Officials of two major American Orthodox rabbinical organizations maintained today that the conversion of Black basketball star Aulcie Perry, now a member of the Maccabi team in Israel, by a Brooklyn rabbi was invalid. The Jewish Telegraphic Agency reported from Jerusalem that the dispute might lead Agudat Israel to leave the Begin coolition unless Perry’s nationalization certificate is rescinded by the National Religious Party-directed Ministry of the Interior.
The latest dispute in the ongoing controversy over the validity of conversions outside of Israel was touched off by officials of the Tel Aviv Hapoel Club, inveterate rivals of the Maccabi. The Hapoel officials wrote to the Union of Orthodox Rabbis of the United States and Canada (UOR) asking about the validity of Perry’s conversion.
The issue this time was not the customary Reform-Conservative versus Orthodox dispute but the validity of the conversion performed by Rabbi Haim Rabinowitz, who heads a rabbinical court (Beth Din), “Tifereth Israel,” in Brooklyn and who describes himself in advertising in a local English-Jewish weekly as Dean of the Rabbinical Academy of America.
Along with the letter, the Hapoel officials sent the UOR a photocopy of Perry’s conversion certificate. The document listed Rabbi Rabinowitz as the head of the Beth Din and was signed by the Beth Din.
The text of the reply by the UOR, made available to the JTA here, signed by Rabbi Haim Zvi Kruger, chairman of the UOR family law commission, dated Oct. 28, read:
“In reply to your letter of Oct. 5, 1978, regarding Aulcie Perry, as to whether he is considered a ger holachah (convert according to Jewish religious law), we wish to reply that in general all conversions of the man who converts and his Beth Din which is mentioned in the cerficiate hereby enclosed (the photocopy of the Perry conversion certificate from Rabinowitz) has no validity whatsoever and you cannot rely on them in anything. And we do not recognize Aulcie Perry as one who entered the Jewish religion by the officiation of the man who converted him and his Beth Din aforementioned.”
SEEKS PROBE OF CONVERSION COURT
Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi Shlomo Goren, discussing the dispute, said in Jerusalem that the Perry conversion court would have to be investigated to determine whether its members conformed to Orthodox requirements, adding the touchstone should be whether they were recognized by the Rabbinical Council of America, reportedly the largest Orthodox rabbinical organization in the United States.
Yediot Achronot, the Israeli afternoon daily, reported from New York that Rabbi Louis Bernstein, a former president of the Rabbinical Council, said the Tifereth Israel Beth Din was not recognized by any Orthodox organization and that there was no way of knowing how valid its conversions might be.
Rabinowitz told the JTA he had been a rabbi for 52 years and that he had been ordained by the late Rabbi Avraham Aaron Yudelovich, whom he described as a one-time Chief Rabbi of New York. He said he was to a member of the UOR or any other Orthodox rabbinical group.
FELT PERRY QUALIFIED FOR CONVERSION
Rabinowitz said he had examined Perry’s knowledge of Jewish lore and concluded he was qualified to become converted. Since Perry had already been circumcised, a ceremony was performed symbolic of a ritual circumcision and Perry underwent immersion in a mikveh, as required for conversion. Rabinowitz said Perry’s conversion took place Aug. 14.
Rabinowitz challenged the rejection of his rabbinic authority to perform conversions and related religious rites, adding that such critics would have to challenge successfully the validity of his ordination. When it was pointed out that Yudelovich was long since dead, Rabinowitz said Yudelovich’s reputation was an accepted fact.
Rabbi Sholom Rivkin, coordinator of the Rabbinical Council Beth Din, said, in commenting on Rabinowitz’s statement to the JTA, that he did not wish to get into any dispute over the validity of Rabinowitz’s ordination. He said what was important was the validity of religious ceremonies performed under Rabinowitz’s auspices.
Rivkin said Jewish religious divorces and conversions performed by Rabinowitz are not accepted by “any authentic rabbinic court in the world” and that the Rabbinical Council had documentation to support that declaration. According to the JTA Jerusalem report, the fact that Perry was Black was adding to the embarrassment, and that Maccabi officials said they feared the incident would be interpreted abroad as one of racial prejudice.
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.