Rabbinate in US ‘betray converts’

By Simon Rocker, March 19, 2009

An extraordinary row over conversions has broken out between one of America’s leading modern Orthodox rabbis and the umbrella body for the central Orthodox rabbinate.

Rabbi Avi Weiss, of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, New York, has accused the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) of creating an “alarmist climate” among converts after telling a woman he helped to convert that she must undergo a reconversion.

The RCA explained that the original conversion might not be universally accepted because one member of the rabbinic court that converted her was himself a convert.

But Rabbi Weiss said there were halachic precedents for a rabbi on a conversion panel to be a convert and that the RCA was behaving with “terrible inconsistency”.

“There are countless numbers of conversions that I know of… where one of the rabbis on the Beth Din was a convert and they did not demand there be a reconversion,” he said.

Rabbi Weiss, an RCA member, who sat on the three-man Beth Din that converted the woman, said that the RCA “have not been in contact with me at all, or with the other two co-officiants. I have been on the Beth Din for around 250 conversions, I have been in the rabbinate for 41 years. This is the first time that the RCA has refused to validate one of my conversions. It’s unacceptable. But more important, it really has caused unlimited pain to converts.”

Explaining the RCA’s decision, Rabbi Basil Herring, its executive vice-president, said: “The RCA indicated [the convert] would go through a giyur lechumra, a subsequent immersion, to ensure her status would not be questioned in the future. It would do that in her own best interests and she was fully prepared to do that.”

Rabbi Herring added: “Rabbi Weiss is entitled to his view. If the concern is to help the convert and prevent her anguish, then he needs to understand that other rabbis are also entitled to reject his interpretation of Jewish law.”

He also rejected the allegation of inconsistency as “simply not true”.

Last updated: 5:30pm, March 26 2009