One of first times that 2½-year-old Ada Hammer-Hall saw her father cry, she didn’t understand what was happening.
“Daddy, what’s wrong?” she asked, sitting next to him in Congregation Beth Shalom’s synagogue during Saturday morning prayers on July 15.
Chris Hall, Ada’s father, was too choked-up to answer. He had just found out that his rabbi, Rabbi Seth Adelson, had been singled out by the Chief Rabbinate of Israel. Rabbi Adelson is one of 160 rabbis who no longer had the power, in the eyes of the rabbinate, to rule on the question of who is a Jew.
“Judaism is a thing that I reached out for, chose and worked for,” said Mr. Hall, who heads the adult learning program at Beth Shalom. “And to have someone who has never met me, say, ‘No, that is not yours’? It’s a very personal rejection.”
The “blacklist,” as it has come to be called, affects Mr. Hall more than many other Jews in Pittsburgh because he converted to Judaism as an adult. He spent five years struggling to find harmony as an interfaith couple with his wife, Jessica Hammer, who was raised in an Orthodox Jewish community.
Eventually, he found himself drawn to Judaism and converted at a Conservative synagogue in New York City. Not all Orthodox communities would recognize Mr. Hall as Jewish because he did not convert with an Orthodox rabbi, which is why the list personally affects him.
Conservative Judaism subscribes to Jewish law, as derived from the Torah, just like Orthodox, but subject to historical development.
“To a lot of eyes, the rabbinate in particular, I am not Jewish,” Mr. Hall said, his words catching in his throat. “This makes me feel so rejected from Judaism.”
After the list surfaced in mid-July, the director-general of the rabbinate, Moshe Dagan, issued a clarification. He wrote that the list was not intended to be a denouncement of the individual rabbis themselves, but rather a list of rabbis whose letters vouching for the Jewishness of people wanting to be married in Israel would not be recognized by the rabbinate.
Rabbi Adelson is one of the three Pittsburgh rabbis on the list. The other two are Rabbi Yaier Lehrer of Congregation Adat Shalom in the Fox Chapel area and Rabbi Stephen Steindel, rabbi emeritus of Beth Shalom. Rabbi Adelson does not remember writing any such vouching letters. He has no idea why his name was on the list, although he is not surprised.
“The list itself changes nothing to begin with, because I don’t really think they would have accepted my testimony of proof of someone’s Jewishness in general,” he said. “They don’t think I qualify enough as a rabbi because I lead a Conservative congregation.”
This list is far from the first source of tension between diaspora Jews and the rabbinate. In June, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, under pressure from the most Orthodox political parties in Israel, reneged on a promise to create a gender-inclusive and religiously pluralistic prayer space at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. A week later, the Israeli parliament approved a bill that would grant the rabbinate sole authority over conversions performed in Israel.
“This is a shot across the bow, an attempt to embarrass and shame people,” Rabbi Adelson said. “Maybe they think that by doing so, they’ll bring people around to their perspective. But it’s a turnoff to American Jews.”
Both of these actions outraged many American Jews, who often belong to more gender-inclusive congregations and are welcoming of those who choose to convert to Judaism.
“The underlying policy of the rabbinate is to delegitimize the interests of non-Orthodox Jews,” Mr. Hall said, explaining his perspective. “Their fundamental premise is that orthodoxy is the only legitimate way to be Jewish.”
Mr. Hall, like many other Jewish educators in the United States, encourages pluralism and argument as intrinsic to Jewish practice. Unlike many European countries, which have a chief rabbi, the United States does not have a centralized governing body on Jewish life.
“Rabbinic Judaism relies on a diversity of opinions and argument,” Rabbi Adelson said. “We have no pope. We have no single authority. And that’s been a strength throughout history.”
Joshua Sayles, who works with the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, would agree.
“It’s that old joke, two Jews, three opinions. It’s funny, but it’s true,” he said. “The Jewish community, like so many other communities, fights internally all the time, but it’s critically important that we recognize that there’s something much larger that unites us.”
For Rabbi Adelson, the list is a call to Pittsburgh Jews to strengthen their ties to Israel. He takes great pride in the strong partnership Pittsburgh has with one of its sister cities, Karmiel, in the north of Israel. For Rabbi Adelson, this list represents a political frustration rather than a threat to his connection to Israel.
It’s a much different story for Mr. Hall, who fears for the future of his family.
“When we run into some report about anti-Semitism, we always say, ‘If all else fails, we can go to Israel,’ ” he said, his voice catching. “If something were to happen to Jessica, I am not confident that Israel would take me in as a Jew. I have great confidence that the alt-right here would consider me Jewish. But if something happened to Jessica and we needed to leave, Ada and I might be completely on our own.”