Unsavoury side of strict conversion
In applying stringent policies, the United Synagogue finds itself with some dubious bedfellows.
Three children rejected from JFS, their parents’ conversions in doubt and their own Jewish identities in tatters. A legal ruling by a British court establishing “Who is a Jew” in a way at odds with the traditional Jewish definition. A community at risk of schism.
How did we get into this mess?
A scandal currently unfolding in New York, at first glance completely unrelated, may shed some light on the current farce.
Two weeks ago, devastating recordings began circulating on the internet of salacious phone conversations between a man and a woman. The man talks about the woman having sex with him and with other men. He also fantasises about rape scenes and discusses cash payments.
Although the tapes remain unauthenticated, it has been widely reported that the man is a certain Rabbi Leib Tropper, who just days earlier had resigned from the conversion agency he founded, Eternal Jewish Family, “to pursue other interests”. There has been no denial. The woman was Shannon Orand, one of his own conversion candidates. Last week Ms Orand claimed she had been told by Rabbi Tropper: “If you fulfil my needs, I’ll fulfil yours — and you need a conversion”.
What really compounded the scandal is that EJF, the organisation Rabbi Tropper fronted, was an enormously influential international pressure group calling for the strictest of standards in conversion, such that only converts adopting a Charedi lifestyle would be acceptable.
Not long ago, Rabbi Tropper nullified a conversion he himself had carried out because the female convert was seen wearing trousers (an irony, perhaps, in that he was allegedly willing to offer Ms Orand a conversion for removing hers). Another EJF leader declared in 2007 that any rabbi who believes the world is older than 5,768 years is ineligible to sit on a conversion court.
Their biggest success came in 2006, when the Israeli rabbinate declared it would not recognise Orthodox conversions carried out in America, except by a tiny group of mostly Charedi rabbis. This was seen as a deliberate (and successful) attempt, spurred on by EJF, to disenfranchise Modern Orthodox rabbis.
EJF’s actions were highly controversial, exclusionary, extreme and schismatic — even before the current scandal. And therein lies the Anglo-Jewish connection.
A prominent member of Rabbi Tropper’s organisation is Dayan Chanoch Ehrentreu, former head of the London Beth Din. He has spoken at EJF conventions — most recently in November — and is chairman of its halachic committee in Europe. Moreover, he has been quoted on Charedi websites encouraging EJF to expand its activities into Europe — although the Conference of European Rabbis (whose beth din he also heads) recently passed a resolution strongly objecting to this potential interference.
Dayan Ehrentreu took up his position with EJF only after he retired from the LBD in 2006. Nevertheless, it is legitimate to ask why he was — and, judging by a letter he signed last week praising the group, still is — willing to associate himself with EJF, whose values are openly antagonistic to those of the supposedly centrist United Synagogue.
What does this say about his attitudes while still in office? Dayan Ehrentreu was, for years, a dominant force behind the policy on conversions for the London Beth Din. It was his ultra-strict approach to giyur that resulted in the annulment of the Orthodox conversions of Helen Sagal and Kate Lightman — ultimately paving the way for the father of Boy “M” to sue when his child, son of a Progressive convert, was rejected from JFS.
To what extent were these policies determined in New York and Bnei Brak? Dayan Ehrentreu would doubtless be shocked by Rabbi Tropper’s alleged immoral behaviour and nobody would accuse Dayan Ehrentreu of anything underhand. But his attitudes do not exist in a vacuum. The policies EJF has pursued stem from an expressed desire to impose Charedi standards for conversion across the world, obliterating any local discretion which might take into account the character and nature of local community cultures. In North America, this agenda was pushed hard by one zealot, whose religious pretensions — if the allegations are true — are a corrupt, hypocritical and scandalous charade. In Israel, it is pushed by a Charedi-dominated rabbinate with a highly political agenda.
Is this really a “gold standard” that United Synagogue members are comfortable with? Perhaps the real problem is not the Supreme Court imposing on us a Christian idea of Who is a Jew but the London Beth Din imposing on us a Charedi idea of Who is a Jew.
Miriam Shaviv is the JC’s foreign editor