Yesterday, Israel’s Supreme Rabbinical Court decided that it would not recognize conversions performed by American Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, invalidating numerous conversions in the name of the State of Israel. The Supreme Rabbinical Court stated that because the Chief Rabbinate does not have a formalized list of non-Israeli rabbis authorized to perform conversions, all conversions performed abroad are appraised on a case-by-case basis. As such, many (if not all) non-Israeli converts feel that their status as Jews are in question, with no way to determine how the Chief Rabbinate, and by extension Israel, actually views them.
As a convert myself, I struggle with the decision by the Supreme Rabbinical Court, although I feel completely secure in my own Judaism. Born to a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother and raised in a typical Reform community, I always considered myself Jewish. I attended Hebrew school, had a bar mitzvah, and even attended Chabad’s Hebrew language program in my hometown during high school. When I went to college at Columbia University and the Jewish Theological Seminary however, it became clear to me that I was not Jewish according to halacha. After a few years of struggling with this reality, I decided to have an Orthodox conversion and become shomer mitzvot.
The conversion process in America is fraught with difficulty and uncertainty, even coming from a Jewish background. During my first meeting at an RCA-affiliated beit din, my own motives for conversion were doubted, my mother’s subsequent Reform conversion was mocked, and my knowledge base built from years at JTS and subsequent learning with Orthodox rabbis was described as woefully inadequate. During my additional meetings over a year and a half, I was often criticized for not fitting into their model of a convert, and the rabbis even went so far as to question my sponsoring rabbi about why I hadn’t discussed how deeply spiritual my first time in a sukkah was. My rabbi replied that my first time in a sukkah was when I was less than a year old, and as such I did not bring perhaps the same wonder and amazement to the process as someone coming from a non-Jewish background. Ultimately, I was advised by the three rabbis with whom I was closest to switch beit dins, and I eventually completed my conversion at a haredi beit din in Monsey, New York.
I tell this story not because I want to highlight the many problems faced by potential converts (though that is an important issue that should be discussed), but rather to shed light on another problem, which are the varying levels of acceptance of conversions in different Orthodox communities. The RCA-affiliated beit din described above is one of the few that is recognized by the Chief Rabbinate to perform conversions in America. Although this would seem to state that any conversion performed by such a beit din would leave no question as to a convert’s status, my sponsoring rabbi for the Monsey beit din, himself a very yeshivish rabbi, told me that the RCA-affiliated beit din I started with did not have a good reputation in the more right-wing Orthodox world. He went as far as to tell me that although a conversion by them would be reluctantly accepted for the purposes of making a minyan, it likely would not qualify me to learn in their yeshivot or be given a shidduch in their community. In taking a step back and examining this situation, the Chief Rabbinate, often derided for being “ultra-Orthodox,” accepts conversions from a beit din that the larger haredi community does not recognize. In sum, the beit din where I had a terrible experience, and which my rabbis (both modern Orthodox and yeshivish) encouraged me to leave, is the type that the Chief Rabbinate chooses to recognize as valid, while denying conversions from rabbis accepted across the board.
The issue of conversion and “who is a Jew” is, at least to me, the most pressing issue facing world Jewry today. Although there should be no requirement for the Chief Rabbinate to recognize non-halachic conversions, the issue of the legitimacy of halachic conversions needs to be addressed immediately by all sections of the Torah-observant world. We simply cannot have a situation where the modern Orthodox community holds by one standard, the yeshivish community by a second, the chassidish community by a third, and the Chief Rabbinate by a fourth. This creates too much uncertainty for converts, too much in-fighting between groups, and perhaps even sinat chinam within our community.
The Jewish communities of America, Israel, and the rest of the world need to come together to find a solution to this problem. I, as a poshiter Yid, do not claim to know the answer. But I know that the great leaders of each community, our talmidei chachamim, can put politics aside and come to a solution. Indeed, for the future of the Jewish people, we must.