May 19, 2024
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Beth Din of America: An Interview with Rabbi Shlomo Weissmann

Passaic–The Beth Din of America, based in Manhattan, has been in the news quite often this fall, mostly about controversies that aren’t part of its day-to-day activities. Rabbi Shlomo Weissmann, the organization’s menahel (director), agreed to speak with JLNJ to clarify the role that the Beth Din fills, and to speak about the work his organization engages in on a daily basis.

Most of the activities of the Beth Din of America are functions that rabbinical courts have been performing for millennia, said Weissmann, who has served as menahel since 2008, following Rabbi Yona Reiss who left to become dean of the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS) at Yeshiva University, where he served for five years before becoming Av Beis Din of the Chicago Rabbinical Council (and also serves as Chaver Beth Din at the Beth Din of America). Originally from Fair Lawn, in Bergen County, Weissmann is a graduate of Yavneh Academy, MTA, YU, and Columbia University Law School. He lives in Passaic.

“We adjudicate business and communal disputes in the din torah setting, which is really just Torah-based arbitration,” Weissmann told JLNJ. “We administer gittin for people who are getting divorced. Members of the community also turn to us to resolve halachic personal status matters, so we issue rulings on issues such as whether a person is Jewish and eligible to marry,” he said.

The Beth Din offers these services while also being mindful of the specific needs of the contemporary Jewish community. An example Weissmann shared is the professionalism that is “the hallmark of our din torah process. The dayanim (arbitrators) who hear and decide cases consist of a mix of talmidei chachamim, lawyers, and businessmen with a sophisticated understanding of Jewish law and secular law, and the business practices and norms of the secular marketplace,” he said. Very often, Weissmann noted, the outcome of a case under Jewish law depends heavily on commercial custom and secular law.

What sets the Beth Din of America apart is that the administrative staff of the Beth Din reflects a diversity of yeshiva, academic, and real-world experience as well. Weissmann shared he is an attorney who came from private practice, and Ilana Blass, the administrative attorney who manages the Din Torah docket, has a similar background. “We operate pursuant to a written and transparent set of rules of procedures that is tailored to the requirements of halacha, but that is not very different from what you would see in a secular arbitration context,” he said.

Weissmann added that over the past decade or two, the Beth Din has also played an important role in addressing some of the pressing needs of the North American Jewish community, specifically in relation to its role promulgating and administering the halachic prenuptial agreement that is “the single most effective solution to the agunah problem,” he said. Weissmann added that the halachic pre-nup is an agreement that’s legally and practically tested that really works. “We’ve seen it resolve scores of potential agunah cases over the years. It’s like a vaccine that needs to be signed by every last couple in order to be maximally effective, and as a community we are moving in the right direction in that respect.”

Weissmann said the Beth Din’s work is split about evenly between commercial cases and gittin. “A lot of our time is spent trying to resolve cases of igun, gittin cases where one of the parties is not willing to participate,” he said.

Commercial cases somewhat mirror a secular docket management system. “When a plaintiff comes to the Beth Din with a claim, we typically send out a hazmana (summons) informing the defendant that we have been contacted and inviting them to allow the Beth Din to resolve the case. When both parties are amenable, they sign a shtar berurin (binding arbitration agreement), which is a legal document that gives authority to the Beth Din to arbitrate the case. Then we schedule a hearing and ultimately issue a written decision. The decision usually includes the reasoning behind the decision. If one party fails to comply with the ruling, the other party can secure compliance (compensation) in court. Weissmann added that the Beth Din handles a wide assortment of cases, which get resolved either through mediation efforts or through the Din Torah process, whereby hearings take place and the Beth Din issues a binding decision based on the merits of the case.

Weissmann also shared that the Beth Din developed the Gerus Policies and Standards system in collaboration with the Rabbinical Council of America. “Previously, gerim (converts) converted locally under varying standards, and the validity of their conversion would inevitably sometimes need to be investigated. Now, participating Batei Din across the country follow best practices and uniform standards, and converts live with the security that comes with a nationally recognized stamp of approval,” he said.

Weissmann added that the Beth Din has also started projects recently to spread awareness about the Beth Din of America and the work that it does. “A few years ago we started publishing articles and actual Din torah Decisions (after changing names and getting consent from the parties) in The Journal of the Beth Din of America (www.bethdin.org/journal). This has been enormously helpful in getting litigants and their attorneys comfortable with the process, and confident that the Beth Din of America issues rational and thought-out decisions.”

The Beth Din of America is led by the Av Beth Din, Rabbi Gedalia Dov Schwartz, one of the leading poskim in North America with deep experience in Beth Din matters, together with the Sgan Av Beth Din, Rabbi Mordechai Willig, Rosh Yeshiva at RIETS and Rav of the Young Israel of Riverdale, and Rabbi Yona Reiss, Chaver Beth Din of the Beth Din of America and the Av Beth Din of the Chicago Rabbinical Council. Weissmann serves as the Director/Menahel of the Beth Din, and oversees the day-to-day operations together with Rabbi Michoel Zylberman, who is the mesader gittin; Ilana Blass, Esq., manages the Din Torah docket in her role as Administrative Attorney. The Beth Din is ably assisted by Mrs. Helen Axelrod and Mrs. Chani Zahtz, who have served in their roles as administrative assistants at the Beth Din for many years.

For more information, visit http://www.bethdin.org/index.asp.

 

By Elizabeth Kratz

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