This past March, Republican presidential candidate-to-be Donald Trump attended the annual conference of the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee. There, Trump told the Jewish audience that his daughter Ivanka was about to have a “beautiful Jewish baby.”
Neither Ivanka’s father, nor her Czech-American mother, Ivana Trump, are Jewish. Ivanka Trump is a convert to Orthodox Judaism.
In 2009, Ivanka Trump converted to Orthodox Judaism with influential Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, spiritual leader of one of the richest and preppiest synagogues of New York City, Kehilat Jeshurun. The main reason for Ivanka’s conversion was her wedding with real estate tycoon and publisher Jared Kushner. Kushner is CEO of Kushner Companies, a real estate developer based in New Jersey. He also owns the upscale weekly newspaper New York Observer.
The Kushner family belongs to Orthodox Judaism, in its modern brand. Jared’s father, Charles Kushner, funded the buildings of Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy and Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School, two Modern Orthodox educational institutions in Livingston, NJ. His father had been a big political player in New Jersey politics, until his downfall and conviction for making illegal campaign donations, tax evasion and witness tampering.
Ivanka’s conversion was not exempt of controversy. According to sources, the main Orthodox rabbinical court in Manhattan, headed by Rabbi Zvi Romm, rejected to move ahead with her conversion just before her wedding. The causes seem to have been related to Ivanka’s purported lax observance of Jewish precepts—a critical point required for Orthodox converts. Romm would have requested a stricter observance of Jewish precepts.
Lookstein, who also officiated Ivanka’s Jewish wedding, provided what in Orthodox circles is called a private conversion. These kinds of conversions are performed outside the rabbinical courts and are sponsored by the main Orthodox rabbinical body, the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA). These conversions are not exempt of risks. Recently, Rabbi Lookstein has seen how the local court of Petah Tikvah in Israel invalided one of his conversions.
Ivanka has been very secretive on her conversion and Orthodox Jewish lifestyle. The only hint to her Jewish life appeared partially in an interview for Vogue. Ivanka did not respond or request for comment. She tries to shield her Jewish life from the public.
And she has good reasons to do so.
The world of Orthodox converts is an underworld of stringencies, arbitrariness, abuse, mistreatment, and stigmatization. Being an Orthodox convert means getting into trouble. Those who choose to convert to Judaism through Orthodox rabbis are normally challenged by one of the hardest tests ever planned by religious zeal. The conversion process, which can last many years, is supervised by a personally appointed rabbi and a rabbinical court of three rabbis, a beit din. Rabbinic law encourages to formally reject candidates up to three times. Those admitted by the beit din have then to study Jewish law in its entirety, minhagim, the customs, Hebrew, and pass oral examinations. The adoption of an observant lifestyle is also requested—normally the most stringent one. If the process is successful, at the sole discretion of the beit din, the candidate will have a legal conversion certificate and dunk in the Jewish ritual bath, the mikvah. In the case of male converts, they will also need to be circumcised.
On the other side of Ivanka’s merry Jewish life we find Bethany Mandel.
Mandel is also an Orthodox Jewish convert. She converted in 2011 at the rabbinic court of Washington D.C., with Rabbi Barry Freundel. Freundel became infamous for his passion to record most of his female converts in the local Jewish ritual bath. On May 15, 2015, Freundel was found guilty of 52 misdemeanor counts of voyeurism and sentenced to six and a half years of prison. (Many more cases fell outside the three-year statute of limitations). Mandel was one of the victims.
Freundel’s case is one of the most relevant cases of abuse of Jewish converts in the history of the US. Ironically, he himself was the architect of the current guidelines for Orthodox conversions adopted by Beth Din of America—an organization created by the Rabbinical Council of America. This umbrella organization centralizes all the Rabbinic courts authorized by the RCA to perform “kosher” conversions. It was set up in 2008 among controversy and strong opposition from prominent liberal Orthodox rabbis, who publicly defied the decision and continued performing conversions “outside the system.”
The new system theoretically stripped the right of Orthodox rabbis to perform conversions on their own, as it had traditionally been. The Chief Rabbinate of Israel and its stringent and conservative policies on conversions had been pushing for this move. In 2008, Freundel defended that the system would protect converts from abuse and arbitrariness. Freundel scandal has demonstrated exactly the opposite.
In October 2014, right after the scandal broke, Bethany Mandel posted her bill of rights for Jewish converts. It went viral. She became the presumptive voice of Freudel’s victims. Slowly, she also assumed the role of spokeswoman of all Orthodox Jewish converts. She soon paved her way into the committee the RCA created to review Freundel’s conversion guidelines. She joined the committee together with rabbis and several other women, including another convert, Evelyn Fruchter. At the 2015 RCA annual convention, Mandel expressed in front of a substantial part of American Modern Orthodox rabbis that they had failed converts.
When the review committee published its final report, the conclusion was clear: the centralized system of rabbinical courts has to remain untouched. The committee did not adopt any substantial change of the conversion guidelines that Freundel created. Even more: despite her strong criticism aimed to rabbis and the entire Orthodox Jewish community, Mandel began defending the same system that wronged her.
At this point, Bethany Mandel went for Ivanka Trump.
Mandel, a staunch neoconservative, has voiced her opposition to the conversions performed by those prominent liberal Orthodox rabbis opposing the centralization of the conversion system. Her preferred target is, of course, Ivanka Trump. She labels her conversion as “privilege,” a shortcut to Orthodox Judaism. With her attack, Mandel is not only targeting Ivanka, but also a large number of Orthodox rabbis who are disaffected by the conversion system and the increasingly stringent approach of the RCA. The Orthodox conversion crisis is just one more example of how divided Orthodox Judaism is.
Ivanka Trump and Bethany Mandel are two iconic faces of 21st-century Orthodoxy in the US. They also are the two opposed faces of the Modern Orthodox Jewry: the establishment (Mandel) and the new currents (Trump). Both are women. Despite their differences, Trump and Mandel represent the most serious, revolutionary trend in Orthodox Judaism: the rise of women.
According to the final report of the RCA review committee, 78% of converts using the centralized conversion system are women. One of the most divisive issues in Orthodox Judaism is the role of women as educated spiritual leaders and Jewish law adjudicators. Located in the Bronx, Yeshivat Maharat is the first Orthodox rabbinical seminary to ordain women to synagogue pulpits in America. His founder and spiritual leader, Rabbi Avi Weiss, was tempted to name the first Orthodox women Rabbis as “rabba.” After his first—and sole—attempt in 2010, the controversy which followed suggested a less confrontational approach. The acronym “maharat” was retained. It means “Leader of Jewish law, spirituality and Torah.” It is a rather complicated euphemism. The ordination of women functioning as Orthodox Rabbis was just a matter of time since talmudic and pararabbinical education for women was establish around 1977 at Yeshiva University—the leading Orthodox Jewish higher education institution.
At the same time, egalitarian Orthodox prayer services are beginning to pop up. New York hosts one of the most successful egalitarian Orthodox services, Darkhei Noam. While maintaining the division between men and women, this egalitarian service allows women to read the sacred scrolls of the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, and lead prayers.
Orthodox Judaism is slowly leaving its men-only status. The attempts of more conservative streams of Modern Orthodoxy in the United States to stop the rise of women are miserably failing. Women are assuming more and more roles in Modern Orthodox synagogues. Even the Freundel scandal shows that arbitrariness towards women has clear limits—and devastating consequences. Of course, the conservative-minded RCA rabbis will try to keep things the way they are. They can even engage some women to their side in this battle—like Bethany Mandel.
Numbers matter. Orthodox Jewish converts are already overwhelmingly dominated by women. The recently established Orthodox Converts Network is led by two women—Jenna Englender and Rebekah Thornhill. Despite the hopes, this organization for converts seems to reproduce the same behavior patterns. It has been accused of vetoing other Orthodox converts—none other than Bethany Mandel. In Facebook comments from 2014, Mandel denounced the situation and reached the conclusion that the Orthodox Converts Network was not “kosher” enough. Women may act as leaders in many areas of Orthodox Jewish life. But their irruption tends to faithfully reproduce men politics and its vices.
Ivanka’s odds are linked to a group of women that is becoming very relevant in Orthodox Judaism. She fits very well in these new leading roles. Like Bethany Mandel, she enjoys her Jewish role despite her diffident attitude. And, yes, her father’s sudden political fame does not help either.
The rise of women in Orthodox Judaism was a kind of natural outcome after the direction that Modern Orthodoxy took decades ago. Women’s access to Jewish leadership is a matter of justice. It needs to be fully supported. It is now time to assess if women’s leadership can make the difference in Orthodox Judaism with new practices and a transformative approach. The core issue still is how to change Modern Orthodoxy according to its foundational values. In the end, what Orthodox Judaism needs is a renewed leadership—men or women with open ideas and sound practices.