NEW YORK (JTA) — The Rabbinical Council of America denied a prominent rabbi’s accusation that it is actively negating past conversions.
The Orthodox rabbinic organization issued a statement Friday responding to a JTA opinion article criticizing the group written by Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld. His article, published Thursday, accused the RCA and its Beth Din of America of “retroactively negating and rooting out converts who were for decades fully integrated into the Orthodox Jewish community.”
In their statement, the RCA’s president, Rabbi Leonard Matanky, and the Beth Din of America’s director, Rabbi Shlomo Weissmann, disputed this characterization.
“At no time have the RCA or the Beth Din proactively sought to reevaluate conversions; that is not our interest or desire,” they wrote. “However, Halachah does have its standards, and we have acted and will continue to act as a source of information to those rabbinic agencies which seek to determine if halachic standards have been upheld.”
The two officials added that the RCA’s current conversion protocols “have facilitated the acceptance of U.S. conversions throughout the world.”
Herzfeld, the rabbi of Ohev Sholom: The National Synagogue in Washington, cited the case of a woman, Karen Brunwasser, who had been converted to Judaism as an infant by a beit din, or rabbinic court, but had difficulty getting the Israeli Chief Rabbinate to recognize her conversion so she could marry. Brunwasser wrote about her experience in The Washington Jewish Week.
An RCA official, she wrote, had raised questions with the Chief Rabbinate about the Orthodox rabbis who converted her because they had served congregations that lacked a mechitza separating men and women. While the Israeli Chief Rabbinate eventually accepted her conversion, she attributed this victory to “powerful connections” who intervened on her behalf.
Herzfeld, in his JTA article, cited correspondence about Brunwasser’s case between the Israeli Chief Rabbinate and the Beth Din of America. In an email to the Chief Rabbinate, Rabbi Michoel Zylberman of the Beth Din of America wrote: “We are unable to approve the conversions done by a rabbi who serves in a synagogue without a mechitza.”
Zylberman continued: “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.”
While not commenting on any specific case because of confidentiality policies, the RCA officials in their statement wrote that “it is only natural, as a responsible local presence of halachic authority, that we are a resource for rabbinical agencies, in Israel and worldwide.”