Leib Tropper spent his way into the rabbinic elite—and, even after his fall, those other rabbis are unwilling to condemn him
By Allison Hoffman - Tablet Magazine | 7:00 am Jan 19, 2010
CREDIT: Photoillustration by Tablet Magazine; Tropper photo from RationalistJudaism.com; background photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images.
In May 2007, Leib Tropper arrived in Phoenix, Arizona, to preside over a grand conclave of prospective converts to Judaism sponsored by his Eternal Jewish Family organization, which offered “Cadillac conversions” to non-Jews as part of an effort to seize control of the conversion process outside of Israel. Buoyed by a $4.8 million infusion of cash from the billionaire Thomas Kaplan, an oil and mining mogul who is currently president of the board at the 92nd Street Y in New York, the fast-talking rabbi with global ambitions and a smooth line of patter had offered would-be Jews a special treat: an all-expenses paid weekend of discussions on topics like “Becoming Part of the Jewish Family” at the Arizona Biltmore, a spa resort on 39 acres at the foot of Phoenix Mountain that is part of the Waldorf-Astoria chain.
While offers of Ayurvedic massages and luxury accommodation may seem at odds with the somber, discouraging face that ultra-Orthodoxy has traditionally turned to prospective converts, Tropper, by most accounts, did not seem particularly interested in relaxing halachic codes to accommodate the modern world. A biblical literalist, he played an active role in an effort by a group of ultra-Orthodox rabbis to ban the books of another rabbi, Nosson Slifkin, who believed that the world is older than the Jewish calendar—that is, 5,770 years. In 2006, among his other duties, he took it upon himself to retroactively invalidate the conversion of a woman who subsequently dared to violate ultra-Orthodox codes of modesty by wearing pants.
As a newcomer to the fraught business of conversions—and, according to people who dealt with him, someone who could at times be an abrasive individual—Tropper appears to have been willing to augment his personal power at the expense of his conversion candidates, a vulnerable group whose well-being is supposed to be protected from oppressive behavior by millennia of explicit rabbinical teaching and practice. To his students, he presented himself as a learned teacher who could help them reach the God they yearned for. In the billionaire Thomas Kaplan and his multimillionaire nephew Guma Aguiar, Tropper found a pair of patrons who, in exchange for access to the leading halachic authorities in New York and Jerusalem, would help the rabbi reinforce his newfound influence over the conversion process with lavish spectacles in American cities like Phoenix and Boston as well as at the luxurious David Citadel Hotel in Jerusalem. In addition to paying for food, drink, and hotel rooms at five-star hotels, Tropper also used Kaplan and Aguiar’s millions to curry favor with some of the most elevated rabbinic authorities in the world—including Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, one of the ultra-Orthodox world’s pre-eminent scholars, and Israel’s Sephardic chief rabbi, Shlomo Amar.
The world of spa vacations at the Biltmore was a long way from Tropper’s home base in the ultra-Orthodox enclave of Monsey, New York, where the rabbi ran a small yeshiva, Kol Yaakov, that specialized in “returning” non-observant adult Jews to Judaism. For more than two decades, Tropper—who was born into a rabbinic family on Manhattan’s Lower East Side and educated in Jerusalem—instructed returnees to Judaism, called ba’alei teshuva, on the laws of Torah in a modest brick-and-stucco house outfitted with a basketball hoop in the narrow parking lot out back. He got his start at Ohr Somayach, one of Monsey’s largest adult yeshivas, but splintered off to start Kol Yaakov in 1981 with help from a late New York couple, Louis J. Septimus and his wife, Edythe, for whom the school’s building is named.
The backing provided by Kaplan and Aguiar, Kaplan’s now-estranged nephew, was on an entirely different scale. The largesse provided by the two men over the years—at least $8 million, according to financial documents filed with the IRS—gave the rabbi entree into the insular world of the Israeli rabbinate—a cloistered group of men who, with the approval of the Israeli government, determine who can and cannot be considered a Jew, whatever their level of religious observance. By the time Tropper got to Phoenix, he could offer their imprimatur to reassure nervous hopefuls that he was the one conduit to becoming “a real Jew.” “If we ever make aliyah, there isn’t going to be any question of my Jewishness,” one Tropper graduate, Lucia Schnitzer, told the Jewish News of Greater Phoenix before the 2007 Biltmore weekend. “If my daughter wants to marry a Kohen, there isn’t going to be any question.”
In the past month, Tropper has been undone by the emergence of audio and video recordings that seem to indicate he tried to use his position to coerce a student, Shannon Orand, into having sex with other men in exchange not just for her conversion to Judaism but for cash. According to a student who answered the door at Kol Yaakov on Sunday, he remains in charge of the yeshiva, but Dovid Jacobs, Tropper’s former right-hand man, told Tablet Magazine the rabbi has been removed from his positions at both Eternal Jewish Family and its parent organization, Horizons Bais Achiezer, which have separate offices a few miles away from the yeshiva, in the neighboring town of Suffern. Tropper did not respond to requests for comment.
In the weeks since Tropper’s downfall, none of the rabbis who facilitated his meteoric rise in the Jewish world—men whose lives are devoted to the pious observance of God’s word—have stepped forward to publicly condemn Tropper for his violations of ultra-Orthodox codes on modesty and extramarital sex, let alone for his apparent willingness to use his position of religious authority to exploit the single mother of two young children for sex. The deafening silence parallels the response from the Roman Catholic Church after allegations of widespread child abuse surfaced in 2002; in diocese after diocese, bishops chose to protect the abusers, and settle generously with the victims, rather than forthrightly condemn what any parishioner would rightly see as an abomination in the eyes of God. “A community is measured by how it responds to something like this,” said one ultra-Orthodox rabbi. “The right-wing yeshivishe world is in damage control.”
As recently as November, when Tropper’s son got married, the list of rabbis who either attended or sent blessings included Elyashiv, and Reuven Feinstein, the son of the Rav Moshe Feinstein, who died in 1986, the most respected ultra-Orthodox halachic authority of his time. In addition to his impressive lineage, Reuven Feinstein is a widely respected figure in his own right and the head of the Yeshiva of Staten Island—which received a $3 million gift from Kaplan and Aguiar’s family foundation in 2008. Tropper gushed on his blog after the celebration, “The chuppah looked like a who’s who of the Torah world!”
In the wake of Tropper’s resignation from EJF, in mid-December, Feinstein declined to condemn Tropper’s activities or distance himself from EJF. Indeed, Feinstein issued a statement indicating he would increase his work with Eternal Jewish Family, to ensure that the organization would “continue to be guided by the highest halachic standards.”
To some, Feinstein’s circumspect response to the Tropper scandal was reminiscent of his silence on two other recent scandals involving sex and the abuse of rabbinic authority, both of which involved members of Feinstein’s family, [the sons of his sister and brother in-law, Rabbi Moshe Tendler]. One, Mordecai Tendler, was dismissed in 2006 from his post at a synagogue in Spring Valley, near Monsey, after a congregant accused him of seducing her into an affair with threats the she’d never find a husband unless she slept with him. A few weeks later, Tendler’s brother, Aron, resigned as principal of an Orthodox day school in Los Angeles amid allegations that he had “inappropriate” relations with female students.
Feinstein, of course, wasn’t involved in either of those incidents. But Feinstein’s willingness to take strong public stands on abstract questions of morality—including some as minute as whether or not men can return handshakes proffered by women (they can, to avoid embarrassing the other person)—only underscored, to some, his unwillingness to say even a single word about much more obvious abuses of Jewish law and halachic authority by eminent rabbis within his professional and family circle. (Feinstein did not return a message from Tablet seeking comment.)
It remains unclear what the future of Eternal Jewish Family will be. Kaplan has served as the organization’s chairman; his attorneys told Tablet last week they don’t know whether he will remain in that role. The group currently has a caretaker leader, after the rabbi initially announced as Tropper’s replacement—Elya Wachtfogel, head of a yeshiva in the Catskills hamlet of South Fallsburg, New York—subsequently released a letter saying he had not, in fact, taken the position. “The rumors which were spread of late regarding the EJF organization, alleging it is under my direction, are in error and baseless,” Wachtfogel said, in a handwritten declaration. Nothing further about Tropper, or his transgressions, was said.
If the silence of the ultra-Orthodox rabbinate is meant to keep members of their community in the dark, and shield the authority of the rabbinate from shame, it has been countered by outraged discussion on ultra-Orthodox blogs, whose commenters have been following the money that passed through Tropper’s organization—and venting their anger at the ongoing silence from the halachic establishment.
One anonymously written blog, The Unorthodox Jew, called on Feinstein to shut down “this house of prostitution.” A commenter on the blog called for a letter-writing campaign to “as many Orthodox-affiliated Jews as possible, alerting them to the unworthiness of our so-called ‘gedolim’”—a Hebrew term used by ultra-Orthodox Jews to refer to their leaders. “King Lear should be obligatory reading in the ultra-Orthodox world, along with All the King’s Men,” wrote another person. At another highly critical blog, Daas Torah, a commenter wrote: “The chillul hashem”—insult to God—“of Tropper’s scandals is only getting worse with time like a festering untreated cancer.”
One of the few religious authorities to speak out publicly on the Tropper case has been Aba Dunner, the executive director of the Conference of European Rabbis, a group that publicly opposed Tropper’s incursion onto its turf even before the scandal; last week, Dunner published an op-ed in the Five Towns Jewish Times, a New York-area paper catering to Orthodox readers, in which he accused Eternal Jewish Family of conducting a “bounty hunt” for new Jews, by allegedly paying local rabbis to funnel intermarried couples into its fledgling conversion courts.
“Tropper is a fraud,” Dunner wrote. “The organization he created is in his image and is therefore a fraud too. The creators of that image are fraudsters and hucksters who are trying desperately to keep the line to Mr. Kaplan’s millions open.”