Five area Orthodox religious leaders have formed their own council of rabbis, or vaad, overseeing kosher supervision, conversions and religious court.
“This [new council] was formed to provide a service to our communities. It’s been really important for us to provide leadership and spiritual direction,” said Rabbi Uri Topolosky of Beth Joshua Congregation in Rockville, chair of the Beltway Vaad, which launched Feb. 9. “When you are not in a leadership position, it is hard to provide leadership.”
The other four members are Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld and Maharat Ruth Friedman of Ohev Sholom – The National Synagogue in the District, and Rabbis Nissan Antine and Joel Tessler of Beth Sholom Congregation and Talmud Torah in Potomac.
Tessler, the rabbi emeritus of Beth Sholom, is a member of both the Rabbinical Council of Greater Washington and the new Beltway Vaad.
“I don’t see this as a negative thing. I think there is a warm relationship between the group of rabbis” on both vaads. “We all get along,” Tessler said, adding he had not been notified of any conflict of interest by Rabbinical Council of Greater Washington. “To me, it’s an exciting opportunity for the Washington community.”
Numerous attempts to speak with several members of the Rabbinical Council of Greater Washington bout how they felt about the new organization proved unsuccessful.
“I have no comment regarding the Beltway Vaad, “Rabbi Dovid Rosenbaum of Young Israel Shomrai Emunah in Silver Spring who is president of the Rabbinical Council of Greater Washington, wrote in an email.
Topolosky said members of the Rabbinical Council of Greater Washington have been in the loop about the Beltway Vaad. “We have been in close conversation. We had one representative who continued to reach out to them,” Topolosky said.
“From our perspective, this is all positive, and we are not intending to create tension or conflict. This is about trying to provide leadership for our communities and to bring our rabbinic voices to the community,” Topolosky said.
He said members of the Beltway Vaad believe that joining together will enable them to better meet the needs of their congregants. Topolosky stressed that the Beltway Vaad was not created to “cause discord or strife” within the Orthodox community, but rather to fill a need not currently filled.
The Beltway Vaad is hosting its inaugural program March 8, titled “Orthodoxy in the 21st Century,” at Beth Sholom Congregation.
Previously, Rosenbaum had explained that any rabbi applying to be in the Vaad must be ordained by seminaries and rabbinic authorities approved by the national Rabbinical Council of America.
When asked why he believed some Orthodox rabbis have not been included, Topolosky said, “You should ask them. I don’t know if we have gotten a clear answer.” He said he understood that there have been concerns about ordination, he said, but added, “There may be more.”
With its launching, members of the Beltway Vaad immediately began tackling such issues as conversion, Jewish divorce and transparency.
Conversion, stigmatized following the arrest of Rabbi Barry Freundel – a Rabbinical Council of Greater Washington member of more than 25 years – who is accused of videotaping women as they used the mikvah, will be handled by members of the Beltway Vaad without any national organization oversight.
Friedman, the maharat, is the conversion coordinator of the new organization.
“The vaad strongly adheres to the notion that local clergy should be empowered to do their own giyyur (conversion) without the need to work through a centralized rabbinic body, and each of our synagogues has its own conversion guidelines. Each of our standards are in full accordance with the demands of halakha,” Jewish law, according to a press release from the Beltway Vaad.
“We are trying to emphatically make a point that their local clergy should be empowered to do their own conversion,” Topolosky said. With a central body overseeing all conversions, “it is difficult to maintain the intimacy and the spiritual quality” and there could be “corruption and power play,” he said.
Herzfeld is the Beltway Vaad’s kashrut coordinator and will continue to provide kosher certification as he has in the past for other places, including at the Soupergirl restaurants.
However, the Rabbinical Council of Greater Washington will serve as the primary kosher certification body for the Washington area.
The Beltway Vaad also intends to fight for women who are unable to obtain a Jewish divorce because their husbands refuse. Members of the new organization have agreed not to officiate at a wedding unless the bride and groom have signed a rabbinic prenuptial agreement that details steps to be taken if a man refuses to give his wife a get, or Jewish divorce.
In an attempt to be open and accountable, the Beltway Vaad has created an eight-member lay advisory council of members of the Orthodox community. Membership will change regularly so that various voices are heard.
The lay board, chaired by Behnam Dayanim, will not tackle issues of Jewish law. However, it will interact with the community and forward its concerns and grievances to the Beltway Vaad.
“I think this vaad will offer a fresh, new modern voice for those not represented now,” said Dayanim.
Rabbis of the two Silver Spring synagogues that Dayanim attends, Kemp Mill Synagogue and Young Israel Shomrai Emunah, sit on the Rabbinical Council of Greater Washington.