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Ethiopian Israeli suing rabbi for casting doubt on her Jewishness

CM 21/04/2021

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A mikveh (ritual bath) attendant in the city of Kiryat Motzkin is suing the municipal chief rabbi there for NIS 500,000 in damages for the shame he caused her in publicly asserting that she was not Jewish.The plaintiff is a religious Jewish woman of Ethiopian descent who has been employed as a certified mikveh attendant by the Kiryat Motzkin Religious Council since 2016.Between 2016 and 2018, the Kiryat Motzkin Municipal Chief Rabbi David Meir Druckman accused her of not being Jewish, because she had not converted to Judaism when she immigrated to Israel.In 1973 the revered late ultra-Orthodox leader and preeminent arbiter of Jewish law Rabbi Ovadia Yosef ruled that the Beta Israel Jewish community from Ethiopia was Jewish.The Chief Rabbinate originally required pro forma conversion for Beta Israel, this policy was changed in 1989, although it took until 2020 for the Chief Rabbinate to formally adopt Yosef’s ruling.Back in 2016, Druckman called the mikveh attendant directly and asked her if she had undergone conversion.She explained to him however that there was no need, pointing to her marriage certificate from the Chief Rabbinate from 1993 as proof that she was accepted as Jewish.

Nevertheless, Druckman sent messages via Whatsapp to various people and groups informing them that if they immersed in the mikveh where the “Ethiopian mikveh attendant” worked they should ask a rabbi whether their immersion was religiously valid because “the mikveh attendant did not convert.”In another Whatsapp message he told women who had recently immersed in the mikveh that they should “call me urgently because there is a particular problem in religious law with that mikveh.”Druckman also took out an ad in a local newspaper saying that since officials running the mikveh were not listening to his instructions the Kiryat Motzkin rabbinate no longer was responsible for what happened there.He added: “May it be His will that we merit purity in accordance with Jewish law.”In its lawsuit, Itim, the religious services organization representing the mikveh attendant, said that she stayed at home for a month and a half after being shamed by Druckman due to the public embarrassment he had caused her.She said she heard her neighbors and acquaintances gossip about her and had to “answer their embarrassing questions about her Judaism,” that she stopped attending synagogue because of Druckman’s allegations, and that her children were shamed in their neighborhood.She was eventually able to return to work but sought redress for Druckman’s actions against her.Since 2018, Itim sent several requests to four different justice ministers – Ayelet Shaked, Amir Ohana, Avi Nissenkorn, and Benny Gantz – asking them to give authority to the Chief Rabbinate to initiate disciplinary procedures against the rabbi, but never received any response.In the absence of any consequences for the actions of the rabbi, Itim filed for damages in the Haifa Regional Labor Court on behalf of the mikveh attendant.“This case is but one example of the discrimination members of the Ethiopian-Israeli Jewish community face on an ongoing basis,” said Itim director Rabbi Seth Farber.“They are repeatedly forced to defend their Jewish identities and their rightful place in Israeli society, despite the rulings of halachic experts like Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, who unequivocally ruled that Ethiopians’ Jewish identities were not in question.”Farber said he accepted the right of any rabbi not to accept the Jewishness of the Beta Israel, but asserted that such a rabbi could not then work for the Chief Rabbinate or local state rabbinates since its policy was clearly that the Beta Israel are fully Jewish.This current case follows other incidents of discrimination against Jewish Ethiopian-Israelis, such as the 2019 incident in which a group of Ethiopian-Israeli workers at the Barkan Winery were barred from touching or working with the wine since an independent, ultra-Orthodox kashrut licensing authority, the Eda Haredit, held that they were not Jewish and that it was therefore forbidden for them to handle kosher wine.In a response to the petition made to the Walla news site, Druckman said that “the mikveh attendant had been accepted by the head of the religious council and she skipped over several fitting candidates who were ahead of her in line.”He added that “I will not reject a candidate because she is Ethiopian, but at the same time, I will not accept a candidate just because she is Ethiopian.”He said that he had set a meeting with her to examine her on the laws of immersion but that she had not turned up for the meeting.“How can I as a rabbi approve a mikveh attendant whose knowledge of Jewish law I do not know.”
Source: Jerusalem Post

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