April 8, 2024
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April 8, 2024
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Rabbi Pruzansky Responds: Why I Stepped Down From the RCBC Bet Din

Rabbi Steven Pruzansky stepped down last week from the Rabbinical Council of Bergen County (RCBC) Bet Din, in reaction to the creation of a new committee by the RCA (Rabbinical Council of America) to comprehensively review RCA conversion guidelines, also known as Geirus Policies and Standards, or GPS. The committee was, according to the RCA, created essentially in reaction to numerous reports of abuse, inappropriate behavior and invasions of privacy and modesty toward converts and converts-in-process in Washington DC, with all allegations pointing to Rabbi Barry Freundel.

In a post to his blog, Pruzansky, who is the pulpit rabbi of Congregation Bnai Yeshurun in Teaneck, noted the reasons for his departure. (http://rabbipruzansky.com/2014/10/30/stepping-down/).

However, Pruzansky said that in subsequent news reports, a number of key details of his resignation were mischaracterized, including an initial report in the New York Jewish Week that said he resigned from the RCA, which is incorrect. In an effort to get the story right, JLBC asked Rabbi Pruzansky questions based on a close reading of his blog entry. Here, we present the full conversation.

JLBC—The RCA committee that has been formed comprises a number of people who are not rabbis. Second, this committee will be releasing recommendations not just to the RCA but also to the public, and it appears it might have power to change rules or effect substantive change to the current Bet Din policies. Can you explain how these two issues might have influenced your decision to step down?

RSP—I think there are two points to bear in mind. First, what happened in DC was not a failure of GPS. It was a failure of one rogue rabbi who allegedly violated every protocol and guideline that we have. Let me offer some examples. The system was set up so that each candidate has a sponsoring rabbi. That sponsoring rabbi is NOT and CANNOT be one of the judges on the panel. He is the rabbi who knows the candidate, who interacts with the candidate, who ensures that the candidate is taught, and, if necessary, advocates for the candidate before the Bet Din. If a candidate felt something was awkward, awry or simply did not understand why the process was not moving faster, he/she would ask their sponsoring rabbi who would then ask the Bet Din. (I would get such calls. “What’s happening?” And I would say that the candidate needs to improve in knowledge of Shabbat or Kashrut or brachot or something along those lines.) Every issue was thus resolved expeditiously and respectfully.

A female candidate, of course, would always learn with a female teacher, quite often the wife of the sponsoring rabbi or someone in his shul or community. (Males have male teachers.)

The sponsoring rabbi would occasionally come to the Bet Din with the candidate, much more infrequently to the mikveh, and if he came to the mikveh (for a man or a woman), he would not enter the mikveh area itself but remain outside—really, to participate in the celebration after the process concluded.

What happened in DC, as I’ve noted, was apparently a breach of every guideline. He apparently served as sponsoring rabbi and as head of the Bet Din. Violation. (I have never served as a sponsoring rabbi in my current position.) Commingling the roles meant that candidates did not have someone to turn to for questions and assistance. Violation.

We had no contact with candidates outside formal sessions, unless they called with questions. Allegedly, he had candidates work for him. Violation. We never met any candidate outside the formal sessions of Bet Din. He did. Violation. No Dayan would ever meet a candidate alone. Violation. Allegedly, he opened a bank account with a candidate. Violation. Obviously, “practice dunks” were vulgar violations. The bottom line is that it was a rogue operation. What he is accused of is criminal, immoral and disgraceful, but not at all a reflection on GPS. So we are aiming at the wrong target.

Thus, second, having identified the wrong target (GPS), the RCA leadership has now undertaken to establish a committee that “will review its current Geirus Protocol and Standards (GPS) conversion process and suggest safeguards against possible abuses.” Some members of that committee are known antagonists of the GPS system because they prefer more “flexibility” in the substance and process of conversion. It was that “flexibility” in the not-too-distant past that led to any number of conversions being conducted that did not include a sincere acceptance of the mitzvot and a commitment to observe them. (By the way, such a problem was not limited to RCA rabbis.) There are people who fear that they are exploiting this so-called crisis in the GPS to make changes in order to liberalize the conversion standards and practices. I certainly hope not, because that would lead to a wholesale rejection of these conversions by much of the Torah world, here and in Israel, and would be grossly unfair to the converts.

But the standards need not be changed. Many of the “safeguards against possible abuses” are so obvious that they do not require a committee or even much analysis. But one safeguard already existed: the distinction between the sponsoring Rabbi and the Bet Din. Each are separate and distinct roles. A candidate who felt something was wrong could turn to either. Ombudsmen are unnecessary. Indeed, they already existed. That was the role of the sponsoring rabbi. Quite often, the sponsoring rabbi was personally unknown to the Bet Din, except by name and affiliation, because our jurisdiction covered all of New Jersey, eastern PA, and southern NY. He would therefore never be in a position where he could be influenced by the Bet Din to “cover up” some misdeed.

How did the failure occur here (DC)? On one level, it was a failure of oversight, which is quite plausible given the geographic distance between each Bet Din. But there is another reason which, many fear, this new RCA committee will not address. Apparently, and I base this on media accounts which have been known to be unreliable (!), the RCA leadership at various times was made aware of the violations occurring in the DC Bet Din, and simply removed the offender from his role as Chair of the GPS committee. In fact, if these leaders knew of other violations, and did not act on them, or bring them to the attention of the RCA Executive Committee (on which I served and still serve) that is outrageous malfeasance. On any—any—of the alleged violations outlined above, had I known of the existence of any of them (as I should have been apprised) I would have urged the offender’s immediate dismissal from the Bet Din and the GPS system. That it was not done, it would seem, means that there were—apparently—RCA leaders in prominent positions, then and now, who let this problem fester. I repeat that this is just speculation at this point and requires clarification.

In fairness, I am unaware of any allegation that RCA leaders knew of allegedly illicit taping, and I would be shocked beyond words to learn that I am wrong about that. But if they had knowledge of any of the other violations, they should be held accountable. This committee will do none of that.

As this committee, then, is ultimately unnecessary, its mandate is unclear. If it is just an exercise in getting good PR, it is an insult to our intelligence and the good people who have been invited to join. If it intends to change the protocols, it will antagonize much of the rabbinic world. If it does not intend to change the protocols, it will antagonize those on the committee who wish to see it changed.

What it does do is cast suspicion on every Bet Din and dayyan, as if they cannot be trusted to act like decent human beings, as if they need chaperones and monitors. I have no interest in serving the community on a volunteer basis and being treated as a suspect.

The safeguards are already in place. If they were breached here, then the real issue is who knew about it, when did they know about it, what did they do about it, and whom did they inform about it. I hope the answers are no one and never so they don’t have to reach issues three and four. But those weighty matters—that deal directly with the protection of human dignity—deserve clarification, and soon.

I should note that the GPS guidelines are available to the public on the Internet, and always have been. But they too, like anything else in life, need to be reinforced with common sense and decency.

JLBC—People seem to believe that the reason you are stepping down is because several of these committee members are women. Nothing in your commentary about stepping down seems to address feminism, women and anti-feminist rhetoric and you have defended yourself against this charge. Why are the feminists still after you?

RSP—The simple answer to this is that the Jewish Week lied (what you kindly term a mischaracterization). The Jewish Weeklied in order to promote their agenda and sustain their narrative. Unlike you, their reporter and/or editor did not read what I actually wrote but distorted my words to inflame public opinion and marginalize me.

I think it would be a mistake to lump all feminists together; it is not at all legitimate. Some wish to transform halacha, others wish to tinker at the margins, and still others want to conform to halacha completely. They have some wonderful achievements. I cannot get into anyone’s head and explain why anyone would be “after” me. I have a wonderful, respectful and friendly relationship with the women (and men) of our shul. That is normal. Not everything in life is about gender “wars.” I don’t accept that.

But if I were in their position, and read the same lies about someone else as the Jewish Week wrote about me, I would have the same visceral reaction they did.

JLBC—If the committee that has been established is an effort to appease the extremely large media/public opinion reaction to the Freundel matter, how can you assure that the RCA will not lose control of this matter to those who aren’t upholding high standards?

RSP—This was partly answered above, but the short answer is: I can’t be sure. There are members of the RCA—even members of the new committee—who have performed conversions outside the GPS system because they felt that the GPS system was too confining and the candidate would not be approved. One point needs to be underscored: part of the reason the GPS system was established was to protect rabbis against the undue influence of congregants who, in the past, might demand that a conversion be done even if the convert did not qualify for conversion because of a lack of commitment. To undermine the system would undermine the confidence of all converts, not to mention the integrity of the Torah.

I wish the RCA—rather than succumb to the frenzy of the chanting mob and the culture of cynicism and negativity that pervades American life—had reacted calmly, but with due concern, to assuage any unreasonable fears. That would mean reminding people that we do not judge an entire group of people, in any profession, because of the malevolence of one of them. That is unjust. That would mean owning up to whatever failings occurred on a management level. And that would mean reassuring people that where the GPS standards are being followed properly, there should be no apprehension of any sort of misconduct. (The proof is that, despite the intense reaction to the events in DC, there has not been—to my knowledge—even a single allegation from a convert in another Bet Din of the type of criminal mistreatment that occurred here.)

The RCA did not do that. It instead chose to follow the way of consultants and the like, forming committees to deliberate the obvious and trying to assuage some of the aggrieved parties by bringing them into the tent. If indeed it is theater and not substance, then that per se is wrong. And if it is substance and not theater, then the entire system might be undone and conversion anarchy, God forbid, might take its place.

Simply put, I chose to escape the culture of negativity and suspicion by resigning. It seems that the RCA hopes to dilute that culture by forming a committee. I suspect they will instead add to the frenzy when it is all said and done, but I hope I’m wrong.

JLBC—How does your departure affect the Bet Din?

RSP—Of course the Bet Din will continue. No person is indispensable. The panels are chosen from interested members of the RCBC, and I suppose a new Rosh Bet Din will be chosen the same way.

The RCBC is actually meeting later this week to determine my successor. You will have gone to press already. But, of course, the Bet Din will continue. There are candidates in the pipeline whose cases should move forward. I’m hoping there will be no delay at all.

About half of the Teaneck rabbis have served on a rotation basis. I was the only one who was consistently present. Some of the rabbis have chosen not to serve. As you have now realized, gerut can be a very contentious matter, and they just chose not to be part of it. I would need their permission to reveal it. But, all those who do serve have been vetted and formally approved by the Beth Din of America.

JLBC—Aren’t the processes for converts supposed to be exhaustive and complete? With Bethany Mandel on the RCA committee, do you feel that the RCA needs a “bill of rights” for converts?

RSP—The GPS system is exhaustive and complete, although the assessment of a convert’s knowledge and commitment is an art more than it is a science. It is nearly impossible to probe a person’s heart, but that too is part of the process (one reason it often takes more time to convert than the candidate would prefer). A convert is accepted as a full member of the Jewish community. Indeed, I take issue with the RCA advertising the bona fides of two of their committee members by referring to them as “converts.” I assume they approved, but I still cringed when I read it.

Some of Bethany Mandel’s complaints are valid—but have absolutely nothing to do with GPS. Full acceptance into the community, dating, marriage, questions about Jewish life and halacha, etc. are not GPS or even RCA issues. They are issues for her local rabbi to handle. That is what seems to have been the great failure in her particular narrative—not a breakdown of the macro system but the micro system. That is indeed a terrible failure. We have any number of converts in our shul, and we try our best to assimilate them into the community, to make them feel not like permanent strangers but like permanent Jews. Some of her issues relate as well to any Baal Teshuva, but rabbis have to make an effort to integrate all people into their communities, especially those who might feel like outsiders. You don’t need a committee for that; it is just the right thing to do. And a rabbi who has to be taught that is probably in the wrong profession.

Of course, if she had the misfortune of being converted in the rogue DC system, then my heart breaks for her, and I am thankful she has remained such a faithful Jew despite the rough beginning. It did not have to be like that, it should not be like that, and I am happy to say that under our system here (and probably every other Bet Din under the auspices of the Beth Din of America) it is not like that.

How should it operate? In the last year, two of my children met by chance two separate individuals (one man and one woman) in different parts of the world, both of whom had converted separately in our RCBC Bet Din. Saying their name was Pruzansky, each asked my child, “Are you related to Rabbi Pruzansky of Teaneck?” When they answered yes (cautiously at first, I would imagine), the two people exclaimed, “Your father converted me!” They proceeded to tell them of the joys of the experience, and the tremendous gratitude they feel.

If Bethany Mandel doesn’t feel that, and perhaps rightfully so, then that was a terrible failure of the system and she deserves our sympathy. But that failure was an aberration. It does not and should not reflect on other batei din, other rabbis or other communities. We are not all guilty and all corrupt just because one person might have been. But when we pander to that sentiment, and instead use the alleged crimes in DC to propose changes in a system that worked well, we are undermining our ability to ensure the acceptability of gerut, jeopardizing the future of all converts, and short-changing the Jewish people.

And above all, we have to stop the obsessive bashing of rabbis, or others, for that matter. We should not raise children to think that the whole world is corrupt and venal, and everyone is a phony and out for themselves, and no one is sincere, etc. That is terrible way to live and a terrible way to think.

We can be better than that because we are better than that. And that is why I walked away from this particular chapter in my life. I choose to surround myself with positivity, not negativity.

By Elizabeth Kratz

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