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Sunday, July 31, 2011

Supreme Chillul Hashem, or “Knowing White from Wong”

imageOy, vey! 

You wouldn’t believe the email I got yesterday from a person purporting to be a rabbi… and not just any rabbi:  a rabbi in a major Jewish community who claims to be responsible for conversions, divorces, and other important spiritual matters there. 

A rabbi who is apparently entirely uneducated and wishes to stay that way – while hopefully avoiding contact with anyone of any other race or religious persuasion.

If you only have a couple of minutes, skip to the MAROON-HIGHLIGHTED sections of the final email down below.  Read them knowing they were sent from this rabbi’s email address.  I think you’ll be as shocked as I was.

For those who are curious and have a few minutes, here’s the background:

A couple of weeks ago, I found this sample conversion test online (I have re-uploaded it to 4shared so you can see it without any identifying information).  I thought it would be handy for the woman I’m studying with, a prospective convert.  (we’ve found a few others, including this one, which have been very helpful!)

But then I started looking through the questions and, while some of them are useful, some are just awful.  And the whole thing is EXTREMELY poorly written. 

I was surprised, because I also noticed that this thing is put out by a bais din (religious court) in a major Jewish centre, from a person who seems to be a respected rabbis (there are pictures of him on the site with the Lubavitcher Rebbe, etc).  So when I came across a statement that was completely wrong, I felt I ought to contact them.

The exchanges quickly degenerated into the kind of verbal mud-slinging I honestly believed most rabbis were incapable of… but see for yourself:

My initial email:

I'm teaching a giyores here in Toronto, and I encouraged her to seek out
online conversion exams as a way to gauge her own progress.  We have found quite a few excellent resources for her online.
However, I have found that the one on your site - included with the
conversion application - is really not very helpful and in some cases, is
rather misleading.  Here's the address of that application and "test" (link removed, but here’s the
test).
For instance, your test contains information like:  "A Jew without Torah and
observance is not a Jew," which is simply not true.  It IS true that this is
an unfortunate situation, and it's clearly not halachically preferable, but
the halacha is that a Jewish mother makes a person a Jew whether they do
anything with it or not.
It also says "There are many beliefs different than all."  This sentence, as
far as I can tell, is meaningless, while another "question," later on, asks
"Are you sure you want to convert" (with no question mark).  Later, another
question mentions "Pirke Avot. Ethics. Advice of our Father, desires,
kindness, forgiveness," as if that's what Pirkei Avos is about - when those
themes are only a few among many in that sefer.
Out of all the helpful sites we have found online, your test stands out as
almost a chillul Hashem in its disorganization, poor spelling and
punctuation, and incomprehensibility (and in some cases, irrelevance).
I wanted to let you know because a) your site is VERY easy to find online
for anyone seeking information about conversion, and b) it's not necessarily
very helpful for anyone converting outside your auspices - or even, perhaps, for those converting with you.
Perhaps the document should be revised, or taken down until it has been
edited substantially.
Just my thoughts, and I appreciate your listening.
Good Shabbos!

I thought this was fairly moderate, if a little strongly worded.  Why?  I honestly believe poor English IS a chillul Hashem, especially for people new to Judaism.

Anyway, here’s the quick reply I got.  The email address bore the name of the rabbi responsible for the bais din.  I have not changed the capitalization, but have added colour for emphasis (you’ll see why I need it later):

THANKING YOU. WE ARE WORKING ON IT AND ALMOST THERE . INTERESTING YOUR LAST NAME IS NOT JEWISH.

Well, I couldn’t leave it at that.  This is a hot button because, although my last name is now my husband’s (he converted before our marriage), I grew up with a “non-Jewish last name” (to two born-Jewish parents) and I’ve ALWAYS gotten that comment.  So have my born-Jewish children.  So here’s what I wrote back:

My second email:

Yes it is.  We also have people in our shul named Smith, Hwang (and Wong - actually, my aunt married a Chinese man and HER last name is Wong, too), Paquette and Ranganathan.  Nobody should feel ashamed of their (Jewish) last name.  :-)

Good Shabbos!

(slightly incorrect:  my aunt’s last name was never legally changed, but my cousin, their born-Jewish daughter’s last name is Wong)

Thinking I was done, I just about shut down the computer… but there was one more reply, at 7:15 pm, so it must have been urgent to tell me this before Shabbos. 

This time, his comments were interspersed into my original email.  It was almost completely unintelligible, so I have taken the liberty of colour-coding it.  Everything in MAROON CAPS is his reply (he typed it in all-caps):

MY COLLEAGUE ANSWERED YOU VERY POLITELY BUT YOU DESERVE A CORRECTION YOURSELF.  WE DON'T TEACH ENGLISH OR GRAMMAR IN OUR CONVERSION CLASSES NOR WRITING SKILLS AND ORGANIZATION AND ANYONE THAT IS REPULSED BY SUCH THINGS WE DON'T MIND IF THEY STAY GOYIM AND THAT IS WHAT OUR RABBI MEANT BY HIS ANSWER THAT YOUR NAME IS STILL NOT JEWISH SO MOST PROBABLY YOUR PERSONALITY ALSO. AND THAT SHOWED IT WHEN YOU HAVE NO RESPECT FOR A BEIT DIN.I'm teaching a YOU MEAN A GOYA NOT A GIYORET YET giyores here in Toronto, and I encouraged her to seek out online conversion exams as a way to gauge her own progress.  We have found quite a few excellent resources for her online.I HOPE SHE LEARNED PROPER ENGLISH AND NOW SHE KNOWS WHITE FROM WONG. WE HOPE MR WONG CONVERTED JEWISH BEFORE MARRIAGE.
However, I have found that the one on your site - included with the conversion application - is really not very WHEN YOU DON'T UNDERSTAND WHAT WE MEAN helpful and in some cases, is rather misleading. MAYBE YOU STILL NEED A COURSE IN CONVERSION SO YOU CAN UNDERSTAND A LITTLE MORE Here's the address of that application and "test":

For instance, your test contains information like:  "A Jew without Torah and observance is not a Jew," which is simply not true.  WHEN A DEFINE A JEW WE REFER TO AN OBSERVANT JEW ONLY ALL OTHERS THE TORAH AND TALMU GIVE THEM THE SAME LAW AS A GENTILE FOR MANY LAWS It IS true that this is an unfortunate situation, and it's clearly not halachically preferable, but the halacha is that a Jewish mother GIVES BIRTH , A WOMAN DOES NOT MAKE A CHILD , HASHEM DOES makes a person a Jew whether they do anything with it or not.TRUE
It also says "There are many beliefs different than all THE ABOVE MENTIONED HERE PROGRESSIVE RECONSTRUCTIONISTS ZULUS BUDIZM MAKUMBA ETC ETC ETC GAY AND LESB CONGREGATIONS ."  This sentence, as far as I can tell, BECAUSE YOU DON'T KNOW OTHER RELIGIONS is meaningless, while another "question," later on, asks "Are you sure you want to convert" (with no question mark)OH.  DID YOU EVER SEE A QUESTION MARK IN TORAH OR MISHNA OR ZOHAR OR ANY PUNCTUATION Later, another question mentions "Pirke Avot. Ethics. Advice of our Father, desires, kindness, forgiveness," MISSING ETC ETC as if that's what Pirkei Avos is about - when those themes are only a few among many in that sefer.
Out of all the helpful sites we have found online, your test stands out as almost a chillul Hashem THE BIGGEST CHILLUL HASHEM IS THAT AS A SO CALLED TEACHER YOU SHOW NO RESPECT AT ALL , AND SAY YOUR THOUGHTS WITHOUT POSITIVE AND HELPFUL SUGGESTIONS AND POLITE REMARKS in its disorganization, poor spelling and punctuation, and incomprehensibility (and in some cases, irrelevance).NO ONE GRADUATED HARVARD THAT IS WHY WE DON'T CLAIM WE TEACH ENGLISH.
I wanted to let you know THANK YOU because a) your site is VERY easy to find online for anyone seeking information about conversion, and b)WE DON'T ENCOURAGE CONVERSIONS ONLY GENUINE CASES THAT ARE READY BEFORE THEY READ OUR DISCOURAGING WEBSITE it's not necessarily very helpful for anyone converting outside your auspices - or even, perhaps, for those converting with you.
Perhaps the document should be revised, or taken down until it has been edited substantially.
appreciate your listening. I Y/D
Good Shabbos!

(Can anyone tell me what IY/D stands for???  Is he wishing death upon me and my descendents or anything similarly horrid?)

For once, both my kids think I am entirely justified in my shock and horror.  I HOPE SHE LEARNED WHITE FROM WONG ???  This is a person meeting with the public?  This is somebody others turn to with their business or personal relationships on the line?  Better hope they’re white, I guess.

I did send one final email this evening… because really, truly, I would like to believe that none of what I have thought about this person all Shabbos is true:

I would like to know, respectfully, if I am communicating with Rabbi ___ personally.  It seems surprising to me that one who has had such an esteemed career, including contact with gedolim, and one who moderates a bais din responsible for the life status of (presumably) many geirim and giyoros tzedek should conduct himself with such coarseness. 

Because I am always dan l'kaf zechus, I would prefer to think that someone else from the office is using his email address without his knowledge.  Perhaps he should be informed.

A gutte voch,

If you are in a major U.S. Jewish community, planning to convert, and concerned that this is one of the three men you’ll wind up sitting in front of, please email me with your location (Jay3ferX@Xgmail.com – remove the X’s)… I will let you know whether you have reason to be concerned.

Is anyone else as horrified as I am?

6 comments:

Sigalit Chana said...

I did not see anything wrong with the way you handled the situation! I hope your Shabbos was lovely anyways =)

Kathleen said...

I am reading through the practice quiz and it is confusing! It looks like someone's notes taken from a lecture that only makes sense to the one who wrote them.

Rochel said...

I can't believe someone really wrote this!

i y/d is in your dreams.

sweetcrunchyjewy said...

My blood is boiling. That response email is a chillul hashem of the greatest magnitude! I'm ashamed to be of the same religion as that guy.

I think your emails were fine. Except, you know, you forgot to add our Jewish friends whose last name is Ngesu (sp?).

Anonymous said...

Oh my goodness. That is horrible! Please let us know if you get another reply.

Miriam said...

While that email isn't par for the course, the sentiments behind it seem to be (at least out here in California). My husband has a couple of people (one a Rabbi of some high standing) about the acceptance of converts.