Proof of Judaism signed by a recognized rabbi confirms that an applicant is entitled to Aliyah as a Jew or descendant of a Jew. This document is required for most applicants who want to immigrate to Israel and receive Israeli citizenship based on the Law of Return. Whether the applicant if Jewish, the child or grandchild of a Jew or a convert to Judaism, they will need a certificate from a Rabbi of a “recognized community”. But what exactly does the term “recognized community” or “recognized rabbi” mean?

A list of “recognized” non-Israeli rabbis entitled to testify and provide proof of Judaism acceptable to the Israeli Chief Rabbinate was published in 2018. The Rabbinate refused to make the list publicly available until forced to do so after a lawsuit by the Israeli NGO “Itim”. Itim is an Israeli organization dedicated to helping people navigate Israeli religious bureaucracy. The same lawsuit revealed a “blacklist” of rabbis whose authority to provide proof of Judaism is not recognized.

Attorney Joshua Pex is an expert on immigration to Israel at the Israeli law office of Cohen, Decker, Pex, Brosh. In this article, Joshua will explain the need for a recognized rabbi’s recommendation for Aliyah to Israel. He will discuss the issue of requiring proof of Judaism in the context of Israeli legislation and Jewish history.

What is Proof of Judaism, and who needs this approval?

Proof of JudaismIsrael is the nation-state of the Jewish people. Immigration or Aliyah to Israel are mostly reserved for Jews or family members and spouses of Jews. Article 1 of the Law of Return states that “every Jew is entitled to immigrate to Israel”. Article 4b defines a “Jew” as someone who was born to a Jewish mother or converted to Judaism. However, the law does not define exactly what documents are needed to prove someone is Jewish. Moreover, there is nothing in the Israeli law or in official regulations of the Ministry of the Interior which determines who is a “recognized rabbi” qualified to provide a certificate of proof of Judaism. Nor are there official guidelines explaining Aliyah applicants how can they obtain such proof.

In certain cases, representatives of the Ministry of the Interior will make do with documents certifying Judaism issued by the secular institutions of the country of origin, such as a passport or birth certificate. In other cases, there is a need for a rabbi’s recommendation, documents certifying that the ancestors of the applicant were Jewish, a photograph of family members gravestones in a Jewish cemetery, a Ketuba certificate for a marriage held in a recognized synagogue, a Bar Mitzvah certificate and so on.

Those who are indeed required to present rabbi’s recommendation to make Aliyah must have an original letter signed by the rabbi himself, on the synagogue’s official letterhead. Obviously, the recommending rabbi should preferably have personal familiarity with the applicant. There are cases in which the rabbi recommended the applicant after their family spends generations attending the same synagogue. However, a rabbi may provide a letter of recommendation approving of the applicant’s Judaism, even if that’s not the case. Proof of Judaism may be made on the basis of documents presented by the applicant to the Rabbi, or after a short-term acquaintance between the Aliyah applicant and the Rabbi.

What determines which documents are necessary for Aliyah?

The documents requested for Aliyah approval by the Israeli Ministry of Interior have a specific aim. Such documents do not merely demonstrate the applicant was born to a Jewish parent or decedent of a Jewish grandparent. Rather, they are required to prove the applicant’s family were religiously observant Jews. Such documents may include a Ketubah marriage certificate, Bar Mitzvah certificate, proof of previous generations being buried in Jewish cemeteries, membership in synagogue and Jewish organizations.

Recently, representatives of the Jewish Agency and the Ministry of the Interior dealing with requests for aliyah have started asking for a letter of recommendation from a rabbi who knows the applicant and their family. Ministry of Interior officials sometimes suspect that an Aliyah applicant (or their ancestors) converted to a religion other than Judaism. Usually, the person is suspected of converting to Christianity or being part of Messianic Judaism, but being converted to Islam is also unacceptable. Converts to Judaism are often suspected converting for the sole purpose of immigrating to Israel.

Which Aliyah applicants are required to present what documents?

How much suspicion each applicant is subject to by the Israeli immigration agents, and what documents they are required to present, depends also on the circumstances. The applicant’s individual circumstances play a role alongside their country of origin, the political situation between Israel and said country, and the person who heads the Ministry of Interior, which is responsible for immigration to Israel. Russian speaking immigrants to Israel in the 1990s were rarely asked to demonstrate their family strictly adhered to Orthodox Judaism. This was in spite of the fact that most Russian Jews were not religious and commonly intermarried with gentiles. During the 1990s almost a million Olim from the former Soviet Union immigrated to Israel.

On the other hand, there is the example of the relationship between Israel and American Jews. For many years, the need to maintain good relations with American Jewry overcame the schism between Orthodox Judaism in Israel and Reform and Conservative Judaism, which are much more popular in the United States. After Itim’s claim, it became clear that this changed greatly in recent years. Hundreds of rabbis from the United States have been added to the blacklist of rabbis whose testimony to a person being Jewish was automatically considered invalid by Israeli authorities. The list included Orthodox rabbis who were not conservative enough for the Chief Rabbinate in Israel.

Who are the “recognized” rabbis, and will Proof of Judaism from an unrecognized rabbi be acceptable?

On the Itim website you can find a list of Rabbis residing abroad who are recognized by the Israeli Chief Rabbinate. In other words, these Rabbis have the authority to provide recommendations for Aliyah, and certify conversion to Judaism. The list includes contact info, but may be outdated in certain cases. The Chief Rabbinate’s list is often outdated, and the Rabbinate has no obligation to publicize the updates.

As long as the rabbi is not on the “blacklist” of rabbis whose testimony is considered invalid by default, you can contact the Ministry of the Interior with a document they provided, even if they are not on the list of recognized rabbis. Presumably, a document signed by an Orthodox rabbi would be considered more reliable than a letter from a Conservative rabbi or a female Reform rabbi. Naturally, Messianic Jewish rabbis are not recognized as an authority by the Israeli officials.

What can I do if no rabbi can confirm that I or my family are Jewish?

This problem has become increasingly prevalent in recent years, exacerbating the rift between Israel and Diaspora Jewry. It is important to remember that most of the world’s Jews are not part of a synagogue headed by a “recognized” rabbi. Few have even been in the same community for decades, in such a way that the rabbi of the local synagogue can testify that their family is known to be a part of said synagogue for generations (this is the “minimum” requirement in many cases). Many Jewish citizens of Israel would be unable to prove they are Jewish based on these criteria.

In Jewish tradition, a Jew from a foreign land is acknowledged as Jewish based on their say-so. At present, proof of Judaism has become the key to obtaining citizenship in the State of Israel, and therefore practical requirements have been established to prove an applicant for aliyah is in fact Jewish. However, there’s no practical reason why proof of Judaism cannot be based on documents from a secular institution.

Is it possible to make Aliyah without religious proof of Judaism?

The assertion that a Jew is Jewish only if he believes in Judaism according to a specific halakhah, conforming to the opinion of the rabbinate in Israel, is neither necessary nor logical. Fortunately, the opinion of the religious authorities in this case is not always the determining factor. If you are able to present documents confirming that you are entitled to aliyah on the basis of the Law of Return, even though your family has no connection to a recognized rabbi or Jewish community, let alone a rabbi’s recommendation, our office will be happy to help you qualify for immigration.

For example, many Jews who came from former Soviet Union countries can prove they are Jewish based on their birth certificate. The USSR issued birth certificates that specifically noted the newborn’s ethnic origins, with “Jewish” listed as a separate ethnicity. In such cases, the liaison office (Nativ) in the Prime Minister’s Office is responsible for verifying the reliability of the documents for proof of Judaism.

Contact our Israeli immigration specialists

The Israeli law office of Cohen, Decker, Pex, Brosh specializes in immigration to Israel on the basis of the Law of Return or Aliyah after giyur. Contact our office in Petach Tikva or Jerusalem for information and legal assistance in immigrating to Israel. We have extensive experience working with the Ministry of the Interior.

Proof of Judaism

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