Religion & Beliefs

Ultra-Orthodox Rabbis Are Reversing Conversions By the Fistful

IN JUNE 2006, ultra-Orthodox Rabbi Leib Tropper nullified a conversion over a year after supervising it himself. He decided that the convert, whom we will call “Sarah,” had become a Jew under “false Pretext [sic].” Rabbi Tropper informed Sarah’s husband, … Read More

By / May 14, 2008

IN JUNE 2006, ultra-Orthodox Rabbi Leib Tropper nullified a conversion over a year after supervising it himself. He decided that the convert, whom we will call “Sarah,” had become a Jew under “false Pretext [sic].” Rabbi Tropper informed Sarah’s husband, “Avraham,” that his wife’s conversion had been registered as nullified with the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, and that the child produced by their marriage would not be regarded as Jewish, either. Finally, Rabbi Tropper declared that it was “forbidden” for Avraham to be married to Sarah. “Even if she decides to become observant,” Rabbi Tropper wrote via email, “she will need a new conversion,” and the couple would require a “new halachic marriage.” What happens if despite a rabbi’s best due diligence, a convert to Orthodox Judaism doesn't keep Jewish law for the long haul? If that convert begins eating cheeseburgers and driving on Shabbat? Does the conversion remain valid? Is a convert 100% Jewish no matter what? Historically, a lapsed convert was still considered a Jew unless those lapses were immediate to the conversion, public, and intentional. The convert had to know what he was about to do was wrong, and then had to do it anyway. (Before the 19th century and the advent of ultra-Orthodoxy, according to Zvi Zohar, an Israeli scholar who studies this issue, there is no evidence a rabbi ever revoked a conversion for any reason.)

Times have changed. That’s because haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Jews like Leib Tropper, founder and director of Eternal Jewish Family—an organization dedicated to converting non-Jewish spouses of intermarried Jews—represent the most rapidly growing demographic in Judaism. Tropper also founded and runs a yeshiva in Monsey, New York, and travels regularly to Israel, where he frequents the halls of haredi power and hobnobs with its leaders. People like him are the Jewish future. They’re at the center of a seemingly irrevocable schism between Orthodoxy and every other denomination of Judaism. They're determined to restrict and to monitor all Orthodox conversions as part of their spiritual war against non-haredi Judaism, and they want nothing less than ultimately to define who is a Jew. Tropper did not revoke Sarah’s conversion because she bowed down to idols, accepted Jesus as her Lord and Savior, or identified with the atheist philosophies of Christopher Hitchens. She didn’t renounce any universally accepted tenet of Judaism. Sarah’s conversion was ruled invalid because she did what many Modern Orthodox women do every day: get dressed and go out of the house. Sarah’s conversion was reversed because Tropper heard that she had worn pants, and occasionally—only when shopping outside the Jewish neighborhood—she had left her hair uncovered. Sarah and Avraham live hundreds of miles from Tropper, who is based in the ultra-Orthodox enclave of Monsey, New York. How did Tropper find out about Sarah’s clothing? Easy: Her husband told him.

A “baal teshuva,” Avraham was as new to ultra-Orthodoxy as Sarah was to Judaism. Like many people who become Orthodox as adults, he had questions. Orthodox Jewish law mandates how to put on and tie one’s shoes; when, how, and even if to have sex; what and when to eat, and hundreds of other daily minutiae. Was it a major transgression for Sarah occasionally not to cover her hair? What about wearing pants?

Avraham didn’t know, so he asked Tropper, who said that her behavior showed a flagrant disregard for Judaism, and that she was taking Jewish law lightly. He questioned Sarah’s original intent in converting, and contacted her for an explanation. Shocked that her husband had gone behind her back, Sarah refused to talk, and Tropper revoked her conversion. In an email to Avraham, Tropper wrote, “We must keep our word. [Sarah] ACCEPTED on herself to OBSERVE ALL of the torah & rabbinical commanments [sic]. She never did. You know that & you told me that.”
IN LEXINGTON, KENTUCKY, Tropper wreaked havoc on another family of seekers. Leah Bourne's maternal grandmother was Jewish, so according to Jewish law she was as well, but she hadn’t been raised that way. Her husband Peter wasn’t Jewish at all. After marrying and having children, the Bournes became involved with a Reform synagogue, but they wanted more. Along with their 16-year-old son Jonathan, they attended an EJF information seminar in their town. Raised in the Bible Belt, the Bournes were attracted to Tropper’s Jewish fundamentalism. They invested in the expensive process of koshering their home, kept the Sabbath, and studied Torah. They were a model family—so much so that EJF featured them in its promotional video. Tropper even convinced Jonathan, then a junior in high school, to forsake his senior year and enroll at Kol Yaakov, Topper’s Monsey-based yeshiva for Baal Teshuva students. Though at first his parents didn't agree with their son missing his senior year of high school, Tropper assured them that Jonathan would be able to learn Torah and get his GED at the same time. As they delved deeper into ultra-Orthodoxy, the Bournes were intrigued by the idea of their son becoming a learned Jew, and perhaps even a rabbi. Jonathan moved to Monsey, where he spent his days studying. Peter, meanwhile, worked toward converting by learning Torah over the phone with a Monsey rabbi. Peter’s teacher happened to work at Tropper’s yeshiva, and kept the proud father informed about Jonathan’s progress. The reports were very good: Jonathan was a diligent, budding scholar. Tropper promised the Bourne family that he’d send a rabbi to open a synagogue and build a mikvah in Lexington. Having an Orthodox synagogue and mikvah in their town was essential because EJF will not authorize conversions for people who live in areas without an acceptable Orthodox infrastructure. Unable to relocate, the Bournes depended on Tropper’s guarantees. Eventually, Leah and Peter traveled to Monsey for an EJF seminar. Leah, who has an architecture degree, was shocked by what she found. In her words, Kol Yaakov was “unfit for human habitation.” It was dirty, unkempt, and unsafe. She saw students living in overcrowded basement rooms without egress windows or other safe exits. According to Leah, “What pathetic stuff they had down in that basement to serve as a kitchen and dining room were disgustingly filthy, neglected, and inadequate for the number of boys living there.…They were not provided with breakfast (except maybe some day-old or stale pastries from a local bakery) or lunch, and for dinner they were divided up and sent around to other people’s homes every night—not just for Shabbat.” Leah was amazed that in light of all this, Tropper had helped find Jonathan a black hat and suit. “Clearly, the clothes were far more important to Tropper than making sure they had food.”
Just as Sarah’s clothes were more important to Tropper than the radical life change she’d made in embracing Orthodox Judaism, and just as her uncovered hair was more important to Tropper than her relationship with her husband, Jonathan Bourne’s black hat was prioritized over his health, his personal safety—and his education. There was no GED program available at Kol Yaakov, and when Jonathan began to ask questions, Tropper’s response was to chastise him for not finding an outside program to enroll in. As Peter was completing the requirements for his conversion, Tropper presented the family with a major setback: There would be no synagogue or mikvah in Lexington. Peter was instructed to abandon his job and future pension, and move his family to Monsey. When Tropper’s nebulous offers to help Peter find a job there weren’t enough to quell the Bournes’ anger and disappointment, Tropper—who refused to comment for this story—expelled Jonathan from Kol Yaakov without notice, dumping him on the street. IN ISRAEL, THE ONLY government recognized conversions are Orthodox. Last year, Israeli Rabbi Avraham Atia—a government-empowered haredi rabbinic judge based in Ashdod—retroactively annulled a woman’s conversion to Judaism that had been performed by Conversion Authority head Rabbi Haim Druckman fifteen years before. The nine-page legal decision by Atia could be understood to invalidate thousands of conversions performed by Druckman, a Religious Zionist rabbi, and the rabbis with whom he’s worked over the years. This reading of Rabbi Atia’s ruling was adopted by the Chief Rabbinate’s High Rabbinic Court, which heard the Atia case on appeal. In a fifty-five page ruling released in early May of this year, the lead rabbinic judge—another haredi rabbi, Avraham Sherman—ruled every conversion performed by Rabbi Druckman from 1999 onward invalid. Thousands of converts and their children are now deemed “goyyim,” their marriages void, their relationships with their spouses now “illicit.” While Israel’s Modern Orthodox and National Religious rabbis invested their energy, time, and money into settling the West Bank and creating an ever-greater Israel, haredim used their resources to become the dominant Orthodox political force in the country—even as they remain ambivalent about the validity of a Jewish state. They took control of the country’s Chief Rabbinate and its entire bureaucracy, whose authority they now wield as a weapon to attack and delegitimize more moderate Orthodox rabbis in Israel and abroad.

America’s largest rabbinic group, the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) which represents “Centrist” and Modern Orthodox rabbis, was negotiating with Israel’s Chief Rabbinate over the conversion issue when we spoke with its executive vice president, Rabbi Basil Herring, in January. The Chief Rabbinate wanted the RCA to set up formal “conversion courts” with American judges approved by the Chief Rabbinate, who would first travel to Israel to be “trained” by the Chief Rabbinate to “properly” supervise conversions. Herring described the RCA’s relationship with Israel’s Chief Rabbinate as “very warm and positive.” “And that includes [the subject of] conversion,” Rabbi Herring emphasized. He was unwilling to comment on specific cases that might disturb that idyll—such as Rabbi Atia’s conversion revocation—because, he claimed, he was not privy to the specific details of the case. But privy he would soon be. This spring, the RCA reached an agreement (labeled “capitulation” by critics, including at least one former RCA president) with Israel’s Chief Rabbinate ensuring that American conversions will be much stricter from now on, and will be done only through formal, pre-approved “conversion courts." On May 6, the RCA reacted with outrage to the High Rabbinic Court’s revocation of thousands of Modern Orthodox conversions:

“T]he RCA finds it necessary to state for the record that in our view the ruling itself, as well as the language and tone thereof, are entirely beyond the pale of acceptable halachic practice, violate numerous Torah laws regarding converts and their families, create a massive desecration of God's name, insult outstanding rabbinic leaders and halachic scholars in Israel, and are a reprehensible cause of widespread conflict and animosity within the Jewish people in Israel and beyond. The RCA is appalled that such a ruling has been issued…

The RCA also claimed it had been “assured” by Sephardic Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar, the haredi president of the rabbinic court system, that the High Rabbinic Court ruling “directly countermanded his instructions and policies” and had “no legal standing at this time.” Reports in the Israeli media noted that Rabbi Amar was “trying” to annul the ruling.
On May 11, the Jerusalem Post reported that many of Israel’s marriage registrars—all Orthodox—are refusing to register marriages of converts until Amar clarifies the status of Sherman’s ruling. In a country without civil marriage and with no other recognized Jewish options, this leaves converts in a limbo that could continue indefinitely. Amar says he wants to have the Chief Rabbinate's governing council discuss the issue, but the council is not seated. Therefore, Amar plans to wait for elections to the council to be held. His spokesman claims to be unsure how long this might take. HAREDIM SEE ULTRA-ORTHODOXY as the only true Judaism. They don’t view non-Orthodox Judaism as a theological threat, because in their minds Reform, Conservative, and post-denominational Jews are only a few years from irrelevance. In the US, for every 1.36 children a Reform Jewish couple have, haredim have 6.72, and Modern Orthodox have 3.39.

Although they still have Modern Orthodoxy to contend with, the reality is that haredim now control Israel’s Chief Rabbinate and rabbinic courts. They provide teachers for Modern Orthodox day schools, dominate Jewish outreach, and serve as rabbis in Modern Orthodox synagogues. Through control of the conversion process, haredim can determine who is a Jew, who is an Orthodox rabbi, and therefore what traditional Judaism is. The pawns in this haredi power play are the thousands of Orthodox Jewish converts who, just like Sarah, woke up one day to find they are no longer Jewish, their marriages are null and void, and their children are forbidden to marry Jews.