Do Orthodox Rabbi Groups Hold Too Much Sway Over Conversion — in Israel and U.S.?

RCA Won't Vouch for Rituals Carried Out by Own Members

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By Uriel Heilman

Published March 28, 2014.
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(JTA) — Even if you converted to Judaism under Orthodox auspices, your conversion may be called into question by the Israeli Chief Rabbinate and the Rabbinical Council of America, the main centrist Orthodox rabbinical group in the United States.

If you live in Israel, this means your ability to marry a Jew is in jeopardy.

That’s the warning that some critics of the RCA are promoting following the airing of one woman’s story whose U.S. conversion as an infant some 35 years ago was questioned recently by the Israeli Rabbinate. When the RCA’s rabbinical court, the Beth Din of America, was asked by the Chief Rabbinate for input on the case involving Karen Brunwasser, it said it could not affirm the validity of her conversion.

The incident — which nearly derailed Brunwasser’s wedding to an Israeli Jew, according to a recent essay she published in the Washington Jewish Week — shows how much sway the RCA has when it comes to deciding the fates of converts, even ex post facto. The case also highlights the dangers of centralizing conversion authority, critics say, because converts who haven’t gone through the RCA’s approved process are unfairly suspect.

“When you’re centralizing authority, to whom are the people you’ve given this power responsible to?” Rabbi Avi Weiss, founder of the liberal Orthodox rabbinical school Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, told JTA. “A convert’s evaluation can continue till the end of their lives.”

Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld, a Weiss ally who leads a Washington synagogue, argues that Brunwasser’s case has dramatic implications.

“We now know that the RCA is casting aspersions on prior conversions by its own members,” Herzfeld wrote in a March 6 JTA Op-Ed. “Despite what the RCA promised in 2008, it is retroactively negating and rooting out converts who were for decades fully integrated into the Orthodox Jewish community. In doing so, it has set a dangerous precedent that should make every convert afraid and all of us angry and disappointed in its leadership.”

In at least one respect, the RCA’s critics are right: Anyone whose conversion to Judaism predates the establishment in 2008 of RCA conversion guidelines called Geirus Policies and Standards (GPS), or whose conversion took place after 2008 but did not follow the GPS guidelines, may find his or her conversion subject to review. That’s the case even if the rabbi who presided over the conversion was an RCA member.


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