Orthodox conversion dispute goes public
By JANICE ARNOLD • Canadian Jewish News
MONTREAL — Mainstream Orthodox congregational rabbis in Montreal allege that the haredi-dominated Vaad Ha’ir is trying to undermine their authority in conducting conversions, dissuading prospective converts to Judaism from going to them and influencing the chief rabbinate of Israel that their conversions are not as halachically sound as those of the Vaad.
A dispute that has been brewing for a few years has become public with a letter signed by six rabbis of major Orthodox synagogues, including the Montreal president of the Rabbinical Council of Canada (RCC), and published in The CJN Jan. 7, that’s critical of the U.S.-based organization Eternal Jewish Family (EJF), with which the Vaad is associated.
Vaad executive director Rabbi Saul Emanuel said he wasn’t aware of any defamation of the RCC rabbis. “I see no bad feelings whatsoever,” he said.
The letter was issued in the wake of the resignation last month of EJF director and founder Rabbi Leib Tropper, who reportedly had an improper relationship with a woman he was converting. Audiotapes of his phone conversations with the woman suggestive of sexual relations between himself and her, and possibly other men he knew, were posted on the YouTube website.
The six Montreal rabbis who signed the letter, as well as Rabbi Reuben Poupko, believe that this revelation is evidence that EJF is not a credible organization and that the Vaad, in Rabbi Poupko’s words, shows “poor judgment” in aligning with it.
The Vaad’s Rabbi Emanuel said the association is more accurately described as the independent EJF’s “endorsing us, rather than the Vaad choosing to affiliate with EJF” and that approval is due to the Vaad having built up “an exceptionally good reputation around the world over many years. Its conversion program been used as a model by other communities.”
He added, “We are not taking any instruction from EJF. All we’ve done is attend its conferences.”
Rabbi Poupko, of Congregation Beth Israel Beth Aaron, said the issue is not that the mainstream rabbis object to the Vaad doing conversions, it is that they want the “delegitimization” of those performed by RCC-affiliated rabbis to stop.
Rabbi Poupko feels the Vaad and EJF are co-operating to wrest Orthodox conversion out of the hands of the mainstream rabbinate. “EJF and the Vaad are working hand-in-glove. The Vaad has touted its endorsement by EJF like the Good Housekeeping seal of approval.”
The mainstream Orthodox rabbis contend the dispute is not about standards, but rather politics and power.
Rabbi Michael Whitman, one of the signatories to the letter, said EJF began “bad-mouthing” the RCC’s conversions almost immediately after the RCC’s Montreal branch founded its own beit din for conversions. “Their agenda is not to improve conversions or to establish universal standards… It’s to establish who is in and who is out. They want haredim in charge of conversions and no synagogue rabbis involved… Not only do they not accept us, they bad-mouth us.”
They think it would be wise for the Vaad to reconsider its association with EJF, which was founded by Rabbi Tropper in 2005 as an independent organization in Suffern, N.Y., with funding from a private U.S. philanthropist. According to its public information, the EJF’s goal is to standardize conversion procedures, ensuring that they strictly adhere to Jewish law and are acceptable to Israel’s chief rabbinate, which has the power to deem who is a Jew in Israel.
The batei din of the Vaad, as well as of those headed by Rabbi Dovid Shochet in Toronto and Rabbi Avraham Feigelstock in Vancouver, are among the 19 rabbinical courts in the world endorsed by ETJ as meeting “universally accepted standards.”
The EJF website page that listed endorsed batei din was altered slightly last week with the addition: “This list does not imply that other batei din are not reliable.”
Rabbi Dovid Jacobs, ETF’s U.S. executive director, stated, “We do not seek to defame anyone.”
“Batei din are endorsed because they have been researched and we know their standards are universally recognized… I was told the Vaad’s program is over 20 years old and has been very successful.”
The controversy over Rabbi Tropper “does not speak to our policies or standards or directly affected our operations… Has there been PR fallout from it? Obviously, yes.”
EJF’s leading halachic overseer is Rabbi Reuven Feinstein, who has reaffirmed the organization’s mission.
About six years ago, the RCC-affiliated rabbinate in Montreal formed its own beit din for conversions, Rabbi Whitman said, with the approval of the then-chief rabbi of the Vaad’s beit din, the late Rabbi Avraham David Niznik. Up until then, most Orthodox conversions had been done by individual rabbis, Rabbi Whitman said, but it was felt a more centralized approach would be better.
In 2005, Rabbi Yonason Binyamin Weiss, a chassid from Bnei Brak, Israel became deputy head and then head of the Vaad’s beit din upon Rabbi Niznik’s death. He has been a speaker at EJF conferences.
Besides Rabbi Whitman of Congregation Adath Israel Poale Zedek, the letter’s signatories are: Rabbi Schachar Orenstein of the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue, Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz of Congregation Tifereth Beth David Jerusalem, Rabbi Ira Ebbin of Beth Zion Congregation, Rabbi Mordecai Zeitz of Congregation Beth Tikvah and Rabbi Asher Jacobson of Congregation Chevra Kadisha-B’nai Jacob, the RCC president.
They contend Rabbi Tropper and EJF “expended much effort trying to delegitimize others. Through the alliance of individuals and organizations in Montreal with EJF, they have become a dangerously divisive force here in our community.” They write that the RCC’s conversion program has been “relentlessly defamed by EJF for purely political reasons.” The RCC is affiliated with the Rabbinical Council of America.
While the Vaad isn’t named in the letter, Rabbi Whitman confirmed in an interview that this is the local organization being referred to.
The tensions between mainstream congregational rabbis and haredi-dominated groups over conversion is not unique to Montreal, and it mirrors the increasing power of right-wing Orthodoxy in Israel and the intense focus on Jewish authenticity in that country, particularly since the influx of large number of immigrants from the former Soviet Union.
Rabbi Whitman said there’s no doubt that the Vaad and EJF have a “very close relationship” and that he met Rabbi Tropper when he came to a Vaad program in Montreal. Rabbis associated with the Vaad are also engaged in the same defamation, he said.
“This is a large Jewish community, it is not homogeneous and there is room enough for two conversion programs,” Rabbi Whitman said. “We have no objection to the Vaad maintaining their program. We are just asking for mutual respect.”
The Vaad’s Rabbi Emanuel maintains, “There is absolutely no competition with anyone [in conversions]. If they are adhering to true, authentic Torah law, they are welcome.”
He said the existence of two such batei din in Montreal “does seem to be working” and people are free to go to whomever they wish.
RCC converts are accepted in Israel today, Rabbi Whitman said, but it may take some persuasion.
“The situation in Israel is terribly political and the chief rabbinate is not a bastion of integrity. If you ask someone there if our converts are accepted, they will say no. If you ask someone else they say OK. It takes repeated phone calls. The bottom line is they are accepted, but with effort.
“I have had converts who made aliyah or married in Israel, and I have officiated at weddings.”
[Hat Tip: Yisroel Pensack.]