New York 'tight conversions' rabbi resigns

By Paul Berger, December 17, 2009

The founder of a powerful American group that seeks to enforce a tough stance on conversions has abruptly resigned.

Leib Tropper, a strictly Orthodox rabbi who founded the New York-based Eternal Jewish Family, said he was stepping down last weekend to “pursue a variety of other interests”.

In the past week, images appeared on several Jewish blogs showing posters on display in Orthodox neighbourhoods of Jerusalem accusing him of indiscretions.

The posters demanded that Rabbi Tropper resign from the EJF or photographs and videos of “his disgrace” would be published. No evidence has been produced. An EJF spokesman did not return calls for comment.

However, EJF did release a statement from Rabbi Tropper, which read: “As a founder of EJF, I am proud of my role of being an architect of a very dynamic and important movement in our community. I will in the coming months do my utmost to be of service to the Jewish community in any way I can.”

The EJF focuses on the halachic conversion of non-Jewish spouses. Since its inception about five years ago, it has played a muscular role in the battle over Orthodox conversion, advocating one accepted standard for Orthodox conversion in North America.

By refusing to recognise many members of the Rabbinical Council of America, the largest Orthodox rabbinical organisation in the world, it has cast doubt on numerous conversions.

Rabbi Seth Farber, the director of ITIM, an Israeli-based organisation that supports people going through conversion, said: “Rabbi Tropper was an important force because he got the ultra Orthodox community to recognise that conversion is a legitimate way of addressing the challenges of intermarriage and assimilation in the US. For that, he will be missed.

“But at the same time, a lot of Rabbi Tropper’s tactics were negative in orientation. The EJF often felt the need to delegitimise other Orthodox rabbis and their conversions and this endangered the identity, or threw into question the identity, of thousands of Orthodox converts in North America.”

Rabbi Tropper has been a controversial figure for some time. In 2005, he allegedly played a key role in getting the books of Rabbi Natan Slifkin banned by leading strictly Orthodox rabbis. The Manchester-born rabbi’s works reconcile scripture and science.

In 2006, he nullified the conversion of a married woman — which he had overseen — after he learned she had occasionally worn trousers and left her hair uncovered in public.

More recently, he has been embroiled in a legal battle and a war of words with Israeli energy billionaire Guma Aguiar.

Mr Aguiar claims he gave the rabbi millions of dollars to donate to other rabbis and to Jewish causes. But he says the money was not passed on to all of its intended recipients — a claim Rabbi Tropper denies — and in October, reportedly filed suit in the Jerusalem Rabbinical Court.

Rabbi Tropper claims Mr Aguiar confronted him at a Jerusalem hotel earlier this year and threatened to throw him out of a window. Mr Aguiar denies the claim.

It is unclear what effect Rabbi Tropper’s resignation, and the manner of his departure, will have on the EJF’s conversion policy or its power.

Said Rabbi Farber: “I am hoping the leadership will enter into a dialogue with various brands of Orthodoxy in America, so that there is greater accountability and understanding and a more positive conversation can emerge.”

    Last updated: 4:47pm, December 17 2009