Joseph C. Kaplan
Joseph C. Kaplan

Sorrowful words: Rethinking parts of a relationship to the RCA and the OU

I’ve always felt sincere warmth towards the Rabbinical Council of America.

When I was a teenager, my mother worked for the RCA as a secretary/bookkeeper, and she often would share stories of humorous rabbinic foibles, coupled with examples of the sound judgment, wisdom, and kindness of its then executive vice president, Rabbi Israel Klavan. We subscribed to its journal, “Tradition,” which I read avidly, and I continued that tradition for many years in my own home.

And so I write with personal sorrow of my recent disappointments with the RCA, beginning with the establishment in 2007 of its Geirus Policies and Standards conversion system, or GPS, meant to standardize conversions done by its members. Upon reading the GPS, I was dismayed to learn that those overly strict procedures seemingly would put up barriers to conversion rather than help people convert — a concern shared by at least one highly respected RCA member. Not being shy, I emailed my concerns to the then chairman of the GPS committee, whose prompt response was unsatisfactory. My follow-up email received no response at all.

Years later, after the arrest of the GPS chairman, the RCA realized that it had a serious problem and formed a GPS review committee. In June 2015, the committee issued a report to the RCA executive committee, recommending changes.

I had been impressed with the makeup of the review committee and thought the recommendations showed promise, but I understood that the devil is in the details. So I avidly looked forward to those details, to no avail; it’s been more than a year and still there has been no announcement of any changes. Thus, prospective converts continue to confront a system that the RCA itself recognizes is problematic.

And then there are the shameful recent events concerning the Petach Tikvah Beit Din’s rejection of a conversion overseen by Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, a leading modern Orthodox rabbi and RCA member for decades, and the action of the Israeli Supreme Rabbinical Court that essentially affirmed that decision. The RCA’s statement on the PTBD travesty didn’t express strong support for its colleague, whom it barely mentioned in passing, or outrage over his mistreatment. Nor did it insist that the Israeli rabbinical system treat its members with respect, or urge the immediate reversal of this insulting and egregious decision. Rather, it began — amazingly — with a declaration of appreciation and support of the Israeli chief rabbinate, which, although supporting a reversal of this one decision, is complicit in Israel’s lack of recognition of many valid American modern Orthodox conversions. The few banal and perfunctory regrets tacked on at the end of the statement about angst to converts did not begin to address the damage caused to one of its leading members and the hurt to the righteous convert.

And the RCA’s public reaction to the SRC’s “blackmailing” of the convert by forcing her to undergo another conversion in order to proceed with her already delayed marriage? As of Monday night when I submitted this column — complete silence.

Another problematic RCA statement is its recent condemnation of the Orlando massacre of “innocent people” and “patrons of the Pulse nightclub,” in which it carefully eschewed any mention that the victims were gay. Just imagine the uproar in our community had, God forbid, a synagogue been the target of such an attack, and denunciations of that attack included no reference to the Jewishness of the victims. Compare this to the statement by the RCA’s sister organization, the Orthodox Union, which forthrightly said that the victims “were targeted because of their identification with the LGBT community.” Or compare the RCA’s churlish and blanket rejection of the Supreme Court’s same-sex marriage decision to the OU’s thoughtful dissenting statement, which also carefully recognized that “decisions on social policy remain with the democratic process, and today the process has spoken and we accord the process and its result the utmost respect.”

While I have no youthful memories of the OU, I personally knew some of its past presidents and have a relationship with, and strong admiration and respect for, its current executive vice president/CPO — who has been a friend since childhood — and the CEO of its Kosher Division, with whom I share a love of Civil War history. So I wish I could end this column here.

Unfortunately, though, there were two recent events concerning the OU that trouble me.

First, one of its rabbinic coordinators has taken upon himself the task of attempting to convince the Orthodox world that Open Orthodoxy and others with whom he disagrees are not Orthodox. The extreme, vituperative, and steady nature of those attacks has caused some to demand his dismissal. The OU, believing in freedom of expression and speech, rightfully has declined to do so. But the OU also has freedom of expression and speech, and should have exercised that freedom by, at the very least, disassociating itself from the strident and insulting tone of his essays. Its silence, however, is bringing its own reputation into question in some quarters, and it is causing unease among some of its supporters.

The second issue concerns a major kashrut expert who before his recent death had been an halachic consultant to the OU. A number of years ago, he defended a confessed sexual abuser in the Orthodox community and severely denounced the victim’s parents for going to the police, resulting in the family being forced to move from their community. The OU did not rebuke or take any action against its consultant, although it said that while it had “high regard” for his expertise in kashrut, it “profoundly disagrees with his conclusions and whatever actions he may have taken” in connection with that case. The Jewish Week reported that OU insiders said that because his kashrut expertise was highly respected in the charedi community, there was concern that if he were terminated or called out publicly, a major market might look elsewhere for its kosher supervision.

While several prominent Modern Orthodox rabbis disagreed with the OU’s position, it’s possible that such pragmatism is defensible. What’s not defensible, however, is glorifying and holding up this enabler of sexual abuse as a role model. There have been four cover story section articles about him in the most recent issue of the OU’s Jewish Action magazine. Referring to his greatness and describing him as the “consummate American gadol” were both jarring and inappropriate. The thoughtful and careful analysis that went into the OU’s statements on the Orlando massacre and the same-sex marriage decision was apparently abandoned in publishing this issue.

I began my first column in this paper with a proud declaration of my lifelong membership in the Modern Orthodox community. I only wish that some of our leading MO organizations would return to regularly being sources of that pride.

About the Author
Joseph C. Kaplan, a regular columnist for the Jewish Standard, is a long-time resident of Teaneck. His work has also appeared in various publications including Sh’ma magazine, The New York Jewish Week, The Baltimore Jewish Times, and, as letters to the editor, The New York Times.
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