Secular Court Tackles Conversion Case


Is a conversion motivated by financial benefits a valid one? Rabbinic authorities have debated this issue for thousands of years.

This week, in what is believed to be a first, a Manhattan jury considered the question in the context of a breach-of-contract trial.

The sincerity of a conversion obtained by a Catholic-born woman who married a member of a local Orthodox family 26 years ago was a primary fact contested in Lowinger vs. Lowinger, a civil case in New York State Supreme Court.

Kay Lowinger, who was born in Korea and married Louis Lowinger in a secular ceremony in 1974, is suing Edith Lowinger, Louis’ mother, for an unspecified amount of damages. Kay, in her 40s, claims that Edith encouraged her to convert (to enable the couple’s children to enroll in a Jewish day school) with promises of financial and moral support.

Edith, husband of Maurice Lowinger and matriarch of a wealthy Brooklyn family, says she never made the promises.

The case, which went to jury this week after The Jewish Week’s deadline, involved conflicting expert testimony by authorities on Jewish law. Although it is primarily a matter of civil law, centering around the alleged promises rather than the authenticity of Kay’s conversion, the prominence of the conversion question in the jury’s deliberations is part of the growing involvement of secular courts in issues once exclusively religious: recent examples include two New York-area Jewish divorce cases: Chani Lightman is suing two rabbis whom she claimed betrayed her confidence and Chaye Sieger is suing the Agudah Harabbonim of America bet din, or rabbinical court, for libel and fraud. In the Lowinger case, the opposing attorneys likely used the circumstances of the conversion to frame the credibility of their clients, according to a legal source following the case. And while the jury is not ruling on the conversion itself, the party deemed believable in the matter of the conversion might be given the benefit of the doubt regarding the breach of contract.

"I don’t have any problem with the court deciding this complaint so long as the issue does not revolve around the religious validity of her conversion," said David Zwiebel, executive vice president for governmental and public affairs of Agudath Israel of America, an Orthodox umbrella organization. "This is nothing other than a straightforward breach of contract case that happens to have arisen in the context of a commitment that was made in religious context."

The religious question (was her conversion a valid one?) is one for the rabbis to decide," Zwiebel said.

"If the New York State Supreme Court would start to rule on the validity of conversions, that would be a matter of great concern: you would have a church-state problem," said Marc Stern, legal director of the American Jewish Congress. But the Lowinger case is not doing that, he said.

The defense accepts Kay’s conversion, the circumstances of which were questioned during cross-examination, said lead defense attorney Nathan Lewin. "We don’t say she is not a valid convert."

Judaism traditionally has not recognized a conversion done for any reason (money, or marriage to a Jew, for example) other than as a commitment to the religion’s principles.

Zvi Zohar, an expert on Jewish conversion who teaches at Bar-Ilan University in Israel, testified as an expert witness for the plaintiff that a conversion remains valid even if the convert’s reasons for becoming Jewish are later discredited. "This ruling was endorsed by all major and virtually all lesser Jewish legal authorities from Talmudic times to the present," he stated in a written plaintiff’s disclosure.

Rabbi Barry Freundel of Congregation Kesher Israel in Washington, an expert witness for the defendant, who is best known for serving as a spiritual leader of Sen. Joseph Lieberman’s congregation, said Judaism demands a "heartfelt commitment" to the faith. "It is clear," he stated in a written disclosure, "that a conversion based on the promise of monetary reward is invalid. Under Jewish law, the very essence of conversion … is fundamentally undermined if monetary reward is promised for that action."

Kay, a former opera singer and flight attendant in her native land who lived in Westchester after her marriage, said her mother-in-law encouraged her to convert during a conversation in 1980. Kay said she was promised, in return, generous living expenses, a large house, scholarship aid for her children, equal inheritance rights with Edith and Maurice Lowinger’s Jewish-born grandchildren, and acceptance by her other Jewish relatives. "She offered me a family, which I never had" during the marriage."It never happened. There never was any such meeting," Lewin said.There were no witnesses to the conversation, and no written contract.

Kay underwent a conversion in Israel (under the auspices of Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef, one of Israel’s leading religious/political figures) and was subsequently married in a Jewish ceremony, under Orthodox auspices, in 1980. She and her three teenage children, who now live in Manhattan, continue to identify and live as Orthodox Jews, although the couple separated six years ago, says her attorney, Norman Solovay.

The Lowingers were granted a civil divorce, but it has not been finalized and a get, or Jewish divorce, has not been given, Solovay said.

Kay testified that she was emotionally abused, a "virtual prisoner," during her marriage, and has received no financial support from her former in-laws since her marital separation.

Calling Edith and Maurice Lowinger, who run an international import business, "billionaires," Solovay said he can not determine the amount of damages Kay will seek until the Lowingers provide a fuller financial disclosure statement. But the figure will be "in the many millions," he said.