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September 16, 2014 / 21 Elul, 5774
At a Glance

Posts Tagged ‘conversion’

‘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).

The Cantonists: The Jewish Children's Army

Wednesday, August 25th, 2004

On August 26, 1827, Tsar Nicholas I published the Recruitment Decree calling for conscription of Jewish boys between the ages of twelve and twenty-five. These boys were known as Cantonists, derived from the term ‘canton,’ referring to the districts where they were sent and the barracks in which they were kept.

Conscripts under the age of eighteen were assigned to live in preparatory institutions until they were old enough to formally join the army. The twenty-five years of service required that these recruits be counted from age eighteen, even if they had already spent many years in military institutions before reaching that age.

Nicholas used the Cantonist system to single out Jewish children for persecution, their baptism being a high priority to him. No other group or minority in Russia was expected to serve at such a young age, nor were other groups of recruits tormented in the same way.

Nicholas wrote in a confidential memorandum, “The chief benefit to be derived from the drafting of the Jews is the certainty that it will move them most effectively to change their religion.”

Observed historian Simon Dubnow: “The barrack was to serve as a school, or rather as a factory, for producing a new generation of de-Judaized Jews, who were completely Russified, and if possible Chritianized.”

During the reign of Nicholas I, approximately seventy thousand Jews, some fifty thousand of whom were children, were taken by force from their homes and families and inducted into the Russian army. The boys, who’d been raised in the traditional world of the shtetl, were pressured by every possible means, including torture, to accept baptism. Many resisted and some managed to maintain their Jewish identity. The magnitude of their struggle is difficult to conceive.

This thirty-year period saw the Jewish community in an unrelieved state of panic. Parents lived in perpetual fear that their children would be the next to fill the Tsar’s quota. A child could be snatched from any place at any time. Every moment might be the last together; when a child left for cheder in the morning, his parents could not know if they’d ever see him again. When they retired after singing him to sleep, they never knew if they’d have to struggle with chappers (kidnappers) during the night in a last ditch effort to hold onto their son.

The famed writer and folk poet Eliyakum Zunser compared the suffering of the Cantonists to the suffering of Jewish children in other eras of Jewish history: “The mothers who were robbed of their children by the Egyptians, the Romans and the Spanish priests had, at least, the sad comfort of knowing that their little ones were spared from long and great sufferings – by a quick death. The bereaved mothers in the days of Nicholas I had not even that much ‘comfort.’ Their young were snatched away from them, scattered in the faraway snow fields of Siberia, or in the steppes of the Caucasus.”

Though a significant number of young men found ways to avoid conscription, government quotas of recruits remained in force. It was the duty of the kahal (Jewish communal leadership) to ensure that the quotas were met. The kahal was thus under tremendous pressure and faced a serious moral dilemma: If Jewish leaders did not provide recruits to fill the quota, the government would punish the Jewish communities with more severe measures, i.e., increasing the quota of recruits.

In dealing with this agonizing quandary, the kahal often chose to conscript the very young on the basis that they did not yet have dependents. Needless to say, this policy did not provide a satisfactory solution, since no family would volunteer its child for the draft. The kahal therefore resorted to paying a fee to chappers for each child they abducted and turned over to the army toward fulfillment of the community’s quota. Jewish chappers, familiar with the community’s language and habits, proved most effective in locating and abducting these children.

Israel Itzkovich, Cantonist Soldier

In 1853, when Israel Itzkovich was seven years old, his family moved to the city of Polotzk in the Vitebsk District. They somehow managed to support themselves. Israel’s mother sent her twelve-year-old son to live somewhere safe from the draft. Israel and his nine-year-old sister remained at home with their mother.

One October morning, three chappers burst into their apartment, tied Israel up and carried him off. His mother’s cries and screams fell on deaf ears. Itzkovich was taken to a house holding several dozen captive children. The chappers kept them there for a couple of weeks. Itzkovich’s mother and relatives visited him often, but were powerless to get him back.

A few weeks later, on October 23, 1853, the children were hauled to the receiving station where they were inducted and handed over to an army commander. They were housed temporarily in military barracks and issued military garments: underwear, overcoats, sheepskin coats, and boots – none the right size – and a cloth knapsack in which to store their belongings.

On November 6, Itzkovich was sent off to the battalion. Six or more boys were placed in each of a long line of carts. The entire town came to bid them farewell. The children and the adults cried and screamed. The crescendo of voices shook the ground.

Even after several miles, Itzkovich and his companions still heard their relatives’ cries. The wagons traveled until evening when the boys arrived at a village and were assigned to quarters in cold houses with dirt floors. The children were frozen, their hands and feet stiff with cold. If the boys cried, they were beaten. Many became ill and died before they arrived at their next destination, St. Petersburg.

From St. Petersburg, Itzkovich and his detachment were forcibly marched to the Siberian city of Archangelsk. The march lasted from November 1853 to June 1854. En route, the children were beaten and harassed and died like flies. The road was littered with their corpses. Finally, they entered the ‘Promised Land,’ Archangelsk. The officers took the boys to a building occupied by other Cantonists.

Life for Itzkovich and his unit was one of extreme hardship, full of torture and suffering. Pressure, supported by beatings, to accept baptism occurred throughout the day. Even after Itzkovich contracted an eye disease, a non-commissioned officer beat him with his fists.

The officer in charge of Itzkovich and his detachment was a converted Jew named Gulevich, who was the godson of the battalion commander, Dyakonov. At the first inspection of the detachment, Dyakonov declared to the battalion that as long as he lived, no one would leave his battalion as a Jew. Gulevich endeavored to fulfill the wish of his godfather.

Every evening at about nine o’clock, when it was time for bed, Gulevich would lie down on his bed, call a few boys over, and order them to kneel. He then would attempt to persuade the boys to convert with quotations from the Bible, implying that the Jews were in error. Finally, he would demand in a threatening tone that the boys accept Christianity or face punishment.

Gulevich allowed those boys who agreed to his importuning to go to sleep. The next day they were given uniforms and an extra piece of bread. The obstinate ones, however, were kept on their knees by his bed all night, and the next day they went to bed without bread and were harassed and whipped on any pretext.

The older Cantonists, between the ages of twelve and fifteen, were tortured for longer durations. They were beaten and whipped so severely that many of them died of their wounds. Under these conditions, most of the boys, understandably, did not resist for long. They finally consented, albeit against their wishes, to conversion.

One boy who resisted was placed on a bench every morning and given at least one hundred strokes of a birch leaving him bleeding and reeling in agony. After each birching, he was sent to the infirmary where he was treated and then soon beaten again. He absorbed the abuse, did not cry out and did not relent.

Even after their forced conversion to Christianity, Itzkovich and his fellow Cantonists suffered from continued abuse. A converted Jew in an argument with a Christian comrade would still hear the epithet, ‘parkhatyy Yevri!’ (disgusting Jew). Sometimes their abusers would add, ‘A Jew who has been baptized is like a wolf that has been fed.’

These insults served a good purpose for Itzkovich. By continually reminding him of his Jewish identity, they strengthened his inner resolve to remain a Jew. He pledged to himself that he would seek justice and, without allowing fear of the penalties to dissuade him, would win back the right to live as a Jew.

Every year in May, the order came from St. Petersburg to send the Cantonists who had turned eighteen to join the regular field troops. In 1854, the boys who’d reached age eighteen, including those from Itzkovich’s detachment, were dispatched to St. Petersburg and once there assigned to various units.

Itzkovich’s detachment participated in an imperial review in the presence of the Tsar, during the course of which many of the Cantonists complained about their forced conversion to Christianity. That took immense courage, as it put their lives at risk. As a result, the entire unit was placed under arrest, and they were all sentenced to the harsh punishment of running a gauntlet past three thousand men.

They would all have been beaten to death had the sentence been carried out, but it was suspended after the death of Nicholas I on February 19, 1855. Nicholas’s successor, Alexander II, canceled the punishment for the entire detachment, and only those of the Cantonists who had complained were assigned to garrison battalions in Siberia.

Soon afterward, Colonel Dyakonov died suddenly. Dyakonov’s burial during a hard December frost kept the boys outside for over two hours, but it was a joyous holiday nonetheless.

The manifesto of Tsar Alexander II on August 26, 1856, forbade the taking of underage Jewish children to be Cantonists, and it was soon ordered that all the boys in Cantonist battalions be released and returned to their original status. Jewish converts, however, were not eligible for return to their previous status as Jews. The directive that concerned them ordered that the older Cantonists who had reached the age of eighteen were to be assigned to serve in the regular forces, while the younger ones were enrolled in the War Department academies.

Meanwhile, life had changed for the better after Dyakonov’s death. The food improved and the brutal beatings stopped. The members of the company, by now adults, were dispatched to central Russia for assignment to troop units. The Second Company of younger boys was assigned to the academy.

Israel Itzkovich had become a Cantonist in 1853. He continually attempted to restore his official status as a Jew. Finally, in 1872, he was released on indefinite leave.

At this point Itzkovich was motivated by two wishes. One was to be granted retirement status and the benefits that entailed. The other was to change his official listing back from Christian to Jew.

Itzkovich reported to the authorities that he was a soldier on indefinite leave and he requested retirement status. Informed that to receive this status he would either have to serve another ten months or maintain his status of indefinite leave for an additional three years, he chose the former and enlisted in the Tomsk Province for the purpose of serving out his remaining time.

Soon he officially declared that he did not wish to be listed as a Christian, since he had been forced to convert. His new commanders threatened Itzkovich with a trial that would deprive him of his retirement rights. Despite this, he stubbornly submitted a memorandum which set forth in detail the barbarous treatment he’d received as a seven-year-old child, and how he, nevertheless, had served the Tsar honestly and conscientiously for twenty years and had received several commendations.

Though his earlier commander had tortured him and given him a new Christian name, Itzkovich claimed that his current commanders could not prohibit him from petitioning for the return of what had been taken from him by force. He asked to be put on trial so that his torment might be ended.

The army commander appealed to Itzkovich to drop his request, but Itzkovich stated categorically that he would no longer betray his God and would no longer attend Church or go to confession. Itzkovich’s memorandum was forwarded up the chain of command. Six weeks later, he received orders from the Commander of the Forces of Western Siberia: “Non-commissioned Officer Itzkovich, who had strayed from Russian Orthodoxy, is to be presented for exhortation by a priest. If he remains unrepentant, he is to be transferred to another troop unit.”

The priest tried his best but could do nothing to sway Itzkovich. In response to his exhortation, Itzkovich just smiled and said that he was no longer seven years old, but twenty-six. In the end he was not transferred to another unit, since his term of service had by that time expired.

Itzkovich retired on October 23, 1873, after serving exactly twenty years.

Larry Domnitch is an author and high school teacher living in Efrat, Israel. The above essay was adapted from his new book, ‘The Cantonists’ (Devora Publishing), which is available online at DevoraPublishers.com, MileChai.com and Amazon.com, and at Eichler’s (Brooklyn and Manhattan) and other fine Jewish book stores. Mr. Domnitch can be contacted at tdomnitch@aol.com.

Q & A: A Mohel’s Dilemma

Friday, June 22nd, 2001

QUESTION: May a mohel perform a bris for a non-Orthodox couple who adopt a Gentile infant whom they wish to raise as Jewish?
No name please
Los Angeles, CA
ANSWER: We discussed a similar question some time ago, but your question is well worth a review, especially in light of the coming holiday of Shavuot and the psak of Hagaon Harav J.B. Soloveichik that I recently heard.

The Talmud (Yebamot 47a) discusses the halachic approach to conversion. We have to ask the prospective Ger (proselyte): ‘What have you seen that you want to become converted [to Judaism]? Are you not aware that Jews at the present time are persecuted and oppressed, despised, harassed and overcome by afflictions?’ If he replies, ‘I know and I am truly unworthy’ (to join in their trouble – Rashi ad loc.), we readily accept him and he is given instruction in some of the minor and some of the major commandments … and some of the punishments. Furthermore, he is addressed thus: Until now (as a ben Noach), if you ate cheilev (forbidden fat) you would not have been punishable with karet (death by Heavenly decree), but now that you are converting to Judaism, you will be liable to the punishment of karet for that sin … He is also told of the difference between a Jew and a Gentile in reference to the punishment for non-fulfillment of the Noachide Laws.

Thus we see that there is an effort made to dissuade the prospective Ger, due to the enormous liabilities that he will now assume.

To the Talmudic passage cited above, which is the main source for rules about conversion to Judaism (geirut), we can juxta-pose another Talmudic passage (Ketubbot 11a) which deals with the case in question, that of a minor child who was converted without his informed [mature] consent: R. Huna said, A minor proselyte (ger katan) is immersed (in the ritual bath for conversion) with the consent of the Beit Din. Rashi (ad loc.) explains that this court consists of ‘the three people who are present at the immersion, as is the rule in all immersions for conversion, and they become his ‘father’.’ The Talmud refers to a case where the child had no father and the mother brought him to be converted. That beit din, in addition to converting him, also assumes the position of the consenting party to this conversion. See also Tosafot Rid ad loc., who discusses the case where there is no mother either, and concludes that conversion can nevertheless take place in such a case too. Note also the opinion of the Gaon R. Chayim Ozer Grodzensky (Achiezer siman 47) who quotes a Mordechai (not found in our Shas) cited by the Darchei Moshe on Yoreh De’ah 268. He would question the validity of such a conversion. However, Rabbenu Nissim does allow such a geirut (i.e., he agrees with R. Huna).

The Talmud asks: What does R. Huna let us know? Is it that the conversion represents an advantage for the proselyte (namely, to be received into the Jewish faith), and (that there is a ruling) that one may act for a person even in his absence – since the minor is, legally speaking, not present – if it is for his benefit? The Talmud answers that we have already learned (Erubin 81b; Yebamot 118b) that we can act in behalf of a person even in his absence if it is to his advantage, a zechut, but we cannot act in his behalf at all if it is not to his advantage (namely, if it causes him any harm). By quoting that rule we assume that a heathen prefers a life without restraint (and therefore conversion would be a disadvantage for the proselyte). Indeed, it has been established for us (Gittin 13a) that a [Canaanite] slave prefers a dissolute life. R. Huna teaches us that this assumption applies only to an adult who has experienced the taste of that which is forbidden, but as regards a minor who has not tasted sin, conversion is considered a benefit for him.

Nevertheless, the Talmud adds in the name of R. Joseph: When the minor proselytes come of age they can protest (and declare that they do not want to remain within the Jewish faith – this applies even if the father was present at the conversion, as in the case when a non-Jew converts along with his minor children). Also, the renunciation is accepted (without penalty from the Beit Din) only if declared within a strictly limited time period as soon as majority is attained. (For further elaboration, see the full text of the passage referred to in Ketubbot 11a, Rambam – Hilchot Melachim 10:3 and the Kesef Mishnes ad loc., as well as the Aruch HaShulchan, Hilchot Gerim.)

These Talmudic references make it clear that conversion, immersion (tevila in a mikveh) and, in the case of a male, milah (circumcision) must be accompanied by an acceptance of mitzvot, namely, the fulfillment of the commandments.

The Gaon Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (Igrot Moshe, Yoreh De’ah chelek I) discusses at length the matter of adopting a non-Jewish child and converting him/her to Judaism. Talking of the adoption of a baby boy he even goes into the details of the circumcision ceremony as described in the Talmud (Shabbos 137b) and the Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh De’ah 268). He also mentions the permissibility of formally naming the child as ‘the son of’ the adopting father (see Shemot Rabbah 46:6).

But he also cautions that the child has to be informed before reaching maturity of his/her status of convert so that the conversion may achieve permanence. Rabbi Feinstein assumes that the child has had a [halachic] Jewish upbringing and advises to undertake this step so that the adopted child will not renounce the life he has been living – and his conversion – because he was not aware of his status.

In the case you refer to there is no practice of Torah and mitzvot in the adoptive home, and the only ‘Jewish’ identity this child will have is one that is essentially superficial – even though the conversion of the infant might very possibly have been performed under 100% halachic auspices. However, if all the accompanying requisites, i.e., the practice of mitzvot, have not been met, the end result is that we must question the validity of this geirut.

Rabbi Herschel Schachter, rosh kollel of Yeshiva Rabbeinu Yitzchok Elchanan (R.I.E.T.S.-Y.U.) discussed this very situation at the recent convention of the Histadrus Horabonim (R.C.A.). He quoted the late Gaon Harav Joseph Ber Soloveitchik, zt”l, who admonished all rabbis and mohalim not to involve themselves in such a bris milah either in the case of a Gentile child being adopted and converted by a non-practicing Jewish couple or a child born of a mixed marriage – with a Gentile mother, as this is surely not a zechut – an advantage – for the child; who will henceforth be liable for all Torah commands even though it is unlikely that he will perform any (and obviously he will be unaware of his possibility of renunciation, albeit in that very limited time frame, when he reaches maturity as well).

Unfortunately, this situation illustrates another one of our contemporary problems, if not a plague, from which we suffer when there are any Jews who lack a full Jewish education and thus remain ignorant of our rich heritage and Torah laws. Surely, if we could transmit, unimpeded, the laws of our Torah and Talmud we would not be faced with such complex problems. Therefore we must, each and every one of us, resolve to strengthen Torah education in every way possible, until we reach the level where ignorance of our eternal heritage is eradicated.

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