Last week – in response to the arrest of Rabbi Barry Freundel, who is accused of having spied on women as they prepared to immerse themselves in the mikvah attached to his Washington, D.C., shul, as the last step in their conversion to Judaism – the Rabbinical Council of America decided to review its conversion procedures.
Reacting to this news, Rabbi Steven Pruzansky, spiritual leader of Congregation Bnai Yeshurun in Teaneck, announced that he was resigning his post as the head of the Bergen County’s Bet Din L’Giyur – its conversion court. He announced his decision in a long post on his blog, rabbipruzansky.com.
There is a great deal of history to these decisions.
Conversion is too life-altering a process to be made easy, but the RCA appointed a new commission and tasked it with exploring whether more oversight over the process could make some of it less burdensome, bewildering, or expensive.
This is not the first time that the RCA, which represents Orthodox rabbis, has tried to adjust the way it regulates conversions.
Until 2006, there was no overarching system; instead, the batei din – the religious courts – each operated independently, more or less like New Jersey municipalities. They all were governed by the same halacha, but subject to no oversight on the equivalent of the state or federal level. But the RCA’s leaders, recognizing the maturation of the Orthodox community, believed that oversight had become necessary.
Looking back, Shmuel Goldin, the senior rabbi of Congregation Ahavath Torah in Englewood and the RCA’s immediate past president, acknowledges that move was controversial. It was a tradeoff, and imposed a layer of bureaucracy on what had been an intensely personal process. But it seems to have worked, he said; standardizing helped conversion candidates because it gave them a better idea of what to expect, and it helped rabbis because it freed them from pressure to allow inappropriate conversions.
It is always true, however, that “there is a power imbalance in a conversion, because converts must rely on the rabbi or rabbis to enable them to do something they feel is critical to their lives,” Rabbi Goldin said.
“For years now there has been a sentiment within the RCA that despite the positive functioning of the system, a review of our procedures is warranted,” Rabbi Goldin said. “Like any complex system, challenges emerge and a regular review can only be healthy. Now, however, we feel a greater urgency to perform this review. It has become clear to us that the Av Beit Din of the Washington Bet Din” – in other words Rabbi Freundel – “was able to subvert the system without our awareness.” That is true although the specifics of his alleged crime were the work of a lone pervert, a man corrupted by power or by his own demons.
“This event, and other events surrounding it, other issues that have been reported and others that have not been reported, indicated to us a need to have greater oversight over the individual courts in our system,” Rabbi Goldin said. “This is a very complex situation.”
A committee of six men, all rabbis, and five women, two of them converts, chaired by Rabbi Goldin, has been assembled. Its job is to look at the conversion process – not the halacha itself, but the logistics and practicalities that surround it – and to report back to the parent organization.
It was in response to the formation of this committee that Rabbi Pruzansky announced that he was resigning from the beit din.
“It has been spiritually rewarding to serve in this capacity for the last seven years,” Rabbi Pruzansky wrote in his letter to the RCA, as he relayed on his blog. “I am extremely proud of the professionalism, sensitivity, integrity and fidelity to Halacha of the RCBC Bet Din that I and my colleagues established, and that successfully brought more than 100 gerei Tzedek tachat kanfei hashechina” – 100 converts into the Jewish people.
“In the current climate, with changes to … protocols contemplated, it is an appropriate time for new leadership.”
Later in the post, Rabbi Pruzansky details his reasoning. He was very satisfied with the work of the bet din, which has been honest, rigorous, and deeply fulfilling for its members, he said. But he fears that with the new rules, the system could substitute expediency for rigor, allowing the conversion of candidates who will not live the Orthodox lives they have promised to live, and whose intents are self-serving rather than pure.
He also thinks that the scandal in Washington is the work of one man, and the reaction to it is excessive.
Much of Rabbi Pruzansky’s post has garnered attention from the Jewish media, but this one paragraph seems to have galvanized the strongest response:
“The committee consists of six men and five women, bolstering the trend on the Orthodox left to create quasi-rabbinical functions for women. Is there a role for women to play in ‘suggest[ing] safeguards against possible abuse’? Probably, although it really is self-understood. But what role can they play in ‘review[ing]’ the … conversion process? That is halacha, minhag, psak – a purely rabbinical role.”
Rabbi Pruzansky’s critics have said that his resignation from the committee is to protest the presence of women there, but Rabbi Pruzansky says that they are wrong. He is particularly angered by a story in the New York Jewish Week that makes that claim, he said, and also attempts to tie him to Rabbi Freundel.
“[T]he Jewish Week’s characterization that I resigned to protest the inclusion of women on the committee is an absolute falsehood, as false as is their scurrilous attempt to associate me with my colleague in DC who has been charged with serious crimes,” Rabbi Pruzansky wrote in an email to the Jewish Standard. “The former is a complete fabrication – I wrote nothing of the sort – and the latter is a blatant attempt to smear me and the hundred other rabbis who at one time or another served on a committee with the alleged DC offender.
“If you read what I wrote, it should be clear that I resigned because I anticipate the committee will make substantive changes to our procedures (any committee) and to separate myself from the culture of negativity and suspicion that now pervades the conversion process. In the seven years of our Bet Din, we always acted with great sensitivity and integrity, and I am proud of that.”
“That’s a personal decision, and I can’t comment on it, other than to say that it is a decision he has the right to make,” Rabbi Goldin said of Rabbi Pruzansky’s decision. “I believe that the committee I am going to be heading will work in conjunction with the existing batei din to better the process.
“That’s something we all want.”
Meanwhile, further down on his blog, a comment that Rabbi Pruzanky made in response to another comment began to draw attention to itself as well.
Still enraged by what he saw as mistreatment by the Jewish Week – the paper got the name of the organization Rabbi Pruzansky was to leave wrong, and in correcting that mistake the writer stumbled into another problem. “Pruzansky is still a member of the RCA’s Executive Committee, where he used to share the company of Rabbi Freundel before his arrest,” she wrote.
“How is that for vicious innuendo?” Rabbi Pruzansky wrote. “What a despicable outrageous slander!”
He has not returned phone calls from the Jewish Week in 15 years, he continued. The paper is “typical of the sordid state of journalism today.”
Then Rabbi Pruzansky continued to take aim at the Jewish Week, and particularly at its publisher and editor, Gary Rosenblatt of Teaneck.
“They should apologize,” he wrote. “But, I guess, to follow their way of reporting, both the Jewish Week’s publisher and Julius Streicher published newspapers that dealt a lot with Jews. Same business, I suppose. That’s bad company to be in.”
Julius Streicher was the publisher of Der StÃ¼rmer, the newspaper that was one of Nazi Germany’s most virulent and potent anti-Semitic outlets; he was tried, convicted, and executed in Nuremberg after the war.
In an editorial slated to be published in this week’s Jewish Week, Mr. Rosenblatt responded to the slam.
Admitting the error and acknowledging the awkward wording to which Rabbi Pruzansky had reacted, Mr. Rosenblatt went on to write: “Der Sturmer, of course, was the central vehicle of the Nazi propaganda machine. We find the comparison outrageous, particularly coming from a leading community rabbi and RCA executive member. And to date, the lack of a public expression of remorse from the rabbi and the institutions he serves, or is affiliated with, speaks volumes.”