| Magazine Feature |

Root of the Issue

When, How, and Where Must We Demand Proof of Jewish Identity?

While Israel and many European communities maintain detailed registers of family information, North American rabbanim must rely on personal networks, knowledge of “Jewish geography,” and sometimes uncomfortable questions in order to determine a person’s Jewish status. Rabbis in the trenches share how they deal with the uncertainties that come with the territory

The shocking case that came to light earlier this month in which a Lebanese Shiite Muslim man managed to infiltrate Brooklyn’s frum community — to the extent that he was able to marry a Jewish woman — generated headlines around the world. The incident shone a light on the fragmented, often informal system employed by North American communities to vet a prospective member’s Jewishness.

Whereas Orthodox Jews in Israel and many European communities maintain detailed registers of historical family information, US and Canadian rabbanim are forced to rely on personal networks and knowledge of “Jewish geography.” That system came up short in this particular case, but rabbanim and kiruv workers on the ground told Mishpacha that in general it can be trusted.

Nevertheless, all those who use that system would be well advised to listen to the words of the father of the young woman whom it failed.

“Every case needs to be checked,” he told Mishpacha unequivocally. “And not just the person’s name, and his family name, and where he comes from. They have to track down where he was actually born, and trace every step he’s taken in his life — what he ate, what he drank, where he slept. In this digital age, it’s also easier to track down his friends.”

In the meantime, the would-be father-in-law worries that people hearing about this scam are underestimating its brilliance. “This was a very, very smart individual,” he says. “He knew how to speak, how to conduct himself, how to calmly blend in without arousing suspicion.

“I don’t know what his ultimate goal was. He says that of course he had no hostile intentions, and he just wanted to take my daughter as his wife. I’m not saying he was a spy — also the police are convinced he isn’t a spy — but someone who did want to do so could very easily pass himself off in the same way. And this is very dangerous.”

Red Flags

Rav Yosef Viener of Kehillas Sha’ar HaShamayim in Monsey, New York, author of Contemporary Questions in Halachah and Hashkafah (ArtScroll/Mesorah), says birur Yahadus — verification of Jewish identity — is not an everyday issue in the frum community. The community can rely on a chezkas kashrus (presumption of Jewishness) for a familiar family with longstanding ties. Most of the birur Yahadus calls Rav Viener receives come from less-affiliated communities, or from kiruv professionals working with individuals whose backgrounds are somewhat unclear.

“Red flags are raised when, for example someone claims he is Jewish and comes from a place that traditionally had very few Jews and no one can identify the family,” he says. “It usually doesn’t take more than a quick, informal background conversation to see if you need to dig a little bit deeper, and establish the family genealogy.”

Rabbi Moshe Schonbrun, who works on the campus at the University of Maryland, uses similar methods. Before coming to the East Coast, Rabbi Moshe and Esti Schonbrun spent three years at the University of Arizona in sunny Tucson, doing kiruv — or as Reb Moshe likes to say, “providing a context for passionate Torah life to Jews who were hitherto unaware of such concepts and thus channel the innate craving of every human being for meaning to Hashem.”

The first time he sits down with a student (which, for Rabbi Schonbrun, inevitably includes a steaming cup of freshly brewed espresso), he eases into natural conversation. “I’ll ask about their Jewish background and I’ll share my own. We’ll talk about which (if any) shul their family is affiliated with, and which summer camp they attended. Things like how we each celebrated our bar or bat mitzvahs, or what Pesach and Chanukah looked like in our families. All this comes up in a conversation about Judaism.”

Yichus issues will usually arise during that initial conversation. There are, admittedly, times when a crucial fact can slip through the cracks, but people are usually forthcoming enough for him to pick up on potential problems. As an additional filter, students fill out an official application before partaking in more extensive programming (such as Olami’s Poland and Israel trips). The application asks students to fill out family trees, and provide information on any conversions.

(Rabbi Schonbrun remembers one application that produced an unexpected result, when a female student described herself as the daughter of an intermarriage — with her mother on the wrong side of the equation. He befriended the student’s father, who took a liking to the good rabbi. Sometime later, the student’s paternal uncle passed away, and the distraught brother confided that the deceased hadn’t dictated burial plans, so he was reaching out to Reb Moshe — the only Orthodox Jew he knew — to ask for help ensuring a proper halachic kevurah.)

Rabbi Schonbrun raises another, perhaps more salient reason as to why — at least on college campuses — the chances of a non-Jew managing to pass as a Jew all the way to the chuppah are diminishing (the current scandal notwithstanding).

“Kiruv on campus is moving away from trying to convince students about the truths of Torah” he says. “My approach, and the approach of many campus rabbis, has always been about building authentic relationships with people. When a student has a close relationship with someone with a passion for Torah and mitzvos, leading a genuine Torah lifestyle — that itself has the greatest impact.

“Shabbos meals in our home aren’t cafeteria style,” he says. “You can’t just come, eat, and leave. We engage in deep and real conversation. Where are you from? When did your grandparents come to America? What values did you learn from your parents? These are topics that are discussed in the course of building relationships. Obviously I don’t have the capacity to do a comprehensive investigation on the hundreds of students we meet any given semester, but with anyone who is advancing in their commitment to Yiddishkeit, I’ll learn b’chavrusa and deepen our bond.

“Unless the guy is a trained pathological liar who manages to spin an entire tail of deceit without getting himself caught up in a web of deceptions, we’ll pick up on something amiss,” he says. “It’s just the nature of relationships.”

Resolving Doubts

What happens when, after all that informal connecting and conversation, it turns out someone’s Jewishness is in doubt? Rabbi Schonbrun has had his share of such cases, and consulted each time with a posek to get clear instructions on how to proceed. At times, he has had to outsource an investigation to other rabbanim, explaining to the student in question that it was par for the course.

Rav Viener remembers one time over 60 college students from around the country came to Monsey for a shabbaton. For many of them, it was their first time being submersed in a complete environment of halachic Judaism.

“It hit them that being Jewish was taken very seriously in the Torah world,” he says.

Several students themselves started doubting the authenticity of their Jewishness. Rav Viener points out that this only occurred to them then, despite the sponsoring organization having asked students to fill out an application that included pointed questions about their maternal family tree.

“We’re three generations past Europe” says Rav Viener, “and they have no idea where their great-grandparents came from. They heard at home that they’re Jewish — but they don’t really know the halachic criteria.”

One young man at first didn’t know much more about his background than the fact that his roots were from “somewhere in Europe.” He approached Rav Viener to discuss his status. When the Rav asked the fellow why he was interested in Jewish activities, the young man explained that he often found himself defending the State of Israel from leftist groups and hostile professors on campus. He had started to wonder why he was so passionate about defending Jews, when the religion itself didn’t have any practical effect on his day-to-day life. He started to explore what it was all about, and was deeply affected by what he discovered. He had slowly working his way toward Torah observance.

Now, though, he was questioning if he was halachically Jewish in the first place. He was confident that his dad was Jewish, and knew that Mom’s dad was Jewish as well, but what about Grandma? He couldn’t quite remember.

“These are obviously cases that require more probing,” says the Rav.

Sometimes the chance of verifying a person’s Jewishness is slim — as with the call Rav Viener took recently from a bochur whose family claimed descent from Marranos.

“The family had lived in an assimilated community in South America for a number of years, and legend in their family had it that they descended from a family of Portuguese Marranos,” Rav Viener explains. “Even if the family story was correct, it is doubtful that they were Jews. You would need an unbroken chain of a bas acher bas going back to 1492.”

Other cases stand better odds — like the question that reached Rav Viener’s desk recently, in which he estimated the likelihood of verifiable Jewish identity was “80 to 90 percent,” but there were nagging concern that a geirus in the family had been performed by a beis din not sufficiently versed in the relevant halachos.

But any doubt — no matter the size or scope — must be resolved, and the inquiry requires sensitive detective work. Relevant evidence can include a kesubah, a get, or, in the event that a divorce was recorded but documentation of a get cannot be obtained, some proof that the earlier marriage is halachically invalid.

Other helpful (if inconclusive) information can come in the form of certificates for a bar or bas mitzvah or a bris milah. Such certificates were developed by forward-thinking local rabbis in less affiliated communities to help substantiate claims of Judaism should the need arise later on. And in today’s technological world, social media sites and posts can give a glimpse into someone’s background, especially during holiday season, when family pictures are in vogue.

Jewish geography plays an important role as well.

“Rabbanim rely on each other to help get a sense of what a person’s background is,” says Rav Viener. “So if someone tells you they have relatives in a certain town, it doesn’t take long to verify that information from a trusted source.”

Rav Viener and other rabbanim rely on the fact that the people they are calling for information are trusted, vetted individuals. “These rabbanim are often people you know from yeshivah, from extended family, and from meetings for rabbanim and dayanim, such as the Agudah Convention.”

Unknown Status

Regardless of how likely or not an individual is Jewish, the bottom line is that there is no such thing as a “half a Jew.” The clear halachah is that the status of a Jew is based strictly on maternal ancestry, and one either has it or not. And if he doesn’t have it, a halachic conversion is required.

“The concept of zera Yisrael — when there is a Jewish father, but not a Jewish mother — is often misquoted, and over applied,” says Rav Viener. “There are no Rishonim or early Acharonim who mention it explicitly.

“The only time it might be applicable is when a gentile comes to a beis din requesting a conversion — halachah requires that we discourage him at first. Some held that in a case of zera Yisrael, the beis din is not obligated to discourage the candidate as strongly as we generally would. (Or perhaps we would even encourage him if proper kabbalas ol hamitzvos were possible.)

“It is crucial to point out that even the limitation only applies when the prospective ger is willing and able to undertake a real and complete kabbalas ol hamitzvos. Unfortunately, it is all too common that the critical component, a sincere and realistic commitment, is nonexistent, not intended, or not practical for the individual in question. It is therefore a disservice to the applicant — and a real danger to the Jewish community — if such an accepting geirus process is to be pushed or condoned.”

In the event that we can’t establish a strong case for the halachic Jewish status of the individual, undergoing geirus l’chumra would be the next viable option. This is, again, assuming that a full kabbalas ol hamitzvos is a realistic and genuine process. Such a decision requires insight, nuance, and sensitivity.

“We don’t perform geirus flippantly, even when it’s l’chumra, because of the psychological implications it might have — especially if the person being misgayer is someone who has been keeping Torah and mitzvos for some time,” says Rabbi Viener.

“However, if it is the only way we can ensure that someone will be unequivocally verified and accepted as a full member of Jewish community, it should be done. The integrity of a nation depends on it.”

Burden of Proof

Rabbi Michoel Zylberman, a musmach of Yeshivas Rabbeinu Yitzchok Elchonon, holds yadin yadin semichah and serves as associate director of the Beth Din of America and geirus coordinator for the Rabbinical Council of America.

Aside from marriage, is there ever a point at which rabbanim must scrutinize and verify someone’s Jewish identity?

Aside from marriage, the most common scenario in which a rav would have to establish that someone is a Jew is when a person wants to make aliyah under Israel’s Law of Return. While the Law of Return does not define Jewishness in halachic terms, the Jewish Agency requires applicants for aliyah to submit a “proof of Jewishness” letter signed by a rabbi.

Do Jewish schools or institutions require documentation of a person’s Jewishness?

Many schools have in their standard application form a question about whether there were any conversions in the family, and a request for supporting documentation. Institutions often reach out to the beis din for guidance in assessing such documents. My impression is that most schools do not probe applicants’ Jewishness beyond that, unless there is a red flag.

What are the procedures used to investigate someone’s background?

There is no magic formula for determining Jewishness. We look for various corroborating pieces of evidence up the maternal line, including kesubos, birth records, shul membership records, burial records, and immigration records. Census records up to 1940 are public information now, and the 1930 and 1920 censuses included a question about what language a family spoke at home. If a family spoke Yiddish at home in the Lower East Side in the 1920s, that is not necessarily conclusive, but is at least some indication of Jewishness. We also look at family trees, and whether the applicant remembers his or her ancestors as having engaged in any Jewish practices.

What is the baseline for when we have to go through the process of establishing that someone is Jewish versus accepting a Jewish claim at face value?

Strictly speaking, if we have no reason to suspect otherwise, a person is believed when he or she claims to be Jewish. However, the Be’er Heitiv in Shulchan Aruch Even HaEzer 2:4 references a “takanas medinas Lita” — an edict from Lithuania going back centuries, to the effect that if someone came from a different country, or no one knew his family, he had to prove his Jewishness in order to get married. Partially due to various modern realities that did not exist in earlier historical periods — including the fact that there are many situations, especially in Eretz Yisrael, when it is advantageous to be Jewish, and the corruption of the halachic definition of Jewishness in certain sectors — the general practice nowadays both of the Rabbanut in Eretz Yisrael and of batei din around the world is to require some proof of Jewishness for marriage purposes, especially when someone comes from another country or from a nonobservant background. If a person comes from an observant background going back a few generations, then, absent any red flags, we generally assume that he or she is Jewish.

With whom does the responsibility to prove Jewishness lie?

Ultimately a prospective mesader kiddushin is responsible for ascertaining that the chassan and kallah are halachically Jewish and are eligible to marry each other. Beyond establishing Jewishness, he needs to establish that there is no concern of mamzeirus and that a Kohein is marrying a woman whom he is eligible to wed. Where there are complexities involved, a mesader kiddushin should refer the matter to a responsible beis din with experience in researching such situations.

In the event that a rabbi suspects someone who presents as Jewish, are there ways to look into the person’s background without causing offense?

If a rabbi wants a beis din to investigate someone’s Jewishness, there is no way that the beis din can do that responsibly without talking to the person in question and reviewing the requested documentation. That doesn’t mean that it can’t be done with sensitivity. A prospective mesader kiddushin who does not independently know the status of the chassan or kallah can explain that as a matter of policy, he must ask for certain information before agreeing to perform a wedding.

Is it a concern that some organizations and individuals involved in outreach are, by their very nature, too accepting? Is it problematic in the sense that one can become enmeshed in the community and not be properly directed before it’s too late?

We often get questions from Chabad shluchim and campus kiruv professionals about Jewish status matters. My sense is that many in the field are aware of the challenges inherent in their work and the need to balance the kiruv imperative with ensuring that there should be no breaches in yuchsin.


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 887)

Oops! We could not locate your form.