Richard Chasman

Crisis at the RCA

In a March 22 article that appeared in the Forward dealing with the Freundel (the video voyeur) sentencing, there is a stunning revelation by Kate Bailey – one of the women converted by Freundel.

Allison Kaplan Sommer writes, ‘For Bailey, the sentence represented a vindication. Three years ago, in 2012, she said, she filed a complaint to the Rabbinical Council of America, the supervising body of mainstream Orthodox rabbis, regarding Freundel’s treatment of conversion candidates. ….The last straw came much later, when she was a member of the synagogue and Freundel called her.….At first, she said, she thought he was calling to ask her to do more unpaid secretarial work, as he had with other converts. He wasn’t; instead, he wanted money. He asked her if “it was important” to her that the Israeli rabbinate recognize her conversion, and said that if it was she should donate $1,000 to his conversion court. When she explained to him that she was in graduate school and didn’t have that kind of money to give, he quickly backed off. But when she hung up, she said, she asked herself, “Did he just basically say that if I want my conversion recognized, I should give him $1,000?” It wasn’t clear.

That was when she decided to complain to the RCA, detailing the exploitation of her labor, the inappropriate comments about her appearance, the “redunk” and the fundraising attempt. The senior official that she spoke to seemed most perturbed by the fundraising but took no issue with the “redunk,” assuring her that “it was probably fine” and that there was surely a halakhic reason for it.

The RCA told her to submit a formal complaint that included her name and a statement. Later she was told that in order to back up her story she would have to find other women who had similar experiences and encourage them to complain as well. “I did,” Bailey said, and nothing happened. “They kept telling me, it’s so great, no one would come forward by name in the past, you are so brave … and then, after telling me how great and brave I was, they kind of dropped off the face of the earth.” The RCA did not respond to requests for comment.

At the very least, the RCA should have immediately suspended Freundel from dealing with conversions, pending the outcome of a complete investigation The RCA did nothing. That may turn out to be a very expensive mistake. It seems that the RCA was more interested in protecting the reputations of its rabbis than protecting the welfare of converts. Shame!

Another aspect of the Freundel affair casts a shameful light on the RCA’s treatment of conversion. Shortly after Freundel’s behavior came to light, the Beit Din of America upheld all conversions performed by Freundel prior to his arrest. Nothing shameful about that – in fact it was a wonderful thing for Rabbi Schwartz to step in immediately and remove that anxiety from the shoulders of the Freundel converts. Note, however, that these conversions were performed by a criminal (Freundel) and there was no halachic reason to overturn those conversions.

Compare that with the RCA’s treatment of Karen Brunwasser. As an infant Karen Brunwasser, together with her mother, was converted in 1978 by a Beit Din that included a rabbi who served in a schul without a mechitza. In 1978, traditional Judaism was flourishing. Traditional Judaism means a schul, with an orthodox rabbi, using an orthodox siddur but without a mechitza. In 1978, when Karen Brunwasser was converted, it was not unusual for orthodox rabbis to serve in schuls without a mechitza. It was and is very unusual to attempt to discredit a conversion made 36 years previously.

Yet, according to a JTA article of March 7, 2014 – ‘Thus, on Aug. 11, 2013, Rabbi Michoel Zylberman of the RCA’s Beth Din of America wrote the following in an email to Israeli chief rabbi’s office regarding Brunwasser’s conversion: “We are unable to approve the conversions done by a rabbi who serves in a synagogue without a mechitza.” Zylberman continues: “Of course, one can argue with this position and if you want to be lenient here on the basis of other authorities you can do that which is right in your eyes.”

So, when a conversion is done by a criminal that does not pose a problem. But, chas v’cholila (G-d forbid), if a conversion is carried out by a rabbi who served in a schul without a mechitza that’s invalid. The RCA/BDA has a serious problem. (Fortunately for Karen Brunwasser, her fiance had a lot of protektzia and the Israeli Chief Rabbinate ignored Zylberman.)

The Religious Zionist community in Israel is being harassed at every turn by the office of the chief rabbinate. Fortunately, a Religious Zionist, Rabbi Aryeh Stern has been appointed Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem. Jeremy Sharon writes in the Jerusalem Post of May 14 that the (hereditary) chief rabbis David Lau and Yitzhak Yosef have pressured Rabbi Stern not to implement the ‘Tzohar Law’ in Jerusalem. This law abolished marriage registration districts, allowing Tzohar to perform marriage registration services for couples who approach the organization instead of going directly to their local rabbinate.

The chief rabbinate is also blocking a five year extension of the term of Rabbi Shlomo Riskin as Chief Rabbi of Efrat. Jeremy Sharon writes in the Jerusalem Post of May 25, ”The rabbi strongly supported measures enacted by the last government to allow municipal chief rabbis to establish their own conversion courts in order to liberalize the process and make it more accessible. Although the measures were approved, Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau and Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef fiercely opposed them.’ Rabbi Riskin’s position is that of Tzohar.

Why then does the RCA stand by quietly and not oppose the office of the chief rabbinate which is controlled by rabinically mediocre haredim? Modern orthodox Jews share an ideology with the Religious Zionist movement and particularly with groups such as Tzohar. It’s time for the RCA to show a bit of backbone and speak up for Religious Zionists.

Looking at the RCA website (on May 27), I see one statement trying to downplay Netanyahu’s dangerous comments before the Israeli elections and another statement supporting Netanyahu’s disastrous speech to Congress on the Iran deal. Instead of pontificating about subjects which are outside its area of expertise and taking a partisan position in US politics, the RCA should be speaking up about the chief rabbinate’s efforts to destroy the efforts of Tzohar to make religious conversion and marriage more accessible.

About the Author
Richard Chasman, 1934-2018, was a member of the Modern Orthodox community in Chicago. Professionally, he was a theoretical nuclear physicist. Richard, who described his perspective as "centrist," wrote a newsletter for more than 20 years called "Chovevai Tsion of Chicago," on subjects of interest to the Modern Orthodox community.
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