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