JERUSALEM—When Hillary Rubin immigrated from the U.S. to Israel, the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors and descendant of a famed Zionist visionary felt that she had finally arrived in her true home.
But now that religious authorities are questioning the 29-year-old Michigan native’s Jewish pedigree and refusing to recognize her marriage, she’s having second thoughts.
Rubin is at the center of a deepening rift between the world’s two biggest Jewish communities—the American and Israeli. Religious life in Israel is dominated by the strict ultra-Orthodox establishment, which has growing political power and has become increasingly resistant to any inroads by the more liberal movements that predominate among American Jews.
Many Americans—whose faith is seen by the ultra-Orthodox as blurred by intermarriage and fading adherence to tradition—are feeling rejected and unwelcome.
“I feel like I am caught in the middle of these two worlds,” said Rubin, who was raised in a liberal Jewish home in a Detroit suburb. “On the one hand I’m far too traditional for American society. On the flip side, I am not religious enough for the rabbinate in Israel.”
It’s a far cry from the days when American Jews looked to Israel as a source of pride and inspiration and Israel could rely on America’s Jews as a source of unconditional moral support and fundraising. With ultra-Orthodox Jews the fastest growing sector in Israel, often holding the balance of power in coalition governments, open strains between the communities are now far more common.
Over the summer, a proposed law that would have consecrated the Orthodox monopoly over conversion in Israel caused an uproar among Diaspora Jews. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was forced to shelve the bill in hopes of finding a compromise.
Last week, American and Israeli Jewish leaders held a conference in Jerusalem aiming at ironing out their differences. But the closed-door sessions were tense and all sides stuck to their positions, said one participant, American Rabbi Jerome Epstein, of the Conservative movement.
He warned that the conflict could “tear the people apart” if no compromise is found.
“There are a lot of Americans who normally would not get involved in Israeli politics but who are saying, ‘What you are doing is delegitimizing me. It is not enough to want my support and want my money, you have to be willing to recognize me as a human being and as a Jew,’ and they feel that is not happening,” he said.
The two communities are at odds over everything from religious rituals to gender roles. But the issues of marriage and conversion most concretely raise concern among American Jews that they are judged as not Jewish enough for Israel.
The more liberal Reform and Conservative movements, which dominate American Jewish life, are more inclusive toward converts and inter-faith marriages. More than half of American Jews marry outside the faith.
Chelsea Clinton’s marriage last summer to Marc Mezvinsky, who is Jewish, showed just how well assimilated U.S. Jews have become. Many American Jews were quietly proud of their homegrown son, who, in a skullcap and prayer shawl, wed the former First Daughter in a ceremony performed by a Reform Rabbi and a Protestant minister.
But to many in Israel, Mezvinsky seemed to break more than a glass at the wedding. The inter-faith ceremony—held on the Sabbath in violation of Jewish law, to boot—encapsulated fears that assimilation is emptying the religion of content and devastating its numbers.
In Israel, despite its secular majority, ultra-Orthodox rabbis strictly govern Jewish practices such as weddings, burials or conversions and only allow them for those who meet Orthodox definitions of a Jew. Israel grants citizenship to any Jew—Reform, Conservative or Orthodox—but once in Israel, many who consider themselves Jewish cannot get married or have a Jewish burial.
Rubin’s story shows just how deep the gulf has become.
When she went to the Orthodox rabbinate to register for a marriage certificate, the authorities wouldn’t accept the documents she produced or the assurances of her American rabbi that she was indeed Jewish, despite her famous lineage.
The government only recognizes Orthodox marriage and Israel has no civil marriage. So after holding an informal ceremony with a Conservative rabbi, Rubin and her fiance—who is also Jewish—were forced to officially tie the knot in nearby Cyprus to be recognized as married in Israel.
“It terrifies me that this is the direction we are going. This is not a democratic Jewish state. It is becoming a tyrannical Jewish state,” said Rubin, whose great-uncle was Nahum Sokolow, one of the pioneers of early 20th century Zionism.
Seth Farber, an Orthodox rabbi and director of a group that helps Israelis navigate the rabbinical bureaucracy, said the threshold for proving one’s Judaism has risen alongside the rise in ultra-Orthodox power.
“The biggest danger is that the Israeli body politic will allow the Jewish people to be disenfranchised by giving the ultra-Orthodox all the keys to Jewish identity,” he said.
The majority of Israelis appear at odds with their religious authorities.
According to a recent survey conducted for Israel’s Ministry of Diaspora Affairs, 63 percent of Israelis believe those converted by non-Orthodox rabbis should be regarded as Jews. The Shiluv pollster questioned a random selection of 507 Israelis and gave a margin of error of 4.5 percentage points.
But Moshe Gafni, an ultra-Orthodox lawmaker whose party is a key coalition member in Netanyahu’s government, vows that Israel will not allow what he calls Chelsea Clinton-like weddings and “make-it-up-as-you-go” Judaism.
“We are not saying that someone who is Reform or Conservative is not Jewish. But they can’t change the order of things here in Israel,” he said. “The average Israeli wants the country to abide by the Jewish tradition … You can’t take the things most sacred to us and tear them to shreds.”