NEW YORK (JTA) – In a recent JTA Op-Ed, Rabbis Marc Angel and Avi Weiss made a number of claims about the Rabbinical Council of America’s conversion system. While some of their arguments have merit, they paint only a partial picture of what we’re doing in the North American modern Orthodox community. And some of their arguments are just wrong.
Let’s review their claims point by point.
“The Israeli government recently moved to decentralize the conversion system by allowing local courts to convert individuals on their own.”
Yes and no. Conversion authority was extended only to courts run by municipal rabbis. Most rabbis in Israel still are not authorized to perform conversions. In fact, the new system is an Israeli version of the RCA’s current structure.
“The RCA accredits only those conversions conducted under RCA’s batei din, or rabbinical courts, using the GPS process.”
Individual rabbis are not barred from conducting conversions, and those who do still perform their own conversions find that they are accepted in their communities and by those who respect their conversions (no different than the model advocated by Rabbis Angel and Weiss). If the halachic standards of those conversions are accepted by the RCA’s Beth Din of America, then even those privately conducted conversions will be widely accepted. The advantage of the RCA’s system, known as GPS (for Geirus Policies and Standards), is that conversions performed by its rabbinic tribunals are guaranteed to receive the support of the Beth Din of America.
Centralization is dangerous.
Yes, centralization has the potential for corruption and abuse. That is why there were checks and balances built into the GPS system, why we do our best to ensure our batei din are comprised of people of integrity, and why – in light of the lacunae identified in the Rabbi Barry Freundel case – we are reviewing the entire system with a commitment to improve it.
But a decentralized system is also subject to corruption and abuse – even more so. Who supervises the individual rabbi and protects the conversion candidate from the same possible abuses that Rabbis Angel and Weiss are concerned about? Who protects that rabbi from undue political and financial pressures that may compromise his judgment? Who protects converts and their descendants from rabbis who “sell” conversions or whose conversions are not widely accepted?
Standards are overly strict.
Perhaps Rabbis Angel and Weiss are correct when they write that a “centralized beit din system almost invariably relies on the most stringent opinions of halachah, or Jewish law.” This goes to the larger question with which we struggle in many areas of Jewish law: What are proper halachic standards in any matter? Who has the expertise, authority and responsibility to make these decisions? How should decisions be made when they affect not only individuals but entire communities or the Jewish people? How do we responsibly navigate halachic disputes so that we respect diversity while maintaining integrity?
As in other areas of Jewish practice, we are directed by the guidance and decisions of our poskim – respected senior rabbis whose learning and experience have made them vital in setting standards for our community.
The RCA system causes emotional distress.
Yes, a more structured, less personal system can be more stressful than an ad hoc one. Rabbis Angel and Weiss cite incidents of insensitivity by regional batei din and rabbis. I do not deny such incidents have occurred, but I can cite many more instances of positive and warm interactions. In addition, sponsoring rabbis – who have an ongoing personal relationship with the prospective converts — are an important part of the GPS process.
And individual rabbis in a decentralized system can be insensitive, too.
We need to affirm and support rabbis in the GPS system who are doing it right and work with those who need to do better. Ultimately, widely accepted accreditation of one’s conversion reduces the stress for converts in the long run.
A centralized system limits access and results in fewer conversions.
I agree with Rabbis Angel and Weiss that all sincere and appropriate candidates for conversion should be converted. But they ignore the fact that the rate of those who successfully complete the GPS conversion process is very high. Meanwhile, the GPS Review Committee is evaluating ways we can improve.
“Out of town” cities suffer.
Yes, there are only 12 regional batei din and this creates inconveniences, even burdens, on some prospective converts. Are there ways to be more accommodating? Perhaps. This is something the Review Committee needs to evaluate. But in the long run this is a small price to pay for the benefits of an appropriate regional system.
The GPS system undermines the local rabbi.
Have local rabbis been undermined by the centralization of kosher supervision? By the handling of divorce cases only by experts and a handful of recognized batei din? By the practice of using only leading rabbis to resolve questions related to agunot – “chained” women whose husbands refuse to grant them divorce documents? By the use of yoatzot halachah – women extensively trained in matters of Jewish family purity laws – to advise women in this area that traditionally has been the purview of local rabbis?
By the same token, no one is suggesting that only select rabbis be able to perform weddings.
We have evolved over time a hybrid system here in North America that combines both decentralized and centralized rabbinic responsibility in order to best serve the personal pastoral, spiritual and halachic needs of the community.
Pre-GPS conversions are being questioned.
Conversions always were subject to scrutiny when converts moved to new communities or needed to prove their Jewish status for one reason or another. This is the unfortunate reality of a system of law. Even before the GPS system, not all conversions received the stamp of approval of the Beth Din of America.
Just as centralized kosher supervision raised confidence in and delivery of kosher food and addressed many of the inconsistencies and scandals of earlier generations, GPS is meant to do the same.
* * *
Although we disagree on the issue of centralization, Rabbis Angel, Weiss and I all agree on the vital importance of “the welfare of converts, our communal health and our religious vitality.” We just have different formulas for getting there.
The GPS system may not be perfect, but we believe the alternatives are not as good. Can we do better? You bet. And we will. Because like Rabbis Angel and Weiss, we are passionate about the well-being of converts and the Jewish people.
(Rabbi Mark Dratch is the executive vice president of the Rabbinical Council of America.)
JERUSALEM (JTA) — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accused Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas of incitement as the P.A.’s official media called for a day of rage in Jerusalem.
Netanyahu pointed out the call at the beginning of the weekly Cabinet meeting on Sunday.
On Thursday, Netanyahu, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Jordan’s King Abdullah II agreed after meeting in Amman to de-escalate the situation on the Temple Mount and make it clear that the status quo will be upheld.
“Abu Mazen must halt the incitement that leads to acts of violence,” Netanyahu said Sunday, using Abbas’ nom de guerre. “This is one of the roots of the inflamed moods that are fueled by Islamist extremist propaganda and propaganda by the Palestinian Authority.”
Netanyahu also called rumors that Israel intends to change the status quo on the Temple Mount “a gross lie.”
Since capturing the holy site during the 1967 Six-Day War, Israel has severely restricted access for Jewish worshippers, in part not to inflame tensions. The status quo continues to restrict Jewish worship on the mount.
The day after the Jordan meeting, Israel removed its age limitation on entrance to the Temple Mount, for the first time in two weeks allowing Muslim men under the age of 50 to enter the compound that contains the Al-Aqsa Mosque, Army Radio reported.
The Palestinian Maan news agency reported Sunday that Netanyahu will meet again with Abdullah in the coming days to continue discussions over tensions surrounding the Temple Mount, citing Jordanian parliament member Mohammed al-Katatshe.
LIEGE, Belgium (JTA) — An Orthodox Jewish man who was stabbed in the neck in Antwerp in a suspected anti-Semitic attack was released from the hospital.
Yehosha Malik, 31, sustained injuries classified as moderate on Saturday morning in the capital of Belgium’s Flemish region, the Gazet van Antwerpen reported. He was discharged the same day after medical staff determined his injuries were not life threatening.
In an interview with Hadrei Haredim, a Hebrew-language news website, Malik said he felt a jab to his neck “and saw a young man eagerly trying to stab again.”
Malik was on his way to synagogue in the city’s center, where a population of approximately 16,000 Orthodox Jews reside.
According to Malik’s account, the attacker fled after he was confronted by a witness, also an Orthodox Jew.
The region’s Forum of Jewish Organizations wrote in a statement that “there is very real chance we are dealing with an act of pure anti-Semitism.”
Moshe Kantor, president of the European Jewish Congress, called on European authorities to step up efforts to protect Jewish communities that are being targeted by Islamists and other parties.
“There is a war against the Jews on the Internet and on the streets,” he said. “Until there is a crackdown on incitement to hatred and anti-Semitism, then more people will believe that these types of attacks are legitimate. We call on European authorities to form a specially dedicated pan-European body to deal specifically with the wave of anti-Semitism and the threat of radical Islam that threatens Jews and the continent of Europe.”
Rabbi Menachem Margolin of the Brussels-based European Jewish Association said his group will set meetings with European Union officials to discuss “the severity of the situation and ways to combat such phenomena at their core, through education.”
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By Rabbi David Gerber
This year, after years of decline, our post-b’nei mitzvah engagement numbers exceeded 120% compared to our projections. Our recent success is a result of a number of factors including but not limited to: improved programming, a dynamic professional staff, and a deeper financial commitment to youth engagement. While it can be difficult to replicate programming and success due to the unique nature of our staffs, congregants, and resources, I do believe that our approach to outreach is the heart of our recent turnaround, and that our approach has lessons to offer anyone pursuing congregational transformation.
Before I enrolled in rabbinical school, I spent nearly five years in the financial industry. While I find very few similarities between my life as a stockbroker and my life as a rabbi, I always go back to the five lessons I learned during my first week of training. These five lessons have continued to guide me in building relationships, and have been at the center of my approach to outreach.
1. Know Your Customer
This is rule number one of the finance industry. If you don’t know your client, there is no way you can help meet his or her needs. Before you even begin to offer advice, you must have a thorough understanding of what your client needs.
In Jewish outreach, this translates as “Know Your Congregant.” Take every opportunity to learn about the people in your congregation. Learn what motivates them, where their interests lie, and how they like to learn. The more you know about your congregants, the better chance you will have of developing programming that appeals to them. And the best way to learn this information? Just ask!
2. Believe in What You Are Selling
The first stock I was asked to sell was a very solid investment. It was an oil company that had a proven track record of stability. I read, researched, and practiced, and didn’t make a single sale. After hearing enough “no’s” on the phone, I realized that I was lacking enthusiasm and passion for the product – and my clients could clearly sense that. I thought back to my recent college days and recalled a restaurant that had just opened up. There was a line out the door every day and I went there all the time. I did some research and decided that this was an investment I truly believed in. I changed my product and I was in business.
While I don’t like to equate sales with outreach, the truth is we are, in fact, trying to sell people an idea. We are trying to convince people that Jewish tradition can enrich their lives, and impress upon them the value of studying Torah We have to convince our members that it is worthwhile for them to continue their education after their bar or bat mitzvah.
If you are trying to sell a product you don’t believe in, it sounds different. If you want to convince someone that studying Torah adds value to his or her life, you must believe it. That passion and enthusiasm is contagious. If you don’t have passion for what you are offering, it is time to revisit your product.
3. Ask for the Order
This one seems so simple, yet so few people do this naturally. Consider the following sales pitch:
“This investment has shown consistent gains throughout its history. It suits your portfolio perfectly. I know the stock very well. I have done the research. It is, without question, my best recommendation for you. What do you think?”
This was essentially my first practice pitch when I was in training (at least to the best of my memory). I thought it was pretty good until my mentor pointed out that at no point in the conversation did I actually ask the person to buy the stock!
It sounds like meaningless semantics, but in reality I did not give the client the opportunity or need to say yes or no.
Think of how many times you have said things like:
- It is really important for you to continue on to confirmation
- You would love our shul-in this weekend
- I’d love to see you more involved at the synagogue
In each of these cases, the person you are speaking with can very easily answer with something like “Sounds great!” while not actually committing to anything.
Try asking things like:
- Will you give confirmation a try?
- Will you join us for our next youth event?
- Will you join our religious school committee?
It’s natural to prefer to hear “sounds great” than to open yourself up to a “no” answer, but at least you’ll know where they stand. It gives you a definitive answer and lets you ask probing questions that may lead to finding the right area of interest for your congregant.
This, by the way, is great advice for fundraising as well. Just remember, if you do not ask the question, do not expect to get an answer.
4. Nothing Can Replace the Value of a Handshake
While most brokerages find clients by cold calling (calling people at random), my firm insisted that we go to surrounding neighborhoods and knock on doors. Believe me, it is as difficult as it sounds. But, sure enough, it works. People appreciate face time. For every door I knocked on and every conversation I had, I followed up with handwritten thank you note..
The value that our firm instilled in us is the importance of building relationships. The only way to do this is through personal contact. As a rabbi, I value every opportunity to spend time with my students and congregants. I attend their mitzvah projects and school plays. I spend time in the lobby between religious school sessions. I stay at the oneg until the end.
There are no shortcuts to building relationships. They form one handshake at a time. The primary purpose of a rabbi is to serve the needs of the congregation, and this is the only way to learn those needs.
5: Don’t Allow Growth and Technology to Affect Your Values
In the late ‘90s, my firm was nationally criticized for refusing to allow our clients to engage in online trading. We believed that the stock market is a difficult thing to navigate, and it should be done with the assistance of a professional. While we took a pretty big PR hit and we would have profited greatly from e-trading, it went against our core values. Sure enough, our clients fared much better than average when the tech-bubble burst.
In the Jewish profession, we are dealing with ancient texts, time-honored traditions, and sacred values. We are facing congregants with varying interests and jam-packed schedules. We are under constant pressure to modernize our methods and bring our religion into the 21st century. We are faced with the fear that Jews today have no room in their busy schedules for Judaism.
There is a part of the Talmud where the rabbis try to explain what makes for a good or bad prophet. Simply stated, a good prophet brings you closer to Torah. A bad prophet takes you away. Such is the case with technology.
I am a firm believer that the “silver bullet” of not only youth engagement, but all engagement, is Torah. We are not the first generation to fear that we’ll be the last. Moreover, what has kept us together throughout the ages has been the stubbornness with which we have held fast to our Torah. We may have to come up with innovative ways to deliver the message to people, but the message cannot be compromised. When thinking about introducing new programming or new learning options, the question we should ask ourselves is: does this bring Jews closer to Torah?
Rabbi David Gerber is the Associate Rabbi of Congregation Beth Or in Maple Glen, PA.
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NEW YORK (JTA) — The Israeli government recently moved to decentralize the conversion system by allowing local courts to convert individuals on their own.
Ironically, as Israel moves away from centralization, here in America the Rabbinical Council of America is enthusiastically embracing it. The modern Orthodox rabbinical organization recently reaffirmed its commitment to its centralized conversion system, which it calls GPS (Geirus Policies and Standards). Under the system, the RCA accredits only those conversions conducted under RCA’s batei din, or rabbinical courts, using the GPS process.
Since its inception in 2008, we have opposed this centralized approach. We still do today. Here’s why.
Dangers of centralization: When one rabbi or court controls the conversions of an entire region, the potential for danger is magnified because inappropriate conduct can implicate the entire system. Investing power in a select few invites the question: Who oversees the overseers? And if the court or rabbi is corrupt or abusive, a prospective convert has no alternative but to submit and comply. A decentralized system that gives local rabbis the right to convene and serve on the beit din allows for choice.
Overly strict standards: The centralized beit din system almost invariably relies on the most stringent opinions of halachah, or Jewish law. As a result, the mainstream halachic tradition, which is far more inclusive and compassionate, is ignored. This overly strict approach to conversion causes unnecessary suffering on the part of would-be converts.
Emotional distress: Conversions require that rabbis have a deep understanding of the condition of the particular convert. While clear guidelines are required for conversion, within those parameters halachah provides latitude for individual rabbis to decide who is worthy of conversion. But unlike local rabbis, the centralized rabbinic authority has far less sensibility to the convert’s particular situation. Rather than face a rabbi who knows them, the converts must appear before a tribunal. While GPS supporters maintain that local rabbis can be “sponsors” who advocate for their candidates, some of these rabbinic sponsors have told us that they and the converts they represent were often distraught by the rigid, inflexible and often callous approach of the centralized beit din and felt that the convert’s particular circumstances were ignored.
Fewer converts: A centralized system, which by definition limits the number of rabbis who sit on conversion courts, can deal with only so many converts, and too many converts are being forced to wait for too long. Only 1,200 people have been converted through the GPS since its creation 6 1/2 years ago – on average fewer than 200 converts per year. With most of the conversions taking place in New York, the system yields fewer than 100 converts annually in the rest of the United States. Certainly every convert who comes forward must undergo a significant process, but we must be more welcoming. These dismally low numbers simply don’t reflect this value.
“Out of town” cities suffer: Large cities in America like Baltimore, Denver, Houston, San Francisco and St. Louis have no local GPS court, so potential converts in these cities must travel to a GPS beit din elsewhere. Prospective converts in Denver, for example, must fly to Chicago, where the nearest beit din is located. Bearing in mind that the convert must meet with the beit din even before the actual conversion takes place, this process is frustrating, onerous and uninviting. With relatively few GPS courts across the country, significant backlog and scheduling problems arise. This results in many converts feeling disrespected and unwelcome.
Undermining the local rabbi: The centralized system sends the message that local rabbis are not to be trusted, weakening their position as spiritual leaders within the community. The mission of rabbis is to spread Torah to their communities and help shape the Jewish world. The centralized system undermines their mission and effectiveness.
Slippery slope of centralization: If local rabbis cannot be trusted to do conversions in their own communities, one wonders what the next step will be. Will only select rabbis be able to perform weddings?
Questioning earlier conversions: Despite repeated RCA assurances that pre-GPS conversions would not be revisited, the facts on the ground are otherwise. Institutions that turn to the RCA for guidance regarding past conversions are advised to obtain a retroactive certification from the GPS. Thus, post-GPS guidelines are imposed on conversions done pre-GPS. Just recently, a young man converted by a prominent RCA rabbi 25 years ago told us that he was questioned about his level of observance and then required to immerse again in the mikvah, or ritual bath, for purposes of conversion before being accepted to a graduate-level yeshiva. The policy of reevaluating conversions leaves open the possibility that GPS rabbis of today will have their conversions questioned tomorrow.
Now that Israel is finally doing something to address the harmful influence of centralization of rabbinic authority, we in America should be celebrating our tradition of decentralized and locally empowered rabbinical leadership. The welfare of converts, our communal health and our religious vitality depend on it.
(Rabbi Avi Weiss is senior rabbi of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale. Rabbi Marc Angel is the director of the Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals. They are the co-founders of a new modern Orthodox rabbinical organization called the International Rabbinic Fellowship, or IRF.)
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(JTA) — The head of Budapest’s Jewish community said he filed a complaint with police alleging fraud and embezzlement at the historic Dohany Street Synagogue.
David Schwezoff told the Hungarian media last week that the community was at least $400,000 short in ticket revenues from visitors to the synagogue, the Nepszava newspaper reported Monday.
The president of the Mazsihisz Jewish federation, a Hungarian umbrella organization with which the Budapest community is affiliated, disputed the charge.
The revenue collected from ticket sales from the past two years was $1.21 million, Nepszava reported.
Last month, Schwezoff canceled the community’s contract with the firm responsible for collecting entrance fees to the community-owned synagogue, according to the paper.
It was unclear who Schwezoff accused of graft in the complaint, which has not been made public. Schwezoff and the community’s spokesman, Balazs Csaszar, were unavailable for comment.
Andras Heisler, the president of Mazsihisz, in disputing Schwezoff’s allegations claimed that ticket revenues will be approximately $2 million.
In an interview with Nepszava, Heisler accused Schwezoff of “running amok and compromising the Jewish community’s honor.” Heisler told JTA on Thursday that Schwezoff, who was elected president of his community last month, was “not competent as a Jewish leader due to his current actions.” He declined to make any further comment on Schwezoff.
In a radio interview Wednesday, Heisler warned that Schwezoff’s actions could jeopardize the popular Jewish Summer Festival of Budapest because it has been organized for the past decade by the owner of the company that collected fees to the synagogue. Schwezoff removed the owner, Vera Vadas, from the positions on Oct. 31.
Schwezoff told the Heti Valasz weekly that Heisler treats him “as an enemy” partly because Schwezoff, who was not born Jewish, was photographed several years ago while wearing women’s clothes at a drag club.
“Mr. Schwezoff had a colorful life in the past,” Csaszar told JTA last month, adding that Schwezoff “made a 180-degree turn” and “has been living according to the Torah, keeping Shabbat and kosher.”
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(JTA) — A senior Russian rabbi accused the country’s Communist Party of “vulgar and primitive anti-Semitism” after it demanded that Russian Jews condemn a Ukrainian Jewish oligarch.
Rabbi Boruch Gorin, a spokesman for and adviser to Rabbi Berel Lazar, a chief rabbi of Russia, on Wednesday said the request in a letter from two Communist lawmakers sent last week to Lazar and Adolf Shayevich, another chief rabbi of Russia, “reflected a primitive form of anti-Semitism which presumes all Jews belong to some sinister superstructure simply because they are Jewish.”
While the rabbis “have nothing to say to the communist lawmakers, we do expect other members of the Duma to speak out against this provocation,” Gorin said.
In the letter, the lawmakers urged Lazar and Shayevich to speak out against Igor Kolomoisky, a Ukrainian Jewish banker and regional governor who has poured millions of dollars into rearming the Ukrainian army against Russia.
“Russian Jews must distance themselves from Kolomoisky and make him understand that his crimes are denounced by his own people,” one of the lawmakers, Valery Rashkin, told the Izvestia newspaper after he and Sergey Obukhov published an open letter in the newspaper to Lazar and Shayevich. The lawmakers wrote that Kolomisky’s actions “contribute to ethnic and race hate and cause people to commit hate crimes not only in Ukraine, but also in Russia.”
The Russia-Ukraine border has been tense since the overthrow in February of Ukraine President Victor Yanukovych, who was accused of corruption and perceived by many Ukrainians to be a Kremlin puppet.
Citing concerns to ethnic Russians and other minorities, Russia annexed the Crimea from Ukraine in March — an action that triggered an ongoing armed conflict between pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine’s east and government troops.
Throughout the conflict, pro-Russian and pro-Ukrainian propagandists have accused one another of espousing anti-Semitism.
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