Rabbi Yerachmiel Shapiro of Congregation Beth Shalom in Red Bank is among the founding members of a new Orthodox organization promoting reforms of an Orthodox establishment they consider “top down” and authoritarian.
The International Rabbinic Fellowship was established last month by Rabbi Avraham Weiss of the Bronx and Rabbi Marc D. Angel, rabbi emeritus of Congregation Shearith Israel in Manhattan.
Leading what they are calling “open” Orthodoxy, they aim to create new roles for women leaders and resist changes in the system for accepting converts to Judaism.
“This is a very good development in order to serve certain segments of modern Orthodoxy that didn’t have an organization before,” said Shapiro. “There are rabbis who identify as Orthodox Jews and whose mission is to serve the Jewish people in a spirit of openness. Generally this has to do with an attitude of respect for other denominations.”
About 120 rabbis attended the fellowship’s inaugural convention Nov. 17-18 in Baltimore.
Leaders of the group hope to create new requirements and processes for Orthodox conversion by June. Weiss has complained that new rules instituted by the Rabbinical Council of America reflect the influence of Israel’s fervently Orthodox rabbinical authorities and threaten to invalidate conversions performed in the past under Orthodox auspices in the United States.
“We need more understanding when it comes to conversion, especially with regard to the facts on the ground,” said Shapiro. “Any qualified individual who wants to go through a Jewish conversion should be treated with the utmost respect and be given a process that is open and transparent, not political but halachic.” He also said the final decision regarding who can halachically undergo a conversion should rest with the community rabbi, not a centralized rabbinic organization. “We respect the authority of the gedolim in Jerusalem and B’nei Brak, but we don’t really give all of the authority to those rabbis,” he said.
The new organization also hopes to formulate criteria to potentially include women as full members by June. Earlier this year, Weiss launched a yeshiva to train women in all areas of Jewish law and pastoral guidance, synagogue functions traditionally reserved in Orthodox circles for men.
“There’s a pretty clear consensus that women who are spiritual leaders should be included,” said Shapiro. “There’s nothing wrong halachically with women being full members of a community of Jewish spiritual leaders. The question is whether or not to call them rabbis — is it a slippery slope to call them rabbis? My personal view is no, absolutely not.”
The other IRF members from New Jersey are Rabbi Menashe East, Mount Freedom Jewish Center; Rabbi David Wolkenfeld, Center for Jewish Life, Hillel at Princeton University and member of the IRF board of directors; Dr. Eugene Korn, Anti-Defamation League director of interfaith affairs, Bergenfield; and Rabbi David Glicksman, Wilf Campus for Senior Living, Somerset.