Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight


Window into the Charedi World | Mordecai Plaut, director







Checking Conversions

by M. Chevroni

There's no recession in the conversion "industry." The issuers of fictitious conversion certificates work around the clock in order to meet the demand. While the certificates issued by Reform and Conservative "rabbis" are immediately recognized as not valid, fictitious certificates issued abroad by so-called Orthodox rabbis receive full backing from certain rabbis in Israel.

A wedding was held in Jerusalem, on Monday, the 4th of Kislev (November 24).

This wedding was accompanied by quite a bit of anguish -- the anguish of those who didn't participate in the "simcha," and who made great efforts to prevent it. At this wedding, Mr. M.B. married Miss P.K.

P.K. is a "convert." (The deliberate quotation marks are telltale.) The Vaad HaRabbonim Haolami LeInyonei Giyur, headed by HaRav Chaim Kreiswirth of Antwerp, made great efforts to delay the approval of this conversion by the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, pending clarification of the facts.

But they didn't succeed. They also tried to prevent the "fishy" wedding, but were unsuccessful in this too.

Who is kosher? Who is posul?

"Scores, maybe hundreds, of affidavits arrive from all over the world," says Rav Nochum Eisenstein of the Vaad HaRabbonim Haolami LeInyonei Giyur, "such as those affirming someone's unmarried status, or someone's Jewish identity as recorded abroad, or the validity of someone's conversion.

"When these documents reach Israel, the Chief Rabbinate must evaluate the documents and decide, of each one, whether to rely on it, or to require additional investigation into the facts asserted therein, or to reject it outright as invalid.

"How is this done? The affidavits are checked in a number of different ways. Whenever a person comes with a conversion certificate, he must open a file in the rabbinical court which will check out his conversion. That is the standard procedure."

Not bad

"True," Rav Eisenstein agrees. "This procedure is an improvement over the situation which prevailed here until five or six years ago. Until then, the entire issue was neglected, even though then too, the official guidelines stipulated that it was necessary to investigate and check out these documents. However then, nearly every certificate or document which arrived from abroad was approved. The officials didn't check. They didn't attempt to investigate whether the person to whom the certificate had been granted met even the minimal requirements of the Chief Rabbinate -- and the criteria of the Rabbinate have never been defined as overly stringent."

What has changed?

"A special department has been established in the Chief Rabbinate. This department's job is to concentrate on one topic, that of affidavits and certificates from abroad. Chief Rabbi Bakshi-Doron appointed a ben Torah to head this department, a former student of the Chevron Yeshiva named Rabbi Yitzchok Ochana. He founded and is effectively administering this department, and is doing good work. The employees of the Department for Affidavits from Abroad must examine every conversion document or any other document which arrives from abroad."

Why? Can't the rabbis of the Diaspora be relied upon?

"No," replies Rav Eisenstein. "There are a few rabbis whose affidavits and affirmations really don't have to be checked. It is clear, for example, that if HaRav Moshe Feinstein had sent an affirmation, it would have been accepted right away. But his case, and a few additional ones, are exceptions to the rule, and do not point to the general situation."

What do the rabbonim in Eretz Yisroel say about their counterparts from abroad? This can be learned from the three types of certificates given here by the rabbinate in response to the various affidavits which arrive from abroad.

The first type of certificate determines that the rabbi who gave the affidavit or conducted the conversion is "unrecognized." Unrecognized rabbis are generally Reform or Conservative clergymen whose affidavits are totally worthless. "The officials in the Affidavit Department label such files with a large "X," says Rav Eisenstein.

But sadly, there are also so-called Orthodox rabbis among the unrecognized ones. These are rabbis who confer conversion certificates freely, without guaranteeing that the most fundamental criteria of the Chief Rabbinate have been fulfilled. There are quite a number of rabbis of this sort, and the list is growing longer.

How can this be explained?

"One must understand the structure of the rabbinates of the United States, Europe and South Africa," explains Rav Eisenstein. "The best example is the United States where over 2000 rabbis identified with the Orthodox stream officiate. Thousands of Conservative and Reform `rabbis' are also active on the scene. But there is no reliable, central body to which all of these rabbis belong. There is no one to supervise their work. They do whatever they please -- every rabbi within his own empire, without control, without supervision, without hierarchy. This makes our investigating work very hard."

It sounds like anarchy. But in America, and apparently in other regions of the world, there are rabbinical organizations.

"Right. There are organizations such as the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) and the Agudas HaRabbonim of the United States and Canada. These organizations are totally free frameworks, which are completely uncontrolled. That's the situation. It should be mentioned that nonetheless the official beis din of the Agudas HaRabbonim follows strict guidelines for approving conversions."

This means that even if a rabbi is `recognized,' as opposed to the `unrecognized rabbis' we have mentioned, we still don't know if his affidavits are genuine.

"Exactly so. And now we have reached the second type of certification the special department in the Rabbinate accords to affidavits which arrive from abroad. Such a certification states that the rabbi is recognized. This certification is given only after the department has conducted investigations which determine that the rabbi who has signed the certificate or the conversion is Orthodox. When it becomes clear that he is indeed Orthodox, the department checks out whether the manner in which the conversion he signed indeed meets the criteria of the Chief Rabbinate.

It should be noted that accepting conversions performed by other rabbis, even if they call themselves Orthodox, is a serious halachic matter. We have learned from bitter experience that many "Orthodox" conversions do not, unfortunately, meet even minimum standards.

A psak din on this matter was issued in 5744 by geonim HaRav Yisroel Yaakov Kanievsky, zt'l, HaRav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, zt'l, and ylct'a HaRav Eliezer Menachem Shach, shlita and HaRav Yosef Sholom Eliashiv shlita, stating, "The halacha obligates all marriage registrars to check anyone who presents a conversion certificate from Israel or from abroad, whether it was done according to the halacha . . ."

And now to the third type of certification. In such cases, the affidavit is signed by an Orthodox rabbi, but the Chief Rabbinate passes the file in question to a rabbinical court, in order to determine if the affidavit sent from abroad is acceptable or not.

In other words, it's not a rubber stamp. . .

"Today's Rabbinate functions according to the guidelines issued in the days of Rabbi Shapira, the former Chief Rabbi of Israel. No one suspects him of being overly stringent. The guidelines include the most elementary instructions. The guidelines issued in 5750 say: "First of all, an investigation is conducted regarding the rabbi who issued the certificate, in order to determine whether he is an Orthodox talmid chochom, and if he may be relied on. After the rabbinical court has received this affidavit, the court in which the convert appears must listen to him, and investigate him. It must listen to the testimonies and decide whether the conversion certificate which that recognized rabbi signed was really performed according to the halocho. The rabbinical court's decision must be made in light of the investigation's findings.

"From these instructions, it is easy to understand that the regional rabbinical court in Israel is the one which must decide if a conversion is valid or not, after receiving the approval of the Chief Rabbinate regarding the rabbi who has performed the conversion. Even when a rabbi is approved as recognized, this approval does not constitute a rubber stamp on the certificate he has issued, and the painstaking work of checking out the matter must be approached," explains Rav Eisenstein.

Who Checks?

"Rabbi Ochana's department does part of the work, and a large part of it is transferred to the personnel of the Vaad HaRabbonim Haolami LeInyonei Giyur. The Vaad has a network of trustworthy rabbonim who are called upon when necessary to conduct investigations. "Sometimes it's easy," relates Rav Eisenstein. "It's enough to make a telephone call or two, and to listen to the information conveyed by trustworthy people about a particular young man who studies in a particular yeshiva, and thus to shorten the way for those wishing to receive certain types of certificates (such as celibacy certificates). Sometimes it's much harder. We have methods which we won't divulge here."

Something about the investigating methods may be learned from the story of M.B and his wife (according to the civil law at least), who today has taken on the fine Jewish name of Rivka.

The Groom Pressures

M.B. is a young man from a traditional home. He even studied in Orthodox schools in the eastern United States.

M.B. left his hometown, and went to Connecticut in order to study medicine. There the first phase of his story, which ended in a wedding last week, began.

At the university, he met P., a gentile. The two decided to continue their medical studies in a special program run by the Haifa University. M. and P. arrived in Israel, and the two studied medicine for five years in Haifa. They finished their studies, received their diplomas, and wanted to get married. For some reason, they decided that P. would undergo conversion in America. It's not hard to understand why they did not apply to the rabbinical court in Haifa. In America, the way had been paved for them.

"We received the conversion certificate," relates Rav Eisenstein, "signed" Rabbi Goldin, a Member of the R.C.A. This is the organization of rabbis who call themselves Orthodox, but are known as modern.

"When the conversion certificate signed by Rabbi Goldin and his court was presented, the department in the Chief Rabbinate issued a letter which read: `Rabbi Goldin is a member of the RCA.' The meaning of this was that the file had to be returned to the local rabbinical court in Israel, so that it could investigate this conversion and decide if it was acceptable or not.

"While the file was still being checked, a lot of pressure, exerted by the RCA, began. They asked, or better yet pressured the Chief Rabbinate to approve the conversion automatically, and not to conduct further investigations. In order to reinforce this request, the RCA produced a letter from Rabbi Gedaliah Schwartz, the av beis din of the RCA, stating that `the conversion of P.K. was conducted according to the halocho in a beis din under the supervision of Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, on the 16th of Elul 5758.'

"However, according to accepted procedure, the affidavits of the RCA require additional examination.

"From the first examination of the certificate, it became clear that the conversion was made for the purpose of marriage, and such types of converts are not to be accepted according to the halocho. Therefore, at the outset, doubts regarding the credibility of the letter of the av beis din of the RCA, who had written that all had been done kedas ukedin, began to emerge. It also became clear that there was a problem about the date of the conversion. What's so problematic about the date? The wedding took place on the 4th of Kislev. However, when a female convert marries, the halocho stipulates that she must wait 91 days from the date of her conversion until her wedding. In this case, the three month waiting span hadn't been maintained."

What happened? How did they manage to bypass that requirement?


This magic word covers up for the most intensive pressures imaginable. What was so urgent? Why didn't the couple agree to undergo the investigation procedure here, in Israel? They knew why.

"P. had resided in Israel for four years," says Rav Eisenstein. "What is more natural than to turn to the established beis din in Haifa? But she didn't do this. She chose to fly to America and to undergo conversion there. A bit shady, to say the least. In America, Miss P. didn't approach a beis din in New York which was her address as stated in the conversion certificate, but chose to be converted in New Jersey. The Chief Rabbinate has always been careful not to accept conversions performed outside of the conversion candidate's place of residence.

But this wasn't the only decisive factor. "Bedi'eved, since the conversion was already performed, we went to great pains to investigate the conversion, to try to sanction it," says Rav Eisenstein. "We had no wish to drag out the case."

Rav Eisenstein phoned M.B., and explained that according to standard procedures, he must appear before Jerusalem's regional rabbinical court. "I know that it's unpleasant," I explained to him. "Therefore, I propose a short cut: If you cooperate and help me investigate P.K.'s Jewish status, it might be possible to bypass the beis din.

"`What must I do?' M.B. wanted to know.

"`Give me the names of two Orthodox people in the country who know you, and know that you intend to live a life of Torah and mitzvos, and are prepared to vouch for you,' I told him."

This small and simple request caused M.B. anxiety. He hurried to exert pressure, and sent a fax to the RCA, saying that Rav Nochum Eisenstein had said that if he didn't provide the names of two religious families who are willing to vouch for P.K.'s sincerity, he would have to undergo investigation by a beis din. From M.B.'s letter it was obvious that he couldn't provide the name of a family, as requested by Rav Eisenstein -- even after having lived in Israel for four years. It was hard for him to come to the beis din in Jerusalem. He had a final exam on the 18th of November.

That was sufficient.

Quite quickly, a letter arrived from the director of the RCA office in Israel, declaring that he wished to endorse the marriage of the couple, and including documents pertaining to the marriage of M.B. and P.. As justification of this request, he said that he knows Rabbi Goldin personally, and that Rabbi Goldin is a member of the RCA."

He Forgot the Rav's Name

"I didn't stop after pursuing this avenue," Rav Eisenstein says. "I asked: `Did you go to shul in Haifa?'

" `Of course' M.B. promised.

" `Give me the name of the rabbi of your shul, and his telephone number.'

"He didn't remember the telephone number of the rabbi. `It won't help to call him. He surely doesn't remember me. I haven't gone to shul for a few months,' the `religious' young man, who wants to lead a Torah life in his home, excused himself.

"We tried, nonetheless, to secure a bit of information. All that we got was the name of the rabbi who had converted him, which was already known to us, and a letter of affirmation from the director of the RCA, who didn't even mention in his letter that he knew the couple, but merely repeated the fact that he knew the rabbi who performed the conversion, and enclosed a letter of recommendation from a lady in Haifa who was paid to prepare P. for conversion. These were the recommendations M.B. was prepared to bring, and no more. It's a bit strange that a person who lived in Haifa for four years couldn't manage to bring the name of even one religious family."

The marriage registrars of the local rabbinate became nervous. Pressure from the RCA mounted. They wanted to register the couple for marriage, as fast as possible, even though this would cause the Jewish Nation irreparable damage, and even though the couple lacked the necessary affidavits from the Chief Rabbinate. Rabbi Ochana called the local rabbinate and told them in no uncertain terms that the affirmations necessary for the conversion's final approval were missing. The rabbi in charge of marriage registration at the local rabbinate, who has the final authority, refused to approve the marriage.

As a result, certain people in the local rabbinate who were interested in undermining the decision of the Chief Rabbinate, transferred the file to Rabbi She'ar Yoshuv Cohen, chief rabbi of Haifa.

In other words, the conversion went into high gear.

"Yes. The approval of the conversion went into high gear. In order to prevent this, the Vaad Legiyur wrote a letter to Chief Rabbi Cohen. They explained to him that the Chief Rabbinate had asked the Vaad HaRabbonim Haolami LeInyonei Giyur to check the conversion of Miss P.K., and that the conversion was in the process of being investigated. They asked him to send them all the information in his possession about Miss P.K. They said in their letter. `Of course, no decision should be made regarding this file without coordination with the appropriate factors in the Chief Rabbinate.' "

Rabbi She'ar Yoshuv Cohen did not respond to the letter. He didn't wait until the investigations had been finished. He signed the approval of P.K.'s conversion without a proper, coordinated investigation.

We asked the Chief Rabbi of Haifa for his reaction. However he is currently abroad. The secretary of Haifa's beis din said that a statement approving the conversion had been given by Rabbi She'ar Yoshuv Cohen himself, by dint of his authority as chief rabbi. He did this without collaborating with the beis din. "I am careful to deliberate only on the conversions of residents of the country who have lived here at least half a year," said Rabbi Miller. Even today, P.K. bears an American passport.

Nonetheless, Rabbi Cohen did not go so far as to attach a marriage license to the conversion approval. So what did the couple do? The couple apparently has very good advisors. They transferred the file to Rabbi Mashash, the retired Chief Sephardic Rabbi of Jerusalem who, in the margins of Rabbi Cohen's conversion approval, issued the couple a marriage permit. They weren't even required to wait 91 days.

The legality of such a signature is dubious. Attorney Refoel Shtub explained to Yated Ne'eman: "We must view the issue in light of the precedent of the case of Rav Kaplan zt'l from Tzfas, whose contract as chief rabbi of the city was extended after reaching retirement age. In that case, he wasn't permitted to sign any certificates until he had appealed the decision regarding his age, and asked to correct it. In other words, the question of age is quite central to the matter. Rabbi Mashash's authority to sign a certificate depends on the details of the contract signed with him." If such is the case, there is room to doubt the legality of such a signature, not to mention, of course, the halachic aspect.

But he signed. The dubious "kiddushin" was conducted by a rabbi -- an import from abroad. The couple are registered as Jews, and they are hurrying back to the United States in order to begin working.

Who will pay the price? Am Yisroel, of course.

This case is only one example of many cases that must be dealt with on a weekly basis. Another case that was referred to the Vaad last week by the Israeli Chief Rabbinate involves Orthodox Rabbi B. from Ottawa, Canada. In a letter he wrote 8 Marcheshvan, 5759, he says that he is a member of the executive of the Rabbinical Council of America, and that his beis din is "under the Rabbinical Council of America."

Neither the Israeli Chief Rabbinate nor the Vaad have any knowledge of such a beis din operating under the RCA. In fact, the other two members of the beis din are laymen from Ottawa.

The investigation of the Vaad, which went beyond the specific case referred to them, revealed that Rabbi B. performs tens of conversions on a yearly basis and there are, unfortunately, serious shortcomings in the conversion procedures he generally follows.

The Vaad spoke to the woman in Ottawa who prepares most of Rabbi B.'s female conversion candidates who told the Vaad, "I wish I could say that most of them continue to keep Shabbos." She explained that she prepares them very thoroughly for all their responsibilities as Jews, but since many of them convert to marry a nonreligious Jew, they are not very observant after their marriage.

This shows once again that the psak din of the gedolim that all conversions must be investigated must be taken seriously, in order to prevent assimilation within Klal Yisroel.


All material on this site is copyrighted and its use is restricted.
Click here for conditions of use.