I read with great interest and emotion the blog of Bethany S. Mandel describing her experiences and feelings of distress as a convert. As the individual who, under the auspices of the Israeli Chief Rabbinate, founded Israel’s Conversion Authority in 1995 and stood at its helm for five years, continuing to be a State Conversion Judge until reaching the age of mandatory retirement in 2012 (and still serving as a Conversion Judge for the private Conversion Court in Gush Etzion), I can honestly say that I sincerely identify with many of the feelings described by the author, and would even add that, as much as possible, I very much live and feel the truth of her words.
Creating a friendly conversion framework in Israel
Those undergoing conversion do indeed experience what the blog described as a “state of persistent limbo” created by uncertainty during the conversion procedure about everything from the duration of time the process will take and hidden financial costs, to the difficulties of settling into and becoming a proud member of the Jewish community.
This distress has been on my radar since Rav Eilyahu Bakshi-Doron, the Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel at the time, placed on my shoulders the responsibility of creating a friendly conversion framework in 1995 on behalf of the Israeli Chief Rabbinate. This became particularly necessary due to the large wave of aliya from the former Soviet Union, which included numerous individuals who were not halakhically Jewish. Our goal was to devise a suitable conversion procedure that would remain true to halakha while simultaneously removing many of the hurdles so painfully described by the author. While the conversion process clearly must involve sufficient study coupled with a demonstration of commitment to join the Jewish faith — both requiring time and patience as well as the need for monitoring — we sought to do so in what seemed to us the most effective way possible.
The heart of our program involved the founding of dozens of conversion preparation seminaries, which, acting under the auspices of the Rabbinate’s Conversion Courts, comprised study groups that would come together to learn about Judaism and conversion. These seminaries eased many of the concerns described by the author, as they had a defined educational curriculum, which included not only the materials to be studied, but even the allocation of time (twice a week in the afternoons, over a period of ten months, involving a total of 500 hours of study). The protocols for conversion also required that the spouse of the candidate for conversion, even when Jewish, take part in the study as well. The candidate would either choose by themselves a suitable family willing to adopt them in the process, or the seminary would find a family on the candidate’s behalf. They would dine with the family over a number of Shabbatot, and the candidates would go to the synagogue for communal prayer services for at least the second half of their conversion period.
It might surprise some to know that the cost of conversion in Israel is… zero, totally free, as the government fully funds the seminaries. Logically, even outside the State of Israel, where this is not an option, the cost of conversion can be the relatively inexpensive tuition fee for joining a seminaries study group, (and obviously not through direct payments to any of the teachers).
After the initial period of study, and after fulfilling the necessary requirements and passing a suitable exam, the candidate receive a recommendation for conversion from the seminary, and an invitation to a conversion court for some time in the following month to two month period. The candidates also bring recommendations on their behalf from the synagogue they attended, and from any other Jews that they wish. The result of such a setup is that eighty percent of the graduates of these conversion seminaries realize their dream of conversion within a year after beginning the process. The rest are invited to the court for an additional meeting and, after completing a defined set of assignments, will be in the mikveh within an additional three months. And that’s it!
We worked very hard to ensure that everything be transparent, and up front on the table, including a set timeline, a uniform curriculum, and reasonable assignments and cost.
Loving the convert
As one who has lived and breathed the conversion process for close to twenty years, I greatly understand and empathize with a convert’s feelings of loneliness, the difficulty involved in separating from one’s family, and the various other difficulties the author described so passionately. On the other hand, it would only be fair to admit that a portion of what was written is true not only for converts, but even for ba’alei Teshuva, those who have been brought up in non-observant homes and are unable to celebrate the holidays with their families, be it their grandparents, parents, or unobservant relatives.
I salute them, and I even am jealous of their strength of character to make such a bold choice, altering the course of their life in order to dedicate themselves to a Torah way of life out of their own free choice. The love and envy I feel for these bold individuals is in fact the basis of the Torah’s oft-repeated mitzva of loving the convert, and the choice of name for my book on conversion, Ve’Oheiv Ger, And One Should Love the Convert, testifies to my tremendous love and appreciation of converts.
What diaspora communities can learn from Israel
In truth, the conversion process does not take as long as naturalization and most of the people involved are really acting to the best of their abilities. Nevertheless, in the face of recent disturbing events, alongside the heartfelt expressions of pain by the blog’s author as well as others, it might be proper to see if there is anything that diaspora communities can learn from the Israeli system to alleviate at least some of the concerns mentioned.
With knowledge of the fact that not everything is yet perfect in the conversion scene in Israel, it is our conviction that separating the stage of study and the actual conversion; the former being done in the seminaries and the latter being performed by the conversion judges, actually makes the process much more pleasant. To the best of my knowledge, conversion judges in Israel do not plant fear in the ways that were described by the author, nor do they give off the feelings that the candidate for conversion’s life is in their hands. Additionally, the overseers of the seminaries, the conversion court judges, visit the conversion preparation seminaries, or the students are afforded the opportunity of an informal acquaintance with the judges, in order to allay their fears, and remove the “distance” between them.
A good deal of the creation of the more friendly, positive, atmosphere that is afforded to the conversion candidate in Israel stems from the fact that the seminary study is done in study groups, rather than through individual instruction. These study groups also include one to two Shabbatons during the course of their study, trips for the group, and informal meetings with rabbinical figures.
With an understanding that some of the aspects of the Israeli conversion process might be difficult to replicate in diaspora communities, I think that more can be done to streamline the process in a healthy manner. It is my heartfelt plea, with as much strength as I can muster, for the rabbinical and communal organizations in America to see what can be adopted from the Israeli model for conversion preparation, and to inculcate it in the conversion process as much as possible. This involves the organization of seminaries for conversion study groups, the creation of a supportive communal framework for the candidates, a defined period of time and set of procedures, a transparent and up-front description of cost, and a conversion process that does not cause unnecessary fear amongst the candidates. At the end of the day, the primary factor in the decision of the conversion courts to proceed with a candidate’s conversion is the recommendation of the conversion seminary, hence their importance. Myself and my Israeli counterparts who have amassed years of experience in such a conversion procedure would be more than happy to help develop such a framework, and assist in any way possible.
Although I am very aware of many of the fundamental differences between Israeli and diaspora communities, including the distance between the convert and his biological family, nevertheless, there is still much room for learning from and adapting as much of the Israeli model as possible.
Conversion as a badge of honor
The author shares with us a fair amount of her feelings after the conversion, and her desire not to be pegged as an outsider or feel like an outcaste, but to be able to be and feel as fully accepted equal members of the Jewish people. Indeed, while I fully understand such feelings, I have said on more than one occasion to converts that I have seen through the whole process, that they have what to pride themselves in regarding their conversion, and they should feel no need to hide their conversion. They do not need to feel required to share with others their personal, intimate, story, but nevertheless, in my opinion, a conversion certificate is a certificate of honor, and it is even fitting to be advertised… even on one’s wall.
A common aphorism of mine in this regard comes from the famous Piasezna Rebbe, Reb Klonimus Kalman Shapiro (may Hashem avenge his blood) who was killed during the holocaust, appears in his writings:
“Master of the World, what can I give you?
Learning more Torah? I already learn with all my strength.
Adding additional prayers? I already pray to the best of my abilities.
To give more charity and perform more kindness? I am involved well in them.
What, indeed, can I do for you Master of the World?
If only I could convert! But what can I do? I was already born a Jew…”
Inclusion of non-Jewish relatives
Regarding some of the halakhic issues raised, I personally see no halakhic limitations of allowing one’s non-Jewish relatives to accompany the convert to the Chuppah as they enter a Jewish marriage ceremony. There is no prohibition in doing so, nor is there a fear that allowing such a practice will bring the convert back to the ways of his family. Halakha requires that converts honor their biological parents. Additionally, in my view, in cases such as the author’s, where the convert’s father is Jewish, the name can be added to the ketuba, the marriage document, in the following manner: “Ruth, the daughter of Avraham our forefather from the family of “Yaakov Berkowitz”, for example. Surely, there will be those who will differ and will not accept such an addition to the Ketuba, and if doing so will lead to dispute it would probably be best to avoid doing so.
Those with a Jewish father
Among the author’s remarks, one point which I fully identify with is that in situations where the conversion candidate’s father is Jewish, there is much room to be welcoming of the conversion process. In such situations, many grow up and live their lives with a Jewish identity, and even communal affiliation. Although I am not an expert on the interrelationships between the Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform communities in America, there would seem to be sufficient room for modifying the conversion process and the time necessary for one who grows up without any Jewish identify or affiliation to one who has Jewish blood in their genes. Certainly, this would apply, if a parent or grandparent had a stronger connection to Orthodox practice, and the candidate grew up with a connection to Jewish worship.
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In conclusion, I fully support the opening of our hearts and our communities to those interested in conversion, and the extending of a helping hand to all those who sincerely want an Orthodox conversion, in a way that will not encourage intermarriage.
May Hashem be with us.
Translated by Rabbi Binyamin Zimmerman