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Courting Controversy, Orthodox Rabbis Address Women’s Leadership, Conversion

by Jonah Lowenfeld

July 13, 2010 | 4:53 pm

In late June, at its first annual conference, the International Rabbinic Fellowship (IRF), an association of Modern Orthodox rabbis, addressed two of the toughest challenges facing today’s Orthodox communities: outlining the spiritual leadership roles that should be made available to women and setting a policy on conversion that would improve the process for both converts and rabbis.

Forty members of the two-year-old organization, which numbers over 150 members across the United States, Canada and Israel, gathered at a retreat center outside Baltimore to study Torah and engage in discussion that was, according to IRF secretary Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky, “heated — but heated in a good way.” Rabbis Kanefsky of B’nai David-Judea and Drew Kaplan of the Hillel at California State University, Long Beach, attended from Los Angeles. At the end of two-and-a-half days, the IRF established its own central conversion committee to “oversee, guide and ensure the thoroughness of conversions performed by IRF members” and had passed a resolution stating that women “should have every opportunity to fully serve the Jewish community.”

The IRF was founded in 2008 as a more liberal alternative to the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA), a larger and more established association of Orthodox rabbis, and the conclusions reached at the recent IRF conference appear to be direct reactions to resolutions and policies enacted by the RCA, which at its convention in April passed a resolution on “Women’s Communal Roles in Orthodox Jewish Life.” The RCA resolution stated that it “cannot accept either the ordination of women or the recognition of women as members of the Orthodox rabbinate, regardless of the title.”

On the subject of ordaining women, the two resolutions are in agreement. “We are not going to be endorsing women’s ordination,” Kanefsky said. But he criticized the RCA resolution for making no concrete suggestions of ways women can be involved in Orthodox communal life. “It offered no forward-looking direction whatsoever,” Kanefsky said. The IRF resolution explicitly lays out a number of leadership roles open to women, including acting as teachers, spiritual guides and mentors. “The primary purpose of [the IRF] resolution was to offer a forward-looking sense of direction,” Kanefsky said.

The IRF also established a Va’ad Giur (conversion committee), apparently in response to the RCA’s Geirus [Conversion] Policies and Standards (GPS) system of conversion,  which it has promoted since 2007 as the most effective way to ensure uniform standards among Orthodox rabbis. The RCA had hoped conversions overseen by a GPS-approved beit din (a Jewish court that rules on conversion) in the United States would be recognized by the Chief Rabbinate of Israel. Despite the RCA’s attempts, Kanefsky called the current state of Orthodox conversion “chaotic” and said the IRF’s conversion committee is an attempt to reassert “rabbinical autonomy.” “The rabbi on the ground,” he said, “best understands the potential convert, best understands the realities and the circumstances of the potential convert’s life, and having to send your potential convert to a beit din that doesn’t know the person, doesn’t understand the person’s life circumstances, is more often than not going to lead to obstacles and perhaps even rejection.”

To date, the leadership of the RCA has not made any public statements about the IRF. But at this year’s RCA convention, a group of members proposed an amendment to the RCA constitution stating that people who belong to rabbinic organizations that hold positions contrary to RCA policy would not be able to serve as officers in the RCA. “That was dead aimed at the IRF,” Kanefsky said. “Who else could they have been talking about?”

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