(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
The Diaspora's largest rabbinic organization settled a dispute Wednesday night with the Chief Rabbinate over conversion procedures that had threatened to shed doubt on the validity of dozens, perhaps hundreds, of American converts to Orthodox Judaism.
Chief Sephardi Rabbi Shlomo Amar and the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) agreed to establish a joint commission that would draft a mutually agreed-upon list of rabbinic courts authorized to perform conversions.
The commission is also to draft new directives for conversion procedures in America. Both the list and the procedures are to be finalized no later than September 11, 2006.
The two sides agreed that all conversions authorized by the Rabbinical Council of America in the past, and were as such previously accepted by the Chief Rabbinate, will continue to be recognized by the Chief Rabbinate.
Until the recommendations of the joint commission are accepted and put in place, all conversions currently under way or shortly upcoming that are authorized by the Rabbinical Council of America will be similarly recognized by the Chief Rabbinate. Rabbi Yehuda Krispel, responsible for verifying overseas conversion in the Chief Rabbinate, said that the RCA would recommend a list of rabbis and that the rabbinate would double-check that list.
The RCA, a predominantly Modern Orthodox rabbinic organization, caved in to the rabbinate's insistence on doing its own investigation of all new RCA-affiliated rabbis. The RCA had originally demanded that the Israeli rabbinate continue to automatically okay US conversion courts that have RCA authorization.
In parallel, the rabbinate dropped its demand to force all new American rabbis to come to Israel to take a special test and be interviewed before a three-man panel of senior rabbinic judges. It also agreed that all conversions performed up until now with written RCA authorization would be recognized by the Israeli rabbinate.
"The RCA is very pleased with the outcome of our discussion and the agreement that we reached," said Rabbi Basil Herring, executive vice president of the RCA. "The spirit and atmosphere throughout the talks were very positive and reflect a real sense of historic partnership in dealing with a very difficult issue."
Haredi sources involved with conversions in the Diaspora said that the rabbinate's crackdown on conversions in America was motivated by a desire to eradicate negative phenomena. The sources claimed there had been several incidents in which RCA-affiliated rabbis had performed what they called "substandard" conversions.
"In one case there was a Conservative cantor that sat on the panel of rabbinic judges that oversaw the conversion," said the source. "In another, a rabbi who allowed coed seating and a microphone on Shabbat in his synagogue was a member of the panel of judges." Other examples of substandard conversions given by the source included a rabbi that cooperated with Reform and Conservative institutions in outreach activities.
However, the same haredi sources also admitted that the conversions performed inside Israel by the Conversion Authority, which is under Amar's aegis, were very problematic. The sources claimed that the IDF had a "conversion factory, and I doubt many of those gentile soldiers accept the yoke of halachic commandments."
The joint RCA-Chief Rabbinate committee was also tasked with compiling a list of American rabbis authorized to perform divorces.
Israeli members of the joint committee are to travel to several Jewish communities across America and investigate firsthand how the conversion courts work.
Rabbi Nahum Eisenstein, an expert in conversions and rabbi of the Jerusalem neighborhood Ma'alot Dafna, said that the conversion situation in America was disorganized. "Unlike Europe, Australia or South Africa, there is no centralized rabbinic court system in America," he said. "Most of the Orthodox conversions are performed by private rabbis and in many cases the other two members of the three-man rabbinic court are not even officially functioning rabbis."
"Major rabbinic organizations such as Agudath Rabanim, Igud Rabanim or the RCA maintain no central registry," added Eisenstein. "Nor is there centralized supervision of all rabbis who perform conversions."
Sources familiar with the rabbinate said that, while Eisenstein's portrayal of the conversion scene in America was true, part of the blame for the conversion crisis also lay on the Israeli side.
"Unlike former chief rabbis, who appointed men who were familiar with American rabbis and the hundreds of communities across the US, the present staff knows close to nothing about Diaspora communities. Many don't even speak English," one said.