Sometimes the topic of “Who is a Jew” is actually the least of the problems
Also, please see the follow-up: “Jewish Conversion Scams Still Trying to Thrive on the Internet” (Jan. 2014)
Note: While I have a deep respect for the passion and spirit of PunkTorah and feel a close connection to the many great people from OneShul, I feel that intellectual honesty demands that I speak up regarding recent events. While I cannot help but be critical of the leadership and present them in a light that is clearly unflattering, I would like to reiterate my love and respect for each person and their unique challenges. I regret much of what I must say, but I think we are all adult enough to take on this topic with the gloves off. Though I am not a member myself, I feel a special concern for the people who are turning to me in confusion on this matter. Personally I like Patrick, but I just wish he hadn’t made a blind power grab akin to a protestant youth pastor trying to take over a church. Hopefully, this is just a phase.
Never before in my life have I seen Judaism been more appealing to the masses. In a modern age where information is so easily accessible, many people have taken interest in exploring Judaism. And not so infrequently people become so touched and inspired by the values and culture of Judaism that they embrace the Jewish faith through conversion.
Though honestly, conversion has never been harder than it is today. The cost, demands and political constraints have never been so heavy. As standards vary between the movements, and between Israel and diaspora as well, the answer to the “Who is a Jew” question has never been more frustrating.
Truth is, conversion has always been something looked at as rare and obscure. In the less exciting times few people converted, and even fewer rabbis did conversions at all. Though there seem to be more rabbis doing conversions today than before, there is still whole states and countries that don’t have a local rabbi to serve in this capacity. Harder yet, many don’t have a congregation near them at all.
And this is where PunkTorah and OneShul came in, presented as a truly revolutionary approach. If you can’t get to the shul, Patrick “Aleph” Beaulier said they should bring the synagogue to you. With a mix of counter-culture and DIY flair the project helped found the first fully-interactive way to study and hold Jewish prayer services. Programs and services attracted a wide range of involvement and people of various affiliations.
Seeing itself as an actual congregation in the true sense, it only seemed logical they would need a leader. Patrick stepped up as “Rabbi” for the organization. In the same manner, it seemed a natural progression that for a congregation that has an amazingly large number of the attendees interested in conversion that they would also seek to Do-It-Yourself in terms of conversions to Judaism as well. But not just performing their own in-house conversions, they have announced that they plan to offer a future conversion study program entirely on the Internet. (see “Coming Soon: Online Conversion“) Why not, as that is their native medium anyhow, right?
While this was well received by many of their fans, quietly a lot more went into panic-mode and ran-off as they watched a promising program jump the shark in a most gruesome fashion.
It got even worse when the announcement of the proposed conversion program, written by Patrick “Aleph” read:
“The conversions will be valid, but not under Orthodox and/or Israeli religious law. Just as Reform and Conservative conversions are not taken as valid by Orthodox Israeli rabbis, our post-denominational conversion would not be either. However, because our program will include a bet din, mikveh in a Conservative shul and brit milah for men, the conversions will be valid and anyone who says otherwise would be ignoring halacha. (Jewish law)”
No defense of halachic standards, just a statement that everyone else is ignorant if they don’t accept him. Sounds as punk as hell, sure. But also quite childish, and a lot naive.
Then it made it to the Times of Israel (see “To Convert to Judaism, click here“). That is when people really panicked. In truth, it was just about the most damaging article imaginable. It coarsely displayed certain elements that have troubled people about Patrick for some time. Strangely he is talking very triumphantly about the exposure, even as harmful as it is to his cause and the reputation of his followers.
On a personal note, I have spent much time hearing the pain and counseling bewildered people after this announcement. This was received with great applause by the many people interesting in pursuing conversion through them. But in the background many others were left scratching their heads as to how Patrick and the program could offer something which he couldn’t possibly deliver, while at the same time talking about the potential cost of a program.
It’s even more bewildering because not long ago Patrick “Aleph” posted a piece titled, “Why I Don’t Perform Conversions (Even Though I’m A Convert).” While I wanted to applaud the position of restraint in this halachic matter, I said nothing as I felt that he was priming the pump, just teasing the conversation forward. It appears I was unfortunately right. Two months later he announced that he would do conversions on-line.
I am disappointed in the direction he has decided to go, but it is not because I am another person splitting hairs with him on halacha. In fact that seems to be Patrick’s position, that if he does everything properly his conversion is valid (except for the Orthodox, of course). But even if he followed everything according to the Shulchan Aruch (The Code of Jewish Law), unfortunately his conversions are still going to be invalid and non-transferable to another movement.
Whereas Patrick might have some interesting and valid points when he talks about the hardships in answering the “Who is a Jew” question, he oddly steps around the issue that supersedes this. The issue of “Who is a Rabbi.”
Though most lay people consider the issue of conversion to be a matter of who can call themselves a Jew, the bigger issue that comes into play is who can call themselves a rabbi. Who is truly ordained, and which ordained rabbis are further recognized to do conversions. This is something that Patrick seems quite aware of because it was his first objection back in October, that people would not recognize his work as a “post-denomination rabbi.”
As a religious commentator, I have to say that Patrick and his branding of this program and ordination as “post-denominational” was quite interesting. It’s a term that is almost never used in Judaism, mostly because it always has a bad connotation carried over from the Evangelical Christian culture that popularized that term. To attend a post-denominational congregation in America is most often described as attending a break away movement, lead by a minister that didn’t go to seminary, and that their church has no active oversight or superior governance. They are an island on to themselves, governed by themselves.
Let me be clear, the problem most have here is not with his halachic approach as such (since we have nothing to inspect from him so far), nor even his movement being outside of “the establishment.” The issue is graver, that Patrick “Aleph” Beaulier is not properly ordained as a rabbi, despite his claims to the contrary.
Working in the different Jewish movements I’ve had time to learn a lot about the business-end and politics of religious governance.
At one time I even worked for the Union of Reform Judaism. One of the issues that often came up was the difficult topic of defining who is a rabbi. As new leaders would come into the region there would often be contention over a rabbinic appointment because occasionally temple boards would pick a person that was not officially ordained by any of the recognized movements or institutions. Most often these people had “private ordinations” or came from dubious institutions.
I once had an interesting observation while working with the definition of the rabbinate. I was made clearly aware that progressive movements would not even ordain former Orthodox Rabbis out of hand. Unconsidered by most of us who came out of orthodox movements, I came to realize that it wasn’t just a matter of halachic knowledge or chain of ordination through notable individuals. Today the progressive rabbinate most often requires actual post-secondary education, training in pastoral counseling, psychological screenings of potential candidates, completion examinations, etc. As my superiors insisted, “Orthodox smicha lacks most of those qualities.” It was clearly made known to me that they could not become ordained rabbis in progressive movements until they fulfilled those requirements and joined the association. The contention of the Reform movement was that they had higher standards, ones that are standard across the progressive movements. Though in recent years the same type of requirements have become more standard even in the Orthodox Rabbinate of Israel as well.
So what of a person who is not really ordained? In such cases they could be called “spiritual leader,” but not as rabbi of the congregation as they were not fit to join the Central Congress of American Rabbis. In fact, even cantors are now regularly required proper ordination and membership to their association in order to hold the official title of “Cantor.” (see American Cantoral Congress)
The status of rabbinic authority most often lays not just in the proper education of a person and a one-time ordination, it also requires being in good standing with the governance of the movement for their rulings to hold the weight of authority of the movement’s rabbinate.
None of this can be said about the ordination of Patrick, nor is it even true of his teachers and “mentors.” None of them are able to confer “smicha” (rabbinic ordination), because all the programs he has cited are pointing towards rogue rabbis who have basically been forced to resign, or in some cases even thrown out of their movement.
Furthermore, as members of the rabbinate they are urged not to offer ordination to another individual. The by-laws of the rabbinic associations generally ban the offering of “private ordinations,” meaning the conferring of the appearance of rabbinic authority on another person outside of the auspices of the movement’s institutions. This is a ban at risk of expulsion, the equivalent of a lawyer being disbarred. But in the absence of active rabbinic oversight, of course there is no perceived risk for these people who are diploma-milling.
Close inspection of Patrick’s credentials and the organizations who issued them reveals an interesting web of self-aggrandizement and false claims.
First, Patrick identified himself with receiving “rabbinic ordination” from Rabbinical Seminary International, founded by Rabbi Joseph H. Gelberman, who Patrick defines as a “radical” who was kicked out of the Conservative movement. [Correction: Gelberman claimed to have studied “Hungarian chassidism” and was ordained there in Hungary, and his ordination of Orthodox smicha is supposed to trickle down to his followers from there.]
Apparently this “ordination” was still insufficient because Patrick then appears to have marketed himself just down the street and one zip code over from RSI, and joined another dubious organization called Jewish Spiritual Leadership Institute (JSLI) for ordination, which is without question founded and run by individuals who are ordinarily banned from the rabbinate and cantorship (however, their Director Steven Blane never receiving official rabbinical ordination himself, apparently at one time only being member of the Cantor’s Assembly and not the actual rabbinate, see his profile at JSLI).
JSLI’s Rabbi Steven Blane, is also RSI ordained, and by self-admittance, “…resigned [from the Cantoral Assembly of the Conservative movement] after being offered either resignation or expulsion when he began officiating at interfaith weddings.” Thought this might seem to some progressive Jews to merely be an infraction on account of his open-mindedness, the further couldn’t be from the truth. [Blane is also opposed to brit mila – ritual circumcision, as well. Blane is proud to say, “We do not engage in circumcision… There’s no official place in our movement’s philosophy for circumcision…”]
And he isn’t the only strange character on the radar. Patrick admits that he was a student of Rabbi Johnathan Ginsburg, and studied through “Rodfei Kodesh,” for para-rabbinic ordination. Ginsburg is also like many of the JSLI leadership too, he also claims his line of authority stretching from the Conservative Movement. In reality Ginsburg has been formally disavowed for irregularities related to conversion and ordinations. Part of his withdrawal from the Conservative Movement might have been further pushed along by a sexual abuse and exploitation suit from a convert and rabbinic student.
In fact, earlier this year (August 13, 2013) the Rabbinical Assembly of the Conservative Movement had to reiterate their disavowal of Ginsburg because he has been continuing to build conversion and ordination outlets under other names (convertjudaism.org, jconversion.org, convertjudaismonline.org, watch him pitch for these programs of his on YouTube). The statement by the RA reads as follows:
“The Rabbinical Assembly, the international membership association of Conservative/Masorti rabbis has received numerous queries regarding an organization known as the “Chicago Conversion Beit Din.” The Chicago Conversion Beit Din, one of whose principals is Rabbi Jonathan Ginsburg, conducts long distance conversion and, according to their website, it is now sponsoring programs they refer to as “pararabbinic training.”
“The Chicago Conversion Beit Din advertises that it will provide its students with a “Conservative Bet Din.” The Rabbinical Assembly, as the world’s sole membership organization of Conservative/Masorti rabbis, wishes to clarify that, as a body, we do not endorse the work of the Chicago Conversion Beit Din and will not endorse conversions completed under its auspices, for any purpose, including to seek citizenship in Israel under the law of return.
“We have been asked whether Rabbi Jonathan Ginsburg is a member in good standing of the Rabbinical Assembly. Rabbi Jonathan Ginsburg is no longer a member of the Rabbinical Assembly, nor is he eligible for readmission. The RA has no association with nor does it endorse or recognize any bet din or other program run by, or participated in by Rabbi Jonathan Ginsburg. Even if Rabbi Jonathan Ginsburg does not participate in the bet din personally, the RA does not recognize or endorse any conversion under the auspices of the Chicago Conversion Beit Din.” [emphasis added]
The influence of Ginsburg is not just something in the past, and this is easily revealed in a paper-trail left by a Rabbi Rob Thomas, a board member of PunkTorah and rabbi ordained from JSLI. If one takes a look at his Linkedin you will see that Thomas has also actively been building an “eSyngogue” and distance learning program, that follows a similar evolution as PunkTorah and other JSLI programs. Odd and damaging is the connection of PunkTorah and eSynagogue back to Ginsburg made here by Thomas in his resume:
“Director, Board of Directors, eSynagogue; June 2011 – Present (2 years 7 months); eSynagogue is a non-profit online Jewish educational foundation focused on all things yiddishkeit. It includes courses for conversion, para-rabbinic education, and lifecycle events. Rabbi Jonathan Ginsburg is widely recognized as one of the founders of the online Jewish educational movement.” [emphasis added]
Now notice, this is not the only board “directorship” Thomas holds. He is collaborating concurrently with banned rabbis while active in PunkTorah governance, whilst involving in the specific acts that Ginsburg has been censured for. This is a fact. You will find just two entries below this listing on his resume:
“Director, Board of Directors, PunkTorah; March 2010 – Present (3 years 10 months): PunkTorah, a 501(c)(3) Jewish non-profit, is an online community helping people who have fallen through the cracks of Jewish life. Our multimedia network spreads a message of love, inclusion and hope to thousands of people around the world. No matter what shape you are, at PunkTorah, you fit.”
These are not the only connections back to Ginsburg in the PunkTorah program, in fact Patrick has already been directing potential converts and his group leaders to pursue Jewish conversion through Ginsburg by means of his distance program, still with the claim that they are recognized as valid Conservative conversions. (see the evidence at, “Jewish Conversion Scams Still Trying to Thrive on the Internet“)
Once one closely looks at the programs of PunkTorah, JSLI, eSynagogue, etc. you will see that they all pretty much are doing the exact same thing. Though independent in appearance, they all point back to the same personalities and mutually aided self-aggrandizement. One cannot help but wonder if this is just a headless blunder, or if this is actually a kick-back system. One cannot help but wonder if they are attempting to corner the market to unsuspecting people through simultaneous branding and outreach attempts, and then sharing the profits.
Simply put, in the crude parlance of the punk culture from which I come, this all appears to be a circle-jerk by a bunch of poseurs. There is no credibility in the conversions of PunkTorah/OneShul and their affiliates, neither is there in the ordinations of Patrick’s matching Darshan Yeshiva. One doesn’t need to wait and see if these “halachic” rulings by them are going to be challenged and thrown out, they have already been formally disavowed higher up their chain of command so the matter is settled.
As I’ve stated, the fact that there is collaboration is evident from their timing and cross over in promotional videos (see below). Just a few months before Patrick made himself “Rosh Yeshiva” of his own Darshan Yeshiva, he was directing people to get ordination through JSLI. They are all different faces of the same beast. They all seek to not just convert, but also create their own rabbinate.
So why should one make such a big issue out of a runaway sect? Aside from disrespecting the values of Judaism and the dignity of the rabbinate, the PunkTorah venture has been greatly funded but the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta. It is appalling to both the affiliated and un-affiliated that Federation monies, which are not to be used for politics or dogma, are being utilized for this program. Not only was PunkTorah / OneShul funded by the Federation, their site still bares the branding by the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta to give them the appearance of respectability. This in and of itself is appalling and insensitive of the feelings of the Jewish community for them to use Federation resources for engaging in overtly provocative endeavors related to our community’s religious politics. Federation money should not be used for sectarianism, let alone the formation of new rogue sects.
This program is both defrauding the Jewish Federation, and the members of PunkTorah who turn to them for religious rulings and ordinations.
Many followers of Patrick are extremely desperate for the conversion they have not been able to attain by other means. People who badly want this program to be legit in their minds, so they are fiercely defending this potential conversion program. Little are they keeping in mind of the reality that no matter how they perform their conversion with these people, they will not be recognized by any of the official Jewish movements in North America; Reconstructionist, Reform, Conservative and of course Orthodox. Neither are they valid in Israel.
A person that is seeking a valid conversion from a recognized beit din are best advised to join and convert through a local program. Any conversion by a valid and recognized beit din, which is verifiable and properly performed, will be recognized not just by their movement here, but is generally valid for immigration to Israel as well (while not recognized according to Orthodox law and standards, one is still applicable for aliyah under the Law of Return according to the civil law of Israel). Anyone who is offered a mere partial conversion is advised to run and not walk.
Though on the surface it appears that Patrick and his cohorts are simply being more compassionate and innovative, in reality their actions have left several of their most ardent fans and contributors feeling hurt, misled, shamed and defrauded. Even worse it is causing a crisis of identity for potential converts who feel that they have now been further alienated and stigmatized though the false hopes offered them by PunkTorah and Patrick. Keep in mind, PunkTorah is already funnelling people to Ginsburg for conversions, Patrick is merely attempting to go one step further in doing it himself now.
I feel for these potential converts. Sincere people, who don’t deserve to have their experience with Judaism soured by the actions of people who don’t actually represent the Jewish community in any true capacity.
I can’t think of anything more cruel for an individual to face than for them to be told they are not Jewish, an issue that wouldn’t be such a wound had it not been for sheisters who fed them false hopes and an unfounded sense of entitlement. People playing with the emotions of the helpless. I feel sorry for the people who are already too emotionally crippled by stigma to recognize they aren’t being faulted for being a convert, but for their association with people of bad reputation.
Please note, this is not the first consorted effort to do halachic conversion outside of the auspices of a movement. There is also the group once know as Dor Deah, but has since been rebranded several times and repackaged with other programs called Bejewish.org, TorahJudaism, and Ways of Israel. It imploded nearly immediately after it was pointed out they were not just doing something unsanctioned, but also accepting money for it which constitutes fraud. Shortly after they dropped the costs associated with program, reiterate that their program is “100% free” as one is only paying for cost of materials. While claiming to be Orthodox, eventually they were even forced to backtrack and state the obvious for their “converts:” (see actual text)
“Although WAYS OF ISRAEL is an Orthodox organization, our conversions are not guaranteed to be recognized by other Jewish courts or the State Israel. This is due to conversion controversies around the world and the relatively recent politicization of the conversion process in general. If recognition by the State of Israel is what you desire, we suggest that you move into an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood and begin your process there under a more widely recognized Orthodox beth din. Another option for one who wants recognition by the State of Israel may be to first convert under our auspices and at a later date do another conversion under a more widely recognized beth din when one has the financial means to do so.”
This is some semi-good advice from some sketchy people who have already tried going there. People who have learned the hard way that no matter how you perform it halachically, conversions will be rejected outright and summarily when performed outside of the auspices of a recognized rabbinate authorized for this function.
Any movement, be it conservative or liberal, is only going to recognize the rulings of people whom they recognize to be rabbis. To expect anything different is just childish and ignorant on a paramount level.
The bottom line is this, the only weight a conversion certificate has comes from the name of the Rabbi that signs on the dotted-line. Unfortunately the leadership of PunkTorah and their affiliates/associates may have already soiled their reputations in a manner which can’t be laundered, no matter how pricey of a mikveh fee you pay to a self-appointed group.
- Online-Ordained Rabbi Grabs Pulpit (Foward)
- To convert to Judaism, click here (timesofisrael.com)
- Online Conversion, Revisited (Coffee Shop Rabbi)
- Choosing A Rabbi (Coffee Shop Rabbi)
- Rabbinical Assembly – Conversion Resources
- May Conversions Obtained Through Deceit Be Annulled? (Rabbinical Assembly)
See Patrick “Aleph” promote JSLI in March 2013, right before he founded his own “yeshiva.” The video is captioned, “Become a rabbi in one year? We tell you how!”