RABBINIC SUPPLY CHAIN INTACT AFTER 170 YEARS
At 3:00 a.m. on December 14, Rabbi Gideon Estes of Houston, Texas recited his morning prayers, added a little something for safe travel, and then drove to the airport. Changing planes in Miami, he landed in Barbados that same afternoon — just in time to prepare for the first Beit Din (Jewish Court) to be convened in the Bridgetown Synagogue since the year 1851.
On the vast scale of Jewish history (3000+ years) this 170 year gap in the convocation of a Beit Din, on a tropical island at the very edge of the Diaspora, is an indistinguishable blip. Nonetheless, from the point of view of today’s tiny Barbados Jewish community, the reappearance of a Beit Din here serves as a much hoped-for sign of vitality in a community that has undergone enormous demographic stress in the past fifty years.
To understand the significance of the occasion, one first needs to know what a Beit Din is. Since the first century A.D. every major Jewish community worldwide has hosted a Beit Din, literally a “House of Judgment.” A Beit Din is a local court comprised of three or more rabbis who are charged with resolving conflicts among members of the community, in both ritual and commercial matters, in accordance with Jewish law, or Halakha.
Halakha is a generic term that refers to the entire corpus of Jewish law. At the center, as a prime directive, sits the Torah. In legal terms, the Torah is the equivalent of a Constitution. The Talmud, also a major component of Halakha, is the equivalent of the Common Law in Western jurisprudence: it’s law made by judges (rabbis) who record their rulings on various matters over time, and these rulings become law by virtue of their precedence.
While individual rabbis can make rulings about basic ritual questions and simple commercial disputes, a Beit Din is convened for matters that require public recognition or official legitimacy. For example a divorce, by Halakhic prescription, can only be authorized by a Beit Din.
The 1851 Beit Din in Bridgetown was organized to effect the conversion of a non-Jewish woman prior to her marriage to Philip Rubens, a local merchant and member of the then greatly diminished Nidhe Israel congregation. An entry in the synagogue’s records dated February 2 of that year relates the attestation of Rabbi Cohen: “Louisa Dacarnasion was made a Jewess by me on the above date according to the Law of Moses and Israel, and her name is now Sarah bat Avraham.” Because three rabbis were not available, the legal documents were co-signed by two respected Parnassim (elders) of the community.
Now fast-forward 170 years. What was the urgent Halakhic matter that arose in Barbados in December 2021 that prompted Rabbi Gideon Estes (far left in the photo) to make his way from Houston to the Bridgetown synagogue?
As it turns out the Beit Din he convened here last month was also for the purpose of conversion, albeit under very different circumstances. In this case it was to document the Jewish identity of the three sons of a visiting Jewish diplomat (second from left), a man whose wife, although happy to raise their children as Jews, was not Jewish by birth. Halakha stipulates that Jewish identity is derived maternally, so in order for these children to be recognized as Jews they needed to undergo a ceremonial conversion. In this case, for these minor children (who had already undergone ritual circumcision on their eighth day of life), the conversion process required only a simple immersion, accompanied by three short blessings, and then the issuance by the beit din of a certificate of conversion, or t’eudat giyyur.
With great historical symmetry, the recent Beit Din that produced these certificates was not able to assemble three rabbis — we were lucky to get one — so the legal documents were co-signed (painstakingly, in Hebrew, in triplicate) by two senior members of the BJC, Paul Altman and Scott Oran (third and fourth from left).
The organization of this mitzvah was not a formulaic or perfunctory matter. In addition to the last-minute effort undertaken by Rabbi Estes (with the consent of his employer, Congregation Or Ami of Houston), substantive research was conducted, and documentation prepared, by Dr. Thomas Salamon, Rabbi Emeritus of the Westminster Synagogue in London. The entire process was guided by Rabbis Andrew Sacks and Peretz Rodman, both of Jerusalem, who have specific expertise in conversion matters. The BJC expresses its gratitude to all those who came together to make this happen.