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Con Game

How a New York rabbi tried to remake the rules on converting to Judaism, until a sex tape—and a family feud between his wealthy backers—brought him down

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Tropper, at left, at a 2006 Eternal Jewish Family conference with Shlomo Amar, the Sephardic chief rabbi of Israel, and Nachum Eisenstein, a leading Jerusalem rabbi, in a photo on the EJF website. (EternalJewishFamily.org)

This is the first in a series.

December was a very bad month for Rabbi Leib Tropper, a powerful ultra-Orthodox rabbi who has been seeking to determine the standards for conversion in Israel and throughout the world through his little-known yet influential organization, Eternal Jewish Family. First, black-and-white posters appeared on walls in Jerusalem and other Israeli cities threatening public disgrace if the rabbi refused to “cease his filth.” While the definition of “filth” was left up to readers’ imaginations, photos and video were prominently mentioned in the text, which demanded that Tropper suspend his involvement in performing religious conversions.

On December 14, Eternal Jewish Family—which is based in the ultra-Orthodox enclave of Monsey, New York, and backed by the billionaire board president of New York’s 92nd Street Y, and his nephew, who owns one of Israel’s most famous soccer clubs—suddenly announced that its founder was resigning his post to “pursue a variety of other interests,” the details of which were again left to readers’ imaginations.

Two days later, the filth appeared online: audio tapes, allegedly of the rabbi, trying to coerce a single mother from Houston into having sex with other men for money—and as the price of her conversion to Judaism.

“Would you have a problem with just talking about sex to a guy, or only actually doing it?” the man asks on one of the tapes. In another, he reassures her, “I could roleplay a rape with you, but I couldn’t actually rape you.” A third featured explicit phone sex between the two. Shortly after the tapes surfaced, the hopeful convert, a minister’s daughter named Shannon Orand, told the blogger Shmarya Rosenberg—who has covered the story on his blog, Failed Messiah—that the rabbi had said, “If you fulfill my needs, I’ll fulfill yours—and you need a conversion.” Through an attorney, Tropper released a statement that admitted no wrongdoing but expressed regret for “what has appeared to be conduct not within our significant laws of modesty.” (When Tablet Magazine reached Tropper by phone at his home in Monsey to request comment, he simply said, “No, no,” and hung up.)

The sex tapes appeared to support the allegations of misconduct against Tropper, and they briefly elevated what started out as internecine rumor-mongering among ultra-Orthodox factions into legitimate tabloid fodder. (“Tal-Mood for Love,” read the headline above a brief item in the New York Post.) To more sensitive listeners, the tapes exhibited not just the particular sexual perversions of a rabbi from Monsey, but also the moral horror of a religious figure exploiting the trust of a woman who was hoping to join the Jewish religion and who was dependent on his authority. (Orand completed her conversion in Jerusalem last week under the auspices of a different Orthodox rabbi.)

Other than the mention in the Post, mainstream American newspapers ignored what is surely one of the weirdest, most embarrassing, and most consequential scandals in recent Jewish history. Mainstream rabbinical and Jewish communal organizations in the United States also chose to be silent. Yet the rise and fall of Leib Tropper raises fundamental questions about the abuse of a closed process in which a small group of ultra-Orthodox authorities are allowed to set their own binding terms for conversion to Judaism using the authority of the State of Israel and without any meaningful oversight. It is also the story of how an almost unknown rabbi managed to become one of the most powerful authorities on the question of conversion, fueled not by a superior knowledge of the Talmud but by access to something that appears to be even dearer to the hearts of the modern rabbinical establishment: money.

Tropper is a rare figure in the Jewish world: a creature of the insular ultra-Orthodox community whose relationships tie him to Texas oil fields, professional sports teams in Israel, and mainstream secular Jewish organizations—specifically, the 92nd Street Y, one of New York’s best-known Jewish community institutions, and home to one of the city’s most exclusive preschools. After spending more than two decades toiling in relative obscurity in Monsey, Tropper catapulted four years ago into the milieu of Israel’s powerful ultra-Orthodox rabbinate, propelled by his two powerful and wealthy patrons: Thomas Kaplan, the billionaire oil and mining wildcatter, and his nephew, Guma Aguiar.

Now 32 years old, Aguiar was born to a Jewish mother but raised as an evangelical Christian. Kaplan—the younger brother of Aguiar’s mother, Ellen—introduced Aguiar to Tropper in 2003, after Aguiar had already begun exploring Judaism. Under the rabbi’s tutelage, Aguiar adopted a Hebrew name—Yehuda Dovid—and, in 2007, made aliyah to Israel, where he has become a celebrity, thanks to his recent investments in the Beitar Jerusalem soccer team and Hapoel Jerusalem, the city’s basketball franchise. Kaplan and Aguiar cemented a philanthropic relationship with Tropper by directing millions of dollars to his Eternal Jewish Family. That money, in turn, enabled Tropper to influence determinations of which rabbis would have the authority to perform conversions—that is, to determine who is and who is not a Jew.

“On a personal level, he was not particularly well respected,” said Rosenberg, who is a fierce critic of the ultra-Orthodox world on his blog. “But insert EJF and conversions into it, along with Tom Kaplan’s money and Guma’s money, and suddenly Tropper became one of the most powerful rabbis in the world.”

Tropper’s relationship with Kaplan and Aguiar, once the source of his power, ultimately played a role in his undoing. For the past year, the two men have been locked in an Oedipal court battle over the $2.55 billion fortune resulting from the 2007 sale of their natural-gas exploration company, Leor Energy, to the oil giant EnCana. Tropper agreed to appear as a witness for Kaplan, and, in response, Aguiar turned against his former mentor. According to Tropper’s wife, Laurel Blond, Aguiar made a phone call to the rabbi’s house in March in which he claimed he had “thousands of rabbis praying for Tom Kaplan’s death” and encouraged the rabbi to “switch sides.” In early April, Aguiar confronted Tropper in Jerusalem at the David Citadel Hotel and, according to court records, threatened to throw the rabbi off a ninth-floor balcony.

Then, in October, Aguiar sued Tropper in an Israeli court, claiming that the rabbi misappropriated donations. “He had gone to Rabbi Tropper for several years as his rabbi—he had confidential discussions with him, he was his spiritual advisor,” Aguiar’s lawyers told a federal judge in Florida last June. (Kaplan’s attorney, Harley Tropin, said in a statement that Kaplan would not comment on the Tropper scandal in light of ongoing litigation.)

When the sex-tape scandal broke last month, Aguiar was among those who forwarded the audio recordings of Tropper’s conversations with Orand to Failed Messiah’s Rosenberg, ensuring that the rabbi would be publicly humiliated. In a phone conversation with Tablet Magazine, Aguiar initially said he forwarded the audio “to some people because I thought they were funny,” but subsequently said he only sent the recordings in response to a request from Rosenberg. “There’s no such thing as revenge,” Aguiar said. “It’s just exposing the truth.”

Aguiar said Kaplan introduced him to Tropper in 2003, after he had already begun studying Judaism with another Monsey rabbi, Tovia Singer, who specializes in reaching out to evangelical Christians who, like Aguiar, were born Jewish, and getting them to “return” to Judaism. With his uncle, Aguiar was instrumental in prompting Tropper to expand beyond his work with baalei teshuva—returning Jews—into the world of conversions. (Aguiar’s wife, Jamie, whom he met in high school, is a blond former evangelical Christian who converted to Judaism.) By 2004, according to emails filed in one of the federal court cases, Tropper had started writing a manual designed to streamline conversions among the various religious courts in America. That year, Kaplan’s foundation gave Tropper’s organization $154,000; the next year, Kaplan and Aguiar directed more than $700,000 to the rabbi’s group.

In early 2006, Tropper told a reporter that EJF was going to offer “Cadillac conversions” to non-Jews who were concerned about making sure their conversions—and, particularly for those converting to marry, their children’s status as born Jews—would be recognized by religious authorities in Israel, where full citizenship depends on it. Tropper offered a clever soundbite: “Why settle for a broken Chevy, which may go down the highway but nobody wants it in their driveway?”

The timing for Tropper’s new product line couldn’t have been better. A feud that had been simmering for years between Israel’s insular, powerful rabbinate and American rabbis erupted into full-scale war in April 2006, when Shlomo Amar, Israel’s Sephardic chief rabbi, announced that he would not automatically recognize conversions approved by the Rabbinical Council of America, the main union of Modern Orthodox rabbis. (The Israeli chief rabbinate does not recognize any conversions, marriages, or other rabbinical functions performed by Reform or Conservative rabbis, on the grounds that the Reform and Conservative movements do not recognize halachic authority and hence are no longer branches of Judaism). Amar’s announcement created a groundswell of interest in Tropper’s Cadillacs, and the rabbi spent lavishly to promote his brand of specially certified conversions to the ultra-Orthodox rabbinate. According to financial records, in 2006 Tropper spent $1.6 million—more than double his previous year’s budget—hosting conferences and paying for rabbis to attend his educational programming, including a lavish Jerusalem summit in July 2006 at the five-star David Citadel devoted to “Improving Conversions and Preventing Intermarriage.” Amar turned up, along with Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi Yonah Metzger and Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, a nonagenarian considered to be one of the ultra-Orthodox world’s leading halachic authorities.

Overnight, the rabbi from Monsey had become a major power broker in the ultra-Orthodox world in both America and Israel. In 2007, the last year for which federal tax records are available, Tropper distributed $2.3 million in scholarships and hundreds of thousands of dollars more in unspecified travel and conference accommodations from his Monsey redoubt.

Tropper has been removed from his post at Eternal Jewish Family—which is still chaired by Kaplan—and, according to the group’s executive director, Rabbi Dovid Jacobs, has also been replaced at Horizons, EJF’s parent organization. It isn’t clear whether he remains in control of his yeshiva, Kol Yaakov; a person who answered the phone there Tuesday refused to comment. But in the weeks since Tropper’s downfall, no one in the ultra-Orthodox world has been willing to officially criticize or reprimand the rabbi for what appear to be his profound and sickening sins. At a December meeting, the Council of Torah Sages, the halachic body of Agudath Israel, an ultra-Orthodox umbrella group, discussed the scandal but decided against issuing a comment. Only the Modern Orthodox Rabbinical Council of America has condemned Tropper’s behavior: “What we have heard, if true, violates the fundamental elements of all that Judaism holds sacred,” the council said in a statement, adding that the rabbis welcomed any of Tropper’s victims for counseling.

“It’s like Nixon,” said Tovia Singer, the rabbi who initially sparked Aguiar’s interest in Judaism. “The damage has obviously been done to the haredi community and the more that they’re in denial the more damage it’ll do.”

MORE: Tablet Magazine’s Marissa Brostoff profiled Shannon Orand here.
MORE:
Read transcripts of the phone calls, plus hear some audio clips, here.
MORE: Allison Hoffman profiled Guma Aguiar here.

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Its interesting to think about the financial side of this story. The poverty that has struck the ultra-orthodox community because of a vast refusal to work seems to have made the community more vulnerable to “bribes”. A Rabbi whos community members are unable to support the community is easily seduced by outside pressures-especially when those outisde pressures come bearing financial gifts.

Dan S. says:

Very interesting indeed. The old saying “Follow the Money” is key, just as it usually is.

Nobody here has clean hands, least of all Tropper himself. I will withhold judgment, however, until I’ve read this story in its entirety.

Will Edwards says:

This smacks of confirmation of long standing belief by the Christian community that Judaism is a “cult” of money and immorality. It is incidents like this, and there are far too many of them, that should wake the Rabbis who do hold the reigns of Judaism to remember what their purpose in this life is. Conversion is never recommended or sought by Judaism for many reasons, but someone willing to go through the extensive difficult process should be treated honorably and respectfully, not turned in to a cash cow taught to worship the golden calf. This is very bad for Judaism, but it might help to restore the act of conversion to a more honest and meaningful experience

Joseph says:

Missing is any mention of the many lives that were ruined over the years by Tropper when he informed people wh thought they were Jewish that no longer were since the EJF didn’t ‘approve’ of the way they had been converted. Suddenly, children were being dismissed from yeshivot.

Miriam Aguilar says:

PLEASE CEASE AND DESIST FROM THIS SATANIC CULT OF CORRUPT SOULESS BANKRUPT RABBI! ESP AGUIAR! I AM SO ASHAMED THAT A SEPHARDIC JEW WITH MY FAMILY NAME WOULD CONTINUE THIS CRIME AGAINST HUMANITY AND ALL OF GOD’S LAWS ON EARTH! I CAN’T WAIT FOR THE SON OF GOD – JESUS CHRIST TO COME DOWN AND WHIP THE HOLY CRAP OUT OF ALL THESE HUMAN IMPOSTERS! I AM SEPHARDIC AND WILL NEVER ALLOW SUCH IGNORANT AND BEASTLY THINKING TO ENTER MY CHRISTIAN SOUL. EVIL RABONI!

Adam Block says:

I disagree with Tablet and the author’s decision to publish this woman’s name, and even though it won’t do any good now, I hope the magazine takes it down as quickly as possible and apologizes to her personally.

Mike S says:

The Jewish “religion” is not any better than scientology, it’s a man-made cult of personality, and apparently anything goes. I look forward to the day when the US doesn’t support Israel any more, and the world judges Israel for its actions. That these people think they are “God’s Chosen People” would be ludicrous if the abuse they heap on others because of it weren’t so disgusting and damaging, especially the holocaust they are perpetrating against the Palestine people, who they treat like animals. I look forward to the day when Israel fails from within.

Why is the fact that Aguiar’s wife is blonde relevant? The fact that it was noted seems like an attempt to reinforce stereotypes about what Jews and non-Jews (particularly non-Jewish women look like.) I would have thought Tablet was above that.

raquelle says:

One question? why are the police not involved? Between the audio and visual tapes there seems to evidence of a conspiracy for blackmail/prostitution/money laundering ring. Is there an investigation? There should be an inquest.

spankyman says:

Its THE JEWS Morty, their going to want more than 100,000 dollars!
-bubbleboy

This Rabbi is a pig, a genuine pig. He touched it, he ate it, he liked it! I guess he cant go to heaven anymore,,,,what a pity.

The RCA let itself be bullied by two corrupt organizations: EJF and the Israeli Rabbanut.

Out of pure cowardice, they turned their backs on fellow rabbis in the field. As well as on converts. Now they feel the need to justify what they have done.

:RabbiinBrooklyn

That also confounded me, my girlfriend is of Jewish heritage but she is blond with green eyes. There are all different ethnicity of Jews from Arab decent, to African to European even Asian. Humans have well been interbreeding (if you can even call it that) forever. It’s rather infuriating that so many take a biased look at the religion as being one of middle eastern brown hair brown eyed people or take all Jews to look Polish or eastern european.

As someone who knows Tropper for over 25 years, I can tell you that as long as Tropper has enablers he will continue his reign of terror and abuse of those who are powerless to stand up for themselves.

The Hanholah the yeshiva he runs should be called, and some sense should be knocked into their heads. They are fine human beings and should not risk being painted with the same brush as tropper. Do they really want their long career in Rabbonus and helping geirim and baal tshuva’s to go up in a cloud of smoke? As long as they still stand by him, they still support him!

Rabbi Dovid Stefansky’s Number is
(845) 426-1389

Rabbi Dovid Wolpin the mashgiach’s number is
(845) 352-4993

Kol Yaakov’s number is

29 West Maple Avenue
Monsey, NY 10952-2954
(845) 425-3863

However you will not find any sane person their answering the phones, your message will be diverted directly to tropper himself.

Andrew says:

The reporter might have investigated further and found that the Aguiar/Kaplan foundation donated $3.2 million to the Beth El-Kiryat Arba yeshiva affiliated with the rabbis who performed Sharon Orand’s conversion. Money seems to talk among west bank zealots too!

kalidas says:

“When you have usury, who needs alchemy?”

Al Joo says:

typical jew!

Regarding Mike S Says:

You are obviously ignorant about the facts. Because 1 person gets nailed for his impropriety. doesn’t make every Jew guilty!
Go back to your corner, and read about all the allegations about certain Priests caught in the act of male fornication.
Does that deligitamise the entire Christianity?
And what does this have to do with the Palestinians?
Stick to the facts, or move on…..

Eli Greenberg says:

What’s the point of converting any more Christians to Judaism? Hell is already full.

IAMthelovefilledjew says:

just like with fine wines, the word “Jewish” has always meant Appellation Uterus Controllée.

At first “jewishness” problems were settled by pig fights over the uterus part … now the idea of jewishness has degenerated into a pig fight over the controllee.

Appellation Uterus Controllee … Jewish fine wine

Nice to see the rabbis getting equal abuse in the media for their misdeeds. First its rabbis selling body parts and now demanding sex for conversion. How sick. Usually, the liberal jewish controlled media just picks on priests and ignores the psycho rabbis that haunt judisam.. Thank you Jesus for letting the truth come out about this man!

You have a story that is one sided. While Tropper acted immorally and desecrated G-d’s name; his enemy is equally responsible.

He planted Mrs. Orand to cause to engage him in this sinful activity. She is no angel here. All this soap opera was carefully premeditated. How did Guma get these tapes to disseminate to Rosenberg (the other orthodox basher). And afterwords they arranged to Mrs.Orand the fake conversion through rabbis which Guma funneled millions of dollars in the recent years. Please be honest and post the story accurately.

According to the Talmud and post-Talmudic rabbinic law, “conversion (must be) performed by authorized rabbis in a proper manner.” For females, it entails an outlandish ritual – “their inspection by three rabbis while naked in a ‘bath of purification’ ” to confirm it.

@eric

You speak of honesty yet work hard I see to try and deflect the truth.

I don’t see anybody being made out to be innocent or perfect in this, but nothing you just wrote aalters the fact of Tropper’s vile behavior one iota. I notice Jews are much into excuses and justification and the act of catching them out in a sin or crime is itself usually given a special label and called a crime itself, by them. The argument seems to be that “well I might have done a widdle bit of a bad thing, but after all, if those mean people had not caught me, then everything would be alright, so you should blame them just as much as me.

LOL. Chutzpah doesn’t even begin to cover it.

Mamzer says:

I tried an Orthodox Conversion once. Lived and studied for over a year. In the end, I think of the Rabbanut much akin to the Eophors in the Movie “300″.

“…souls, as black as hell…”

Combine an empty brain and a gutter-tongue and you get Al Joo.

Steve (9:29pm) has Rabbis inspecting naked women in the Mikvah. Having served as a eyd( witness) for a conversion, I walked backwards into the room. The attendant (shomeret or mikveh lady) told the convert to dunk. She then told me to spin around quickly. I could see some hair just below the surface. The water was full of chlorine and other chemicals so the water was quite green and not see through in the least. My one second of veiwing the convert’s hair under the surface of the water was enough for me to be able to attest to the completion of the tevilah (immersion) part of the conversion ceremony. Get your mind out of the gutter, Steve; nothing perverted here.
Interesting trivia about Tropper, an elementary school classmate of mine. Leib is probably named after his grandfather,Rabbi Leib Forer of Holyoke MA who passed in 1949 the approximate year of Tropper’s birth. I’ve davened (prayed)in both the Orthodox and the Conservative synagogues in Holyoke and somehow Rabbi Forer simultaneously was spiritual leader of both! He must have been an inclusive Orthodox Rabbi to lead a Conservative synagogue. He is probably spinning in his grave to have his namesake be such a scoundrel and to be so unwelcoming to even Modern Orthodox converts. All faiths have their rogues. God must saddened by what is done in religion’s name. This is a Rorsharch test- if you are looking to knock a religion, you can read that into the story. If you want to believe,
you can just look at the story as one of a false prophet.
in both

steve,

I’m not deflectingany truth. Istate clearly that tropperisa lowlife; yet you andothers have yet to say something close about guma (who is also a lowlife). And so, you and many other bloggers glorify mrs. orand as if she is the holiest tzadeket when she was apartner to tropper shennanigans. but in your book maybe someone who entraps relgious man (Even lowlifes) are righteouspeople!

Be honest andspeak thetruth.

I know Rabbi Leib Tropper and have spent time with him, and have spoken with him on the phone forming a favorable opinion.

My grandfather taught me to judge people by how they treated me rather than an opinion that is passed as gossip second or third hand. Rabbi Tropper has been nothing but kind to me. I have no idea what happened but I am saddened by it. Many of the readers are assuming they know the full story and are making outrageous statements and assumptions. I have no idea what happened other than a stark tragedy which is hurting a lot of people.

I listened to the tapes on youtube. As a social worker in the field of mental health for a very long time I can tell you that those conversations were indicative of some other kind of issue which would have caused such a severe lapse of behavior. Also, I was surprised that the women didn’t just hang up but kept talking to him – and recording the conversation.

Also, please note the comments that have been added some of them anti-semitic, and otherwise vile. This is my first visit to the website and I am finding something that is the journalistic equivelant of the tabloids.

Not everybody that wears a black hat is a saint. But, I would stand with that group of people trusting them more than any other group I have ever been affiliated with.

Sadly your online article has surpassed journalistic fact finding and has stepped over the edge into irresponsible sensationalism.

Jesus looked nothing like them.
Jesus was a spiritual being placed in a shithole. Bet $100 GOD does not build it back up.

Are Jews Amish?

Michah says:

Jews are just people that are born to Jewish mothers.
Jews are also those who believe in the Jewish faith.
Some good and some bad.
Same as with every other denomination.
We’re humans – no better and no worse.
I don’t expect anything else.
The Jewish religion or Jewish studies do not immune one from being or behaving bad – obviously…

The false warlike teachings of one of the three major religions, the sex-abuse stories about another, and these yukky rites to be converted to another, make me sick. Anything that isn’t normal and sensible ought to be abolished and avoided. If Yehovah, the Father, and/or Allah really wanted these strange beliefs, why can’t they appear at the United Nations and tell the whole world? Read some of the stuff I’ve copied onto my website if you doubt me.

velvel in atlanta says:

Beneath contempt, that is what this self-professed teacher is.
Beneath contempt.
And if he and his supporters wonder why they are treated with disdain by the rest of the community, they are not only beneath contempt, they are self-deluded.
Either way, they should move to the desert so as not to pollute the community. Maybe Hashem will strike their worthless and soulless carcasses with lightning.

Shaina Freilich says:

This whole story is a tragedy. I have no doubt Rabbi Tropper will do a genuine repentance.

Have you ever considered adding more videos to your blog posts to keep the readers more entertained? I mean I just read through the entire article of yours and it was quite good but since I’m more of a visual learner

jeremy says:

So what have we learned from all of this? All orthodox rabbis are crooks? All religious people are hypocrites? Or, that rabbis, like priests and ministers, are human. And humans do terrible things. Even religious ones.

http:/www. Troppergate.com run by an insider in Monsey is reporting that Rabbi Leib Tropper has formally resigned and told a select few, one of whom told him.

Boris says:

Where does Tropper live now?

I was offered Eternal Jewish Family as an “only option” by the Rabbi I began my conversion with. I am glad I felt uncomfortable with the idea of this option. I do feel I have no other good resource to convert Orthodox, but I am happy to wait…I can’t believe I was thinking about working with this man a year ago.

Sam Goldberg says:

So everyone is looking at this orthodx rabbi, what about Tovia’s wonderful tract record. How many young women has he slept with and how many marrages has he broken up? For example mine. He may be a great speaker but that is not all he is good at. There is a reason he isn’t married and got fired from Arutz Sheveh. Too many young women that he kept a secret and findly came out. He goes around lecturing or trying to sleep with every young pretty girl he can find who can keep a secret. You be the judge….

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Con Game

How a New York rabbi tried to remake the rules on converting to Judaism, until a sex tape—and a family feud between his wealthy backers—brought him down

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