Tuesday, January 05, 2010

The EJF Debacle - How Did it Happen?

Guest Post by Eli Neuberger

Eli Neuberger is the grandson of Rabbi Herman Neuberger famed long time president of Baltimore’s Yeshivas Ner Israel - who was instrumental in its success. He has submitted this post which reflects his perspective on - and analysis of - Rabbi Leib Tropper and EJF. I have decided to publish it because it comes from a perspective other than my own.

With Eli’s permission I have edited it for style but have retained its substance and message. As always – the views contained therein do not necessarily reflect my own.

The recent Tropper scandal truly boggles the mind! I do not recall a scandal of this magnitude, where someone like that led an organization in which so many prominent Roshei Yeshiva and Torah leaders were either directly or indirectly associated. How could that be? How could this happen?

Perhaps it might be wise to examine the history of Rabbi Leib Tropper.

He has been involved with Kiruv for close to 40 years. After unsuccessful stints in Ohr Somayach of Jerusalem and Monsey, he established a Kiruv Yeshiva on his own called Kol Yaakov. But his Yeshiva never hit the big time of the Kiruv world.

Tropper was no stranger to controversy. An acrimonious battle with his original partner Rabbi Avrom Gershon Tress, allegations about a previous marital scandal and accusations of cult like activities have dogged Tropper for years. With all that going on how did this ‘Kiruv Guru wannabe’ manage to attract an A-list crowd of world-wide rabbinic leaders to his Eternal Jewish Family (EJF) conventions?

In the past few years, with his Yeshiva floundering Tropper has moved on to bigger and better things. Aware of the ever worsening intermarriage problem that is plaguing the Jewish nation, Tropper was able to tap into a growing problem. Why not reach out to intermarried couples and try to convert the non Jewish spouse?

With this in mind Tropper started the Eternal Jewish Family.

One can only imagine the outcry from the world of the right if such a plan was initiated by the RCA. He was able to secure the help of a very wealthy, irreligious but well meaning Jew by the name of Tom Kaplan. With Kaplan’s nearly unlimited financing Tropper was able to make the claim that he was:

A) Going to fix the seemingly Hefker Geirus situation in America and

B) He would be able to stop the internal hemorrhaging and defections that plague the Jewish nation.

Across the ocean in Israel the conversion situation was not faring well. Conversion standards seemed to be lowered to questionable levels, as certain Religious Zionist Rabbis were intent on fixing the burgeoning demographic problem of immigrants from Russia many of whom had questionable status as Jews.

They had come as intermarried non Jews or with faulty conversions. And if the mother was the convert, their children were not considered Jewish at all. Religious Zionist rabbis started performing mass conversions much to the chagrin of the more Charedi Rabbis.

This ever brewing storm in Israel arranged a marriage of convenience between Leib Tropper and Rabbi Nochum Eisenstein. Rabbi Eisenstein is known for being in the inner circle of the present Godol Hador, HaRav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv. So with Tropper providing the funding and Eisenstein providing the legitimacy of Rav Elyashiv things were ready to roll!

Yet you can ask a very basic question. Why would the inner circle of Rav Elyashiv give a problematic guy like Tropper the time of day? One can also ask some very basic questions about the EJF. From the way it's structured, it is easy to see just how diabolical Tropper’s plan really was. At their events the dais was very impressive, the biggest Roshei Yeshiva from America and Israel were always there.

One wonders why there were so many the Roshei Yeshiva and so few Gedolei Haposkim? Where were they? Why weren’t they prominent speakers at EJF events? After all they are far more involved in conversions than any Rosh Yeshiva?

The answer is very simple! While Tropper had the rubber stamp of Rav Elyashiv, it enabled him to operate with a free hand and enabled him to quash dissension from any other Poskim. That’s the way things work in the world of the right. Nobody wants to be seen as arguing with the Gadol HaDor.

Tropper had so many Roshei Yeshiva on board so that if anyone dared smell a rat with their mission and tactics Tropper could scream "You are being "Mevaze Gedolim" - embarrassing our rabbinic leaders!

There were incentives for these Roshei Yeshiva to attend. Their yeshivas were given large donations from Tropper - thanks to the generosity of Tom Kaplan.

One may ask,”Why would so many prominent Roshei Yeshiva have no qualms about taking money from this unsavory character?”Meanwhile, Tropper was flying high getting photo ops with all these prominent rabbinic figures and having fancy EJF events in luxury hotels. He was successful in accomplishing two things, making enemies from all groups of Orthodoxy, and making the concept of intermarriage culturally acceptable in the Orthodox world.

But while Tropper was busy speaking at his events - talking a great game about the need to make stricter standards - the idea of Giyur L’Chumra - I was told by many people in the field of Kiruv that the criteria established by the EJF for conversions was lower than those of the very Modern Orthodox rabbis that Tropper was fighting against.

Unfortunately any voice of dissension against Tropper was a voice in the wilderness. After all if so many big Roshei Yeshiva backed EJF - how bad could it be? That was the refrain of many people. That attitude caused many Kiruv groups – aware of Tropper’s shoddy Kiruv reputation – to nonetheless combine with EJF for numerous joint ventures.

This gave Tropper even more legitimacy and even greater freedom to implement his shoddy conversion standards. While it’s true that Kiruv groups have been hit hard by the economic times and could use the money, how could they partner up with Tropper being fully aware of his reputation?

There is but one answer to all these questions. Tragically today many people in the right wing Yeshivish world seem to think that the criteria for being an "Ehrlicher Yid" is the style of dress, the type of kippa or the color of your hat. Tropper looked the part. And they bought it!

Perhaps there is at least one lesson that we can all learn from this scandal. One's mode of dress is no indication of one’s true colors!

I do not advocate a mass exodus from the Yeshiva world into Left Wing Modern Orthodoxy. And I still recognize the need for some sort of cohesive responsible system for conversions.

Nevertheless I strongly believe that right wing Orthodoxy needs to do some serious soul searching. We need to examine how we let a deviant like Tropper go as far as he did - with nary an eyebrow raised.