(I will emphasize I hold no personal grudge against anyone who manages the system here, perhaps with exception to those figures who have very publicly failed in their general duties as venerable Rabbinical figures.)
The Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) responded quickly and professionally to the abysmal collapse of Barry Freundel, sweeping in to reassure anyone that they would not be personally affected by his misdoings and that their conversions would remain in tact, promising better support for female candidates and a full review of the Geirut Policy and Standards (GPS) process to safeguard against future abuses. But predictably, the Israeli Chief Rabbinate has said it will review these conversions themselves, which underscores exactly why this latest scandal is such a punch in the gut for myself and other converts, building on years of perceived abuse against us converts before, during and after the process.
I am writing to advocate that not only are the RCA’s gestures not enough to rectify this crisis, but they do not anticipate that the system’s default design will likely feed more cases like this in the near future. This is a system where too few people have too much power. Converts’ personal lives are held in limbo, sometimes for years, without word of way to push forward, a result of undue and overwhelming pressure from the Israeli Rabbinate to demonstrate stricter standards for entry into Judaism to prospective converts. That the Israel Rabbinate will make its own decisions here demonstrates what creates so much psychological insecurity for our community. The precedent set by the Rabbinical Council of America to, excuse my parlance, surrender to the Israeli Rabbinate is what gives that Rabbinate the confidence that not only can it rule independently of the local Rabbinical organizations who have more justified jurisdiction, but it can actually overrule them despite being a weighted equal in authority.
Years of public doubts cast on the intent of converts or the seriousness of the majority of Israeli and American Rabbis have fomented a culture of distrust toward us. The unprecedented inclination to disqualify previous conversions leaves us looking over our shoulders in constant fear that our status as fully fledged members of the tribe may be revoked at any moment for reasons that we cannot foresee.
There are a series of things the RCA can do to start winning that trust back and resetting how the converted and the native relate to each other:
1. Expand the number of conversion courts
Converts are currently restricted to 15 special courts across the entire continental United States and Canada. This is a result of changes passed in 2006 to consolidate control over conversion in as few hands as possible. However, it’s added to the burden by forcing candidates to travel longer distances for meetings and restricting resources that would otherwise be available to convert more people.
2. Authorize any RCA member to sit on a conversion court
At the moment, somewhere between 40 and 50 people are authorized to sit on conversion tribunals, perhaps slightly more who would be acceptable substitutions if necessary. This has restricted the number of people reviewing the process, options for teachers and reemphasized a disconnect between instructors and the people who actually oversee the final conversion. By handing back authority to other RCA members, it will signal to the general public that all Rabbis are trustworthy.
3. Challenge decisions by foreign Rabbinical bodies who overreach
Specifically, push back against the Israeli Rabbinate. At the moment, Israeli converts feel more pressure than American ones, where decisions have been handed down disqualifying conversions of reputable authorities like Rabbi Chaim Druckman with little justification. That incident is what fueled the RCA’s need to speak out in defense of Rabbi Freundel’s conversions this week, to address the fear that a similar situation might happen in America. Undue pressures from overly strict authorities can also push sincere candidates away from finishing the process, as well as sew more distrust among recent converts of Rabbis in general.
4. Strive to end unequal treatment of converts by synagogues, matchmakers and others
There are a number of double standards in place in shuls across the United States. New members who admit they are converts are asked for paperwork and second verification, as if they are being reevaluated. Many synagogues refuse to allow their congregation’s highest positions to go to converts, including synagogue presidencies. There is no true justification for this in Jewish law and only serves to push back against the most enthusiastic members of the community whose zeal often overshadows native born Jews.
Many matchmakers also will not match converts with Jews-from-birth, sometimes at the request of parents. Non-white converts are also often matched with each other despite stark personality differences and personal preferences.
5. Do not make finances and time a burden to converts
The conversion process is different for everyone regarding duration and intensity. But there are limits to that flexibility. There are too many stories of candidates waiting years to finish their conversions, including women who only finish their process in their late 30s, missing valuable time to build families. Candidates are restricted from dating at all, whether Jewish or not, leaving personal lives in limbo. This creates an unwarranted dependency on the overseeing Rabbis who as mentioned above are often not the ultimate authorities on the conversion, further delaying crucial decisions about when someone will finish the process.
These personal strains can also be financial. The cost of changing lifestyles or moving around the country is obviously expensive. At best, travel costs and costs of learning programs can be exhausting for younger singles and obviously again a burden of time.
While every case is different, the North American Jewish community is capable of alleviating a lot of these strains by extending authority for conversions to local courts and obviating the need for distant travel or excessive financial strain.
Erase the Mistrust
Mistrust has been the theme of the last 10 years. Mistrust the convert. Mistrust the Rabbi. Don’t trust the younger Rabbi who taught you because he may have taught you wrongly – that’s why he can’t sit on your conversion panel. Don’t trust the Rabbi from the United States as much as the one from Israel; don’t trust the Rabbi with the white yarmulke as much as the Rabbi with the black one.