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May 25, 2015 / 7 Sivan, 5775
At a Glance

Posts Tagged ‘conversion’

Opposition To Conversion Bill Is Hypocritical – And Hurts Israel

Wednesday, September 15th, 2010

I find quite puzzling the vehement opposition of the American Conservative and Reform movements and Jewish Federations of North America to the conversion bill proposed by Knesset member David Rotem.

Within the framework of halacha, or Jewish law, the Rotem bill expands the scope of conversion, prevents application of stringencies unjustified by halacha, and provides greater convenience, leniency and flexibility in the administration of Israeli conversion courts. It addresses many issues raised by Orthodox rabbis considered liberal by the Israeli media and has their strong support. It is strongly supported by Yisrael Beiteinu, the secular party that represents Russian Israelis.

Nevertheless, a segment of the leadership of Jewish Federations of North American and the American Conservative and Reform movements unleashed an artificial firestorm of opposition, soliciting e-mails from members and letters from the U.S. Congress, and successfully delaying passage of the bill.

Opponents of the Rotem bill claim it radically changes the status quo, placing power for state-recognized conversion in Israel in the hands of the Chief Rabbinate. This is untrue. Government-recognized conversions to Judaism performed in Israel have been under the control of the Chief Rabbinate since the founding of the state in 1948. The bill merely confirms longstanding practice in response to court cases seeking to challenge the status quo. Advertisement

Why did leaders of these American Jewish groups take action they knew would hurt many Russian Israelis?

They hoped to leverage their political power in the United States to force Israel to accede to their parochial agenda – namely, granting Reform and Conservative conversions the official recognition accorded to Orthodox conversions.

This request might appear to be reasonable to an American Jew. It is not. The context of Jewish life in the United States is very different from Jewish life in Israel. Rampant intermarriage in the U.S. explains in large part, though in no way justifies, the push for relaxed conversion standards and the Reform movement’s acceptance of patrilineal descent.

Intermarriage is thankfully far less of a problem in the Jewish state. Moreover, despite strenuous efforts, the Reform and Conservative movements themselves have not taken root in Israel. They arose in reaction to post-Enlightenment pressure on Diaspora Jews. These pressures do not exist in Israel.

Non-Orthodox Israeli Jews may be more or less observant (“masorti“) or even totally secular (“chiloni“), but they do not need the crutch of identification with non-halachic movements to sustain their Jewish national identities. They speak Hebrew, the language of the Jewish people, celebrate Jewish holidays and are closely bound to the collective fate of the Jewish people, courageously serving in Israel’s army.

Very few non-Jewish Russian Israelis are interested in a Reform or Conservative conversion, regarding them as inauthentic. They are Diaspora transplants that have withered in Israel’s Jewish soil and failed in Israel’s free marketplace of ideas.

Principles are not a suit of clothes to be donned and shed at convenience. It is inconsistent for Conservative leaders to insist that Israel recognize Reform conversions performed without immersion in a mikveh or circumcision when they do not recognize such conversions performed in the United States. The Reform movement, which argues for the absolute separation of religion and state in the United States, inconsistently insists upon official recognition of their spiritual leaders by the government of Israel.

Even more puzzling is the position of the Jewish Federations of North America. How can its leaders justify spending funds raised for charitable purposes on an ideological issue, particularly when it is so controversial? Moreover, when they have not significantly consulted the American Orthodox movements or their own Orthodox contributors, how can they purport to be representing the entire spectrum of American Jewry?

A Reform Jewish leader was quoted as bemoaning the fact that the controversy has “even reached the U.S. Congress, causing dismay to all who love the Jewish state.”

What an extraordinary statement! The bill did not simply drift into the Capitol like a feather borne by a random breeze. The Rotem bill came to the attention of Congress because of the determined lobbying efforts of its opponents – the same people who now claim they are distressed by the damage to U.S.-Israeli relations. U.S. congressmen do not spontaneously take an interest in internal Israeli religious issues that do not affect their constituents.

‘Pretty Worth It In The End': An Interview With Dominican-American Convert Aliza Hausman

Wednesday, March 24th, 2010

Have you read the blog Jewminicana? If you have, you are already familiar with Aliza Hausman, a recently converted Dominican-American blogger. She blogs about her childhood, upbringing, conversion, and a wide range of other topics. She and her husband, a semichah student at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, also speak about life as a religious interracial couple.

Hausman’s conversion process began five years ago. She first became interested in Judaism when she was in junior high school. A Holocaust survivor spoke to the students in her school, and the idea of survivorhood resonated with her. The Jewish Press interviewed her about her decision to convert and about her blog (www.alizahausman.net), which has allowed her to help other people of color who are looking to convert to Judaism.

The Jewish Press: What was it about the survivor’s story that piqued your interest in Judaism?

Hausman: I think by the time I was 13 years old I was pretty sure I was not going to make it to my 18th birthday. Either my mother was going to kill me or I was going to kill myself. I came to school with bruises every other day that I had to hide. And this woman came in and told us that she had survived the unimaginable – unimaginable to most of my friends.

How did you relate to her?

To me it was like this is one person who I think would understand what I’ve been going through my whole life, which is basically being tortured every day by my mother. I thought, “You know, if she can survive, I can survive.” My initial thought was Jews can survive anything, and if I became Jewish, I’d probably survive too. It gave me hope.

What do you see as the main message of Judaism?

When I was Catholic, it seemed that we were focused on striving toward heaven. Everything on earth was sinful and dirty and bad. In Judaism I’m trying to bring heaven to earth. Trying to bring spirituality and godliness to everything I do.

Why did you start blogging?

I started the conversion process; I was 25 years old. Every Shabbat meal, someone would ask me, “Why are you in the conversion process?” One of my friends, Drew Kaplan, was a rabbinical student at the time and a blogger, and he said it’d be easier if I just wrote a blog. After Shabbos I could send people to the blog, and it would explain everything . A mission of my blog is to make people more sensitive. The first thing you say is “Hi and welcome,” not “Are you Jewish?”

Do you ever worry that being so frank in a public sphere could harm your husband’s odds of getting a pulpit?

I worry about that every day. You know, it’s been interesting. My mother-in-law’s friends read my blog. My husband applied for an internship and the rabbi read the blog. I guess I’m kind of lucky they liked the blog. It’s not always the case. I get hate mail. Everything from “You’re not being Orthodox” to “You’re not being Dominican.”

What do you gain from the experience?

I keep doing it because you get these letters from all over the world, and people are like, “Thank you for sharing that little bit of yourself with me,” because people can relate – from child abuse, converts, multiple identities; that’s why I keep doing it.

What topics do you cover during your speaking engagements?

The more I come into contact with other converts of color, [I find] a lot of them have had racist experiences. Jews have been blatantly racist to them or they’ve gone to a synagogue event and people have assumed that they’re the help or the janitor. My husband and I use sources, but [also] just telling people how difficult it is, coming in from a different religion, different planet, or how converts cope. We tell one story where a convert’s mother called her to her deathbed and asked that she convert back to Christianity. I don’t think people really understand that – how hard some converts have it.

In what ways do you see your Judaism benefiting from Dominican culture?

Food! I have chulent every Shabbos, but I also have rice and beans every Shabbos, a staple of Dominican culture, and plantains. I go out of my way to meet Jewish Latinos and find people that speak Spanish, because speaking and understanding Spanish is very important to me. I’ve been told by Jews who converted, “That was important, but shouldn’t be anymore. Hebrew is.” As if a person can’t speak more than two languages! Music. We played a lot of Hebrew music at my wedding, and I asked for salsa or merengue. A kosher caterer made Dominican food for our wedding.

Do you help converts find rabbis to work with?

It’s something I got into in the last couple of months. In the last year the RCA has reformatted how they do conversions. It’s interesting, and one of the hardest things is finding a rabbi. I talk to Rabbi Zilberman at the RCA and get as much info as I can, and go to him and ask him where this person from here with this situation can find someone to sponsor them and help them.

A lot of rabbis are turning people away and no longer want to be involved with conversion. I think I have way more contacts than they do, so I try to help them find rabbis, find people in different communities that they can connect to; other converts. I actually do that a lot.

How do you advise someone who is in the process of converting but struggling with aspects of halacha or the rabbi’s expectations of her?

I’ve been asked by converts how you reconcile women’s issues and feminism with Orthodoxy, how you reconcile homosexuality with Judaism. I’m very clear. I do believe there are things that can’t be reconciled. I don’t believe that you’re not going to struggle with things. The other day a convert asked, “How did you feel about giving up Jesus?” Very easy; I never took it up. I tell people to take it slow.

I got one convert who was like, “I want to convert; I’m not quite sure which movement.” I told him to look at what each stands for and the ideology. He decides first he wants to be Conservative. He has a fianc? – not Jewish, doesn’t want to convert. The Conservative rabbi says, “You have to promise to raise the kids Jewish.” Convert comes back and says, “How can I, if they won’t be because my wife’s not Jewish?” Next time he decided he was going to be Orthodox. How will that work, exactly?

What message do you give to people who are converting?

I don’t think I have a message. It’s very different dealing with someone who is a baal teshuvah and starting to learn, and this need to bring them in. But a convert is just running toward Judaism like a speeding train. I try to explain that it’s going to be hard, not always pretty, there will be issues usually with family and friends. But I think it’s pretty worth it in the end.

Mumbai Doctor, Wife Complete Conversion In Israel On Holtzberg Yahrzeit

Wednesday, November 25th, 2009

JERUSALEM – An Indian couple completed their halachic conversion and remarried in a Jewish ceremony at the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron last week, on the first anniversary of the murder of their friends and spiritual guides, Rabbi Gavriel and Rivkah Holtzberg.

Dr. Aharon Abraham left his position as director of the ICU Medical Center at British Kennedy in Mumbai, India, after terrorists killed the Holtzbergs.

Abraham was born Vagirds Frads to a Hindu cleric who worshipped idols, and a mother who prepared food for them. Like the biblical Abraham, young Vagirds could not understand why his father honored a man-made statue, or why his mother would cook for them.

Unlike the patriarch, however, he waited until after graduating high school to confront his father, asking how he could believe “such nonsense.” But when there was no reply, his anger led him to take a hammer and smash the idols, exactly as Abraham had done.

“The gods are angry!” his father shouted at him, he recounted, and recalled his reply: “If they’re angry, let them do something .”

It was while studying medicine at the University of Mumbai that he first read a Bible, given to him by Christian students. “A new world opened before me,” he said.

The woman he married, a nurse, was equally interested in his Bible studies, and after their wedding the couple changed their family name to “Abraham” to honor the patriarch. Vagirds became Aaron, because “the priest was a wonderful person, full of glory,” he explained.

Eventually the couple decided to convert, and began studying Judaism in earnest with the Holtzbergs, Chabad emissaries in Mumbai.

“Our whole life centered around the Chabad House,” said Abraham. “It was the only place where we could get kosher food. Gabi and Rivky were our guides, we did not move without them. We began a process of true conversion and found the extraordinary beauty of the Torah commandments.”

It was the brutal murder of the Holtzbergs and their four guests at the Nariman Chabad House that changed their lives forever, however.

“They took away my Master,” said Abraham. “But what we learned from Gabi and Rivki will accompany us and our children forever.”


‘You Can’t Allow The Nation To Be Divided’ – An Interview With Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar

Wednesday, August 5th, 2009

The Jewish Press spoke last week with Rabbi Shlomo Amar, Israel’s Sephardi chief rabbi since 2003, on the contentious issue of conversion to Judaism.

Jewish Press: Your attempt to impose conversion regulations in the U.S. that would be acceptable to Israel’s Chief Rabbinate garnered a lot of attention and created not a little controversy. Are there any new developments in that area?

Rabbi Amar: I should make it clear that I was referring only to new conversions. I did not touch or alter any actions of my predecessors – or any rabbi or rabbinate abroad recognized by the Israeli Chief Rabbinate before I came into office. My concern was with new rabbis or rabbinates that started issuing conversion certificates after I became chief rabbi. I feel that before they can have any involvement in the matter of conversion, they need to be checked and tested in order to determine whether they are indeed qualified to carry out conversions.

At least initially, the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) seemed to take rather strong issue with your position.

In the beginning, the RCA voiced concern with my stance and there was a furor in some of the Jewish papers that made it seem as if I didn’t want to recognize the RCA’s conversions. The RCA sent a delegation to Israel and I clarified to them what my reservations were. They understood and agreed with me. It took a year until we formulated a modus operandi and then I came to New York to meet with RCA leaders.

How did your intervention affect the way conversions are handled?

Until then, the procedure was that any rabbi could engage in conversions. I asked that they set up a system of regional batei din with three recognized rabbis and that if new rabbis were to be added they first must be tested. I suggested that any new rabbi come to us in Israel for testing, but they objected to that. So we decided the test would be carried out by two of their rabbis, Rabbis Hershel Schachter and Mordechai Willig, and I would send a third rabbi or judge from the Chief Rabbinate in Israel to join them and he would bring any questions from Israel.

How is the arrangement working out?

They set up several batei din and sent me names of new rabbis they want to add. While I rely on Rabbis Schachter and Willig, I will not automatically accept a new name without checking up on him first. So far, though, no tests have been carried out as I’ve been inundated with work that has prevented me from putting more time into the project.

So while it’s common knowledge that the Chief Rabbinate does not recognize Conservative or Reform conversions, the fact is you don’t recognize Orthodox conversions carte blanche either.

Yes, that’s right. There are a lot of new rabbis who call themselves Orthodox but whom we have not yet verified in terms of their qualifications to perform conversions. We can’t stop them from doing anything, but we can refuse to recognize their conversions. So if someone comes along with a conversion certificate not issued by any of the batei din approved by us, we won’t automatically accept it.

Now, there are cases where we’ve disqualified Orthodox rabbis whom we had recognized in the past. We did so after having received complaints about those rabbis, but not until we verified the matter thoroughly. When someone comes to us accusing a rabbi of not performing as per halacha, we ask the complainant to describe in writing what fault he found and to sign his name. I then send the letter to the rabbi in question in order for him to respond.

What is your reaction to the recent decision by the Court of Appeal in London that ongoing personal acts of faith, rather than birth or conversion, defines a Jew?

Unfortunately, we can refer to the courts in Israel that are gravitating in the same direction. Not too long ago the courts here ruled that non-Orthodox groups in Israel should be funded and be able to continue their non-halachic activities.

As long as the Who is a Jew law is not amended, the courts will allow Reform, Conservative and every other non-halachic group to make inroads and destroy the character of the state. If, God forbid, they will begin to validate Reform and Conservative marriages and conversions in Israel, the nation will be divided.

This gives me no rest, as it is forbidden to tear this nation in half. Having various political parties who disagree on ideology is not threatening – that can occur in the best of families – but once you stop marrying each other, that’s a real split and it is forbidden that this should occur.

What is your message to American Jewry, to American rabbis?

I think my proposal to set up recognized batei din was a good start, but another vital step that must be taken is that there must be uniform registration in every country. I explained this to the RCA leaders when I met with them. For instance, all rabbinates should print up identical forms and when a couple registers to marry they will get a copy of the form, the rabbi will get one and a third one will be filed away in a central database where one will be able to see which rabbi performed the marriage. Likewise, when a person converts anywhere in the U.S., every rabbi will be able to know who performed the conversion since it will be filed away in this central database. The same with regard to divorces.

But won’t that create arguments among rabbis and rabbinates over who should control this database?

I suggest that each rabbinate or rabbinic organization set up its own database – the RCA would have its database, the Agudas Harabonim would have its database, etc. – and they can all cooperate and coordinate. I agree it might cause friction, but first start organizing it and then worry about the arguments later. Certainly we can come to some kind of meeting of minds.

I’m sure there were many arguments and disagreements when they formed the Chief Rabbinate in Israel many years ago but today, thank God, even though there are many private batei din in all parts of the country, there is an orderly arrangement and everything is registered with the central body – the Chief Rabbinate.

The Truth About RCA Geirus

Wednesday, March 12th, 2008

         There is a sign hanging in my office that should be standard in the office of every rabbi, communal leader, worker for Klal Yisrael or activist of any sort. It reads: “For every action there is an equal and opposite criticism.” And so goes the overheated, misleading, and at times blatantly false reaction by several of my distinguished RCA colleagues to the RCA’s recent promulgation of the Geirus Policies and Standards (GPS).
         Let us sort through the myths and the facts.
         Myth: The Jewish Week headlined its report “RCA Seen as Caving in on Conversions”  (to the Chief Rabbinate of Israel). That headline is a contemptible untruth. Having served from its inception on the GPS Committee that formulated the standards, I can state that the reality is the Rabbanut never once suggested an approach to conversion in America, a change in any of our standards, or the adoption of any of their standards.
         Myth: The GPS calls for the re-evaluation of all conversions done in the past by RCA rabbis. This is an especially despicable falsehood, as it serves only to make generations of converts in the Jewish community anxious about their status and acceptance in the community at large. The reality is that not one past geirus is being reviewed by the RCA or its Beth Din of America, and such was never contemplated. To even suggest otherwise is to blatantly violate the Torah’s numerous admonitions against tormenting the ger.
         Myth: The RCA is shifting “to the right” (whatever that means) and has now adopted a series of harsh and restrictive regulations that will hinder the ability of non-Jews to convert. The reality is that these standards are not new, but an expression of the majority opinion in halacha as interpreted through the ages and historically applied by the overwhelming majority of RCA rabbis involved in geirus.
         The proximate cause of the promulgation of the GPS was the sense – here and in Israel – that some rabbis, both inside and outside the RCA, were not adhering to any reasonable benchmark by which geirus has traditionally been executed. This situation had to be rectified in order to protect the integrity of geirus in America and to facilitate a convert’s acceptance in Israel should he or she choose to make aliyah.
         Myth: The Chief Rabbinate will sit in judgment of each American geirus – past, present and future. Well, there is a kernel of truth in every bushel of lies. But this point is nothing new. Certainly the Rabbanut has no standing (or interest) to review the geirus that occurs outside Israel until and unless there is some Israel nexus, such as when the convert makes aliyah. But this has always been the case.
         As a pulpit rabbi, I have provided dozens of affidavits to the Rabbanut attesting to the Jewishness of my members who were born Jews or who converted according to halacha andwho wished to make aliyah or marry in Israel. And this is justly the province and domain of the Chief Rabbinate, and its legal authority under Israeli law. In this instance, the GPS makes the process easier, as participating regional batei din in the network of the RCA, under the auspices of the Beth Din of America, are pre-certified to have their conversions accepted by the Rabbanut.
         A convert who (sadly) never contemplates aliyah or does not marry in the State of Israel will never have any contact with the Rabbanut on these matters.
         Myth: The Chief Rabbinate will not recognize any conversion performed outside the GPS framework. This is also completely false. Any rabbi – RCA or otherwise – can continue to perform conversions on his own and apply to the Rabbanut for acceptance. The considerations the Rabbanut will use are its alone, and completely within its purview. I suspect that some conversions will be accepted, and others rejected – as it has always been.
         Beyond the myths, there is a bigger picture that needs to be considered. One of the most joyous moments in the rabbinate, for me, has been presiding over the conversion process. In a single instant, a non-Jew accepts upon himself not only the laws and customs that regulate Jewish life but also the history and destiny of our covenantal people. A conversion properly conducted and performed is fraught with solemnity, consequence and elation. The process should require intense study, a steadily increasing commitment to halachic practice, and climaxing in a complete acceptance of the mitzvos while standing in the mikveh.
         Nevertheless, it has long been an open secret in the United States (filtered over time to rabbinic authorities in Israel) that there were some American rabbis – again, both members and non-members of the RCA – who officiated at conversions that lacked these prerequisites. Apparently there were rabbis who took substantial sums of money for conversions, turning this sublime process into a lucrative business. There were rabbis who were forced to convert non-Jews under duress, as in the (hypothetical) shul president stating: “Convert my future daughter-in-law or find another job.”
         There were rabbis who were lax in applying the appropriate halachic standards and not insisting, expecting or even contemplating that there would be kabbalas hamitzvos in any realistic way – conversions without a genuine commitment to observance of Shabbos, kashrus, taharas hamishpacha and other staples of Jewish life.
         They asked questions with a wink and received the appropriate answers by the candidates, as if they were reading from a script. (And in almost every such case the conversions were performed for the purpose of marriage. Why else would a rabbi even think of converting a non-Jew who does not wish to observe Jewish law, except for some pressing ulterior concern that itself undermines the very fabric of geirus?)
         There were rabbis who were negligent even in the technical performance of the act of geirus, including a failure to observe the immersion in the mikveh. There were rabbis who converted non-Jewish women knowing they would marry kohanim in violation of Torah law. There were some who availed themselves of every leniency and loophole, ensuring that pro forma conversions would take place that would satisfy the needs of the member in question but not necessarily the letter or spirit of the law.
         (Lest the reader think there was pervasive chaos, the “rabbis” referred to in the examples above were usually the very same small number of people.)
         The GPS Committee performed a vital public service in formulating and disseminating these standards. The formation of regional batei din across the United States – and the ban on the sponsoring or teaching rabbi from serving as a dayan for someone he himself taught or guided – ensure that the individual rabbi is shielded from undue pressure to perform a conversion that is unsatisfactory and lacking in halachic substance.
         These dozen batei din, and the more than forty rabbanim who serve on them, have the full backing of the Chief Rabbinate, ensuring that converts who are potential olim receive a royal welcome home. And, I suspect, the existence of these batei din will sharply reduce the number of non-Jews who convert solely for marriage or some other inducement. Further, the GPS deals sensitively with gerim who are contemplating marriage but wish to convert sincerely, with intermarried couples that want to re-enter the community of committed Jews, and with infertile couples who wish to adopt a non-Jewish child and confer merit upon him under the wings of the Divine Presence.
         With all due respect, I must strongly object to my colleagues’ demagoguery, which serves only to alarm true and sincere converts as well as promote these esteemed rabbis’ own private, political agenda. The GPS Committee – comprised of a geographic and hashkaficcross-section of the RCA – labored over 18 months to produce an appropriate formula that universalizes standards for geirus but that nonetheless allows for the flexibility needed in evaluating something as subjective as another person’s commitment and sincerity. It has, perhaps, the support of 97% of the RCA membership. It is fair, honorable, sensitive, just and moral.
         Its opponents, rather than talk in flowery generalities, must answer the following:
         Do you require from prospective converts a genuine commitment to observance of Shabbos, kashrus, and other fundamental areas of Jewish law? If not, please state so openly.
         Do you perform conversions in which there is willful blindness to reality in order to accommodate those whose commitment is lacking, and have you ever officiated at a conversion in which you were doubtful of the candidate’s sincere commitment to Torah and mitzvos? If so, please state so openly.
         Do you feel you are performing a public service in adding to the ranks of the Jewish people those who do not share our value system, our lifestyle or our destiny – thereby transforming good and decent non-Jews into sinning Jews? If so, please state precisely the nature of that public service, explain the reasoning behind that disservice to non-Jews as well as the justification that underlies the unbridled attack on the sincere efforts of your colleagues.

         Certainly, for every action there is an equal and opposite criticism – if only the criticism would be reasonable, measured, truthful and justified.

         With the GPS system in place, a stumbling block has been removed from the process of conversion and the process itself simplified; the honor of righteous converts has been redeemed; the privilege of joining the Jewish people given its proper credence; and, most important, the Torah has been magnified and glorified.

         Rabbi Steven Pruzansky is spiritual leader of Congregation Bnai Yeshurun in Teaneck, New Jersey, treasurer of the Rabbinical Council of America, a member of the Geirus Policies and Standards Committee, and the rosh beit din of the Beit Din L’Giyur in Bergen County where, he reports, GPS guidelines are already in place and functioning superbly.

From Quaker to Shaker to Orthodox Jew

Tuesday, September 25th, 2007

(Note: Unless otherwise indicated all quotes are from “Quaker, Shaker, Rabbi: Warder Cresson, The Story of a Philadelphia Mystic” by Frank Fox, The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, April 1971.)

Throughout history there have been gentiles who decided the only way for them to come close to God was to convert to Judaism. Some of the more famous converts include Ruth; the prophet Ovadia; the biblical commentator Onkelos; and Bulan, king of the Khazars.

Converting to Judaism is not a step to be taken lightly, and may bring a host of repercussions for the convert and his family. The conversion of Warder Cresson to Judaism most certainly had wide-ranging implications for him and those associated with him.

The second of eight children, Warder was born in Philadelphia on July 13, 1798 to John Elliot and Mary (nee Warder) Cresson. Apparently his parents wished to preserve his mother’s maiden name, and so gave him the unusual first name of Warder.

The Cressons were prominent Quakers and Warder was raised according to strict Quaker principles. At age 17 he was sent to work on the family farms in Darby and Chester.

“He worked hard, saved his money and learned a great deal about agriculture. In 1819, when twenty-one, he rejoined his family, then residing in Byberry Township, north of Philadelphia. Two years later, he married Elizabeth Townsend of Bensalem.”

Within a few years he became the head of a very successful farming enterprise.

Cresson was not content with limiting his interests to farming and, by 1827, had begun to question some of the fundamental tenets of Quakerism.

“In his first religious tract, entitled ‘An Humble and Affectionate Address to the Select Members of the Abington Quarterly Meeting,’ he displayed a mind steeped in Scriptures as well as in the social issues of the day. He criticized religious leaders who based their teachings on an ‘outward form, order or discipline,’ attempting ‘to make an inward man as they would lay out a barn.'”

Cresson eventually broke with the faith of his fathers. By the 1840’s he had become, in turn, a Shaker, a Mormon, a Seventh Day Adventist and a Campbellite. The latter two denominations believed that the Second Coming of Christ was close at hand. He also became notorious in Philadelphia for religious “haranguing in the streets,” where he warned all within earshot of an approaching apocalypse.

Cresson became acquainted with Rev. Isaac Leeser, the chazzan of Philadelphia’s Mikvah Israel Synagogue. In his Discourses, published in 1836, Leeser wrote about the time of the messianic redemption “when the Israelites will be assembled from all the countries where they are now scattered.” Cresson was influenced by Leeser’s writings and also by those of Mordecai Manuel Noah, who espoused the belief that the Jews would soon return to Palestine.

By 1844 Cresson was convinced that God was about to gather the Jewish people to Jerusalem as a prelude to the “end of days.” He wrote, “God must choose some medium to manifest and act through, in order to bring about his designs and promises in this visible world This medium or recipient is the present poor, despised, outcast Jew. God is about gathering them again [in Jerusalem].” He decided he had to move to Jerusalem to personally witness this great event:

In the spring of 1844 I left everything near and dear to me on earth. I left the wife of my youth and six lovely children (dearer to me than my natural life), and an excellent farm, with everything comfortable around me. I left all these in the pursuit of truth, and for the sake of Truth alone.(Introduction to the “Key of David” by W. Cresson, 1852, available at www.theoccident.org/Cresson/cresson01.html).

JerusalemAnd Conversion

Before leaving for Palestine, Cresson went to Washington and applied for the position of the first American Consul to Jerusalem. Somehow he was able to get two influential men from Philadelphia, Dr. I.A. Birkey and Congressman E. Joy Morris (later American minister to Turkey), to recommend him for the job. Morris had recently returned from a trip to the Near East and in a letter to Secretary of State John C. Calhoun, dated May 1, 1844, wrote that “Jerusalem is now much frequented by Americans.”

Cresson volunteered to work without compensation and was officially notified of his appointment on May 17.

It turned out to be one of the shortest assignments on record. Barely a week after the commission was issued, Samule D. Ingham of New Hope Pennsylvania, who had served as President Jackson’s Secretary to the Treasury, wrote to Calhoun:

The papers have recently announced the appointment of Warder Cresson, Consul to Jerusalem. This man is the brother of Elliot Cresson, who is much distinguished for his activity in the cause of colonization, but the Consul has been laboring under an aberration of mind for many years; his mania is of the religious species. He was born a Quaker, wanted to he a preacher … and has gone round the compass from one job to another, sometimes preaching about the church doors and in the streets; his passion is for religious controversy and no doubt he expects to convert Jews and Mohammedans in the East – but, in truth, he is withal a very weak-minded man and his mind, what there is of it, quite out of order…. His appointment is made a theme of ridicule by all who know him….

As a result of that letter, Calhoun wrote Cresson: “I am instructed by the President to inform you, that, having reconsidered the proposal to establish a Consulate at Jerusalem, he is of the opinion it is not called for by public service, and therefore declines to establish it at present.”

By then, however, Cresson was on his way to Jerusalem carrying with him a dove and an American flag, blissfully unaware that his commission had been revoked. Cresson in fact did act as the American Consul to Jerusalem for about half a year after his arrival.

During the next four years Cresson found himself being increasing attracted to the Jews of Jerusalem and at the same time developing more and more doubts about his Christian beliefs. He noted many contradictions in the New Testament, and this led him to deny the divinity of Jesus. He was now prepared to take the most drastic step of his life, one that would have far reaching implications for him and his family back in America.

“I remained in Jerusalem in my former faith until the 28th day of March, 1848,” he later wrote, “when I became fully satisfied that I could never obtain Strength and Rest, but by doing as Ruth did, and saying to her Mother-in-Law, or Naomi ‘Entreat me not to leave thee … for whither thou goest I will go’…. In short, upon the 28th day of March, 1848, I was circumcised, entered the Holy Covenant and became a Jew….”

Cresson was forty-nine years old at the time of his conversion.

Family Woes

On May 7, 1848, Cresson began his return trip to Philadelphia. He was most anxious to see his family whom he “loved most dearly above anything else on earth.” During his stay in Jerusalem he had written a number of letters to his family keeping them informed about his activities and his religious conversion. He was confident that he could convince them to adopt his newfound faith. He was in for a rude surprise.

His wife, Elizabeth, had become a committed Episcopalian and wanted nothing to do with Judaism. In addition, Cresson, who now used the name Michael Boaz Israel, discovered that his wife, to whom he had given power of attorney in his absence, had sold the family farm as well as most of his personal effects. In short, Cresson found himself essentially penniless.

Cresson tried to resolve his problems with his wife amicably, but she was not interested. Together with some other family members, she lodged a charge of lunacy against him in front of a sheriff’s jury of six men; it did not take long for them to declare Cresson insane.

(A sheriff’s jury was one selected by a sheriff to hold inquests for various purposes, such as ascertaining the mental condition of an alleged lunatic. It is not normal legal procedure today.)

Cresson, who never spent time in an asylum, appealed the verdict and a trial on the charge of lunacy began on May 13, 1851 in the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas. It became one of the most celebrated court trials of the 19th century.

At the heart of Cresson’s defense was his claim that in addition to his family’s desire to seize his financial resources was their opposition to his conversion to Judaism. They were sure that anyone who converted from Christianity to Judaism had to be insane. Thus, at the heart of this case was the question of whether a man was free to choose his religious affiliation.

More than 100 witnesses testified at the trial. Ultimately Cresson was vindicated of all charges. Newspapers throughout the country were almost unanimous in their praise of the verdict. Reporters focused on the fact that the issue at stake was one of religious freedom. They noted that Cresson was indeed “a strange bird,” with an unsteady disposition as evidenced by his previous religious affiliations. They pointed out, however, that it was his conversion to Judaism that had triggered his family’s anger and let to the lawsuit.

“If he had become a Roman Catholic they would probably have acquiesced…. They could permit him to become a Shaker, a Millerite, or a Mormon, but when he became a Jew, all confidence in his sanity was lost.”

Return to Jerusalem

Cresson prayed at Congregation Mikveh Israel and lived according to halacha during the four years he spent in Philadelphia after his return from Jerusalem. Eventually he divorced his wife and, in 1852, returned to the Holy Land.

He became even more convinced that the Jews would soon return en masse to the land of Israel. He felt that a necessary precursor to this was the development of agricultural endeavors by Jews and so proposed a sophisticated plan for the establishment of Jewish agricultural settlements. Indeed, his vision for agricultural development was far reaching and anticipated later Zionist efforts.

In 1855 he acquired a tract of land near Jaffa with the intention of putting his plans into practice. But his planned model farm never developed due to insufficient financial support.

In the mid-1850’s he married Rachel Moleano and became an honored member of Jerusalem’s Sephardic community. They had two children, David Ben Zion and Abigail Ruth. Neither child lived to adulthood.

Warder died on October 27, 1860 and was buried on the Mount of Olives “with such honors as are paid only to a prominent rabbi.” His unusual life encompassed the almost unheard-of step of converting to Judaism, the issue of religious freedom, and the effect of national movements upon the Jews that eventually led to changes in their social and economic conditions.

Postscript: Meeting Melville

Herman Melville, the author of Moby-Dick, at one point in his life “looked to Palestine as the source of human experience and a possible hope for the future.” He went so far as to borrow money in order to go to Palestine, and in January 1856 he and Cresson met.

What Melville saw in Palestine shattered any thoughts he had about its being the country of the future. He noted in his journal: “In the emptiness of the lifeless antiquity of Jerusalem, the migrant Jews are like flies that have taken up their abode in a skull.”

Melville also dismissed Cresson’s theories on how the Jews could establish an agricultural economy in Palestine as completely unrealistic:

“The idea of making farmers of the Jews is vain. In the first place, Judea is a desert, with few exceptions. In the second place, the Jews hate farming… and besides the number of Jews in Palestine is comparatively small. And how are the hosts of them scattered in other lands to be brought here? Only by a miracle.”

He did not have anything positive to say about Cresson either. “Warder Crisson [sic] of Philadelphia – an American turned Jew – divorced from (former) wife – married a Jewess, etc. Sad “

And yet Palestine and Cresson had a profound effect on Melville. Indeed, he wrote a long, spiritual poem titled “Clarel: A Poem and Pilgrimage in the Holy Land.”

One of the main characters in this work is Nathan, a Christian turned Jew. It is not hard to see that Nathan is patterned after Cresson.

Melville could not believe that Jews would ever return to Eretz Yisrael and turn it into a country where agricultural endeavors thrived. Cresson was convinced that this would happen. History has shown who was correct.

Dr. Yitzchok Levine is a professor in the Department of Mathematical Sciences at Stevens Institute of Technology, Hoboken, New Jersey. His regular Jewish Press column, “Glimpses Into American Jewish History,” appears the first week of each month. Dr. Levine can be contacted at llevine@stevens.edu.

Title: Getting Our Groove Back – How to Energize American Jewry

Wednesday, August 15th, 2007

         Scott Shay is the co-founder of Jewish Youth Connection, chair of UJA Federation of New York’s Commission on Jewish Identity and Renewal and a successful businessman. His 2007 book, Getting Our Groove BackHow To Energize American Jewry contains sharp insights, nearly flawless objectivity and some terrific advice.


         Shay identifies critical problems in present-day American Jewish life: a dwindling sense of importance of Jewish identity evidenced in rising intermarriage rates and decreasing synagogue and Jewish school enrollments; poor parental role models who refrain from substantive involvement in Jewish affairs, inconsistent standards for conversion to Judaism; diverse categorizations of Jewish identity when it exists (Reform, Reconstructionist, variations of Orthodoxy); poor educational standards that don’t inspire K-12 students, and the cognitive dissonance that results from donations by allegedly Jewish charities to non-Jewish (sometimes anti-Jewish) causes. These and other factors cited in the book undermine potential Jewish identification and unity. Shay supports his eloquent assertions and conclusions with relevant statistics.


         Shay offers intelligently-considered solutions to the problems identified in this 304-page hardcover book: inspirational trips to Israel, better educational standards for adults and children plus increased pay for attracting superb teachers, involved clergy who go camping with the kehillah or participate in youth groups, increased birth rates, a cessation of spending on causes unrelated to Jewish interests, organized protests regarding media misrepresentation of Jewish realities, and other good ideas.


         But some of his advice falls flat. Recommending to non-Orthodox streams of Jewish life to standardize their conversion processes and definitions of “Who is a Jew” or to reinvent their bloated bureaucracies into cohesive “mini-movements” while promoting kashrut, matrilineal descent and other activities that these organizations reject is wishful thinking. Non-Orthodox movements will likely resist the imperative to re-define themselves out of existence!


         The author missed some significance in the opening quotes of Chapter One and on the last page of his book. They are from Talmud (Bava Batra 7a): “The community is Israel’s rampart” and the oft-quoted “The day is short/The task is great/It is not up to you/To complete the work/Yet you cannot concede it/All beginnings are hard/If not now, when?”


         They’re predicated on accepting G-d as the One Who Determines the Rules in Life. Unless that premise is absorbed by and acted upon by all Jews, the collective American Jewish groove will continue grinding down like the gears on the book’s cover. Perhaps the author can include inspirational insights about optimal Jewish identification and activity by Rabbi Y. B. Soloveitchik, z”l, Chassidic commentators, past and present, plus other inspirational sources, in updates of his present book.


         Getting Our Groove Back – How To Energize American Jewry still deserves close reading and follow-up. Social scientists, clergy, Federation officials and anyone interested in the thriving success of American Jewry (parents included) should study its pages closely. Enacting suggestions consistent with the supreme premise of Judaism (G-d rules, you comply) can result in quantum improvements to Jewish life and collective Jewish insight. They’re excellent starting points for increasing successes in proudly identifying, and thriving, as Jews.


         Yocheved Golani is the author of “It’s MY Crisis! And I’ll Cry if I Need To: A Life Book that Helps You to Dry Your Tears and to Cope with a Medical Challenge” (Booklocker, USA).

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/sections/title-getting-our-groove-back-how-to-energize-american-jewry/2007/08/15/

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