Woman converted by Lookstein summoned for second hearing by Supreme Rabbinical Court


The Supreme Rabbinical Court in Israel wants to hear for the second time in a week from a woman whose conversion by a prominent U.S. rabbi was rejected.

The court delivered a summons to the woman on Monday for a hearing Wednesday in her appeal of the rejection by the Petach Tikvah Rabbinical Court.

In the first hearing, on July 6, the Supreme Rabbinical Court appeared to side with the Petach Tikvah court that the U.S. rabbi, Haskel Lookstein, is not recognized by the State of Israel to perform conversions, The Jerusalem Post reported. The conversion was rejected in April, when the woman applied for marriage registration with her Israeli fiancé.

Israeli Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau said prior to the appeal that he recognizes conversions performed by Lookstein, the former rabbi of Kehilath Jeshurun, a tony modern Orthodox synagogue on Manhattan’s Upper East Side that counts Ivanka Trump and her husband, Jared Kushner, as members. Trump, a daughter of the Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, converted under Lookstein’s auspices in 2009.

Rabbi Seth Farber, the head of Itim, an organization that helps Israelis navigate Israeli religious bureaucracy and is assisting the woman in her appeal, said “It’s time to stop torturing the convert.”

“We stand behind our opinion that there was not even a pinch of reasoning behind the verdict given by the Petach Tikvah Rabbinical Court to not recognize Rabbi Lookstein’s conversions,” the statement said, “and we call upon the Supreme Rabbinate Court not to take in this war of attrition and allow this convert, and many other who converted by halacha with Orthodox rabbis in the Diaspora, to marry and lead a full Jewish life in Israel.”

About 200 demonstrators protested next to the offices of the Chief Rabbinate during the July 6 hearing.

In Rabbinate protest, Lookstein and Sharansky call for revisions, not revolution


Three months after Israel’s Chief Rabbinate rejected his authority to perform conversions, one of America’s most prominent Modern Orthodox rabbis joined with Natan Sharansky to advance a message: The rabbinate needs to become more open. But not too much more.

A widely respected rabbi in New York’s Orthodox community, Haskel Lookstein saw his credentials called into question when a conversion he performed was deemed invalid by a rabbinical court in the Tel Aviv suburb of Petach Tikva. The court’s decision has amplified calls for the haredi Orthodox-dominated rabbinate to reform.

On Wednesday, Sharansky spoke at a 200-person protest on Lookstein’s behalf in front of the Chief Rabbinical Court in Jerusalem.

But in a joint interview with JTA Thursday in New York, the changes Lookstein and Sharansky proposed were relatively mild. They want the rabbinate to recognize a wider range of Orthodox rabbis. Sharansky — chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel — wants the Israeli government to accept or reject rabbis according to a set of objective criteria.

The two, however, stopped short of backing calls for the rabbinate to dissolve, to recognize non-Orthodox movements or to surrender its monopoly on Jewish marriage and conversion in Israel.  They’re not asking the rabbinate to change its core philosophy or mission — only its procedures.

“My specific overall goal is to reach a point where the Chief Rabbinate of Israel will recognize the conversion work done by recognized rabbis, respected rabbis, in America,” Lookstein told JTA. “I believe it should be broader than the RCA — rabbis who are communally recognized as halacha-abiding rabbis.”

The Rabbinical Council of America is the main professional association for Modern Orthodox rabbis in the United States.

Lookstein, who has performed hundreds of conversions, is the former rabbi of Kehilath Jeshurun, a tony modern Orthodox synagogue on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. He also previously served as the head of school at the Ramaz School, an elite Manhattan Modern Orthodox preparatory school.

A woman who converted under Lookstein’s auspices last year applied for marriage registration with the rabbinical court in the Tel Aviv suburb of Petach Tikva in April, only to have her conversion declared invalid. The court did not recognize Lookstein’s authority because he was not on its list of approved rabbis.

The woman has appealed her case to Israel’s Chief Rabbinical Court, which held her hearing Wednesday and is expected to deliver a judgment soon. Israel’s Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau has vouched for Lookstein, making it likely the Petach Tikva court’s decision will be overturned.

“They are guilty of persecuting a convert, for which the Talmud says there are 46 prohibitions,” said Lookstein, who also supervised the conversion of Donald Trump’s daughter Ivanka. “They are guilty of every single one of these prohibitions. This is very serious persecution of a person, and it casts doubt on the whole system that doesn’t trust American rabbis.”

The case has shined light on how the haredi Orthodox-dominated rabbinate has begun to alienate even its Orthodox allies. The rabbinate has never recognized non-Orthodox rabbis or ceremonies. But the past few years have seen it question the credentials of a few leading liberal Orthodox rabbis as well.

In 2013, the rabbinate rejected — then later accepted — a conversion by New York Rabbi Avi Weiss, who founded the liberal Yeshivat Chovevei Torah. Last year, it threatened to revoke the appointment of American-born Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, who advocates progressive Orthodox policies, as chief rabbi of the West Bank settlement of Efrat. Sharansky said as long as the rabbinate’s protocols stay the same, American rabbis will continue being delegitimized.

“We are lucky it happened with Rabbi Lookstein, because it makes a lot of noise,” Sharansky told JTA. “OK, we accept Rabbi Weiss. OK, we accept Rabbi Riskin. OK, I’m sure they will say we accept Rabbi Lookstein. And tomorrow it will be some rabbi from Phoenix [or] Omaha.”

Lookstein said the rabbinate should accept conversions by all U.S. Orthodox rabbis — including members of the Rabbinical Council of America and graduates of  Chovevei Torah. Sharansky suggested Israel’s Interior Ministry could set out objective criteria for Orthodox rabbis to meet: a congregation of a certain size, for example, and certification from a recognized Orthodox seminary.

Conversions should be accepted “as long as there’s a community that is a recognized Jewish community, and there is a rabbi who got semicha,” or rabbinic ordination, Sharansky said. “If there is a group of people who for years have this community, everyone can check if it is a real one.”

But neither Sharansky nor Lookstein called for more radical changes to the rabbinate, which a coalition of Israelis — Orthodox and not — have pushed. Pluralism activists in Israel have long called for the rabbinate to be abolished or replaced with a system that also recognizes non-Orthodox movements. According to polls by Hiddush, a group that advocates religious pluralism in Israel, solid majorities of Israeli Jews support instituting civil marriage in Israel and recognizing non-Orthodox conversions.

Lookstein did not comment on calls to abolish the rabbinate or remove its monopoly over Jewish marriage in Israel. Sharansky said that despite the body’s flaws, it provides valuable religious services to Israelis.

“I think the Chief Rabbinate is playing an important role in the life of Israelis,” he said, crediting the rabbinate for “connecting the Jewish state with Judaism.”

Lookstein said he generally refrains from criticizing Israeli government actions. But he spoke out on this issue, he said, because of the hurt it caused one of his converts.

“I did not start this fight,” Lookstein said. “The rabbinate in Petach Tikva rejected a convert who was converted properly and was living a religious life.”

Challenges and celebrations


When Andromeda Stevens, 46, found herself falling in love with Judaism, she knew it was time to convert.

She and her husband, Glenn Stevens, who live in Beverlywood, started living a Jewish life together years before they were married, and Andromeda converted after the wedding. “I liked the traditions, and the meaning behind the traditions,” she said. “The symbols were very logical to me and very supportive of humanity and living a justified and good life. I found that really appealing. It was very contrary to my Catholic education.”

In 2010, Andromeda decided to take the leap and begin studying for her conversion. The formal process involved an 18-week class at the Los Angeles campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, attending a Shabbaton, participating in a mock seder with Rabbi Spike Anderson at Stephen S. Wise Temple, writing a journal entry every week, attending Shabbat services at a variety of synagogues and taking a formal written exam. The exam included 18 questions, covering everything from why she wanted to convert and how her family felt about it to facts about Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and the destruction of the First and Second Temples. 

Glenn’s parents are Holocaust survivors, and his father was thrilled when Andromeda told them she was planning to convert. Andromeda’s own mother, who lives in Sherman Oaks, became so fascinated with Judaism that she took an introduction course at a college. At Andromeda’s bachelorette party, her friends gave her Jewish-themed gifts in anticipation of her conversion. 

Andromeda took her final test under the guidance of a family rabbi and met with a beit din in Palm Springs last April. But she didn’t complete the process and go into the mikveh until May, when she traveled to Tel Aviv with Glenn. There, however, she found it wasn’t easy to convince the people running the mikveh to let her in. “They didn’t want to do it, because it was a Reform conversion,” she said. “It felt like a huge bummer. I had gone through all this trouble. Israel was set up as a place [of] refuge for people coming from all walks of life. To turn around and shun somebody for any reason seemed like an oxymoron and didn’t make me happy.”

With determination and the help of a friend who lives in Israel and speaks Hebrew, Andromeda nevertheless found a mikveh attendant who would do it. “The mikveh was an amazing experience,” Andromeda said. “It wasn’t like anything else. I don’t even know what to compare it to. I don’t know if I can put that into words. People overuse the word awesome, but it was awesome.”

Although the conversion process was a positive experience, Andromeda said she still faces her share of challenges. “It’s very hard to follow services when everything is in Hebrew,” she said. “I’m slowly learning, but sometimes I feel kind of shut out.” 

And completing the conversion process didn’t make Stevens automatically feel like a new person either, she said. “It’s kind of a process for me to actually feel Jewish. I expected to feel different or something magical. Obviously that didn’t happen. It’s been a process for me to identify. I think that it’s going to take some time.”

These days, Andromeda celebrates Shabbat every week and attends services at Steven S. Wise Temple. She continues instruction with Rabbis Anderson and Yoshi Zweiback. Last fall, for their first time, Andromeda and Glenn put up a sukkah for Sukkot, and they participate in all of the holy days. Last year she lit Chanukah candles with her mother, and this will be her first year giving up Christmas. 

Andromeda said she hasn’t grasped all of Judaism’s traditions and rituals yet, but she continues to try her best. With the help of Glenn, who she said supports her 100 percent, Andromeda has been able to maintain her optimism: “Glenn was never dating Jewish girls,” she said. “He liked the shiksa girls. Then all of a sudden, that’s not what he ended up with, was it?”

Israeli high court affirms conversions questioned by rabbinical courts


Israel’s high court reversed two annulled conversions to Judaism and affirmed thousands of others.

Two women had in 2008 appealed to the rabbinical appeals court annulments by lower rabbinical courts of their conversions, which came about because of divorce cases.

The rabbinical appeals court not only upheld the annulments but called into question thousands more conversions conducted through a network of conversion courts headed by Rabbi Haim Druckman. The women then appealed to the high court.

In a decision delivered Tuesday and reported by Ha’aretz on Friday, the high court struck down the earlier rulings with especially harsh language.

“The Rabbinical Court of Appeals rode roughshod over basic procedural rules and the principles of natural justice,” Justice Dorit Beinisch wrote, according to Haaretz. “It demonstrated contempt for the special conversion courts, and above all, it hurt and did a shocking injustice to the petitioners and their children.”

In addition to reversing the two annulments, the high court affirmed all of the conversions in the system headed by Druckman.

The court left alone the authority of Israel’s rabbinical court system to decide conversions.

The decades-old conflict between the national religious Orthodox community, of which Druckman is a leader, and the Haredi community, which dominates the religious court system, has underpinned the conversion battle.

Briefs: Methodists don’t ‘divest,’ Jewish groups mobilize for Myanmar, Reno TV anchor sues


Methodists Reject Divestment Proposals

Methodists overwhelmingly defeated measures calling for divestment from companies that allegedly enable Israel’s “occupation” of the West Bank. The resolutions, targeting companies like Caterpillar, which manufactures tractors, and Motorola, which manufactures security systems, had drawn much media scrutiny before last week’s United Methodist Church General Conference in Fort Worth, Texas.

Jewish groups were even more offended by a background document prepared in connection with the motions than they were by the notion of divestment itself. According to Jewish groups, the document was dismissive of Jewish concerns about anti-Semitism and ventured into “replacement theology,” the belief that Christianity has superseded Judaism.

An alliance of grass-roots church activists, who nurture ties to the Jewish community, helped defeat five divestment resolutions, often in the early stages of the conference. The activists also helped pass resolutions opposing the proselytizing of Jews and promoting Holocaust awareness and the fight against anti-Semitism.

Ethan Felson, associate executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, a public policy umbrella group bringing together national and local organizations, attended the conference. He credited outreach by Jewish groups across the country to sympathetic Methodists and called the defeat of the resolutions a “turning point.”

“The church has spoken that they don’t want this one-sided approach to their witness,” Felson said Friday, the final day of the conference. “This wasn’t about a national campaign, it was about community to community. This was about relationships.”

U.S. Orthodox Rabbis Assail Israeli Rabbinical Court on Nullifying Conversions

American Orthodox rabbis slammed the decision by an Israeli rabbinical court to nullify conversions by an Israeli Orthodox rabbi.

The Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) said Tuesday that the ruling, which retroactively nullified the conversions performed under the auspices of Rabbi Chaim Druckman, was “entirely beyond the pale of acceptable halachic practice,” is a violation of “numerous Torah laws” and constitutes a “massive desecration of God’s name.”

“The RCA is appalled that such a ruling has been issued by that court,” according to a statement by the organization.

According to the RCA, it has received assurances from Israeli Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar that the ruling by the Rabbinic Court of Appeals has no legal standing.

The episode is the latest to rouse concerns over who is authorized to perform conversions recognized by the Jewish state.

In February, the RCA announced an agreement with the chief rabbinate recognizing 15 American courts and some 40 Orthodox rabbis in North America authorized to perform conversions. A group of liberal Orthodox rabbis said the agreement represented a capitulation to the increasingly stringent standards of the Israeli rabbinate.

Jewish Groups Mobilize For Myanmar

Both the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) and B’nai B’rith International have opened disaster relief funds to send aid to the Southeast Asian country of Myanmar, formerly called Burma, where at least 22,000 people have been killed and millions left homeless after the May 3 cyclone.

The JDC’s International Development Program, which responds to natural and manmade disasters providing immediate relief and long-term assistance, collects funds on a nonsectarian basis. The JDC is helping some of the region’s estimated 10 Jews.

The B’nai B’rith disaster relief fund will allocate $10,000 to help IsraAID send 10 relief workers, including paramedics, doctors, nurses and water specialists, to Myanmar. The team is cooperating with the local United Nations office and Israel’s embassy in the region.

Tel Aviv-based IsraAID, the Israel Forum for International Humanitarian Aid, is an umbrella organization of more than 35 Israeli and Jewish nongovernmental organizations active in development and relief work.


For more information, contact the JDC at www.jdc.org or (212) 687-6200; or B’nai B’rith at www.bnaibrith.org/support/disaster_relief.cfm.

To donate to the LA Federation’s Emergency Relief Fund, call (323) 761-8200 or send a check to: The Jewish Federation, 6505 Wilshire Blvd. Los Angeles CA 90048. Please make checks payable to The Jewish Federation with the words “Myanmar Relief Fund” in the memo line.

To contribute to AJWS, visit www.ajws.org, or call (800) 889-7146. Checks can be sent to: American Jewish World Service, Burma Relief, 45 West 36th Street, 10th Floor, New York, NY 10018.


London Mayor Critical of Israel Loses Bid for Re-election to Third Term

Ken Livingstone, a frequent critic of Israel, was beaten in London’s mayoral election.

The Conservative Party’s Boris Johnson received 53.2 percent of the vote last Saturday to 46.8 for Livingstone, the Labor incumbent. Johnson was sworn in the same day.

Livingstone has accused Israel of “ethnic cleansing” and refused to apologize after comparing a Jewish journalist from London to a Nazi concentration camp guard.

The first person to serve as the mayor of London, a post created in 2000, Livingstone served two terms.

Johnson has worked to understand the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and has been a supporter of Israel. He opposed a call last year by Britain’s University College Union to boycott Israeli colleges and universities.

During a trip to Israel in November 2004, Johnson visited Tel Aviv’s Carmel Market shortly after a suicide bombing and toured the West Bank security fence, according to the Jerusalem Post.

Judaism Trumps Nationality Among Israelis

Jewish identity takes precedence over national identity for most Israelis, a poll found.

According to the survey in Tuesday’s Israel Hayom newspaper, 65 percent of Israeli Jews identified primarily as Jews and only then as Israelis, whereas 14 percent said the reverse. Nine percent said they don’t know in which order they identify.

Asked whether they want Israel to be more Jewish or more democratic, 47 percent said the former and 43 percent the latter, with the rest undecided.

The poll reflected mixed feelings among Israeli Jews about their country’s future as it celebrates its 60th Independence Day, though most made clear they would not want to live elsewhere.

Asked to rate their “personal mood” on an ascending scale of one to 10, the average number given was seven. The “national mood” was a more gloomy 5.8.

Court Seeks to Ease Way for Conversions


When Susanne Shier first heard about the mikvah, the ritual immersion bath that’s part of the conversion process, she was a bit leery.

“I got nervous about it,” she told The Journal before her immersion in March.

But she relaxed when she toured the blue-tiled, vanilla-scented warm immersion room at the University of Judaism (UJ) that seemed more spa than scary.

Shier, an elementary school teacher in her 40s, was converting through the Conservative movement, but her conversion certification is from the Sandra Caplan Community Bet Din, a pluralistic religious court in Los Angeles created to standardize the conversion process and build greater community between denominations.

Founded in 2002, the religious court was named for Sandra Caplan, a convert to Judaism who, before her death, asked her husband George to promise he would support the conversion process. Ongoing efforts to start a cross-denominational beit din had stalled, so George Caplan pushed to see the project through, while also providing financial support. In the last four years, the Bet Din has performed close to 65 conversions for people from the Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist movements. (The Orthodox have their own conversion courts.)

This resource was needed because different denominations were not necessarily recognizing each other’s conversions, said Rabbi Elliott Dorff, who is rector at the UJ.

That became a problem, say, if a Reform convert wanted to marry a Conservative Jew and the officiating rabbi didn’t think the Reform conversion was sufficient.

“What we wanted was some kind of communal standard for conversion,” said Dorff, speaking to rabbis who’d gathered to discuss the subject at a UJ-sponsored conference earlier this year.

The standards (see page 14) include an insistence on mikvah immersion and ritual circumcision — or a ceremonial one for men circumcised at birth — and an approved curriculum for both the convert and the convert’s “sponsoring” rabbi.

The sponsoring rabbi — a rabbi of the convert’s own choosing — is a unique element of the pluralistic beit din, said Rabbi Dan Shevitz, the av beit din, or the head of the religious court, and the leader of Temple Mishkon Tephilo in Venice.

“We want to make sure the candidate feels embraced. That’s why unlike the other batei din, we emphasize the sponsoring rabbi; [the convert] has to be a participating member of an active community,” he said.

In terms of standards, the pluralistic Bet Din is situated somewhere between Reform and Conservative: On the one hand, it requires immersion and circumcision (not all Reform conversions do) but on the other hand, it teaches about the mitzvot rather than requiring an advance commitment to observing them, such as in the Conservative movement.

Shevitz said the biggest challenge is making people aware of the Bet Din and getting them used to using it.

“For the time being, it’s an alternative. If it’s successful, then I think it may very well become the only or the primary community portal,” he said. There aren’t many ritual activities different Jewish denominations can do together, he added, “but the things we can do together we must do together.”

The process is not so rigid that it precludes different approaches to working with initiates.

“I don’t set an amount of time,” said Reconstructionist Rabbi Sheryl Stewart of Kehillat Israel in Pacific Palisades.

She has a 30-week interactive seminar experience to help potential converts feel comfortable in a synagogue group and with Jewish rituals, then another course for those who want to continue on to conversion. It’s a process that can take a year or two.

“I usually let them tell me when they’re ready,” she said.

Rabbi Michelle Missaghiah of Temple Israel of Hollywood meets with her prospective converts once a month for a year: “My goal during that year is to really absorb [them] and [help them] be absorbed into the congregation.”

She has them read books on Jewish subjects and discuss theology, and then they write an essay (“Tell us about how you grew up religiously,” is one of the questions. “What attracts you to Judaism? What do you have difficulty with in Judaism?”)

For Rabbi Mordecai Kieffer of Temple Beth Emet in Anaheim, the process of working with a ger (an aspiring convert) can take three to four years. He has his students learn Hebrew fluently and study about the community, Torah and God.

“I want the ger to feel something special is happening here,” Kieffer said. “It’s not just teatime.”

Not everyone is on board with the new beit din. The Orthodox don’t recognize it at all. But another nonparticipant is Reform Rabbi Neil Comess-Daniels of Temple Beth Shir Sholom in Santa Monica. He questions why so much more is required of converts than the rest of his congregants. He considers that to be an unfair double standard, as well as substituting the essence of ethical Judaism for ritual practice. Comess-Daniels cited the story of Hillel, the Talmudic sage who was approached by a man who sarcastically asked to be taught all of Torah while balancing on one foot. Hillel told him: Do not do onto others what you would not want to be done onto you.

“The most wonderful thing about Hillel is that before he does the explanation, he accepts the convert first, and not the other way around, and that is our paradigm” Comess-Daniels said.

Ultimately, the convert must sign the beit din’s Declaration of Jewish Commitment, which includes accepting the Torah, renouncing the worship of “any one or any thing other than the God of Israel,” repudiating allegiances to all other religious faiths and practices and establishing a Jewish home, including raising future children as Jewish. “I pray I may be worthy to walk in God’s ways and to delight in God’s testimonies. In the words of the Torah, I affirm the unity of God,” the convert says, and recites the “Shema.” (“Hear o Israel….”)

That’s the prayer Shier recited in the mikvah, including the Shecheyanu blessing for new things and a special blessing for immersion.

After her immersion, Shier said she felt vulnerable but at peace.

“You feel like you’re a little child again, like you’re fresh and you can start life over,” she said. “I felt like I was at a turning point, like I was making a clear division in my life…. Now I’m Jewish.”

 

Non-Orthodox Form Conversion Court


When Sandra Caplan, a Jew-by-choice, was dying, her husband promised her that he would work toward a unified conversion process for the Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist movements.

George Caplan, a veteran community leader, kept his word and the Sandra Caplan Community Bet Din of Southern California, believed to be the first of its kind anywhere, will be formally established in June.

Composed of Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis, the Bet Din, a court applying the rules of Jewish law, will officiate at conversions accepted by the three streams of Judaism.

With intermarriage running at about 50 percent and the Jewish population level in the United States on hold or declining, encouraging non-Jewish spouses to convert and form full Jewish families is among the most important challenges facing the Jewish community, Caplan believes. Caplan, a former Jewish Federation president, views the new Bet Din as a substantial move in the right direction.

To Rabbi Richard N. Levy, the unified Bet Din "is a wonderful step forward for California and klal Yisroel and broadens opportunities for those who wish to become Jews."

It was Levy, a national Reform leader and director of the School of Rabbinic Studies on the Los Angeles campus of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), who took the initiative in laying a religious foundation for the new Bet Din five years ago.

His Conservative dialogue partner and fellow initiator was Conservative Rabbi Elliot N. Dorff, rector of the University of Judaism (UJ) and distinguished professor of philosophy.

Dorff and Levy soon expanded their circle to include two dozen other rabbis, including Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben of the Reconstructionist Kehillat Israel and current president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California.

The discussions and negotiations carried on for some four years were amicable, but there were differences.

"The Reform rabbis were afraid that the conversions would be too halachic [conforming to traditional Jewish law], and the Conservatives were afraid that the Reform would not respect their ritual standards," recalled Rabbi Jerrold Goldstein of the (Reform) Union of American Hebrew Congregations (UAHC).

A main sticking point was whether converts would have to undergo circumcision (real or symbolic, depending on whether the male candidate was previously circumcised) and immersion in a mikvah (ritual bath). These requirements are mandatory in the Conservative movement, but left to the individual discretion of the more autonomous Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis.

It was finally agreed to hew to the stricter Conservative standards for the unified Bet Din.

At this point, about two years ago, Dorff temporarily moved to New York and Levy had to focus on his new HUC-JIR position, so the project became more or less dormant.

There was also the matter of finances. All agreed that the potential ger (convert) should not pay for the conversion process, which Goldstein termed a community responsibility, akin to naturalization for U.S. citizenship.

The three dayanim (judges) sitting on the rabbinical court are also not paid for their services, but still, the Bet Din has set a budget of $30,000 for the first year of operations.

About a year ago, following his wife’s death, Caplan stepped into the picture, offered financial support, and got the process started again.

Establishment of the Bet Din will be formally announced on Shavuot (June 6), the holiday linked to the story of Ruth, the Moabite woman, who threw in her lot with her mother-in-law Naomi and became a Jew.

Actual operations will start July 1, according to Conservative Rabbi Daniel R. Shevitz of Mishkon Tephilo, who has been named by the governing board as av (chair) of the Bet Din. He will draw from a "bullpen" of about 20 rabbis from the three denominations for service on the court.

Reform Rabbi Stephen J. Einstein of Congregation B’nai Tzedek in Fountain Valley will serve as sgan (vice chair).

While Jews-by-choice are playing increasingly prominent roles in synagogues and Jewish organizations, local figures for the actual number of converts are hard to come by.

Across the United States, the most recent available statistics from the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey list 185,000 converts, or 3 percent of American Jewry.

For Los Angeles and adjoining counties, the best authority is Penelope Oppenheimer, who is in charge of the mikvah at the UJ, the only one in Southern California under non-Orthodox auspices.

During the past year, she supervised the ritual immersion of some 600 converts, 450 of whom about came through the Conservative movement, and the remainder through the Reform and Reconstructionist streams.

The number of additional Reform and Reconstructionist converts, who chose not to use the mikvah, could not be ascertained. The uncertainly is likely to remain in the future, as Jews-by-choice can choose to convert, as in the past, through one of the three denominations, rather than at the unified Bet Din.

Increasingly noticeable among Oppenheimer’s clients are small children from China, Vietnam and Romania, who are brought in for conversion by the Jewish parents who have adopted them.

The topic of conversion has more or less come out of the closet only during the last three decades.

"When I was in rabbinical school more than 40 years ago, we were taught nothing about conversion," Goldstein recalled. "It was a secret, almost like abortion."

By contrast, Goldstein nowadays receives fancy printed invitation to attend a conversion service or mikvah immersion.

Although the founders of the Bet Din say they would welcome the participation of Orthodox rabbis, the chances of this happening are almost nil.

"The basic issue," said Rabbi Meyer May, president of the (Orthodox) Rabbinical Council of California, "is that a potential convert must accept the mitzvot [commandments] and Torah as being divine and must accept the written and oral law as the absolute truth."

In the absence of such a complete commitment by non-Orthodox rabbis and converts, "we would not accept a conversion as valid," he said.

Furthermore, the Talmud is quite negative about conversions, observed May.

"We are told that if you get an inferior convert, he dilutes Judaism, but if you get a superior convert, he’ll show up those Jews who are not committed," May said.

The only known attempt in the United States to form a beit din including all streams of Judaism, including Orthodox, occurred in Denver some 20 years ago, but the project fell apart in a short time.

Currently, the first step for almost all potential converts in Southern California is to enroll in an intensive Introduction to Judaism course, taught by Rabbi Neal R. Weinberg at the UJ, and one coordinated by Goldstein at the UAHC.

Weinberg’s course consists of 18 sessions, each three-and-a-half hours long, and attracts some 600 students a year. Of them, about 200 are planning to convert, while the others are mainly Jews and gentiles interested in learning more about Judaism, including, he recalled, some Protestant ministers.

Many would-be converts bring along their Jewish partners, and in the process the latter "become more Jewish," Weinberg said.

One such person was Caplan, who attended the classes while his wife was preparing for her conversion.

"It was a wonderful experience," he said. "You explore in-depth what kind of a person you are and it brought us much closer together."

Conversion Controversy


Reform and Conservative leaders in Israel had hoped Israel’s Supreme Court would resolve a years-long struggle for recognition in Israel.

Instead, the court on Tuesday heard only two hours of arguments in the bitterly disputed question of whether the state should recognize non-Orthodox conversions to Judaism, then adjourned.

Court President Aharon Barak said the court had other issues to address and gave no date for the hearings to resume before an expanded panel of 11 justices.

“There is no doubt I am disappointed,” Rabbi Ehud Bandel, president of the Masorti, or Conservative, movement in Israel told Israel Radio. “I expected a full day of deliberations. I did not expect a decision today, but I hoped at least for the deliberations to be concluded and we are now awaiting a final decision.

“After five years of this case being dragged around, I see it is a hot potato each side is trying to pass off to the other. The court is handing off to the Knesset; the Knesset returns it here. It is unfortunate there is a lack of courage to try to resolve the matter.”

Bandel did say, though, that there is a “ray of hope” in the delay because it would help them return to the negotiating table with the chief rabbinate to “find a solution to the sensitive matter outside the court room and not in Knesset legislation.”

Tuesday’s court session was to consider petitions filed by the Reform and Conservative movements seeking recognition of conversions performed abroad and in Israel, as well as a state appeal of a lower court decision to register non-Orthodox converts as Jews in the Interior Ministry’s population registry.

Orthodox leaders have long rejected the validity of non-Orthodox conversions, calling them “quickie” conversions that are done for convenience.

Legislator Avraham Ravitz, of the fervently Orthodox United Torah Judaism bloc, said the question for potential converts is simple: “Are you ready to join the Jewish religion?”

Deputy Minister Shaul Yahalom of the National Religious Party has repeatedly urged the Knesset to set clear criteria for non-Orthodox conversions performed in Israel.

If legislators “continue to ignore the matter and put it off, it is clear the court will one day have to decide the matter and rule that these people should be registered as Jews,” Yahalom said.

The refusal of Israel’s Orthodox establishment to recognize the validity of non-Orthodox conversions has long divided Israel and the Diaspora, where most Jews are affiliated with the liberal streams.

The Orthodox have sole authority over religious matters such as conversion, marriage and divorce.

In the state’s appeal of a Jerusalem district court ruling that recognized non-Orthodox conversions, state attorney Yochi Gennisn warned that easing conversion regulations would cause “divisions, confusion and chaos.”

Rabbi Uri Regev, director of the Reform movement’s Israel Religious Action Center, said efforts to reach a compromise outside the courts have been exhausted.

“What is left now is for the matter to be determined based on the law and a ruling, and I hope the court will do this.”

In the courtroom Tuesday were people whose non-Orthodox conversions had not been recognized, as well as parents of children adopted abroad. One Israeli couple had adopted two children in Lithuania, whose Conservative conversions were not recognized.

“My wife and I have two adopted children, whom we want to be part of our people. We first went and tried an Orthodox conversion, which was refused because it would only be granted if the children go to religious school, and we refused to have that imposed on us,” the father, Uri, told Israel Radio.

“So we instead went to the Conservative movement, which in my view are no less good Jews than any other.”