Jewish paper: Worries of ‘violence’ in East Ramapo

The venerable Jewish newspaper The Forward looks this week at the tensions in the East Ramapo school district — including the possibility of “violence.”

The article, while not terribly long, gives you a pretty good sense of what’s at stake:

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Although Orthodox Jews in the predominantly Jewish upstate New York villages of Monsey and New Square send their children to private religious schools, six of the eight elected members of the Board of Education of the East Ramapo Central School District are Orthodox. A ninth, who recently resigned and has yet to be replaced, is also Orthodox. Some non-Orthodox community members allege that the Orthodox members of the board support the religious schools at the expense of the public school system — claims that the Orthodox board denies. But people on both sides agree that anger over the issue is running high.

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The article focuses on whether the school board sold the Hillcrest Elementary School building to a yeshiva at a below-market rate. But it looks at this question in light of all the strange, internal pressures building up in the school district.

The writer, Josh Nathan-Kazis, quotes board President Nathan Rothschild, an Orthodox Jew, extensively. Rothschild says a few notable things, including that he sees himself as a representative of the private-school community.

About the non-Orthodox community losing control of the school board, he says “If you don’t get up and vote, then you deserve what you get.”

Nathan-Kazis writes that several people he interviewed are concerned about the possiblity of violence breaking out. He also quotes Antonio Luciano, a retired New York Police Department lieutenant who was defeated in the May school board elections, as saying that students have been reprimanded for blaming East Ramapo’s problems on “the Jews.”

The district is 56% black and 27% Hispanic.

It’s a pretty bleak picture overall.

Rothschild, who has served on the board for 15 years, explains why he is not running again: “You have no idea how demoralizing it is to sit at a meeting and be beat up by everybody. They say things that have parts of truth in it, and maybe more than just parts of truth. It’s a demoralizing thing. I don’t think anybody wants to go through that. I think we’d all love peace.”

Influential ultra-Orthodox rabbi from Monsey caught in sex scandal

The ultra-Orthodox Jewish community likes to keep to itself, but you may hear a very loud sigh coming from Monsey and NYC these days.

An ugly scandal is unfolding regarding one Rabbi Leib Tropper, a Monsey-based fellow who has headed a prominent group called the Eternal Jewish Family. The EJF’s mission has been to oversee the conversion of non-Jews married to Jewish spouses — according to the most strict standards for Jewish conversion.

leibBut Tropper has resigned in recent days over a Tigger Woods-ish scandal.

Apparently, he was taped speaking to a woman seeking conversion about highly un-rabbinic things.

The blog FailedMessiah.com, which chronicles the failings of the Orthodox Jewish community, spoke to the woman and reported this:

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The woman told FailedMessiah.com Tropper was “holding things over me.” Tropper can be heard on one of the tapes asking the woman to have sex or phone sex with other men. She said Tropper would tell her, “If you fulfill my needs, I’ll fulfill yours – and you need a conversion.”

Tropper can be heard on the tapes saying, “I’m not going to force you to do anything you don’t want to…you own your body, I don’t own your body.”

The woman says Tropper asked her to role play certain sexual scenarios with these men, either capturing the encounter on tape or describing the encounter in detail to him afterward, but she refused. “He likes to see women raped,” the woman said. While sometimes Tropper suggested men for her to have encounters with, he encouraged her to find men on her own and then report back to him. “He wanted someone who would be very rough.”

She says other women were also recruited by Tropper to fulfill these fantasies.

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Howsa.

Tropper is no minor figure in the Orthodox world. One Orthodox blogger writes that he gained the support of many ultra-Orthodox rabbis in the U.S. and Israel by focusing on an issue they care about: conversion standards.

He writes:

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One of the biggest problems with EJF’s founder long before this sex scandal broke is that he somehow managed to commandeer and virtually control one of the most important aspects of Judaism: The ability of any sincere human being to convert and join the people of Israel.

Leib Tropper is not a stupid man. He managed to connive and cajole leading rabbinic figures both here and in Israel to come on board and endorse what he was doing. International meetings were held and attended by very prominent rabbinic figures or their representatives – traveling from all over the world to attend – as the above list from their website shows.

The names of those involved with EJF is mind boggling in its depth and Hashkafic scope. The above photo of some of them sitting on an EJF dais was taken from their website and is but a small sampling of those who attended and who supported Tropper and his EJF.

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Even before this sex scandal broke, Tropper and the EJF were criticized — by some — for bring ultra-Orthodox conversion standards to the wider Jewish world and for using their clout to hurt people.

Jewcy.com wrote last year:

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Times have changed. That’s because haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Jews like Leib Tropper, founder and director of Eternal Jewish Family—an organization dedicated to converting non-Jewish spouses of intermarried Jews—represent the most rapidly growing demographic in Judaism. Tropper also founded and runs a yeshiva in Monsey, New York, and travels regularly to Israel, where he frequents the halls of haredi power and hobnobs with its leaders. People like him are the Jewish future. They’re at the center of a seemingly irrevocable schism between Orthodoxy and every other denomination of Judaism. They’re determined to restrict and to monitor all Orthodox conversions as part of their spiritual war against non-haredi Judaism, and they want nothing less than ultimately to define who is a Jew.

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Now the Rabbinical Council of America, which represents “modern” Orthodox rabbis but has increasingly tightened its conversion standards to comply with ultra-Orthodox dictates, has issued a statement on the scandal:

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Dec 22, 2009 — We are deeply appalled, saddened and pained by reports that have reached us concerning alleged inappropriate behavior on the part of the chairman of the rabbinic committee of the Eternal Jewish Family, Rabbi Leib Tropper. We need to wait for more complete information before we can react fully.

Nonetheless, at this time, we would make the following points clear:

1. What we have heard, if true, violates the fundamental elements of all that Judaism holds sacred.

2. We urge anyone who might have been victimized to seek appropriate counseling and we, at the Rabbinical Council of America, remain ready to refer anyone who needs such assistance to the appropriate professionals.

3. Anyone who may have any questions of Jewish Law regarding conversions should feel free to contact our Geirut administrator, Rabbi Michoel Zylberman, at 212-807-9000 ext. 3.

What’s with the chicken swinging?

Last year, an Orthodox Jewish group in Monsey got in big trouble with health officials when they left an absolute mess near an old drive-in theater after holding a kapparot ceremony.

What’s a kapparot ceremony, you ask? It’s an Orthodox ritual that dates back to the year 800 and involves holding a chicken above one’s head and moving it in a circle three times. Then the chicken is slaughtered and is donated to the needy.

small-kg100208chicks15.jpgThe ceremony is held in the days leading up to Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonment (which begins tomorrow at sunset). The general idea is that the chicken suffers for your sins.

My colleague Jane Lerner wrote a backgrounder about the ceremony the other day, a fine idea considering the controversy stirred up by last year’s mess in Monsey (organizers left behind a fetid mix of blood, feces, feathers and who knows what else).

Rabbi Moshe Elefant, an official with the Orthodox Union, told Lerner: “It brings us to the recognition that we need to repent — we need to do better in our lives. It’s a very powerful statement.”

This year, the ceremony is being held at the former site of the Monsey Jewish Center.

Lerner writes that there has been some disagreement over the centuries about the basis of the ceremony and whether it has pagan roots. Non-Orthodox Jews generally don’t participate.

But as Rabbi Avi Shafran, another Orthodox official, told Lerner: “Tradition is the cornerstone of our religion. It’s not for us to question if we should or shouldn’t continue. It’s a custom – it’s not open for discussion.”