April 22, 2024
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Why I Am Chairing the GPS Review Committee: A Response to Rabbi Steven Pruzansky

I feel compelled to respond to Rabbi Steven Pruzansky’s criticisms of the Rabbinical Council of America that appeared in last week’s issue of the Jewish Link. While Rabbi Pruzansky certainly has every right to resign from his position as the head of the Rabbinical Council of Bergen County Beit Din, his allegations impugn the reputation of an organization dedicated to the service of the Orthodox community.

1. Rabbi Pruzansky strenuously objects to the establishment of a committee to review RCA conversion guidelines and courts in the aftermath of Rabbi Barry Freundel’s arrest in Washington DC on charges of voyeurism.

“What happened in DC was not a failure of GPS [Geirus Policies and Standards—the RCA’s conversion guidelines],” he argues. “It was a failure of one rogue Rabbi who allegedly violated every protocol and guideline that we have.”

The arrest of Rabbi Freundel did not create the need for a GPS review committee. The RCA has long been aware that a system as complex as GPS requires regular review and improvement. The intent to establish a committee for that purpose has been repeatedly announced to the RCA over the past few years.

 

The tragic events in DC, however, did underscore the immediate need for greater oversight within the GPS system. Such oversight may not have uncovered the crimes that Rabbi Freundel is accused of committing, but would certainly have revealed the serious breaches in GPS to which Rabbi Pruzansky refers. That is why the RCA leadership responded so promptly with the establishment of this committee.

 

2. Rabbi Pruzansky repeatedly highlights one specific protocol as an indication of the checks and balances built into the GPS network. He bases, in fact, many of his arguments against the need to establish a review committee upon the existence of this protocol:

“The system was set up so that each candidate has a sponsoring Rabbi. That sponsoring Rabbi is NOT and CANNOT (sic) be one of the judges on the panel.”


This separation of roles, Rabbi Pruzansky maintains, effectively removes the needs for an independent ombudsman. Any conversion candidate who feels that something is “awkward, awry, or [who] simply does not understand why the process was not moving faster,” can raise the issue with his/her sponsoring Rabbi, who will raise the issue with the Beit Din.

Rabbi Pruzansky additionally argues that the commingling of these rabbinic roles by Rabbi Freundel set the stage for the tragic events that followed.

Here Rabbi Pruzansky himself unwittingly makes the best argument possible for the convening of a GPS review committee. He bases his proof of checks and balances in the GPS system on the existence of a “sponsoring Rabbi,” who cannot serve as a dayan (member of the court). This “sponsoring Rabbi” is the safe address to which a convert can turn if he/she encounters problems with the system.

In actuality, however, Rabbi Pruzansky is incorrect. The GPS protocols do not prohibit a “sponsoring rabbi” from serving as one of the judges on the panel. In fact, in a number of courts in the system, sponsoring rabbis do serve as dayanim in the cases that they bring to the court. The commingling of roles that Rabbi Pruzansky views as a violation in Washington is, instead, a regular occurrence in other courts, as well.

The fact that Rabbi Pruzansky himself, an active participant in the GPS system at the highest level, relied on safety measures that do not exist, indicates the need for better oversight, standardization and communication within GPS—all goals of the GPS review committee.

Even more importantly, the lack of clarity and consistency concerning the role of the sponsoring rabbi reveals the real need to create formal safe places, completely independent of existing structures, for potential converts to voice their complaints and discomforts—another basic goal of the GPS review committee.

3. Rabbi Pruzansky states: “There are people who fear that they (the RCA leadership) 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.”

This is, unfortunately, a familiar “red herring.” The RCA leadership has repeatedly stressed that the mandate of the GPS review committee does not include a review of halachic standards. As chairman of the committee, I, myself, have repeatedly gone on record, both publicly and during the closed committee meetings, emphasizing that the halachic standards of GPS will remain in the hands of the poskim (halachic authorities).

There are countless extra-halachic tasks for the GPS review committee to perform in order to help make the system that we have more effective and user-friendly. Our first job will be to gather data from numerous populations, including converts who have successfully gone through the GPS system; candidates still in the system; sponsoring rabbis; conversion candidates who started the process with GPS but chose not to continue, and the dayanim of the various courts.

The information we gather will enable the GPS system to better standardize conversion procedures from Beit Din to Beit Din; improve the intake system of potential candidates; provide the safe havens mentioned above for candidates to freely express their concerns; improve the way we communicate expectations to potential converts, oversee Beit Din operations, and more. These are the challenges towards which we are turning our attention.

4. Objecting to specific members who have been appointed to the GPS review committee, Rabbi Pruzansky refers to them as “known antagonists to the GPS system.”

He goes on to argue that the RCA chose to form a committee with these members “to deliberate the obvious and [to try] to assuage some of the aggrieved parties by bringing them into the tent.”

“If indeed it is theater and not substance,” he argues, “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 place.”

The GPS review committee was certainly not created for “theater,” nor was it established to “deliberate the obvious.” And the “substance” with which the committee will deal with will hardly “undo the system” or create “conversion anarchy.”

What better way to critique a system than to have it looked at with fresh eyes? A stellar committee has been assembled, representing a wide swath of the modern Orthodox community. Included are men and women; rabbis, converts, mental health professionals and others. Not everyone on the committee agrees with all aspects of GPS as it is presently constituted. Some, such as myself, were originally skeptical about the creation of a formal conversion network; only to have been won over to the idea by its successes. All participants, however, have committed themselves to working within the guidelines established for the committee. There is no cabal or conspiracy to undo the good. There is only a deep desire to make a good system better.

5. Finally, and most egregiously, Rabbi Pruzansky engages in a scurrilous attack through innuendo. He argues that the establishment of the GPS review committee is an attempt to deflect attention from the real culprits—the RCA leadership.

“Apparently, and I base this on media accounts which I have known to be unreliable (!) The RCA leadership at various times was made aware of the violations occurring in the DC Beit 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.


The fact that more was not done, he maintains, “means that there were—apparently—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 the RCA leaders knew 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 is slander of the highest order. For a community rabbi to publicly repeat what he, himself, admits is speculation hardly sets a proper example for the manner of discourse that should exist in the public sphere. How many halachot concerning appropriate speech are transgressed in this paragraph?

The fact remains that, as soon as the news broke concerning Rabbi Freundel’s arrest, the RCA leadership was transparent with what it knew and when it knew it. A number of complaints had come to our attention over the years concerning Rabbi Freundel’s dealings with converts, all concerning behaviors, it turns out, that were widely known in the DC community. These complaints were researched, the complainants were interviewed, lawyers were consulted, and a delegation traveled to Washington to speak to Rabbi Freundel. Based on the information available to us, we were counseled that the behaviors involved included, at most, boundary issues which could be corrected. Rabbi Freundel was put on notice and these behaviors stopped.

We circled back with the complainants and urged them to report to us if the behaviors resurfaced. No such reports were submitted. Satisfied that we had effectively and responsibly dealt with the problem, we saw no need to bring this information to a 45-person executive committee and risk publicizing this event. If Rabbi Freundel had indeed agreed to stop the objectionable behavior, all of which never seemed to have risen beyond poor judgment, would it have been appropriate to publicly ostracize him at the time?

I should not have to make this next point, but given the tone and character of Rabbi Pruzansky’s accusations, I will. At no time did the behaviors reported to us rise to a level where we could have predicted, in our wildest imaginings, the alleged crimes for which Rabbi Freundel was eventually arrested. To insinuate that possibility, even with a disclaimer, is unconscionable.

Hindsight is 2020. In retrospect, we wish we had done more, of course. But I’m fairly convinced that given the same circumstances again and not knowing what we know now, we would have probably done the same. Regrets? Of course. Malfeasance? Hardly.

Rabbi Steven Pruzansky has served the community ably as the Av Beit Din of the RCBC Beit Din over these past years. For that dedicated service, the entire community owes him a debt of gratitude. He certainly has, as I have indicated above, every right to resign from that position in the face of decisions with which he cannot agree. He has no right, however, to publicly impugn the motives of those making these decisions.

Let us all wait and see what happens as events unfold. Will Rabbi Pruzansky’s dire predictions about the GPS review committee come to fruition, or will the deliberations of this committee enhance the community’s efforts to deal sensitively and appropriately with those righteous individuals who sincerely seek to join the ranks of the Jewish people? Time will tell. I for one am convinced that, with God’s help, our collective efforts will bear positive fruit.

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