In a precedent-setting ruling that could pave the way for legions of lost Jews to return to the Jewish fold, a top New York rabbinical court has accepted baptismal certificates, civil-war records and government documents as proof that someone is Jewish under Jewish law. Presented with compelling genealogical evidence, the Beit Din, which requested not to be identified by name, ruled in late June that a Missouri woman who was raised in a Christian home need not convert to Judaism because she already is Jewish.
The Orthodox Beit Din, which is of the highest reputation within Orthodox circles, ruled that Wendy Armstrong, a 34-year-old real estate professional from St. Louis, is Jewish under Jewish law because the genealogical paper trail clearly demonstrates that her third great-grandmother along strict maternal lines was Jewish.
For Armstrong, who attended a Methodist church as a child and grew up “celebrating Santa Claus and the E! aster bunny,” the judgment means she doesn’t have to undergo the usual conversion process to become Jewish.
“They basically said, ‘Congratulations, you’re a Jew, welcome home,’ ” she said. “I don’t have to go through a mikvah.”
For Midwest businessman Craig Shapiro, who helped Armstrong prepare her evidence for the Beit Din, the ruling was a test case that clears the way for the launch of Shlach Amee V’yavdonnee, a non-profit organization whose purpose is to help “lost Jews” find their way back to Judaism.
The Beit Din decision could have a huge effect, Shapiro said, because it recognizes for the first time the validity of using records of both Jewish and non-Jewish provenance to prove someone is Jewish.
Shapiro said he hopes to find descendants of Jews who were forcibly converted in centuries past, including child Holocaust survivors, victims of Russian pogroms, and even survivors of the Spanish Inquisition and the Crusades.
“We have a responsibility to ! reclaim our lost brethren,” he said. “We were forced to let them go an d we now have the responsibility to open up the doors to bring them home.”
The phrase Shlach Amee V’yavdonnee is from the Book of Exodus, and translates as, “Let My people go, that they may serve Me.”
The organization plans to place a series of advertisements in various international publications, seeking people who have both a strong attraction to Judaism and a strong suspicion of Jewish ancestry.
Shlach Amee will train a team of Jewish genealogists to do family tree research for respondents who demonstrate a genuine and sustained interest in Judaism, Shapiro said.
Simultaneously, the group will utilize the Chabad Lubavitch organization’s vast international network of rabbis to provide advice, education and spiritual guidance for those who wish to reconnect to Jewish values.
“Once this thing gets going, we’d like to include free trips to Israel,” Shapiro said.
For Armstrong, who had begun researching her family’s genealogy as part of a spiritual quest,! the discovery that her maternal fourth great grandmother was Jewish came to her like a blessing.
Having traced her third great-grandmother to a St. Louis orphanage in 1880, she found that the infant’s father had left a handwritten note in German that was still in the files of the superceding institution.
It had been written by Theodore Menn, a St. Louis saloonkeeper who was forced to give his two daughters to a Christian orphanage after their mother died. He began the note with “B’H, Forgive me please my God,” and beseeched God to “take care of my children.”
Utilizing the common Hebrew shorthand for “Baruch Hashem,” or Blessed is God, the note was the first in a growing series of documents that Armstrong collected to demonstrate her family’s Jewish ancestry.
She also uncovered the record for Theodore Menn’s marriage to Anna Heinrich, her fourth great-grandmother, which was performed by an Orthodox rabbi in Quincy, Ill. in 1865.
A third Menn daughter, who! did not go to the orphanage, was married by an Orthodox rabbi in Troy , N.Y. in 1919. Civil war pension records also were used to confirm that another relative on the maternal line married a Jewish partner.
Surname experts have determined that the name Hersz, which is found in Armstrong’s maternal line, was used exclusively by Jews.
“Once I found out that my family was Jewish, it was like a light bulb went on,” said Armstrong, who began taking classes, attending synagogue, lighting Shabbat candles and becoming increasingly observant in other ways. “I just got it. It was like, ‘A-ha!’ It was an eye-opening experience.”
Armstrong said the court ruling also has significance for her siblings and cousins because it also recognizes them as Jewish. Some have shown indifference, while others have been greatly enthusiastic, she said.
“They were so touched by what I was doing that they actually went out and bought menorahs last Chanukah so their kids would know about the Jewish connection,” she said.
While doing some on-line research a! t the genealogical website JewishGen.com, Armstrong discovered that a branch of her family had died at Auschwitz.
Explaining the emotional reaction of several family members, she told her rabbi, “It’s one thing when it happens to other people; it’s another thing when it happens to you.”
Armstrong and Shapiro turned to noted New Jersey Jewish genealogist and publisher Gary Mokotoff to prepare a 25-page report of her Jewish ancestry for the Beit Din.
Mokotoff said he was “very excited” about the court decision “because it now opens the doors for genealogical research to be used as the basis for people who are halachically Jewish to return to Judaism.”
Bolstered by the rabbinical ruling, Shlach Amee could begin to spark a major ingathering of Jewish exiles over the next generation, said Rabbi Chaim Mentz, a Shlach Amee adviser who is spiritual leader of Chabad of Bel Air Congregation in Los Angeles.
“Twenty or 30 years from now, we could be bringing home hund! reds of thousands of Jews,” Mentz said. “Imagine all the schools and s ynagogues that might be built as a result of the outgrowth of the community.”
Many Christians could become more sympathetic to Jewish interests after recognizing their genealogical connection to the Jewish world, Mentz said.
Shapiro also predicted a rosy future for the organization.
“Our goal internationally is to find six million Jews in 18 years,” he said. “But even if we bring one Jew back, it will be worth it. Even one Jew will make a difference.”
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.