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March 06, 2014

RCA Quietly Voiding Conversions Done Decades Ago In Violation Of Public Promise Not To Do So

RCA logo 2The Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) essentially lied when it said in 2007 that its deal on conversions made with the Chief Rabbinate of Israel would not retroactively call into question or annul conversions done by RCA member rabbis in good standing before that agreement was signed.

 

Writing in an op-ed for the JTA, Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld,the rabbi of Ohev Sholom: The National Synagogue in Washington, DC, shows that the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) essentially lied when it said in 2007 that its deal on conversions made with the Chief Rabbinate of Israel would not retroactively call into question or annul conversions done by RCA member rabbis in good standing before that agreement was signed.

That the RCA essentially lied isn’t exactly news to people who follow these issues closely any more than it would be news to find out that Israel’s chief rabbis lied – parsing language very finely and intentionally misleading the public are two things many rabbis seem to do with alarming frequency.

Herzfeld, who is a close student of Rabbi Avi Weiss, and who is therefore on the left wing of Orthodoxy, shows the RCA’S 2007 promise not to retroactively annul, void or question these conversions was being violated.

To support his case, Herzfeld brings the story of Karen Brunwasser, who last month wrote about what the RCA did to her in The Washington Jewish Week last month.

Brunwasser was converted as an infant in an Orthodox conversion almost 35 years ago.

Recently, her Jewish status was rejected by the Chief Rabbinate of Israel when she tried to marry there. The RCA, through its subsidiary, the Beth Din of America, played a key role in blocking Brunwasser’s marriage.

The beit din that converted Brunwasser was headed by Rabbi David Wachtfogel and was made up of Orthodox rabbis, all of whom were reportedly RCA members who were graduates of Yeshiva University’s rabbinical school.

Rabbi Bernard Rothman, a former vice president of the RCA, reportedly wrote a letter to the Chief Rabbinate vouching for that conversion and praising Wachtfogel as an Orthodox rabbi of the highest standards.

But Wachtfogel and another beit din member worked for time as rabbis in a synagogues that did not have a mechitza separating men and women – something that was very common decades ago. Many of the Orthodox rabbis who worked at those synagogues did so with the explicit permission of Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik – “The Rav,” the rosh yeshiva of Yeshiva University’s rabbinical school and the leading Orthodox rabbi in America.

Until now, conversions by Orthodox rabbis who worked in non-mechitza synagogues were accepted routinely, and that and the RCA’s 2007 insistence that past conversions would not be voided or questioned should have meant that Brunwasser’s conversion was not questioned.

But it was – by the RCA’s Beit Din of America.

On Aug. 11, 2013, Rabbi Michoel Zylberman of the Beth Din of America reportedly the Chief Rabbinate about Brunwasser’s conversion and told the Israelis that the Beit Din of America (and therefore the RCA) did not view Brunwasser as being Jewish.

“We are unable to approve the conversions done by a rabbi who serves in a synagogue without a mechitza. Of course, one can argue with this position and if you want to be lenient here on the basis of other authorities you can do that which is right in your eyes,” Zylberman wrote, meaning that while we supposedly Modern Orthodox Jews in America view Brunwasser as a heathen, you haredi rabbis in Israel can choose to follow some other, more lenient rabbis than us if you want. Far be it from us to question you if you want to be less frum than us moderns.

The Chief Rabbinate responded by probing Rothman’s current status with the RCA. After all, if a senior officer of the rabbinic group vouched for this woman, why would the group itself apparently consider her to be a non-Jew?

“With respect to the letter of Rabbi Rothman in which he is signed as a ‘former Vice-President of the RCA,’ that was twenty years ago and he did not sign in the name of the organization,” Zylberman responded.

The Chief Rabbinate decided to err on the side of caution. It ruled that Brunwasser was not Jewish and could not marry her fiancee or any other Jew in Israel.

Brunwasser picks up her story from here:

…With two weeks to the wedding, Lior pursued back channels via influential connections. A famous, American-born rabbi from the religious Zionist movement wrote a letter; he had studied with the dayanim who converted me. A well-placed friend in the Jerusalem Municipality pulled strings. Colleagues brought the issue to the highest levels of the Chief Rabbinate.

But Rabbi Itamar Tubul, head of the Chief Rabbinate’s personal status division, deferred to an RCA official named Rabbi Michael Zilberman, who wrote that though they were Orthodox, two of the dayanim in question had served congregations that did not have a mechitza (barrier separating men and women) during prayer services. The conversion was invalid.

With three days to the wedding, I entered the beit din. A substitute rabbi sat on the bench; it was late August and most dayanim were on vacation. I answered his questions honestly: I keep a kosher home, attend synagogue periodically, even spent time in a haredi yeshiva, but drive on Shabbat. My case was deemed “too complex” and postponed until the regular dayanim were back the following Sunday.

“But my wedding is this Thursday.”

It did not matter.

Lior could no longer keep our saga from his family. His religious sister blanched, distraught. His parents were most concerned about their future grandchildren. Thankfully, they stood by us.

And then, on the morning before our wedding day, Lior’s phone rang. “Karen, you’re Jewish!”

After 2 1/2 months, I was approved thanks to powerful connections that I unfortunately cannot disclose. On Aug. 29, we had a beautiful, “recognized” chuppah.…

The only two valid halakhic questions are:

1. Was the conversion valid?

2. Did Brunwasser agree to live as an observant Jew when she reached the age of halakhic majority?

Those questions were answered 35 years ago and 22 years ago and the RCA does not have the power halakhicly or morally to un-ring that bell now (especially on extraneous grounds) in order to be more "frum" than their parents' generation.

Soloveitchik would not recognize the increasingly closed, narrow 'Modern' Orthodoxy his students and their students have crafted from the open, liberal Modern Orthodoxy Soloveitchik essentially founded.

And, quite frankly, it's probably good that he didn't live long enough to see it. A human being, even a great one like the Rav, can only take so much suffering.

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Another little snip, snip - dip in the mik that'll do the trick!

I need to make clear that I'm not well educated in Jewish ways - and learn a lot from the articles and various comments here. That said...

I hear that the Talmud tells us not to separate ourselves from the community. Yet that's exactly what these Rabbi's have done. They can make whatever decision they want - without fear of feeling any heat.

Not to compare cases - Karen Brunwasser's sounds very painful - but here in Toronto we've had cases where, according to indirect sources (because you can't get anything directly as authorities are beyond reach and out of site), certain restaurants were going to lose their COR certification. One case downtown, the only kosher place downtown, was threatened a few years back. A bunch of us called up COR to complain about it and the restaurant was spared - without making any apparent changes. I, and others, highly doubt there was any serious transgression to begin with. None was ever articulated.

I found the COR representative to be spineless - not forthcoming on any detail - and offering no explanations whatsoever.

If these Rabbis (just how do they get authority over me?) understood that there would be consequences in the decisions they make - including loss of respect and authority, I think we'd have a lot less nerishkeith and a much stronger, more united community.

We can't afford to lose 1 sincere Jew (especially young ones) but we can certainly dispense with all sorts of "learned" rabbis.

I would question the Jewishness of these "rabbis" since they have invented a religion that simply did not exist 40 or 50 years ago. They are not meant to invent new halachot.

Also, the state of orthodox conversions is a disgrace. It used to be that once someone was converted it was inviolable. Nowadays, someone can be converted, marry and have children and then all of a sudden discover that some rabbi decides that person is not Jewish after all.

This apart from the fact that the rabbis seems to get some perverse thrill out of dragging conversions out for, possibly years.

Back in the day of our biblical forefathers, a person converted simply by adopting Jewish ways. A man would, literally, "take a wife" and she would become Jewish by living with him and adopting his ways.

The rabbis are utterly devoid of compassion, humanity and common sense and this has to change because they are destroying out once-beautiful religion.

We rejected the path of Beit Shammai almost 2,000 years ago. It would seem the orthodox world has decided Beit Hillel wasn't really religious and that their rulings are not to be heeded -- preferring instead to give Shammai a second go.

Any organized religion beyond simple personal faith in some sort of supreme being or creative force which is beyond our understanding is fraught with this kind of thing - like a club founded by little kids who keep changing the rules of membership to keep out the kids they don't like this week or this month. It's impossible to respect such clergy. The whole business is repulsive and detestable.

"Soloveitchik would not recognize the increasingly closed, narrow 'Modern' Orthodoxy his students and their students have crafted from the open, liberal Modern Orthodoxy Soloveitchik essentially founded.

"And, quite frankly, it's probably good that he didn't live long enough to see it. A human being, even a great one like the Rav, can only take so much suffering."

This is disgraceful. I said to someone only today that the Rav must be spinning in his grave.

"We can't afford to lose 1 sincere Jew (especially young ones) but we can certainly dispense with all sorts of 'learned' rabbis."

"I would question the Jewishness of these 'rabbis' since they have invented a religion that simply did not exist 40 or 50 years ago."

"We rejected the path of Beit Shammai almost 2,000 years ago. It would seem the orthodox world has decided Beit Hillel wasn't really religious and that their rulings are not to be heeded -- preferring instead to give Shammai a second go."

Excellent comments.

It's really a pity that a religion that is on the ropes, would do this to past and present converts. What these 'rabbis' are doing ends up as the same result with the nazis, destroying future generations of Jews.

23 years ago, Shmaryah.

So in the end...she's Jewish. All is well.

"23 years ago, Shmaryah.

"So in the end...she's Jewish. All is well."

And the fact that the RCA is attempting to mimic the Chief Rabbinate in voiding conversions decades later apparently bothers you not at all.

The chareidization of Orthodoxy continues. "Fuck halacha, we'll do it our way."

.... the RCA is attempting to mimic the Chief Rabbinate in voiding conversions decades later ....

performed by their own members.
the earth should open and swallow them to were Qorah and his team are.
what a shame.

You guys should follow the link to Herzfeld's article at the JTA website. There are frum commenters trying desperately to dismiss the rabbi as making much ado about nothing.

Frummies, evangelicals, radical Muslims... they're all the same. All that matters is that they get to hold onto the security blanket.

Amazing!
We were just learning exactly this point in Masechet Shabbat on page 56a.
There it discusses a convert who lives among gentiles and their level of liability for transgressing the Shabbat if they never learned about the Misva of Shabbat. Tosafot asks the obvious question."How can someone be converted if they never accepted the Misvoth?"
Tosafot answers that when a Ger is converted by a Bet Din that is sufficient to render the person a Jew even without accepting the Misvoth.
From what understand it should be irrelevant whether or not someone keeps the Misvoth after the have been converted by a Valid Bet Din. They are a Jew in every respect.
I understand that in this case there was a question to the validity of the Bet Din but there was also a question to what her level of Misva observance was.
Personally, I am uncomfortable with insincere conversion but the Halacha is the Halacha and if a valid Bet Din converts someone they are still a Jew even if they eat on Yom Kippur (Chas V'Shalom)

My wife and I are geirim. My geirut was 18 years ago. She did a conservative one 20 years ago, and an orthodox one 17 years ago. Our respective batei dinim were impeccable. Indeed, the president of the RCA who negotiated this agreement was on it! We were hareidi in the US and then spent almost ten years in a hardali community in the shomron. I spent over a decade in yeshivot and kollelim. I also took and passed the rabbinate tests, but then demands for additional proof I was Jewish were demanded even though the rabbinate had told the interior ministry to mark me down as a Jew when we first arrived. They managed to "lose" my file three times and none of the letters my rabbis wrote helped. They basically just went into intransigent Israeli obstruction mode. I ultimately laid down my sword. God -- or at least the Jewish people -- didn't want me to be a rabbi. And, it wasn't just the rabbinate. The municipality we lived in demanded additional paperwork everytime we applied for something people with proteksia were competing for. And the constant suggestions that our born-Jewish daughters would likely be forced to convert "for forms sake" (pasuling them to cohanim in contravention of actual Torah law) by the rabbinate was a regular meme. The voiding of conversions, and having people mess with our family (esp. our children) was simply too much for my wife. She ultimately ripped off her tichel and got on a plane home. She wants nothing to do with the yiddishe-velt. I don't even remotely blame her for it. She desperately wanted a faith community and her heart was broken after two decades in the Jewish world. This was a true-believer who was as extremely hardcore. I had to choose: the frumma or my wife and kids. I chose my wife and kids. I keep kosher, do the mitzvoth, say my tefillot with tallit and tefillin, and learn every day. Its what I do. But I worry about my wife. A person who wants a faith community and doesn't have one? That's someone who will go looking elsewhere... it simply didn't have to be this way.

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