LEADING THE BATTLE AGAINST PHONY CONVERSIONS
September 9, 2015
Yisroel Lapidot in #989, Current Events, Feature, Intermarriage

The announcement of the founding of an “alternative conversion system” has, once again, pushed the Rebbe’s battle for Mihu Yehudi to the forefront of public awareness. * Litvishe Dayan, Rabbi Avrohom Sherman, member of the Beis Din HaGadol in Yerushalayim, scion of a Lubavitcher family, leads the battle against alternative conversions.

The announcement last month about the founding of an “alternative conversion Beis Din system” generated a huge firestorm and reawakened for the umpteenth time the war for the Law of Return – Mihu Yehudi, which began back in 1970. That is when the Rebbe demanded that the law be amended with the word “k’halacha” added, so that it would be clear that the only criterion that establishes who is a Jew is Halacha.

One of the people who leads the battle and who stands fearlessly and firmly against initiatives such as the establishment of these conversion battei din is Rabbi Avrohom Sherman.  He is a member of the Beis Din HaRabbani HaGadol in Yerushalayim and a senior Dayan in Eretz Yisroel.

R’ Sherman’s name has been in the headlines numerous times on the topic of conversions.  The last time he managed to arouse the ire of many was with his unprecedented p’sak din which cast doubt on the thousands of conversions done by Rabbi Chaim Drukman, one the leading religious Zionist rabbanim and the one who heads the government conversion system. 

R’ Sherman’s work is familiar to many, especially to the old-time denizens of B’nei Brak, where he was born and still lives. He learned from the great Litvishe roshei yeshiva in the new yishuv and in Yeshivas Chevron and is considered a mekurav of the posek, R’ Yosef Sholom Elyashiv z”l.

Not many know that R’ Sherman is of Lubavitch descent.  His grandfather was the Chassid, R’ Moshe Axelrod about whom the Rebbe Rayatz said, “If I had another ten Moshes I could turn over all of Russia!” His uncle is R’ Gedalya Axelrod, Av Beis Din and rav of the Chabad community in Haifa, and his cousin is R’ Dovid Nachshon, director of the Chabad Mobile Mitzva Tanks and Tzivos Hashem in Eretz Yisroel.

For more than four decades, he has been leading a stubborn battle against those who want to remove the barrier between Jews and gentiles through lower standards in conversions.  He has become one of the familiar figures on the battlefront to preserve the purity of the Jewish people.

We spoke to some people who are close to R’ Sherman and to family members who told us fascinating details about his work on behalf of Shleimus Ha’Am as well as his connections to Chabad and the Rebbe.

BREACH IN THE FENCE                                    

Although he retired as a member of the Beis Din HaRabbani HaGadol, R’ Sherman continues even today to be heavily involved in the field of conversions. At the conference on “The Eternal Jewish Family,” which took place at the Inbal Hotel in Yerushalayim, R’ Sherman spoke to hundreds of rabbanim of cities and communities in the country and the world, dayanim, roshei yeshivos, and heads of organizations that deal with conversions in the Diaspora.  He spoke about what is happening with the conversion system in Eretz Yisroel over the past decades:

“In halachic principle there is no such concept as a ‘beis din for conversions.’ In Shulchan Aruch it says that a beis din has the authority to oversee conversions.  That is, a beis din which also deals in Torah, legal disputes, etc. There is no such thing as a special beis din just for conversions.

“However, religious Zionists came and opened special conversion systems with the corrupt reasoning that these battei din will serve to preserve the Shleimus Ha’Am by their converting tens of thousands of Soviet immigrants through some kind of acceptance committee.

“The one who created the breach was Chief Rabbi Shlomo Goren who approved the opening of conversion institutes around the country.  He gave certification to a number of rabbanim to handle conversions even though they were not dayanim and never sat on a beis din.  Among the rabbanim are R’ Moshe Hadaya, rav of Eilat; R’ Chaim Drukman, rosh yeshiva of Ohr Etziyon; and R’ Tz’fania Drori, rav of Kiryat Shmoneh.

“As time went by, various conversion cases began to appear before dayanim, conversions that were done by those rabbis in which, it turned out, there was no acceptance of mitzvos.  Dayanim checked and determined that it must be established that not everyone with a conversion certificate automatically becomes Jewish.  As long as mitzvos were not accepted, the document is worthless.”

Therefore, concluded R’ Sherman, “We must examine every convert who wants to marry and his conversion certificate cannot automatically be accepted without checking who did the conversion.  There is no assumption of kashrus to any conversion certificate and to any conversion body, even if the beis din is absolutely kosher.  Each convert must be examined, for many converts go through the conversion process for financial, social, etc. reasons, which is why they often hide essential details.  Even if the conversion was done by G-d fearing people, the convert must be examined.” 

R’ Sherman made this clear to those in charge of issuing marriage certificates around the country.

THE CONVERSION CIRCUS

R’ Sherman’s great involvement in conversion according to Halacha began as a direct result of a directive from the Rebbe.  In private conversations conducted with his family, we learned how he got involved for the first time in the conversion battle.

It was 5744/1984 when R’ Gedalya Axelrod returned from the Rebbe with a directive: You are a Dayan and you are among the dayanim of Eretz Yisroel.  You must do all that you can so that all the conversions that are done are according to Halacha.  In addition, you need to raise awareness of this topic among dayanim so that they accept the definition of “giyur k’halacha.”  That means there has to be mitzva observance and that the conversion is done by a suitable beis din.

R’ Axelrod got the dayan, R’ Shilo Refael a”h, involved and together they went to R’ Sherman who joined them in coordinating the fight for halachic conversion.  At a later point, all three, each in his location, became Avos Beis Din: R’ Axelrod in Haifa, R’ Rafael in Yerushalayim, and R’ Sherman in Tel Aviv (and from there, to the Beis Din HaGadol).

The topic of conversion came up at the convention of dayanim that year.  More and more dayanim spoke critically about the number of files on their desks, conversions with no mitzva observance, and no acceptance of mitzvos at the time of conversion.  A serious problem arose about how to treat these conversion documents.

As a direct result of the Rebbe’s guidance, the three dayanim each spoke with their rabbis.  R’ Axelrod spoke to the Rebbe, R’ Sherman to R’ Elyashiv, and R’ Rafael to R’ Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, to get their halachic opinion.

On 15 Sivan 5744, a public ruling was issued to dayanim and rabbanim who registered marriages which was worded by R’ Elyashiv and reviewed by R’ Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, and which was signed by the Steipler Gaon, R’ Yaakov Yisroel Kanievsky, which said:

To Rabbanei and Dayanei Yisroel:

Since, to our great sorrow, there are increased instances of accepting converts and a large percentage of them never considered accepting the observance of Torah and mitzvos when they converted, we hereby issue this warning that it is a very serious prohibition to accept converts without being convinced that they truly accept the yoke of Torah and mitzvos. It is obvious that a conversion without accepting Torah and mitzvos is not a conversion at all, not even after the fact.

We also warn all those who register marriages that the Halacha obligates them to check whoever presents a conversion document, whether from Eretz Yisroel or abroad, to ascertain whether it is truly a halachic conversion.  Only then, can they be registered for marriage.

Pursuant to this ruling, most Israeli dayanim (about 180 rabbanim and dayanim) signed on a public call to all those who registered marriages not to make a chuppa and kiddushin for converts who did not accept the yoke of Torah and mitzvos.

A few years later, in 5748, the rabbanim of B’nei Brak also publicized their halachic view on this matter.  They made it clear that according to our holy Torah it is forbidden to bring someone into Klal Yisroel “unless it was clarified absolutely and after real investigation, that he accepted to observe all the mitzvos, truly and sincerely, and G-d forbid to say that times changed. And whoever did not commit to fulfill mitzvos wholeheartedly, the conversion is nothing and he remains a gentile.”

Upon the Rebbe’s instruction, the three dayanim mentioned earlier continued to raise a hue and cry that even led to the formation of an investigative committee following a study conducted on what percentage of converts were not observing Torah and mitzvos.  R’ Axelrod told Beis Moshiach about this:

“We saw that most of the converts had never accepted the yoke of Torah and mitzvos so that their conversion never had validity according to Torah law.  The person remains a gentile and the attempt to bring him into the Jewish people only causes problems and terrible assimilation.  Furthermore, today, rabbanim are being forced to marry couples in cases where it is clear that one of them is a gentile in every respect.  It’s a terrible tragedy.

“In the laws of divorce there is a Halacha that when a person converts according to Halacha and then stops observing mitzvos, his name is written in the get but without ‘ben Avrohom.’ If he continues to observe Torah and mitzvos, when he divorces, the get will say, ‘ben Avrohom Avinu.’  From a computer check that was done they saw that in the past fifteen years, in 97.2% of cases, it says ha’ger without the words, ‘ben Avrohom Avinu,’ which shows that it’s all a joke and baloney.

“After the great commotion that ensued, they formed an investigative committee in light of the fact that most Israeli dayanim checked to see whether the converts were actually observing Torah and mitzvos after their conversion.  The facts were not surprising.  80% did not keep even one mitzva! The conversion situation in the army is even worse!”

CHASSIDISHE LONGING

Before his wedding, R’ Sherman received a letter from the Rebbe. In addition to the usual blessing, the Rebbe added in his own handwriting about the importance of learning Chassidus.

During the years that he served as a dayan in battei din, R’ Sherman was very busy at work and did not meet the Rebbe.  In 5753 he went to Crown Heights and was very taken by the Rebbe’s encouragement of the Chassidim singing “Yechi.”

In family settings R’ Sherman tells about his great closeness and deep connection to his grandfather, R’ Moshe Axelrod.  As a small boy and until he was 18, he would daven and spend time every Shabbos with his uncle R’ Gedalya Axelrod, at the first Chabad shul in the center of Ramat Gan.  It was called Sukkas Sholom for the Rebbe Rashab, and his grandfather was the rav.

Till this day, he still recalls what he absorbed from the Chassidim who came from Russia, talmidim of Tomchei T’mimim in Lubavitch, who davened and farbrenged in the Chabad shtibel including: R’ Meir Blizinsky, R’ Chaim Moshe Alperowitz, R’ Refael Nachman Kahn and his son R’ Yoel, and many others.

On certain occasions he shares his memories of R’ Yoel’s last Shabbos, when he was a young man, before he went to the United States to the Rebbe.  Before the third Shabbos meal, his grandfather asked R’ Yoel to review a maamer at that meal since it says, “A person should not part from his fellow … except with a d’var Halacha, for that is how he will remember him.”  When he said the maamer, R’ Sherman sat alongside his grandfather and uncle and listened closely.

His grandfather learned privately with him and they had a warm, loving relationship.  Until today, R’ Sherman davens in a T’hillas Hashem siddur and puts on t’fillin according to Chabad custom.  He sees himself connected to the teachings of the Alter Rebbe, whether his halachic psakim or his Chassidic teachings: Tanya, Likkutei Torah, Torah Ohr, and his letters.

Shliach and rav of Moscow, R’ Berel Lazar, invited R’ Sherman to attend a conference for all the Rebbe’s shluchim throughout the former Soviet Union. The conference took place in Moscow.  He was asked to give halachic shiurim to the shluchim on an array of topics pertinent to running k’hillos and rabbanus, including the halachic criteria for conversion and about how to deal with the plague of assimilation.

One evening of the conference, R’ Lazar asked him to join a Chassidishe farbrengen and tell the shluchim, as a scion of Chassidim, what he knows and remembers about the shlichus of his grandfather, R’ Moshe Axelrod, who was one of the shluchim of the Rebbe Rashab and the Rebbe Rayatz in Russia under the communists.

The shluchim who attended that farbrengen say that R’ Sherman was fascinating and they were up to the wee hours of the morning.  He told them episodes and Chassidic stories that he remembered from his childhood.  During the farbrengen he sang for them a special niggun that he remembered from his grandfather which was his anthem.  It was the niggun of the Rebbe Maharash, “L’chat’chilla Aribber.”  He began to sing it with incredible accuracy as he heard it from his grandfather and he said:

“That was my grandfather’s anthem, it’s what he would sing at every opportunity, and that is how he conducted himself – he was never fazed by what he faced, he had no fears, he did everything with mesirus nefesh, as in the saying of the Rebbe Maharash, ‘l’chat’chilla aribber.’”

Apparently, R’ Sherman also learned mesirus nefesh from his grandfather.

DANGER LIES IN WAIT EVERYWHERE

The recent commotion about the alternative conversion system does not allow R’ Sherman to rest on his laurels.  He is especially encouraged by the Rebbe’s instruction to his uncle about his question regarding interviews with the media about conversion from Lag b’Omer 5744, “You are a rav and started this mitzva and so where does a question come from now?

The spirit of shlichus is strong within him and he proclaims loudly, “I am not worried about the religious sector.  They will continue to be led by the approach of the g’dolei ha’dor.  I care about the well-meaning ordinary people because they do not know what this is about.

“Marrying or being in an intimate relationship with a gentile is worse than living without being circumcised or without the sanctity of marriage.  It is worse than all sins.  It is literally the impurity of the nations and it’s a tragedy.  We feel we must be concerned for the integrity of our people and this is the main point.”

R’ Sherman is worried about wholesale conversions which are being done for nationalistic considerations and not according to Halacha:

“Everyone knows that these gentiles have no intentions of accepting any principles of our faith, not Shabbos, not kashrus, and not family purity.  And everyone knows and can almost assert as such while holding a Torah scroll that these gentiles have no intentions of accepting Judaism.

“The present debate is not a halachic debate.  We need to present the Halacha in its pristine form; the principles of Halacha are not subject to any ideology or sector, but obligate us all.  The ideology of religious Zionism makes them ignore all halachic principles which are the only thing that establishes the integration of a righteous convert into the Jewish people through the acceptance of Torah and mitzvos.

“The goal of those who founded the new conversion system is to undermine the standing of untainted Halacha.  It has been years already that they have tried passing a law which will permit Reform and Conservative rabbis to perform conversions.  However, the most dangerous of all are the religious Zionist rabbis who try to establish new parameters in Halacha.  This is more dangerous than Reform conversions, because everyone knows that Reform conversions are a sham and that these ‘converts’ continue to live as gentiles in every respect.  But those so-called battei din that operate under false pretenses as though the conversion is based on the foundations of halacha, mislead the public as though these so-called converts are allowed to enter the Jewish people as Jews in every respect. This presents numerous stumbling blocks for the Jewish people not to mention ‘do not place a stumbling block before the blind,’ collectively and individually.”

R’ Sherman recommends that all rabbanim and shluchim around the world thoroughly check every conversion to see who oversaw it, who were the rabbanim, and whether there was a commitment to Torah and mitzvos as halacha requires.

Article originally appeared on Beis Moshiach Magazine (http://beismoshiachmagazine.org/).
See website for complete article licensing information.