Response

(The following in similar form was submitted to the Jewish Link as a response to Rabbi Goldin’s response. They declined to print it this week.)

To the Editor:

I thank my dear colleague Rabbi Goldin for his response to my concerns. I do trust, as I am sure he does, that nothing awry, unusual or illegal will be found in the operation of any other batei din. One correction that he made is indeed welcome: under the current guidelines, contrary to what I wrote, sponsoring rabbis may be part of the conversion court as well.

In that regard, I erred for the best of reasons. The complete separation of the two roles – sponsoring rabbi and dayyan­ ­– was part of the original protocols established. That made sense for the reasons I outlined last week. But they were changed – perhaps at the very beginning – because of the insistence of small town courts that they did not have the manpower (i.e., “rabbi”-power) to consistently isolate the sponsoring rabbi from the conversion court. The language was then amended to permit such affiliation. I was unaware that they were changed, so, in any event, here in Bergen County, we always adhered to the original standard. We never allowed a sponsoring rabbi to be part of the conversion court in any respect. Never. All sponsoring rabbis knew that. I just assumed other batei din did the same. Our way made sense, and still does. The safety measures that I outlined last week were in place – but in Teaneck. That the protocol in DC applied the amended standard was, in retrospect, part of the problem. I assume as well that trying to re-implement the original standard will meet with the same objections of the small town courts.

Without re-hashing what has already been written on this matter, there is one questionable situation that remains that is neither slanderous nor speculative. It is clear from Rabbi Goldin’s own account that concerns were raised about the character of our DC colleague long before the voyeurism charges were adduced. These concerns were known to a very small group in the RCA, and resulted in our colleague’s dismissal as chairman of the GPS committee. Clearly there were red flags. Which begs the question: why were the allegations sufficient to remove him as head of the GPS committee but insufficient to remove him as head of the DC Bet Din, which, in retrospect, would have been a blessing for everyone concerned?

I don’t for a moment suspect mens rea on the part of the small group that decided his fate. If anything, it seems like negligence born of compassion. But, if the new committee is investigating (among other things) what went wrong in DC, and one thing that went wrong was the failure of the leadership in both oversight and effective response to the original DC misconduct, it is indeed odd that someone from that same leadership should serve on the committee – indeed, as chairman of the committee. No person should investigate himself. The errors, such as they were, in the end reflected poorly – apparently, as the formation of the committee itself indicates – on all batei din and all rabbis.

We have suffered inordinately in the last 25 years because of the accusation that rabbinic scandals are swept under the rug, investigated privately or not investigated at all. There should be accountability for poor decisions, however well-intentioned. Retaining someone as head of a Bet Din when it was known – regardless of justification or the peculiarities of the DC system – that he was exploiting conversion candidates to work for him in his home, in his university office, for donations, et al – was an error of judgment. The RCA could have sought his dismissal or could have insisted that the Beth Din of America dismiss him. The Executive Committee could have been apprised and offered its recommendation. None of that was not done, and victims paid a steep price for that. Hindsight is usually 20/20, but hindsight is 20/400 when the lights are dimmed, the curtains are drawn, the walls are erected, and the wagons are circled.

Consequently, there are many people – rabbis and laymen who have spoken to me – who feel that an outside investigation that includes no members of the RCA is warranted in order to fully explore how such errors were made and in order to regain public trust. A movement is already under way calling for such an investigation. And if, as media report, the female victims here are considering suing (among others) the RCA for malfeasance, such an investigation will happen sooner or later. Sooner is better. That is neither slander nor speculation, nor are any insinuations or accusations being made. It just seems like elementary yashrut and common sense.

I thank Rabbi Goldin for his kind words about me. The feelings are mutual. And in navigating those treacherous waters between dueling expectations for the conversion committee, and between maintaining the status quo and the vehement demand for modifications, I wish him much success. I, too, hope the work of the committee bears positive fruit.

– RSP

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6 responses to “Response

  1. Many problems could be avoided, and much time could be saved, if there were no conversions and no converts.

    Gentile believers in Torah would serve G_d by complying with the Seven Noachide Commandments [Sheva Mitzvot Bnei Noach].

    Last night, I watched a video about Jews who experience great difficulty with fitting into the New York City Orthodox Jewish communities, so they formed a small group of their own.

    One of the Jews interviewed identified himself as the son of a convert woman [giyoret]. One Jewess who was interviewed [who I recognized as someone I personally know] is the daughter of a convert woman whose conversion I suspect is unlikely to have been kosher.

    It seems to me that not only do converts to Judaism suffer from a high defection rate, but their children also suffer from a rate of high defection from Judaism.

  2. True converts who have fully and sincerely accepted mitzvot have a very high rate of observance and dedication. There were times in history when converts were not accepted but I don’t think this is one of them. I know so many wonderful converts and their children, all good Jews. And there are many born Jews who go off the derech so I would not generalize.
    -RSP

  3. Melissa Barnard

    I agree wholeheartedly with Rabbi Pruzansky’s call for an independent investigation by the RCA. My recollection is that the OU did this after the Lanner scandal, and YU did so after the recent allegations of abuse at MTA. In both cases, they retained an outside law firm to conduct a thorough investigation, and gave them full access to the organization’s records and staff. This can be an expensive enterprise, but it is essential if they wish to regain the public’s confidence. There were clearly a number of warning signals regarding Rabbi Freundel that were missed, or not fully appreciated (at least with hindsight…), and there is no way that the new conversion review committee will have the tools to investigate that issue. I also don’t think that it is part of their mandate.

  4. Rabbi,
    I am glad the temperature on this discussion seems to be abating. I do have an objection to what you wrote. As I understand it, the new committee has a mandate to investigate the incidents in DC, but also to review the GPS process in general and look for ways to improve the experience for all concerned. As such, it doesn’t seem like anything they uncover take on the nature of a criminal investigation or fact finding mission where “heads may roll.” While your caution about Rabbi Goldin’s “negius” is understandable, I am not convinced it is a fundamental stumbling block to the committee functioning effectively. Also I think it should be noted that one of the criticisms of the RCA’s initial response to allegations from 2012 is that they did not bring the investigation to Rabbi Freundel’s shul at that time.

  5. There are many criticisms of the RCA’s handling of this matter being lodged publicly, both past and present. These are some. There are others. There is great turmoil in the RCA; there is a growing movement to have a real investigation but it needs to gather more steam and supporters. So that will be the worst of both worlds – exaggerating the prevalence of situations like the current one involving the DC mikvah, so people will fear that it is widespread rather than non-existent, and failing to have any accountability for the mistakes made two years and ignoring the red flags.
    By the way, a number of people have commented that your use of the expression “heads may roll” is offensive, given the propensity with which Muslims are detaching the heads of innocent people. See? You too should be careful with your language.
    -RSP