A New Conversion Scandal
by Jonathan Rosenblum
May 17, 2006
No issue creates more tension, and in some case temptation for rabbis, than that of conversion. In Modern Orthodox congregations outside of Israel, for instance, the rabbi may find himself in a very difficult situation when a congregant insists that he convert a non-Jew, whom the congregant’s son or daughter wants to marry. The tension increases exponentially if that particular congregant happens to be one of the rabbi’s biggest supporters.
In order to protect themselves from being pressured to perform questionable conversions, some rabbis have a blanket rule that they will not participate in any beis din for the purpose of geirus, and will only refer would geirim to other batei dinim. For the past quarter century, various proposals to create standing batei dinim to handle conversion matters have been mooted in the United States. A series of recent conferences of rabbonim sponsored by the Eternal Jewish Family program under the title "Universally accepted conversions in intermarriage" has given new impetus to the idea.
In Eretz Yisrael, a whole set of ideological/theological pressures push some rabbis towards cutting corners in conversion procedures and settling for something less, often much less, than full kabolos ol mitzvos, which the leading poskim of our time, including Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, have declared to be an absolute requirement for geirus, even b’dieved.
Since the early ‘90s, the State of Israel has granted citizenship to hundreds of thousands of non-Jews from the FSU. Churches have proliferated, Russian-speaking inductees to the IDF regularly demand to be sworn into service on Christian bibles, and Russian-speaking anti-Semites prey on Jews in a number of Israeli cities, most recently in Petach Tikvah. The importation of so many gentiles into the country creates a massive problem of self-definition for all those who view Israel as somehow a "Jewish state" and a place for the ingathering of the exiles.
As a consequence, former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon made conversion of a large percentage of the hundreds of the thousands of non-Jewish immigrants a matter of the highest national priority, and with his usual determination created new frameworks both within the army and the Prime Minister’s office to expedite the conversion process and increase the number of converts.
To head those efforts within the Prime Minister’s office, he tapped Rabbi Chaim Druckman, the head of a hesder yeshiva and a former National Religious Party Knesset member. Rabbi Druckman has long maintained his own beis din for conversion and been known for his "lenient" attitude towards geirus – just how lenient we will soon see.
The very idea of setting numerical goals for conversion, as Sharon did, and as his successor Ehud Olmert has indicated he will continue to do, represents an inherent contradiction to geirus. Each full-hearted commitment by a non-Jew to attach him or herself to the Jewish people and to accept upon him or herself the yoke of mitzvos represents an amazing exercise of individual free will. Free will, by its very nature, cannot be subjected to numerical quotas or some bureaucrat’s time table.
Despite the inherent contradiction involved in setting numerical targets for conversion, there have always been rabbis within religious Zionism prepared to play along for there own ideological/theological reasons. For religious Zionists, who attribute theological significance to the State of Israel, no less than for old time Zionists, like Sharon, the importation of hundreds of thousands of gentiles into Israel, under the Law of Return, constitutes a stain on the State of Israel.
Another pressure acting upon national religious rabbis is the fear that if they fail to do the bidding of the political echelons and dramatically increase the number of converts, the State will turn to the Conservative and Reform movements to pick up the slack, and they will have opened the door all the way for official recognition of the heterodox movements.
That fear explains, for instance, the willingness of the Chief Rabbinate to consider a joint conversion panel plan, advanced by leading figures at Yeshiva University, nearly two decades ago. The plan called for panels made up of Conservative, Reform, and Orthodox members who would then recommend candidates for conversion before a beit din made up of those possessing semichah from Orthodox institutions.
The joint conversion panel was subsequently reborn as the Institute for Jewish Studies, a conversion preparation course, jointly run by Orthodox, Conservative and Reform personnel. Rabbi Druckman’s conversion authority works closely with the Instittue for Jewish Studies, even though the Chief Rabbinate proscribed such cooperation.
THIS WEEK investigative journalist Elazar Levin broke a story that revealed just how far some rabbis have been willing to go to expedite conversion and increase the numbers. Rabbi Chaim Druckman, head of the conversion authority in the Prime Minister’s office, Levin revealed, nearly two years ago signed a certificate of conversion, which stated in Aramaic that a particular candidate for conversion had come before a beis din of the three undersigned rabbis to be converted. The only problem was that the alleged geirus took place in Warsaw, and Rabbi Druckman, one of the signatories, was in Israel that day.
When confronted by Attorney-General Mani Mazuz with the discrepancy between the certificate and the facts, Rabbi Druckman explained that he had cancelled at the last minute his flight to Warsaw, but since he had promised the prospective converts (i.e., more than one) that he would convert them, he signed the certificates anyway.
In a subsequent court proceeding, the party mentioned in the falsified certificate testified that she wanted to convert in order to marry and make aliyah. Both the financial incentive and the desire to marry would have rendered her conversion halachically invalid. And given her own express admission as to her reasons for seeking to convert, it appears unlikely in the extreme that there was ever any kabolas mitzvos.
In his letter to Mazuz, attorney Shimon Yaakobi, the legal advisor to the rabbinical court system, mentioned that there were at least ten other cases in his files of affidavits signed by Rabbi Druckman that raised suspicions similar to those in the case under discussion. (In a subsequent letter from Mazuz to Rabbi Druckman, he mentions these other files.)
After receiving Yaakobi’s letter, Mazuz took no action on the file for nearly a year. At that point, he sent Rabbi Druckman a strongly worded letter calling his attention to numerous apparent violations of the law, including: false testimony and violating civil service regulations by performing conversions outside of the country while on the state payrolll. But after the strong admonition, Mazuz informed Rabbi Druckman that he saw no need to open a criminal investigation.
Mazuz, naturally enough, focused on possible violations of Israeli law, rather than of halacha. But the latter were, if anything, even more glaring. If Rabbi Druckman was not present in Poland, as he admits, there is no reason to think that the halachic requirement of a beis din of three was present in Warsaw. Another one of the signatures on the certificate of conversion was that of one Michael Shudrich, a rabbi in Poland. According to a recent written communication from Rabbi Moshe Lebel, the rabbinical director of the Conference of European Rabbis to the Vaad Olami L’Inyanei Giyur, founded by the late Rabbi Chaim Kreiswirth, zt"l, Shudrich is not recognized by the CER to arrange conversions. Finally, as Shimon Yaakobi mentioned in his letter to Mazuz, by knowingly signing a false statement, Rabbi Druckman called into question his credibility on all the hundreds of conversions arranged under his auspicies in the Prime Minister’s office and before that.
This information revealed by journalist Levin should have created an explosion: Here, after all, was a public figure responsible for an important office within the Prime Minister’s Bureau, who had acted in such away as to call into his question his ability to perform his public duties in the most blatant fashion possible. Yet no explosion occurred. Apart from the webpage of investigative journalist Yoav Yitzchak, no other mainstream media have picked up the story.
The case underlines the degree to which the Israeli media acts as a wolf pack to protect those whom it chooses to protect while tearing into those it has marked. For the last three months, Yoav Yitzchak has been running a series of exposes on Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s highly profitable sale of his old apartment to American billionaire Daniel Abrahams, a frequent patron of left-wing Israeli politicians, and purchase of a new one at less than two-thirds of its estimated value from a builder, who received highly questionable zoning variances on the project in which Olmert bought, while Olmert was Mayor of Jerusalem. Again, the revelations have gone nowhere, despite Yitzchak’s long track record of breaking major stories.
The Druckman affair also reveals the immense power centered in the hands of the Attorney-General, and how he wields his discretion in ways that arouse a good deal of suspicion. How, one wonders, could Mazuz have let Rabbi Druckman off with a mere reprimand after detailing a number of apparent violations of the law? Rabbi Druckman’s alleged offenses were even more serious by virtue of the fact that they related directly to his performance of his public duties, and undermined his credibility entirely. Wasn’t this the same Mazuz who has demanded that Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger step down for alleged misdeeds far less closely related to his official duties and, on their face, far less serious than those to which Rabbi Druckman has admitted.
receive the latest by email: subscribe to the free jewish media resources mailing list