Min haMuvhar

1939 in the Sephardic World

The Nazi menace decimated European Jewry, and its tentacles of hatred and violence reached even to North Africa and the Middle East. Jews of all backgrounds were victimized, and many stories about murdered family members remain as the heritage of Jews throughout the world. In our family-whose roots were in the Sephardic community of the Island of Rhodes-we also have a story.

My grandfather, Bohor Yehuda Angel, left the Island of Rhodes in 1908 to settle in Seattle, Washington. He and his older son, Moshe, worked tirelessly to save enough money to bring the rest of the family to Seattle-my grandmother, Bulissa Esther Angel, and the children Ralph, Victoria, Luna, Abner, Joseph and Rahamim.

During the early 20th century, the Jewish community of Rhodes numbered about 5000 souls. They formed a classic Judeo-Spanish Sephardic enclave, with an impressive cadre of rabbinic scholars, business people and intellectuals. The masses of Sephardim, though, were poor, and many began to consider leaving Rhodes to improve their lots. The favored destination was the United States, with others also leaving for Rhodesia and the Congo, Europe and the land of Israel.

It took three years for my grandfather and uncle to save enough money to bring the rest of the family to Seattle. In 1911, my grandmother bravely set sail with her children, eager to be re-united with her husband and elder son. When their ship arrived in New York harbor, they were confronted by United States immigration officials. It turned out that Joseph, aged about eight years old, had a scalp infection known as tinias. The immigration officials told my grandmother that they would not admit Joseph into the U.S. My grandmother pleaded with the officials-but to no avail. What was she to do? It had taken three years of hard work for my grandfather to earn enough to bring the family to Seattle. If she returned to Rhodes now, how many more years would be needed to arrange for new tickets? But how could she bear sending little Joseph back to Rhodes by himself? As it happened, another Jew from Rhodes was not admitted into the United States. He volunteered to bring Joseph back to Rhodes to live with relatives until such time as he could be brought to Seattle to join the rest of his family. My grandmother had no real choice: she agreed to send Joseph back to Rhodes. She looked forward to the day when Joseph would be brought to Seattle.

Joseph never did make it to Seattle. He grew up in Rhodes. He was married in the late 1920s to Sinyoru Angel (not related), and they had four children. A son and daughter were named Yehuda Leon and Bulissa, after Joseph's parents; the other son and daughter were named Jacob and Sara, after Sinyoru's parents. My father, Victor Angel, who was born in Seattle, never met his brother Joseph and family.

The Jews of Rhodes had lived under the rule of the Ottoman Empire from 1522 until 1912, when Italian forces occupied the island. Italy officially took control of Rhodes in 1923, with the Treaty of Lausanne. When Italy aligned with Germany in June 1936, the Jewish community of Rhodes began to feel the bitter stings of government-sponsored anti-Semitism. The highly regarded Rabbinical College of Rhodes was forced to close. Jews were required to keep their stores open on Saturdays and Jewish holidays. In September 1938, anti-Jewish laws were announced: ritual slaughter of animals was prohibited; Jews could not buy property, employ non-Jewish servants, send their children to government schools. Non-Jews were not allowed to patronize Jewish doctors or pharmacists. Jews who had settled in Rhodes after 1919 were ordered to leave the island.

By September 1939, the Jewish community of Rhodes had shrunk to less than 2000 people. Those who remained faced ongoing discriminatory laws. Uncle Joseph and family must have suffered, and must have worried very much about their future. The anguish only grew with each passing year. In early 1944, Uncle Joseph died-we don't know the cause, although we can surmise that fear and anxiety played their roles in his early death. In August 1944, German troops took control of Rhodes. In short order, the historic Jewish community of Rhodes came to a tragic end. Almost all the Jews were deported to Auschwitz, and only about 150 survived. Among the victims were my Aunt Sinyoru and my cousins Yehudah Leon, Jacob, Bulissa and Sara-people I would never meet, but whose memory would never leave me.

Little Joseph had been turned away from the Unites States by an immigration official. That official did not realize that his action ultimately was a death sentence to the family of Joseph. Had Joseph been allowed to go to Seattle, he-like the rest of his siblings-would have lived. Life hangs by a thread. Perhaps a kinder official would have had pity on my grandmother and her children, and perhaps this story would have had a happier ending.

In 1939, the Jews of Rhodes were oppressed by anti-Semitic rulers: but few imagined that the Nazi deportations and concentration camps would actually include them. This situation prevailed in other Sephardic communities as well.

Mr. Isaac Gerson, now aged 96, was a merchant in Salonika in 1939. Salonika was one of the crown jewels of the Sephardic world, a bastion of Judeo-Spanish civilization. Mr. Gerson recalls that in 1939 the Jews were confused; they heard rumors about Nazi Germany, but could not actually believe that the "civilized" Germans could become vile murderers. Few Jews fled Salonika. Jewish leaders did not foresee the coming disaster, and did not encourage flight or active resistance on the part of the Jews. The approximately 50,000 Jews of Salonika began to recognize the gravity of their situation in April 1941, when the Germans occupied Greece. In March 1943, the Nazis deported the Jews to concentration camps-with very few coming out alive.

In 1939, Thea Gomes de Mesquita was a little girl growing up in the famed Sephardic community of Amsterdam. She had no premonition of danger. The family attended synagogue as usual; she attended the Talmud Torah as usual. Yet, the adults of the community must have sensed trouble. German Jews, fleeing the Nazis, sought safety in Amsterdam. They told their stories of woe to the local Dutch Jews. In 1939, though, the stories did not seem immediately threatening to the Jews of Amsterdam. With the German invasion in 1941, everything was suddenly to change for the worse. Anti-Jewish restrictions went into effect. In 1942, Jews were deported to concentration camps. Thea de Mesquita's family went into hiding, going from place to place, and ultimately survived the war. Yet, the vast majority of Amsterdam's Sephardim-along with the rest of Dutch Jewry-were ruthlessly murdered by the Nazis and their accomplices.

When Mussolini came to power in 1922, Silvano Arieti was a fourth grade pupil in a non-Jewish school in Pisa, Italy. The little Jewish boy-along with his teacher and classmates-were swept up with enthusiasm for their new leader who would bring Italy to new glory. Arieti even wrote a poem in honor of Mussolini. As he grew older, he came to learn that Mussolini was the personification of fascism, a tyrant and a war-monger. A fascist slogan was: The Duce is always right. In 1938 Mussolini, to strengthen Italy's alliance with Germany, declared that Italy would adopt anti-Jewish laws. Arieti, seeing the writing on the wall, fled Italy for the United States, and went on to become a world-renowned psychiatrist and author. Of the approximately 50,000 Jews in Italy, 8,000 Jews lost their lives to the Holocaust. That most Italian Jews survived the war is attributed to the generally good relations that existed between the Jews and Christians in Italy, even during the war years.

In 1939, Jewish communities in French North Africa-Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia-began to feel the claws of Nazism. The Jews in Italian Libya likewise came under anti-Jewish legislation. Thousands of North African Jews were among those innocent victims who were murdered during the Holocaust period.
The Jews of Turkey and Bulgaria, though living in a state of anxiety and fear, were essentially spared deportation and murder. To the extent possible, they maintained their historic communities according to the traditions of the Judeo-Spanish Sephardim.

In 1939, Sephardic communities in Europe were living in the shadow of death, although few realized it at the time. Sephardic communities in the Middle East and North Africa-though less endangered than their European co-religionists-did not escape the brutalities of Nazism.
In 1939, Rabbi Benzion Uziel became the Sephardic Chief Rabbi of the land of Israel. He struggled mightily to save as many Jews as possible by arranging for them to come to Palestine. The Grand Mufti of Palestine was a vicious anti-Semite, and strove to stir up anti-Jewish sentiment among the Arabs. The British sharply limited the number of Jews who could enter the land of Israel legally.

In 1939 Jews throughout the world began to understand that their lives meant very little to the nations of the world, and that they could depend on few people to help them. The blind hatred aimed against them would lead to the deaths of millions of individuals, and the destruction of countless communities.
After the war, Rabbi Uziel was asked how Jews should memorialize those who died in the Holocaust. His answer was powerful: we must defy the Nazis and their collaborators who attempted to destroy Jews and Jewish civilization. We can best memorialize the Jewish victims by building synagogues and Torah academies named after the Jewish communities that were wiped out. We will create new, vital Jewish life. We will raise new generations of pious, learned and dedicated Jews. We will grow and flourish, and will never forget those Jews who lost their lives in the Holocaust. The Jewish people will live, and the souls of the departed will live on through the new Jewish generations.

Uncle Joseph and family would be pleased to know that they are remembered, that they have relatives who cherish their memory and who live according to the teachings and ideals of Judaism. Am yisrael hai. Od avinu hai: the people of Israel lives, our God lives.

Sermon on the Occasion of the 350th Anniversary Service at Shearith Israel, September 12, 2004

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights,that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” These words from the American Declaration of Independence reflect the deepest ideals and aspirations of the American people. America is not merely a country, vast and powerful; America is an idea, a vision of life as it could be.

When these words were first proclaimed on July 4, 1776, Congregation Shearith Israel was almost 122 years old. It was a venerable community, with an impressive history--a bastion of Jewish faith and tradition,and an integral part of the American experience.

When the British invaded New York in 1776, a large group of congregants, including our Hazan Rev. Gershom Mendes Seixas,left the city rather than live under British rule. Many joined the Revolutionary army and fought for American independence.

Some remained in New York, and conducted services in our synagogue building on Mill Street. Early in the war, British soldiers broke into the synagogue and desecrated two Torah scrolls. This was not just an attack on scrolls, but was a symbolic assault on the spiritual foundations of Judaism, the self-same foundations upon which the American republic has been built.

In our service today, we read from one of these Torah scrolls as a symbolic response to those soldiers, and to all those who would seek to undermine the eternal teachings of Torah and the principles of American democracy: we are not intimidated, we are not afraid. Generation by generation, we will continue to live by our ideals and by our faith. Generation by generation, we will lend our strength to the great American enterprise that promises hope and freedom, one nation under God, withliberty and justice for all.

Our story in America is not built on historical abstractions, but on generations of Jews who have played their roles in the unfolding of this nation. It is a very personal history, ingrained in our collective memory.

Attending this service today are descendants of Jews of the Colonial period, whose ancestors served in the American Revolution; descendants of families including de Lucena, Gomez, Nathan,Hendricks, Phillips, Franks, Cardozo, Seixas. We welcome descendants of Rev.Johannes Polhemus, minister of the Dutch Reformed Church, who was on the same ship as the first group of 23 Jews who arrived in New Amsterdam in September 1654.

We welcome representatives of our sister congregations that date back to the Colonial period: from the Touro Synagogue in Newport; from Mikveh Israel in Philadelphia; we have representatives or words of congratulations from the historic congregations in Savannah, Charleston and Richmond. We welcome members of our sister congregation, the Spanish and Portuguese community of London.

We welcome elected officials and their representatives. We welcome officers of the 20th precinct, who serve our community with courage and dedication. We welcome leaders of the American Jewish community, and those who have worked so hard for Celebrate 350, the national umbrella group commemorating the 350th anniversary of American Jewry. Indeed we welcome all congregants and friends who have gathered here today on this historic occasion.

A number of those present today participated in the Tercentenary celebrations of 1954. We have a member here today whose mother—now 107 years old—was part of our community during the 250th anniversary celebrations in 1904/5.

Among us are descendants of Jews from all parts of the world, Jews who came to America at different times and under different circumstances; including those who are themselves first generation Americans and first generation Jews. For 350 years, our generations have been part of the American experience, and have striven to make this a better nation.

We have just read from the Revolutionary Period Torah scroll, from the section known as “Kedoshim”, only a few columns from where the British soldiers damaged the scroll. Kedoshim opens with a challenge to the people of Israel to be a holy nation, to live according to the commandments of God, to have the courage and inner strength to maintain Torah ideals in a world that is not always receptive to such lofty teachings. The portion goes on to specify how we are to manifest holiness: through charity;honesty; commitment to truth and justice; through the avoidance of gossip and hatred. It culminates with the words: ve-ahavta le-re-aha kamokha, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself. The very principles enjoined by this passage are the spiritual foundations of the United States of America. These teachings are constant reminders of howto live a good life and build a righteous society; they also are prods to make us realize how far short we fall from these ideals, how much more work remains to be done.

On this 350th anniversary of the American Jewish community,we reflect on the courage and heroic efforts of our forebears who have maintained Judaism as a vibrant and living force in our lives. We express gratitude to America for having given us—and all citizens—the freedom to practice our faith. This very freedom has energized and strengthened America.

Within Congregation Shearith Israel, we have been blessed with men and women who have helped articulate Jewish ideals and American ideals. Their voices have blended in with the voices of fellow Americans of various religions and races,to help shape the dream and reality of America.

The American Declaration of Independence pronounced that all men are created equal. In his famous letter to the Jewish community of Newport, in August 1790, President George Washington hailed the United States for allowing its citizens freedom—not as a favor bestowed by one group on another—but in recognition of the inherent natural rights of all human beings. This country, wrote President Washington, “gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.”

And yet, if equality and human dignity are at the core of American ideals, the fulfillment of these ideals have required—and still require—sacrifice and devotion. Reality has not always kept up with the ideals. In 1855, Shearith Israel member Uriah Phillips Levy—who rose to the rank of Commodore in the U.S. Navy—was dropped from the Navy’s active duty list. He was convinced that anti-Semitism was at the root of this demotion. He appealed the ruling and demanded justice.He asked: are people “now to learn to their sorrow and dismay that we too have sunk into the mire of religious intolerance and bigotry?... What is my case today, if you yield to this injustice, may tomorrow be that of the Roman Catholic or the Unitarian, the Presbyterian or the Methodist, the Episcopalian or the Baptist. There is but one safeguard: that is to be found in an honest,whole-hearted, inflexible support of the wise, the just, the impartial guarantee of the Constitution.” Levy won his case. He helped the United States remain true to its principles.

Shearith Israel member Moses Judah (1735-1822) believed that all men were created equal—including black men. In 1799, he was elected to the New York Society for Promoting the Manumission of Slaves. During his tenure on the standing committee between 1806 and 1809, about fifty slaves were freed.Through his efforts, many other slaves achieved freedom. He exerted himself to fight injustice, to expand the American ideals of freedom and equality regardless of race or religion.

Another of our members, Maud Nathan, believed that all men were created equal—but so were all women created equal. She was a fiery, internationally renowned suffragette, who worked tirelessly to advance a vision of America that indeed recognized the equality of all its citizens—men and women. As President of the Consumers’ League of New York from 1897-1917, Maud Nathan was a pioneer in social activism, working for the improvement of working conditions of employees in New York’s department stores. Equality and human dignity were the rights of all Americans,rich and poor, men and women.

The Declaration of Independence proclaimed that human beings have unalienable rights, among them are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.These words express the hope and optimism of America. They area repudiation of the tyranny and oppression that prevailed—and still prevail—in so many lands. America is a land of opportunity, where people can live in freedom. The pursuit of happiness really signifies the pursuit of self-fulfillment, of a meaningful way of life. America’s challenge was—and still is—to create a harmonious society that allows us to fulfill our potentials.

President George Washington declared a day of national Thanksgiving for November 26, 1789. Shearith Israel held a service, at which Hazan Gershom Mendes Seixas called on this congregation “to unite, with cheerfulness and uprightness…to promote that which has a tendency to the public good.” Hazzan Seixas believed that Jews, in being faithful to Jewish tradition, would be constructive and active participants in American society.

Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness were not reserved only for those born in America; they are the rights of all human beings everywhere. This notion underlies the idealism of the American dream, calling for a sense of responsibility for all suffering people, whether at home or abroad. American Jews have been particularly sensitive and responsive to this ideal.

On March 8,1847, Hazan Jacques Judah Lyons addressed a gathering at Shearith Israel for the purpose of raising funds for Irish famine relief. The potato crop in Ireland had failed in 1846, resulting in widespread famine. Hazan Lyons well realized that the Jewish community needed charitable dollars for its own internal needs; and yet he insisted that Jews reach out and help the people of Ireland. He said that there was one indestructible and all-powerful link between us and the Irish sufferers: “That link, my brethren,is HUMANITY! Its appeal to the heart surmounts every obstacle. Clime, color, sect are barriers which impede not its progress thither.” In assisting with Irish famine relief, the Jewish community reflected its commitment to the well-being of all suffering human beings.American Jewry grew into—and has continued to be—a great philanthropic community perhaps unmatched in history. Never have so few given so much to so many. In this, we have been true to our Jewish tradition, and true to the spirit of America.

Who articulated the hope and promise of America more eloquently than Emma Lazarus? “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me. I lift my lamp beside the golden door.” How appropriate it is that her poem is affixed to the great symbol of American freedom, the Statue of Liberty.

Alice Menken, (for many years President of our Sisterhood) did remarkable work to help immigrants, to assist young women who ran into trouble with the law, to promote reform of the American prison system. She wrote: “We must seek a balanced philosophy of life. We must live to make the world worth living in, with new ideals, less suffering, and more joy.”

Americans see ourselves as one nation, indivisible, under God, with liberty and justice for all. Yet, liberty and justice are not automatically attained. They have required—and still require—wisdom, vigilance, and active participation. America prides itself on being a nation of laws, with no one above the law. The American legal tradition has been enriched by the insights and the work of many American Jews.

In one of his essays, Justice Benjamin Nathan Cardozo—a devoted member of Shearith Israel--referred to a Talmudic passage which has been incorporated into our prayer book. It asks that the Almighty let His mercy prevail over strict justice. Justice Cardozo reminded us that the American system relies not only on justice—but on mercy. Mercy entails not merely an understanding of laws, but an understanding of the human predicament, of human nature, of the circumstances prevailing inhuman society. Another of our members,Federal Judge William Herlands, echoed this sentiment when he stated that Justice without Mercy—is just ice!

Our late rabbis Henry Pereira Mendes, David de Sola Pool and Louis C.Gerstein, were singularly devoted to social welfare, to religious education, to the land of Israel. They distinguished themselves for their devotion to Zionism, and played their parts in the remarkable unfolding of the State of Israel. They, along with so many American Jews, have keenly understood how much unites Israel and the United States—two beacons of democracy and idealism in a very troubled world.

These individuals—along with so many other American Jews—were exponents of the American ideals and the American dream. During the past 350 years, the American Jewish community has accomplished much and contributed valiantly to all aspects of American life. We have cherished our participation in American life. We have been free to practice our faith and teach our Torah. We have worked with Americans of other faiths and traditions to mold a better,stronger, more idealistic nation.

America today is not just a powerful and vast country. It is also an idea, a compelling idea that has a message for all people in all lands. As American Jews, we are committed to the ideals of freedom and equality, human dignity and security, to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, the pursuit of harmony among ourselves and throughout the world. We have come far as a nation, but very much remains to be done. May God give us the strength and resolve to carry on, to work proudly as Jews to bring the American dream to many more generations of humanity.

I close with a prayer spoken by Mordecai Manuel Noah at the consecration of our second Mill Street Synagogue on April 17, 1818: “May we prove ever worthy of His blessing; may He look down from His heavenly abode, and send us peace and comfort; may He instill in our minds a love of country, of friends,and of all mankind. Be just, therefore,and fear not. That God who brought us out of the land of Egypt, who walked before us like ‘a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night,’ will never desert his people Israel.”

Welcoming a Chueta back to his Jewishness

During the middle ages, Jews lived in the island of Mallorca (Majorca) as in many other parts of Spain. With the vicious anti-Jewish persecutions of 1391 and shortly thereafter, open Jewish life came to an end in Mallorca. Those Jews who remained were forced to accept Catholicism.

In spite of their having converted to Catholicism, these "new Christians" were subject to ongoing humiliations. The "old Christians" referred to them with the pejorative term "Chuetas". The Chuetas were disdained because of their Jewish blood. No matter that they were now Catholics, the Chuetas were assumed to maintain Judaism in private; the old Christians shunned them, and certainly did not want to marry them.

During the late 17th century, the Inquisition tortured, murdered and plundered the property of hundreds of Chuetas. During the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, Chuetas continued to suffer periodic outbursts of hatred and violence against them from their Christian neighbors.

While many Mallorcans of Jewish ancestry did eventually find ways to marry into old Christian families, fifteen Chueta families retained their "Jewishness" and married only within their own group. It is estimated that there may be 15-20,000 Chuetas in present-day Mallorca, with many of them stemming from these 15 families.

Some months ago, I received an email from my friend, Michael Freund, head of Shavei Yisrael. Shavei Yisrael is an organization that seeks to find "lost Jews" and bring them back to Judaism and re-connect them with the land and State of Israel. Among the groups that Shavei Yisrael has been interested in are the Chuetas. Indeed, Shavei Yisrael has brought a group of Chuetas to visit Israel and to renew their ties to their ancestral faith and people.

Michael told me of a Chueta gentleman who was making public his Jewishness, and was inspiring other Chuetas to come out openly as Jews. He has published books in Spanish about the Chueta experience, and has lectured widely in the Spanish-speaking world. His message: we are Jews; we want to come back to our people; we want to reclaim the Jewish heritage that was robbed from us by a fanatical Church. We have suffered abuse and humiliation for centuries because of our Jewish blood. We are proud of our Jewish blood. We want to live in freedom and dignity as Jews.

This gentleman, now in his 60s, is named Miquel Segura. Segura is one of the 15 families that retained their separateness from the old Christian society. Miguel's mother's maiden name was Aguilo--also a name of one of the 15 families. He meticulously researched his family tree (which includes an ancestor murdered by the Inquisition in the late 1600s), and it is clear that he is, in fact, of pure Jewish descent.

Michael Freund told me that Miquel Segura wants some formal recognition that he is Jewish. He wants the Jewish community to accept him--and other Chuetas with similar genealogical evidence--as a Jew. It would seem that the Jewish community, led by its rabbis, would rush to embrace Miquel and those Chuetas who wish to return to the faith and people of Israel. Yet, while some have indeed shown warmth and happiness, it seems that many have been suspicious, skeptical, unwelcoming. Do we really want to embrace people who have lived as Catholics for the past 5 centuries, and accept them as fellow Jews?

My response to Michael was: based on the information given to me, Miquel Segura is Jewish according to halakha. He does not need to convert, because he is already Jewish, and he can prove it with his family tree. Michael agreed with me, but said Miquel needs something more than a simple affirmation of his Jewishness. I suggested (and Michael cleared this with a rabbinic authority in Israel with whom he works) that Miquel Segura come to New York, to my synagogue--the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue of New York City--which was founded in 1654 by Jews whose ancestors had lived for a period as crypto-Jews in Spain and Portugal. Let him come to this, the oldest Jewish congregation in North America, whose founders well understood the ordeals of crypto-Judaism and the fear of the Inquisition.

On December 17, 2009, Miquel Segura came to Shearith Israel, the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue of New York City. Michael Freund flew in from Israel to be with us. I invited a member of our congregation, Bentsi Cohen, to join us as well, since he is fluent in Spanish and could help us if we had problems communicating. Following morning prayer services, the four of us--along with Miquel's wife and several friends--walked to the Mikvah on West 74th Street. Miquel immersed in the Mikvah--not as an act of conversion, and not in the presence of a beth din--but as an act of purification. It was a symbolic rebirth into the faith and peoplehood of Israel. We gave him a certificate with his Hebrew name, and welcomed him back to his ancestral people.

All of us felt that this was a sacred moment. Here was a Jew returning to his Jewishness, after generations of his ancestors had been forced to live outside of Judaism; after generations of humiliations and tortures and indignities. Here was a Jew coming home, proudly, defiantly, faithfully. It was as though the voices of all his ancestors were with us at the Mikvah that morning; we could almost feel their presence and hear their words of congratulations.

We could imagine the dismay of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella; we could sense the bitter frustration of the Inquisitors and haters and persecutors. They did not win. They did not crush the Jewish soul or spirit. After 500 years, Miquel Segura was living proof that Judaism has overcome its oppressors, that Judaism cannot be crushed out, that the people of Israel and the God of Israel live.

The ceremony of return for Miquel Segura took place on Hanukkah--a holiday celebrating the power of the Jewish spirit, when God gave victory to the few over the many. It was also Rosh Hodesh, the beginning of a new month. Rosh Hodesh symbolizes renewal and hope.

Miquel Sequra still has a long road in front of him to win full acceptance as a Jew within the Jewish community at large. He still has much work to do to bring his fellow Chuetas back to Judaism and the Jewish people. But Hanukkah is a celebration of a miracle and Rosh Hodesh is a reminder of renewal...and the day will come, speedily and soon, when all the lost Jews of the world will find their way back to the God of Israel, the Torah of Israel, the people of Israel, the land of Israel.

Teaching the Wholeness of the Jewish People

Our heritage is rich and vast and we claim that we teach it. But do we truly understand the wholeness of the Jewish people, or is our knowledge really limited and fragmented? Do we, can we, inculcate the concept of Jewish unity in our students?  If we as educators are unaware of or disinterested in Jews who have had different historic experiences than we have had, how can we convey the richness of Judaism? How can we, in fact, demonstrate the sheer wonder of halakhic Jewry without a sense of awe at the halakhic contributions of all our diverse communities throughout the world, thoughout the ages?

We may study the Talmud of Babylonia and Israel; the codes of sages in Spain; the commentaries of scholars of France, Germany, Italy; the responsa of rabbis of Turkey, the Middle East and North Africa; the novellae of sages of Eastern Europe; the traditions and customs of Jewish communities throughout the world.  We study this diverse and rich literature and confront the phenomenon that all these Jewish sages and their communities operated with the identical assumptions--that God gave the Torah to the people of Israel, that halakha is our way of following God's ways. As we contemplate the vast scope of the halakhic enterprise--and its essential unity--we begin to sense the wholeness of the Jewish people.

If, for example, we were to study only the contributions and history of the Jews of America, we would have a narrow view of Judaism.  If we limited our Jewish sources only to a particular century or to a particular geographic location, we would be parochial. We would be experts in a segment of Jewish experience; but we would be ignorant of everything outside our narrow focus.

In order to teach the wholeness of the Jewish people, we need to have a broad knowledge and vision of the Jewish people. We cannot limit ourselves to sources only from Europe, just as we cannot limit ourselves to sources only from Asia or Africa.  Often enough, however, Jewish education today fails to include in a serious way the Jewish experiences in Asia and Africa. How many educators can name ten great Jewish personalities who lived in Turkey, Morocco or Syria during the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries? How many have studied any works of authors who lived in Muslim lands over the past four to five centuries? And how many have taught this information to their students? And have they learned?

There is a vital need to teach "whole-istic" Judaism, drawing on the great teachings of our people in all the lands and periods of their dispersion. To do this, we ourselves need to study, to think very seriously, to feel genuine excitement in gathering the exiles of our people into our minds and consciousnesses.  When we are engaged in this process, we can help our students share the excitement with us.  Jews who are "not like us," whose families came from countries other than "ours", should not be viewed as being exotic or quaint. There is more to a Jewish community than a set of interesting customs or folkways.  We need to be able to speak of the Jews of Vilna and of Istanbul and of Berlin and of Tangiers with the same degree of naturalness, with no change in the inflection of our voices.  We need to see Jews of all these--and all the other--communities as though they are part of "our" community.

Consider the standard Mikraot Gedolot, a common edition of the Bible. There are commenaries by Rashi (France); Ibn Ezra and Ramban (Spain); R. Hayyim ben Attar, the Ohr haHayyim (Morocco); R. Ovadia Seforno (Italy), and many others. The commentaries of the Talmud, Rambam, Shulhan Arukh are also a diverse group, stemming from different places and times. It is important for teachers to make their students aware of the backgrounds of the various commentators. In this relatively simple way, students are introduced to the vastness of the Torah enterprise, and of the value of all communities which have engaged in maintaining the Torah. To quote Sephardic sages together with Ashkenazic sages, naturally and easily, is to achieve an important goal in the teaching of wholeness of the Jewish people.

Most teachers teach what they themselves have learned. They tend to draw heavily on the sources which their teachers valued. It is difficult and challenging to try to reach out into new sources, to gain knowledge and inspiration from Jewish communities which one originally had not considered to be one's own.

The majority of Jews living in Israel are of African and Asian backgrounds. Students who gain no knowledge of the history and culture of the Jews of Africa and Asia are being seriously deprived. They will be unable to grasp the cultural context of the majority of Jews in Israel, or they will trivialize it or think it exotic. But if Jews are to be a whole people, then all Jews need to understand, in a deep and serious way, about other Jews. This is not for "enrichment" programs or for special "Sephardic days"; this is basic Jewish teaching, basic Jewish learning.

I am saddened by the general narrowness I have seen in some schools. There is a reluctance to grasp the need for wholeness on a serious level. Time is too short. Teachers don't want more responsibilities. But Judaism goes far beyond the sources of Europe and America. Giving lip service to the beauty of Sephardic culture; or singing a Yemenite tune with the school choir; or explaining a custom now and then--these don't represent a genuine openness, a positive education.

Standard textbooks don't teach much about the Jews of Africa and Asia, their vast cultural and spiritual achievements, their contributions to Jewish life and to Torah scholarship. Schools often do not make the effort to incorporate serious study of these topics, and so our children grow up with a fragmented Jewish education.

To raise awareness and sensitivity, teachers should utilize the resources within the community--including students, community members and synagogues representing diverse backgrounds, customs and history that can enlighten students. Spending Shabbat with diverse communities, within the United States as well as when visiting Israel, can be a moving way of sharing cultures and customs.

To attain wholeness in Jewish education entails considerable work on the part of administrators, teachers and students. It may cost time and money. But can we really afford to continue to deprive our children and our people of wholeness?

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The Conversion Crisis and Challenge

(This article is reprinted from Hadassah Magazine, November 2008.)

Great news.
Many thousands of people in Israel want to convert to Judaism. Most are from the former Soviet Union and have Jewish ancestry or spouses. Many others, of various national and religious backgrounds, have come to Israel to study Judaism and to become Jewish.

Thousands of people throughout the diaspora want to become Jews. They are attracted to the teachings of Torah; or they’ve discovered Jewish roots; or they want to marry a Jewish spouse. Judaism has a profound message for people of all backgrounds. The Jewish people, with all its problems, is attractive. The fact that so many wish to become Jewish should be a source of tremendous pride and happiness to Jews.

Troubling news.

Not everyone is eager to help these would-be converts enter the Jewish fold. Instead of offering a compassionate and inclusive approach, the Israeli Chief Rabbinate has erected ever higher barriers to discourage conversion to Judaism. Diaspora rabbinic groups have essentially fallen into line behind the Chief Rabbinate’s stringent positions, fearing that their own rabbinic status will be undermined if they do not conform to the Chief Rabbinate’s dictates.

In May 2008, the Israeli Rabbinic High Court under the leadership of Rabbi Abraham Sherman issued a horrifying decision that actually rescinds the conversion of a woman who had converted (under Orthodox auspices) fifteen years ago. Since the Court felt the woman was not religiously observant enough, it declared her and her children—born after her conversion-- to be non-Jewish. The Chief Rabbinate and the Rabbinic High Court have equated conversion with total acceptance to observe all the mitzvoth; those who are deficient in religious observance are either not accepted in the first place, or now run the risk of having their conversions invalidated retroactively. Thousands of individuals have been thrown into spiritual turmoil, wondering about their Jewish identities and the Jewish identities of their children.

This is precisely the time for a visionary Orthodox rabbinic leadership to win the respect and admiration of the Jewish public by providing inspired, meaningful leadership. Yet, the Orthodox rabbinic establishment in Israel and the diaspora has chosen the path of retreat, restriction, and exclusion. Their policies have alienated thousands of potential converts, as well as thousands of born Jews who find these rabbinic attitudes reprehensible, narrow-minded and xenophobic.

Great news.

The classic sources in halakha—the Talmud, Maimonides, the Shulhan Aruh—are actually far more “liberal” than the contemporary Orthodox rabbinic bureaucracy. The Talmud (Yevamot 47a-b) records the procedure to be followed in accepting converts: we tell them of the dangers inherent in being a member of a persecuted community. If they are willing to accept these risks, we offer instruction “in some of the minor and some of the major commandments”. We are not to persuade or dissuade too much. The Shulhan Arukh (Yoreh Deah 268:2), drawing on Maimonides’ formulation in the Mishneh Torah (Issurei Biah 14:2), rules that we must also explain to the would-be convert the basic beliefs of Judaism. The procedure for conversion is sensible and straightforward.

The classic codes of Jewish law leave considerable latitude when it comes to informing converts of the mitzvoth. Converts are expected to give a general acceptance to observe mitzvoth—but there is no indication that they first must study Judaism for years nor that they must answer very specific questions relating to the observance of all mitzvoth--requirements that now have become standard within the Orthodox rabbinic establishment. Some of my Orthodox colleagues have retorted: we don’t need to rely on those texts, since we follow the opinions of the great sages (invariably of the hareidi ilk) of our generation. Or, they have disingenuously argued that the Talmud, Rambam and Shulhan Arukh didn’t need to specify the requirement for converts to accept all mitzvoth in detail, since they took it for granted that converts would be required to observe every law of Shabbat, kashruth, mikvah etc. In other words, these rabbis ignore, or read their own views into, the classic sources of halakha, seriously changing the meaning of what conversion has meant historically.

The notion that conversion entails 100% commitment to observe all mitzvoth seems to have first emerged in the late 19th century among Eastern European rabbis. According to Dr. Zvi Zohar and Dr. Avi Sagi, Israeli scholars who have thoroughly researched the conversion issue in halakhic literature, Rabbi Yitzchak Shmelkes (Beit Yitzchak 2:100) introduced this idea in 1876. (See their book, “Transforming Identity”, Continuum, New York, 2007.) This was a reaction to the growing number of Jews who were defecting from mitzvah observance. Rabbi Shmelkes and others apparently believed that by equating Judaism with mitzvah observance, they were defending the Torah from its spiritual enemies. This equation, though an understandable strategy, was of course not literally true. Even the most extreme right-wing rabbis admitted that a born Jew is Jewish, even if he/she repudiates Judaism and violates every law in the Torah. But when it came to accepting converts, they upheld the most rigorous policy—a policy not dictated by classical halakha, but by their own reading of the circumstances of their times.

We are living in different times. We are not in 19th century Eastern Europe. We have the right to revisit the classic halakhic sources, and apply them honestly, compassionately and intelligently to our new circumstances. The rabbinate in Israel exists within a vibrant, modern Jewish sovereign State. If rabbis in the shtetls dealt with conversions stringently in light of their historical circumstances, the Rabbinate in Israel must recognize a broader responsibility; it must have the vision to create national policies that will serve the needs and interests of the Jewish State and the Jewish people at large. Instead of locking itself into the most extreme and narrow positions of halakha, it needs to draw on the broad wellsprings of Jewish legal and ethical traditions, demonstrating the halakha’s ability to address contemporary issues in a spiritually, morally and intellectually sound manner. The rabbis of the diaspora must not fall into the trap of creating their own rabbinic bureaucracies; rather they must also have the vision and sense of responsibility to help converts enter the Jewish fold in a proper, non-intimidating manner.

As an Orthodox rabbi myself, I believe that those who wish to enter the Jewish fold should do so in a halakhically valid manner. The halakha provides a meaningful and accessible way for non-Jews to become Jewish. Instead of erecting higher barriers to discourage conversion, the Orthodox rabbinate should be expanding opportunities for those who sincerely wish to become full members of the Jewish people.

The great Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel, Rabbi Benzion Uziel (1880-1953) argued for an inclusive approach to conversion. In one of his responsa, he urged rabbis to perform conversions, even under less than ideal circumstances, in order to maintain Jewish families and keep children in the Jewish fold. Those rabbis who adopted restrictive policies were doing a tremendous disservice to the would-be converts, to their families, and to the Jewish people. Rabbi Uziel wrote: “And I fear that if we push them [the children] away completely by not accepting their parents for conversion, we shall be brought to judgment, and they shall say to us: ‘You did not bring back those who were driven away, and those who were lost you did not seek’ (Ezekiel 34:4).” Rabbi Uziel was not alone among modern sages who allowed conversions even in non-ideal situations. (See Professor Shmuel Shilo’s article in the Israel Law Review, 22:3, 1988, where he discusses the lenient views of various halakhic authorities including Rabbis Benzion Uziel, Shlomo Kluger, David Zvi Hoffman, Haim Ozer Grodzinski, Yehiel Weinberg and Ovadia Yosef.)

Important news.

Rabbi Avi Weiss of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale and President of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah has joined me in founding the International Rabbinic Fellowship to bring together like-minded Orthodox rabbis who will promote an intellectually vibrant, compassionate and inclusive Orthodoxy—an Orthodoxy that will address the issues of our time in an open, non-authoritarian, and halakhically proper manner. We have been working with Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, Chief Rabbi of Efrat, and other rabbis here and in Israel to establish a beth din for the International Rabbinic Fellowship—with offices in New York and Jerusalem-- that will deal with conversion, agunah questions and other serious problems. We are heartened by the many Orthodox rabbis (the IRF already has about 150 members and is growing day by day) who have joined with us in this historic effort to create an engaged and engaging Orthodoxy that can provide leadership for the entire Jewish people. We are grateful to lay leadership for their financial and moral support.

Every one of us, Orthodox or not, can play a role in creating a better future for converts and for the entire Jewish people. We can support those individuals and groups within Orthodoxy that are working to change the rabbinic status quo. We can voice our opinion to policy makers here and in Israel. We can work in our own communities to foster a positive, inclusive approach to converts and their children. We can remind ourselves that we will one day be standing before the Almighty and will have to explain what we did—or did not do—to address one of the most dramatic challenges of our time. Let us be very sure that we can honestly say that we did seek to bring back those who were driven away, and that we did seek those who might otherwise have been lost.

The Conversion Crisis

The Chief Rabbinate of Israel has taken a restrictive, hareidi view on conversions to Judaism. They have imposed "standards" that are unrealistic for many would-be converts, and which are not required by the halakha itself. The Rabbinical Council of America has essentially capitulated to the Chief Rabbinate, and is now in the process of establishing regional courts in the U.S. and Canada that will adhere to the extremist opinions relating to conversions. Orthodox rabbis, members in good standing of the RCA, who perform conversions outside the RCA system will not have their conversions endorsed by the RCA. Thus, in order to be "accepted" by the Chief Rabbinate in Israel, American converts will now be faced with an increasingly rigid rabbinic bureaucracy.

Some RCA leaders have said that the RCA did not capitulate to the Chief Rabbinate, but rather developed the new system independently. This is puzzling, since the RCA only began this "independent" process after the Chief Rabbinate announced it would no longer accept conversions performed by RCA members; after the RCA had ongoing meetings and consultations with the Chief Rabbinate to see what the RCA could do in order to stay in the good graces of the Chief Rabbinate; after the RCA feted Chief Rabbi Amar in New York and Chicago; after the RCA made a large media campaign proudly announcing the agreement it had made with the Chief Rabbinate. Can this really be described as an independent RCA process? In fact, all along the members of the RCA committee knew they would need to come up with a system that would be approved by the Chief Rabbinate in Israel. Whether or not the Chief Rabbis sat on the RCA's committee, they certainly influenced in a powerful way the results of the RCA's committee. Indeed, the committee's obvious mandate was to win the approval of the Chief Rabbinate for the RCA's plans.

In my view, the proper position of the RCA should have been to defend the honor and integrity of its members. It should not have allowed the Chief Rabbinate to dominate our policies and standards, but should have insisted that the Chief Rabbinate continue to recognize RCA conversions as it has done for a great many years.

My views on the topic of conversion are well known. I have written a book, Choosing to Be Jewish: The Orthodox Road to Conversion (available from the online store on this website), pointing out the diversity of legitimate views within halakha, and arguing that the Orthodox rabbinate and community should be fostering a far more compassionate and inclusive policy. Please see my article "Slamming the Door on Converts" in the Min haMuvhar section of this website; please also see the Responsa section on this website for Prof. Zvi Zohar's article, as well as the piece on Rabbi Uziel's wonderful responsa on the topic. Likewise, please see Rabbi Isaac Sassoon's essay in the Articles section of our website.

Why am I so upset--and why should all thinking Jews be so upset--about the current developments? Here are a few reasons.

1. Halakha provides an array of legitimate views in the area of conversion to Judaism. Indeed, the Talmud, Rambam and Shulhan Arukh are considerably more "liberal" in this area than are the current leadership of the Chief Rabbinate in Israel and the RCA in America. The attempt to create "unified standards" is simply a code phrase that means: the most stringent standards. All other views are dismissed and discredited. This is a crass violation of the halakhic process--that passes itself off as being in the category of "raising standards". It narrows halakha and robs it of its dynamism and grandness of scope. It allows a small group of rabbis to arrogate authority to themselves, at the expense of all those who differ with them.

2. Many people will suffer due to these rabbinic bureaucratic decisions. Over the past years, I have received calls, letters and emails from literally hundreds of desparate individuals seeking Orthodox conversions--but who have been turned away or treated callously by the Orthodox rabbis they approached. As bad as the situation has been, it will now sink to even worse levels. Rabbis who have been inclined to work with potential converts are now told that they either must cede their authority to the rulings of the RCA, or be effectively disenfranchised. Thus, there will be even fewer Orthodox rabbis to whom would-be converts can turn; and even these rabbis will have their hands tied by the dictates of the RCA's policies which grant very little individual discretion to the rabbis.

Another problem relates to the Jewish status of those who have been converted by RCA rabbis in the past. Some leaders of the RCA have stated that past converts should not worry, and that it is "patently untrue" that past conversions will be subject to review. Yet, the RCA (to the best of my knowledge) has never stated clearly and unequivocally that all past conversions performed by RCA members will be accepted as valid; nor has the Chief Rabbinate in Israel made such an assertion. Rather, statements of RCA leaders have been quite cautious--to the effect that conversions that were "previously deemed acceptable" will continue to be accepted. The question is: "previously deemed acceptable" to whom? Piecing together various statements of RCA leaders, it would seem that only those converts will be deemed acceptable who have been converted according to the current guidelines and standards of the RCA. If someone converted years ago, and has not been fully Orthodox in religious observance, it doesn't seem likely that the current RCA system or the Chief Rabbinate will deem these conversions acceptable--even though they have fulfilled the requirements of halakha according to the Talmud, Rambam, Shulhan Arukh and many great rabbinic decisors. In fact, the new system seems to promote the view that the burden of proof is on the convert to establish his/her status as a Jew.

Until this new policy came into effect, the usual procedure was for Orthodox rabbis to accept the conversions of other Orthodox rabbis (except in a few cases of rabbis who blatantly disregarded even minimal standards for conversion). When Orthodox converts went to Israel, the rabbanut there generally approved of their Jewish status; when they had questions, they would/could call the RCA office (or Orthodox rabbis whom they knew) for further clarification. This system was based on general trust and mutual respect. Although not perfect, it functioned well and served the needs of many converts and their families. Now, the new system works on the principle of mistrust and disrespect; it does not assume conversions were done properly or that rabbis have the knowledge and integrity to do conversions according to halakha. The new system will endorse only those rabbis who will follow its rules and are willing to give up their rabbinic autonomy.

3. The new policies have built in delay mechanisms so that it will be difficult, if not impossible, for a candidate to be converted in less than two years. In the case of women candidates, this can diminish the number of children they might have; if the women are around 40 years old, it may deprive them of having children at all. Is this fair to these women? Is it fair to the Jewish people? Is it morally acceptable to create unnecessary obstacles to conversion, to prevent Jewish children from being born, to hinder the possibility of couples and families to function within the (Orthodox) Jewish community?

4. The Chief Rabbis and the RCA say that conversions done outside their authority will not be "accepted". I had always thought--and continue to think--that the important thing is for conversions to be performed according to halakha and to be "accepted" by the Almighty! If individuals are converted according to halakha, then the Chief Rabbinate and the RCA have no right whatsoever not to "accept" such conversions. On the contrary, to deny or cast doubt on halakhic conversions is a sin of the first magnitude. Rabbinic tradition teaches that oppressing a convert is a violation of 36 (and some say 46) commandments! If the Chief Rabbis or the RCA do not endorse conversions done by Orthodox rabbis who follow halakhic procedures, then the Chief Rabbis and the RCA will have much to answer for when they have to explain themselves to the Almighty.

5. The rabbinic bureaucracy in Israel is notoriously unpopular and increasingly out of touch with the needs of the general population. A great many innocent people suffer due to the deficiencies in the rabbanut's system of operation. With the RCA's agreement with the Chief Rabbinate, the problems of rabbinic bureaucracy will be imported to North America as well. Many wonderful potential converts will suffer; others will turn to non-Orthodox rabbis; yet others may decide not to convert altogether. It is indeed time to "raise standards" for conversion: the standards of love and compassion, inclusiveness and respect, the love of God and the love of Israel. It is time to focus on the commandment to love the proselyte, and to help those sincere souls who wish to enter the fold of Israel.

6. If you share our views on this matter, please let your voices be heard by your rabbis and communal leaders. Rabbis and laymen alike must stand together in resisting the tide of extremism and authoritarianism. If not us, who? If not now, when?

Slamming the Door on Converts

Originally published in the Forward (www.forward.com), November 7, 2007

Every year, thousands of non-Jews make the fateful decision to convert to Judaism. Some are seeking spiritual fulfillment. Many are married to or planning to marry a Jewish spouse. Others have a Jewish father or grandparent and desire a full sense of belonging to the Jewish people. Some have discovered Jewish ancestry and wish to reconnect with their roots. Many are living in Israel and want acceptance as Jews in the Jewish State. Whatever their original motives, they are a remarkable--and growing--part of the Jewish people.
The conversion phenomenon should be a source of celebration for Jews. Each convert gives eloquent testimony to the ongoing attractiveness of Judaism and Jewish peoplehood.

At a time when thousands of people are considering conversion to Judaism, however, Israel's Orthodox rabbinic establishment is raising ever higher barriers to them. While Israel's chief rabbinate accepts candidates who are willing to become fully committed Orthodox Jews, it will not readily accept those who are not ready for total commitment. Thus, a would-be convert must usually spend years studying Torah and halakha, or Jewish law, and adopt an entirely Orthodox lifestyle in order to be considered for conversion.

Now, Israel's increasingly extreme chief rabbinate is attAempting to impose its views on the Jewish Diaspora. Here in the United States, it has already forced the Rabbinical Council of America--the Diaspora's largest Orthodox rabbinical association--into line.

In the spring of 2006, Rabbi Shlomo Amar, Israel's chief Sephardic rabbi, proclaimed that the chief rabbinate would no longer accept conversions performed by Orthodox rabbis in the Diaspora, except for those specifically approved by the chief rabbinate. The RCA had to decide how to respond to this affront to the integrity of its members. After all, the chief rabbi was basically saying that RCA members cannot be trusted to do proper halakhic conversions.

Sadly, the RCA leadership capitualted to the demands of Rabbi Amar. The RCA agreed to establish regional rabbinic courts to handle conversions in line with the dictates of the chief rabbi. This means that individual RCA rabbis may no longer perform conversions and expect them to be sanctioned by the RCA--or by the chief rabbinate in Israel. Power is being concentrated in fewer and fewer hands, and only into the hands of those who agree to adopt stringent and restrictive positions. The result is that many non-Jews who considered halakhic conversion will turn to non-halakhic means of conversion, or will give up on conversion altogether.

This is a tragedy--and an unnecessary one at that, since there is no halakhic reason why the chief rabbinate's view should carry the day. The Talmud and classic codes of Jewish law actually grant considerable leeway in the halakhic acceptance of converts. While converts must "accept the mitzvoth" there is wide latitude in understanding what this phrase means. The Talmud itself says that we must instruct the candidate for conversion in "some of the major and some of the minor commandments." There is no requirement or expectation that the candidate must learn all the mitzvoth in advance of conversion, nor that he or she will promise to keep all the mitzvoth in every detail after conversion.

Yet, many contemporary rabbinic authorities have taken a far narrower and more exclusionary view. Zvi Zohar and Avi Sagi (in their book Giyyur veZehut Yehudit) found that the narrow view gained traction only as recently as 1876 when Rabbi Yitzchak Shmelkes ruled that conversion was to be equated with an absolute commitment to observe all mitzvoth. Any candidate for conversion who was not committed to becoming fully Orthodox in observance was to be rejected. Later rabbis adopted this new position, until it became normative among right-wing (and much of the rest of) Orthodoxy.

Of course, great rabbinic voices opposed this radical change in approach. They favored maintaining the far more flexible and inclusive views of the Talmud, Maimonides and Shulhan Arukh. A great representative of the classic halakhic view was Rabbi Benzion Uziel, who served as Sephardic chief rabbi, first in British Mandate Palestine and then in the State of Irael, from 1939-1953.

Rabbi Uziel argued that not only may rabbis do conversions in less than ideal circumstances, but they are obligated to do so--even when the would-be convert is not expected to become fully observant religiously. Since so many conversion cases involve intermarriage or potential intermarriage, Rabbi Uziel believed we should perform conversions in order to maintain whole Jewish families that can raise Jewish children within the Jewish community. He viewed himself as being "strict" in his opposition to intermarriage, not as being "lenient" in matters of conversion.

Historically, the halakha has allowed rabbis to draw on the full array of halakhic sources; to consider the nuances of each individual conversion case; to use their own judgment on whether to accept or reject a candidate for conversion. Now, the halakhic options have been sharply curtailed. A rabbinic bureaucracy is usurping the authority of individual rabbis.

Several important Orthodox voices in Israel and the United States have risen in protest of the vast injustice being committed in the realm of halakhic conversion. In matters of conversion, we are not dealing with an abstract legal nicety: we are dealing with real human beings with real families. We have a responsibility to address issues of conversion with a full halakhic toolbox. Indeed, our tradition demands this.

Rabbinic tradition teaches that one who oppresses a convert is violating 36 Torah laws. How many laws will be broken by the Orthodox rabbinic establishment in causing torment to halakhically valid converts and their children? How many tears will be shed by victims of religious narrowness? How many would-be converts will be turned away from any possibility of a life of Torah and mitzvoth due to the intransigence of certain rabbis?

This is precisely the time when we need a visionary, inclusive Orthodoxy that can convey the messge of Torah Judaism in a spirit of love and compassion. I believe this kind of Orthodoxy will rise again. I believe that every Jew can help make this happen.