'Rabbis stunt Europe's Jewish growth'

Small congregations say strict orthodox conversions are harmful to the future of European Jewry.

At a Conference of European Rabbis in Prague last week, rabbis from Europe's smallest Jewish communities said the current policy of the European Orthodox establishment was limiting the growth of small communities at a time when interest in Judaism is being rekindled among assimilated Jews and their non-Jewish descendants. "If I can start to convert observant people who have already been coming to my synagogue for the past five years, I can have a minyan," explained Rabbi Kotel Dadon of Zagreb. Instead, he told hundreds of assembled Orthodox rabbis from across Europe, he faced a catch-22 that is keeping his community from growing. Only with conversions can he build a viable community, but the poskim (halachic decisors) and batei din (rabbinic courts) of Europe won't convert someone living in a community that lacks the institutions necessary for Jewish life, such as the schools, ritual baths and kosher slaughterhouses required for an observant lifestyle. Most prominent among these poskim is England's Rabbi Chanoch HaCohen Ehrentreu, who sat a few meters from Dadon as he and many other rabbis - from Budapest, Zurich, Helsinki and elsewhere - explained their difficulties and sought advice. "The question is whether Croatia has an infrastructure for Judaism," explained a rabbi familiar with Ehrentreu's opinion. "What is conversion? It's an acceptance of the yoke of mitzvot. If [the aspiring convert] doesn't know what mitzvot are, or cannot fulfill them, how can he accept them?" Former French chief rabbi Joseph Sitruk agreed. "To convert someone who will be the lone Jew in his area is to put a stumbling block before the blind. How can you keep Torah and mitzvot alone?" he asked. "Conversion can be the salvation of a community, or its destruction," said Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, chief rabbi of Moscow. "If it is done according to law and custom, the convert can be the strongest link in the community, but if [the convert] continues to behave like a Gentile, sending the message to our youth that it's permissible to be Gentile, to marry Gentiles, this will destroy a community." But the rabbis from the struggling communities did not come to Prague to rail against the senior rabbinic leadership of European Orthodoxy, but to beseech its help. "They are my beth din," said a rabbi from a tiny Balkan community. "We need a beth din to have a communal life. I can't grow the community without them. So I must convince them to help me. That's what I'm doing here." According to the Conference of European Rabbis, these requests are not falling on deaf ears. "The CER will soon go to Zagreb with Rabbi Ehrentreu," said Rabbi Aba Dunner, executive director of the CER. "We know Rabbi Dadon wants to build a mikveh and create a Jewish atmosphere in the city. We're going to help," he promised. Another complaint of Europe's rabbis was perhaps more surprising. Many Israelis attended the conference, including chief rabbis Shlomo Amar and Yona Metzger. The Israelis held the more conservative position throughout, and came to be seen by many participants as unhelpful. One organizer said that the many Israeli participants "were more trouble than they're worth. Next year, we're considering not inviting the Israelis." The CER was meant to deal with European problems, said rabbis at the conference, and the Israeli rabbinate's push to standardize conversion under its authority worldwide has met with much resistance both in the US and Europe. "In Europe we could get a consensus of opinion [on conversion] to which most of Orthodoxy would agree," said one of Europe's most senior rabbinic figures. "But I don't think you'll ever get an international consensus on conversion." "Right now, unity is not possible," agreed Belgian chief rabbi Albert Guigui. "The Jews of Brussels are not the same as the Jews of Bnei Brak. Perhaps we need to establish consistent guidelines in all countries to preserve the principles" of Orthodox conversion. At the conference's concluding meeting, former French chief rabbi Sitruk read a decision of the CER, according to which "Conversions will be done in Europe solely by dayanim [rabbinic judges] approved by the standing rabbinic courts of Europe, in cooperation with the [umbrella] European Beth Din headed by Rabbi Ehrentreu." The message was clear, said conference organizers: conversions in Europe will not be opened to Israeli influence. Some 250 local Jewish communities were represented at the Prague gathering, hailing from Gibraltar to Glasgow to Tbilisi. The conference is meant to help European Orthodox rabbis network, learn together and share experience and expertise - to "synchronize," in the words of one participant.