Rabbi Eliezer Melamed
Rabbi Eliezer MelamedPR photo

The Vienna Conversion Affair

In the previous column, I related the general story of the Vienna Conversions Affair, and the tale of the tragic hero of the affair, Rabbi Alter Meir Steinmetz ztz’l. By the grace of God, the only copy of his memoirs in which he described in detail the Vienna conversions he himself organized, has been found. This time I will relate how the affair developed.

The Vienna conversions were conversions organized by the Department of Religion of the Jewish Agency for spouses of Jews who wanted to immigrate from the Soviet Union to Israel. Before their immigration they were offered the chance to study Judaism, and convert. The majority of the non-Jews were happy with the offer, as they wanted to tie their fate with that of the Jewish people. There were also those who did not want to participate in study and conversion, usually, those who preferred to settle in other countries.

To this end, Rabbi Alter recruited Rabbi Dr. Eisenberg, the Chief Rabbi of Vienna who presided over the Beit Din, and Rabbi Haim Greenfeld, rabbi of the Agudath Yisrael community in Vienna, who served as the halakhic authority with whom they consulted in all matters. The dayanim (judges) were usually Rabbi Dr. Eisenberg, Rabbi Alter, and the director of the Torah Talmud of Agudath Yisrael in Vienna, Rabbi Yosef Bruner. This was the conversion process during the year 1969, and in the winter of 1970.

The Beginning of the Affair

At the end of the winter of 1970, Shmuel Yeshaya Ratek, a Satmar Hassid and banker, published a scathing attack against the so-called fictitious conversions conducted by the Zionist Agency in Vienna in Satmar’s newspaper in New York ‘Der YId’. Ratek was one of the leaders of the extreme Haredi community that split from the Agudath Yisrael community in Vienna, and was also known as an offender involved in crimes. By publishing the article, he sought to attack both Zionism and the Haredi Rabbi of Vienna.

Following the article that supposedly revealed the truth about the Vienna converts, the Rebbe of Lubavitch, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson ztz”l, who beforehand had taken great interest in the issue of Aliya and the “Who is a Jew” law, was shocked by what was described as fictitious converts.

Apparently, there were other people, opponents of Zionism and the Jewish Agency, who reported to him that these conversions were indeed fictitious. Subsequently, the Rebbe began to fiercely attack the Jewish Agency on the grounds that it had established a “factory for conversions”. Activists in Israel from various circles who were in conflict with the Mizrahi movement, began to spread his words to the religious and secular media, and they were repeatedly published in newspapers in Israel.

For example, in the Agudath Yisrael newspaper ‘She’arim’ of the Poalei Agudath Yisrael, it was written that in a conversation given by the Lubavitcher Rebbe in Parashat Re’eh, 1970, he said: “There is a conversion factory in Vienna conducting wholesale conversions to a large number of non-Jews, which is growing day by day” (She’arim, Elul 10, 1970).

The Numbers Plot

In a conversation on the 11th of Shevat 1971, the Rebbe referred to the issue, and said: “Because lying has no principles, we see that there are several versions of a lie; the truth is one, and only one, but a lie has many types. For example, in our case: the lie is to the extent that when talking about the conversions of Vienna – one person claims there were twenty-four cases, a second person says fifty-eight, a third person claims there were one hundred, and a fourth person already says three hundred!…"

"Seemingly, if everyone is telling the truth, how could there be such a difference in numbers? Isn’t everything written down? And those who claim these numbers, are official people!” (Admorei Chabad and Austrian Jewry, 2014, p. 264). In the newspaper Yediot Ahronot, dated the 23rd of Shevat 1971, it was published that fake conversions were being performed in Vienna, and according to the claim of “Chabad circles”, their number is “320 men and women”.

The Correct Number

In practice, the number of converts was 54 in a year and a half. No one tried to hide the number. What happened was that the slanderers against the Vienna converts were liars, and as falsehoods have no legs to stand on, one time they tossed out one number, and another time, a different number.

It is worth noting, the people who engaged in conversions were known as honest people. Such was Rabbi Alter Steinmetz, a Torah scholar who risked his life and saved hundreds of Jews in the Holocaust. So was Rabbi Kirschblum, one of the heads of the Jewish Agency, who beforehand, served as the head of Mizrahi in the United States. And of course, this was the case with the eminent Rabbi Shamai Ginzburg, who, as part of his work in the Jewish Agency, guided all the conversions.

Apparently, the slanderers repeatedly told the Rebbe ztz”l slanderous things about the members of the Jewish Agency, to the point where he was sure they were evil. There is no other way to explain how a great man like himself, who meticulously respected Torah scholars of all circles and fostered peace amongst Jews, took such a harsh position against the Vienna conversions.

The Spread of Slander in the Land of Israel

As a result of this, the ‘Committee for the Integrity of the People’ was established in Israel, which began to organize attacks in the media against the Jewish Agency, and the Chief Rabbinate that had turned a blind eye and approved the fake conversions in Vienna.

The heads of the Mafdal, and especially the Minister of Religious Affairs, Zerach Warhaftig, responded to the allegations saying those involved in converting were God-fearing people, the converts’ study was serious and lasted for several weeks, and the converts showed great interest and a desire to join the Jewish people. They were confident that as soon as the Chief Rabbinate examined the converts, it would find that they were done according to halakha, and the affair would fade away.

However, Chabad activists, together with Litvish rabbis, began to visit the houses of the Rabbis and Admorim (Rebbes), and mobilized them to protest against the Vienna converts. They claimed that they did not teach the converts Judaism at all, since Steinmetz, who claimed to teach them, is merely a kashrut overseer ignorant of Torah knoweldge, nor did he understand the language of the converts. How then, could he teach them? In other words, he lied. In practice, Rabbi Alter Steinmetz was a Talmid Chacham ordained as a rabbi, was fluent in six languages, ​​and able to speak with the immigrants.

They also argued in regards to the acceptance of mitzvot that the converts signed a piece of paper without knowing the meaning of the conversion, and based on shaking their heads positively, the rabbis converted them. In practice, each convert was examined by the dayanim for what he had learned, and his desire to convert and accept the yoke of mitzvot.

They also claimed that members of the Jewish Agency converted them only if they intended to immigrate to Israel, and therefore, it was a conditional conversion contrary to halakha. In practice, the converts believed that if they intended to immigrate to Israel, it was proof they were tying their fate to that of the Jewish people, and consequently, there was a basis for their conversion.

They also claimed that the Rabbi of Vienna, Rabbi Dr. Eisenberg, was a neologic rabbi, in other words reform, and in his congregation and with his consent, parties were held in hotels where pork was served, and of course, that is what they ate. His only virtue, they claimed, was that he was a member of the Mizrahi movement, and consequently, members of Mizrahi supported him.

In practice, Rabbi Eisenberg was an Orthodox rabbi ordained by the rabbis of Hungary, and indeed, he also earned an academic degree in a neological seminary, as did other modern rabbis like himself. Nevertheless, because he was God-fearing, when he had difficult questions he asked eminent rabbis, including Rabbi Greenfeld, Rabbi of the Agudath Yisrael community in Vienna, who also agreed to accompany the conversion Beit Din. It should be noted that even afterwards, rabbis from all over the world continued to refer to him as an Orthodox rabbi.

The Pasqeville

Since the slanderers knew that the Chief Rabbinate, and especially Rabbi Unterman, knew about the conversions in Vienna and accepted them, when they went to incite the rabbis and mobilize them against the Vienna converts, they added that the Chief Rabbinate had capitulated to the Agency officials and approved them, therefore it was necessary to issue an urgent call against the breach. Unfortunately, many rabbis signed the pasqeville (billboard poster), which was based on lies.

In Shevat 1971, a proclamation was published, saying: “To our brothers, God’s people! Everything taking place at the Aliyah center in Vienna, Marseille and the other centers of immigrants is already public knowledge. Under the guise of encouraging Aliyah, they advise non-Jews to officially announce their Jewishness, and have established a ‘conversion’ committee, and in this way, bring foreigners into the Holy Land, holding in their hands an official document confirming their ‘Jewishness’. This is a scandal like no other, and a huge breach in the wall of unity of the Jewish people and its purity. We appeal to all who have a hand in public activity and business, and those who have the fear of God in their heart, to invest all their energy and power of influence to prevent this disgraceful phenomenon and uproot the evil from its roots, and most importantly, to establish a law which will recognize only a conversion that has been carried out according to halacha. The Holy Land will not be given to anyone except the Holy People!”

This proclamation was signed by twenty-seven Admorim and rabbis, and was published in the press and in street advertisements. Among the signatories were the Admorim of Lublin, Rachmastrivka, Lelov, Makhnovka, Pittsburgh, Biala, Chernobyl, Nadvorna and others; heads of yeshivot of the Hebron yeshiva, Rabbi Moshe Hevroni and the mashgiach Rabbi Meir Chadash, and the heads of the Ponivez yeshiva Rabbi Shmuel Rozovsky, Rabbi Pobarsky, and Rabbi Levinstein, as well as Rabbi Kanievsky (the Steipler), Rabbi Wazner (‘Shevet Halevi’), and Rabbi Landa of Bnei Brak. They even managed to incite the Baba Sali against the Vienna converts, and had him sign the proclamation. At the same time, the Eda Haredit community from Jerusalem issued its own harsher proclamation.

Incidentally, rabbis who later heard what really happened with the Vienna converts, retracted and apologized for the position they had taken. In addition, it should be noted that the Rebbe of Gur and the Rebbe of Vishnitz did not sign the proclamation because they had heard the story personally – the Rebbe of Gur from his trustee, Rabbi Shamai Ginzburg, and the Rebbe of Vishnitz from his trustee, Rabbi Alter Steinmetz.

How Controversies are Escalated

There is a deep ongoing debate about whether in pressing circumstances it is appropriate to convert members of Jewish families who identify with Judaism, but apparently will not maintain a religious lifestyle. However, when on top of the real halakhic debate, false accusations and slander are spread about the opposing side, a dreadful dispute develops, causing horrible controversy and destruction beyond description.

This is what happened to Rabbi Yonatan Eibeschitz – antagonists spread terrible slander about him, and unfortunately, even very eminent rabbis believed the slander, and signed proclamations against him. This also happened to some of the Gedolei Hassidut, when adversaries said exceedingly harsh things about them, causing a terrible controversy.

Interim Summary

It is clear to me that the absolute majority of the rabbis thought in good faith that the stories about the members of the Jewish Agency and the rabbis who converted were true, but in reality, they were falsehoods. In the end, the rabbis who provoked the controversy against the Vienna converts, suffered severe controversies themselves.

In the next column, I will complete the story.

This article appears in the ‘Besheva’ newspaper and was translated from Hebrew.