On Again, Off Again Conversion Agreement


A long-awaited agreement between America’s centrist Orthodox rabbinical group and Israel’s chief rabbinate on standards for conversion to Judaism remains fragile and may still be scuttled. Even the leading players involved contradict each other as they dispute the exclusive right to certify rabbis as fit to perform conversions in the U.S.

The head of the Rabbinical Council of America, Rabbi Basil Herring, suddenly canceled a press conference scheduled for Monday in New York to announce the agreement after representatives of the chief rabbinate said in the Israeli press that their office would demand approval of rabbis who want to oversee Orthodox conversions in the U.S.

Rabbi Yitzhak Peretz, who works in the office of Chief Sephardic Rabbi Shlomo Amar, told The Jewish Week, “We take issue with some of the rabbis in some of the rabbinical courts.” He declined to elaborate.

Rabbi Peretz also said that diaspora rabbis who have never served in a rabbinical court before must travel to Israel, where their credentials will be carefully scrutinized, and they will have to pass an examination administered by a panel of three rabbinical court judges.

Such a procedure seems unrealistic and contradicts the document of conversion policies and standards put together by the RCA, which believed it had received the chief rabbi’s approval. It states that the New York-based organization will approve the judges, or dayanim, to oversee conversions. In an interview Tuesday, Rabbi Herring said, “We believe we have worked together on this over the past year in good faith. Clearly it’s a very, very delicate matter involving many people and many sensitive matters. Therefore, like any such agreement, anything can happen.”

At the RCA’s annual convention, held this week at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Battery Park City, there were several presentations about the joint conversion agreement, and a great deal of passionate debate, said rabbis present.

While many of the RCA’s 950 members support the organization’s desire to have the Israeli rabbinate’s approval for conversions, some find repugnant the notion that Israel’s rabbinate — a powerful, government-funded institution renowned for its rigidity — would be in any way involved in U.S. conversions. Off the record, several rabbis said it would be a major mistake for the RCA to give in to the chief rabbinate’s demands.

Ironically, though, it was the chief rabbinate’s office that balked at what seemed to be a done deal.

One leading rabbi willing to speak publicly about why he believed the RCA-drafted agreement was a blunder was Marc Angel, a former president of the RCA and spiritual leader of Congregation Shearith Israel on the Upper West Side. He called the proposed agreement “an entire capitulation to the most extreme haredi view.” It counters a long tradition of individual rabbis shepherding their candidates along the path to becoming Jewish, said Rabbi Angel, author of the book “Choosing to be Jewish: The Orthodox Road to Conversion” (Ktav 2005). With this agreement, “the rabbinate in Israel with the RCA’s entire approval has deprived Orthodox rabbis from functioning as rabbis in the area of conversion.”

He said he receives “literally hundreds of calls e-mails and letters from potential converts, and the rejection they face in Orthodox batei din [religious courts] is heartbreaking, a crime against the Jewish people.”

“Those rabbis [in Israel] don’t seem to care about the hearts and souls of these people who want to have Jewish families, to have Jewish children. What they’re interested in saying is ‘we have standards, either you make it our way or not at all.’ It’s an ugly face for Orthodoxy, and a shame for Orthodoxy,” said Rabbi Angel.

The document outlining the new standardized policies to govern conversions under the auspices of RCA-approved rabbinical courts mandates the steps a candidate for membership in the Jewish people must take.

For Jewish parents wishing to convert a newly adopted child, for instance, the agreement requires they belong to an Orthodox synagogue within walking distance of their home; commit to 12 years of Orthodox day school education in a school approved by the rabbinical court for the child; and fully observe Shabbat and kashrut.

If the parents can only commit to “significant observance of Shabbat” but completely observe kashrut and have a positive attitude toward full mitzvah observance, the child may still be converted, but an explanatory memo will be included in his or her conversion file.

The agreement is about a year in the making, and was sparked by the chief rabbi’s rejection of conversions overseen by some American Orthodox rabbis.

Rabbi Barry Freundel, chairman of the RCA committee that developed the policies and standards statement, said that the rabbinical organization was starting to plan regional rabbinic courts anyway. “We got reports from rabbis who had come under very strong pressure from people saying ‘you’ve got to convert this person, you’ve got to convert that person.’ We were trying to create a more objective structure,” he said.

“When the problem developed on the question of acceptance of Orthodox conversions, we said we would like to work as a partnership. They are the gatekeepers for acceptance in Israel, and we’ve created something that will be universally acceptable so that converts and others don’t have to worry.”

In a letter to Rabbi Herring this week, Rabbi Amar assured him that “all dayanim and rabbis previously recognized by the chief rabbinate will continue to be recognized.”

Still, it remains to be seen whether that statement will apply to rabbis whose conversions were recognized by the rabbinate previously, but whose names do not appear on a short list compiled by Rabbi Amar when he entered office.

RCA officials do not know which of their members is or isn’t on that list, said Rabbi Herring.

The problem “is that the chief rabbinate is seeking to exert its authority over diaspora Jewry without a full understanding of the evolution and character of that community,” said Rabbi Seth Farber, the director of ITIM, an Israeli organization that assists people there with their religious needs.

American Jewry “isn’t centralized” around a chief rabbinate “the way Israel is. This means that community rabbis play a much more significant role in defining `Jewish’ in American life than their counterparts do in Israel,” said Rabbi Farber.

In Israel, he noted, the rabbinate has sole authority over all matters related to Jewish marriage, divorce, conversion, kashrut, mikvahs, and in most cases, burial. It and it alone receives state funding for its rabbis and institutions.

In Israel, Orthodox converts are still being reviewed on a case-by-case basis, said Rabbi Farber. “There should be an immediate agreement that protects converts until such time as a final agreement is resolved,” he said. “The seeming chaos is untenable.”

Debra Nussbaum Cohen is a staff writer; Michele Chabin is an Israel correspondent.