outrage known about the Rabbinic Blacklist and the government that countenances it.” He certainly will speak for Mason, who flashes a disapproving eye at the Israeli government trying to “make coalitions wherever they can” in cooperating with ultra-religious forces for such support.

While in Israel, Siegel also may inquire whether his blacklist inclusion stemmed from his cooperative effort with fellow Conservative Rabbi Morris Allen, a suburban Minneapolis clergyman also on the blacklist, to upgrade the ethical handling of animals, employees and the environment in kosher food.

“There is not one kosher food product that has any objective standards,” he said. “We take their word for it. It’s strange where ritual standards are (otherwise) adhered to. Our goal was to create ethical kashrut. We got a great deal of press.  

“We went to experts on the subject, and created the most comprehensive standards possible. We brought them to a variety of producers of kosher foods. The reaction by the ultra-Orthodox community was so vociferous companies backed away. We expected to have reaction to this idea. But we had no preparation for the ugliness that came back to us with methods that would make Tony Soprano proud. Companies were threatened that if they have relationships with us, people would walk off the job and boycott products.

“The kashrut industry is a multi-billion dollar one. Their proceeds support many schools, a whole variety of good enterprises. They’re to be commended for good things. What both Rabbi Allen and I realized we were up against was a monopoly on the production of kosher food in this country. When you mix religion with profit and business, the ethical line can become blurry.”

“When I look at the State of Israel, I’m looking at another religious monopoly – how Judaism is practiced in terms of life cycle events, production of kosher food, the support some (Orthodox) synagogues have from the government. They are very skillful at turning the wheels of government to suit their needs, their approach to life. They fervently believe their approach to Judaism is correct, but also the only approach to Judaism. They have every intention of ensuring no (other) approach to Jewish life can be practiced in Israel.

“Not one penny (in government funding) in Israel goes to (support of) non-Orthodox synagogues. The community has to raise money. People have to pay dues.”

Siegel concluded that a minority’s attempt to control religious life will only push away other Jews and weaken a previously unshakeable diaspora support for Israel.

“This is not first time the Chief Rabbinate made disparaging remarks about the non-Orthodox world, or said something painfully destructive about the vast majority of Jewry in the U.S. and the rest of the world. An unwritten rule for rabbis is that it’s our job to lead our communities in ways Jews will want to connect with the state of Israel, love the state of Israel.  We’re talking on the pulpit about the Chief Rabbinate instead of (vital issues of) terrorism or war.

“We are at a point now where the American Jewish community will no longer look away. As a rabbi, I can no longer look away.  We are going through a bad time that can get much worse. I especially worry about young people’s connection to the state of Israel.  I graduated from college in 1976, and I never once thought (negatively) about support of the state of Israel.  More and more Jewish kids are on the sidelines. Some are becoming more and more critical of Israel.”

Many believe if the Jewish people can survive a Holocaust, an Inquisition and innumerable pogroms, they can also weather the tail-wag-the-dog dilemma within the faith.

Although Siegel is worried about the future, he always looks for a silver lining.

“As Mark Twain once said: ‘History does not repeat itself, it rhymes,’” he said.  “I think we would do well to pay attention to the resonance of the moment.  The lesson that should be drawn is that Jewish history teaches us about the fragile nature of our relationship with the land of Israel.  We should be encouraged to work with a sense of urgency to repair the fissures in the Jewish community. 

“That will begin when we Jews, including Prime Minister Netanyahu, refuse to tolerate words and acts that stem from ‘Sinat Hinam.’  The more that we involve ourselves in words and acts that reflect an ‘ahavat hinam’ (causeless love), the closer we will come to fulfilling the promise and the blessing of Medinat Yisrael.  This is a lesson that should be heeded across the spectrum of the world Jewish community.”

Mason concluded that, as usual, righteous Jews will prevail.

“The Jewish people are bigger and stronger than this internal squabble,” he said. “Those who are right will win out in the end.”

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