Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

5 Cheshvan 5765 - October 20, 2004 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly









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Jewish Roots: A Sensational Media Report and the True Facts
by Rabbi Nochum Eisenstein

Several years ago I publicized an article in the Yated about various rabbinical personalities and groups who claim that their standards meet all Orthodox requirements -- without detailing what these requirements are. At that time I was referring among other things to the standards of conversions performed by the IDF and to the kashrus of certain food products.

Lately, a new "authority" has appeared in the general Jewish media and was even subsequently mentioned in Orthodox- sponsored publications. The authority was that of an unidentified "beis din of the highest reputation" and the issue involved the very delicate issue of birur Yahadus, determining people's Jewish roots and status. Let me further state that it had nothing to do with detecting the personal status of the Russian immigrants, about whom it is very clear that the vast majority of the present day olim to Israel are not Jewish. Instead the articles referred to heritage traces of people living in America and who suspect that they may be Jewish, but in the meantime have been living (and in many cases, already for several generations) as non-Jews. Because of the strict separation of Church and State in the US, and the generally poor quality of older records, proving one's heritage may be more difficult than in areas like the former Soviet bloc. Authentic government documents are not as available in the US as they are in other countries.

A short review of the basic facts as they appeared in the articles, is as follows:

W.A., a 34-year-old real estate professional from St. Louis, was brought up as a practicing member of the Methodist church, in a conventional Protestant household. C.S. discovered genealogical evidence about W.A., such as baptism certificates and Civil War records, that he supposedly presented to a top New York beis din, which then ruled that even though W. A. was raised in a Christian home, she need not convert to Judaism because she was actually born Jewish. C.S., that article said, is also launching a nonprofit organization whose purpose is to help find "lost" Jews.


When I read these articles, it immediately lit a red light with me for three reasons. One is that on the basis of what the article said, there was not enough halachic proof to positively establish the status of a person who was muchzak as a goy for many generations.

It should be noted that in general it is a very noble act to try to determine the personal status of Americans who have totally assimilated and to rediscover their true Jewish origin. However, this must be done only by reliable botei din who have expertise in the matter.

The second reason it lit a red light was: Who is this clandestine beis din which does not identify itself?

The third point it raised was that the article was intended as a sensational media piece, which no responsible beis din would allow.

I would like to note that the publication of sensational articles in the Jewish press, often distorting halachic issues and even misquoting well-known living rabbis, is not new. In Igros R' Chaim Ozer (Part I, letter 21), R' Chaim Ozer complains about newspapers that "create sensations" and continues in that letter to blast the Warsaw- based Togblatt for misquoting him.


We then contacted a representative of the Vaad HaRabbonim Haolami LeInyonei Giyur in St. Louis who was familiar with the case, and together we did further investigation, which led to the following additional details of the case:

1) W.A. is not living a proper Orthodox Jewish lifestyle at this time and is only in an initial Judaism program. Therefore, at the present it would not even be possible to make a giyur lechumra if she would turn out to need one, since even that requires a full commitment to observing Torah and mitzvos.

2) Furthermore, C.S., who prepared the case, is thought to have intentions to marry W.A. and, since he is known as a Kohen, he could not marry W.A., even if W.A. would be willing to change her lifestyle and to undergo a giyur lechumra. Accordingly, C.S. has an obvious personal incentive to prove that W.A. is Jewish from birth. In any event, C.S. did prepare a report based on very extensive research that discovered many relevant documents.

3) W.A. and C.S. were asked to name the so-called top New York beis din and they were not able to do so. Furthermore, the prominent rabbis they mentioned as being involved were contacted by us. Some of them denied any connection to the matter, and the others confirmed that they were presented with what the media described as a 25-page ancestry report. However, they denied issuing any conclusive decision and only told the parties that the report was interesting. Despite our efforts, we have been unable to locate any beis din that admitted to being involved in the issue altogether.


I want to conclude by summarizing:

1) Delicate halachic issues have no place in the media. Recently a reporter for the Jerusalem Post contacted me to clarify the stand of Maran HaRav Eliashiv shlita on a certain halachic issue. I refused to answer, telling the reporter that the general media is not the proper place to discuss halachic issues. The reporter replied that her readers are very interested in knowing what HaRav Eliashiv's position is on the matter in question. To which I replied that no serious person who is interested in knowing HaRav Eliashiv's position on any issue will credit what he or she reads in the Jerusalem Post as a true report of Maran's stand. Rather they will seek out a reliable source.

2) Any statement made in the name of a beis din or a rabbi who are anonymous is absolutely worthless. With reference to HaRav Chaim Ozer's complaint made above, and our own extensive personal experience as well, sometimes even when the statements are made in the name of a reliable authority, they require independent authentication. I would like to commend the Bnei Brak-based Yated Ne'eman, which has a special committee of rabbonim whose task is to independently verify everything quoted in the paper.

3) The general public must not fall prey to articles that have no actual rabbinical approval. An article appearing even in an Orthodox-sponsored publication does not give a hechsher to the content unless it has proper rabbinical supervision.

Rabbi Nochum Eisenstein is chairman of the Vaad HaRabbonim Haolami LeInyonei Giyur, founded by the late HaRav Chaim Kreiswirth zt"l, and the rov of Maalos Dafna in Yerushalayim.


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