Israel-US conversion authority crisis resolved

Rabbinate authorizes list of US rabbinic courts, judges to convert; Liberal Orthodox rabbis furious.

amar 224.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
amar 224.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
In a move that ends a central dispute between the two largest Orthodox rabbinic organizations in the world, the Chief Rabbinate has agreed to recognize conversions performed by the Rabbinic Council of America. Until now, RCA conversions were not automatically accepted by the Chief Rabbinate. The Jerusalem Post has learned from sources in the Chief Rabbinate that in an agreement to be announced Monday, it has approved a list of about 15 RCA rabbinic courts and around 40 rabbinic judges across the US as authorized to perform conversions. Courts and judges not on the list will not be automatically recognized. The RCA and the Chief Rabbinate also agreed that conversions performed in the past by judges who are not on the new list will need the approval of Rabbi Gedalia Dov Schwartz, the octogenarian head of the RCA-affiliated Beth Din of America. New conversion judges who wish to be included on the list will need to receive the approval of Rabbi Hershel Shachter, head of the Rabbi Isaac Elhanan Theological Seminary at Yeshiva University in New York, and Rabbi Mordechai Willig, deputy head of the Beth Din of America and a professor of Talmud at the university. As part of the agreement, Rabbi Moshe Nidam, a representative of the Chief Rabbinate, will help approve new religious court judges together with Shachter and Willig. One US rabbi who supported the agreement said that it was legitimate for the Chief Rabbinate to demand minimum standards for conversions. "The Israeli rabbinate is going to be asked to recognize these conversions in the future," said the rabbi, who preferred to remain anonymous. "So they have a right to make demands." Chief Sephardi Rabbi Shlomo Amar, who is responsible for conversions in Israel, sparked the controversy between the rabbinate and the Rabbinic Council of America when he announced in April 2006 that he would no longer automatically recognize conversions performed by RCA rabbis. Amar criticized the RCA for failing to adhere to the most stringent standards in the acceptance of converts. He demanded that all RCA conversion judges come to Israel to pass examinations, and was reluctant to recognize conversions performed by RCA judges. Amar's comments cast doubt on the Jewishness of hundreds of American converts. RCA rabbis perceived Amar's statements as an attack on their legitimacy and jurisdiction. Rabbi Marc Angel, a former president of the RCA, who together with Rabbi Avi Weiss, head of the liberal Orthodox Chovevei Torah rabbinic seminary, plans to set up an alternative rabbinic organization called Rabbinic Fellowship, blamed the RCA for "capitulating" to pressure from the Chief Rabbinate. In an e-mail message from New York, Angel said, "The Chief Rabbinate has taken narrow and extreme views on the question of conversion, and is now demanding that all rabbis comply with these 'standards.' "The RCA has, very unfortunately, capitulated to the demands of the Chief Rabbinate. This not only undermines the authority of individual Orthodox rabbis, but creates a climate of stringency, rabbinic bureaucracy and authoritarianism." Rabbi Seth Farber, head of ITIM, an organization that helps converts navigate the Israeli Rabbinate, voiced concern that American converts and their offspring would have difficulty proving their Jewishness if they were to immigrate to Israel. "The overwhelming majority of American Orthodox converts over the years have not had their conversion certified by Schwartz. Children or grandchildren are going to wind up in Israel and their Jewishness will be questioned," he said. Farber also voiced concern that by centralizing the conversion model the RCA "runs the risk of transforming the conversion from a personal journey to a bureaucratic one, which is precisely the mistake that was made by the Chief Rabbinate here in Israel." Rabbi Yitzhak Peretz, an aide to Amar on conversion matters, said that the agreement with the RCA would upgrade the conversion standard in the US. "Making sure that conversions are performed in accordance with Halacha is good for the converts and good for the Jewish people, he said. "Now, all conversions performed by the RCA will be universally recognized by all communities within Orthodoxy." The RCA could not be reached by press time.