Years ago, when I was a Rabbi in Baltimore, Maryland, I was part of a small group of modern Orthodox Rabbis who were like minded in the standards we set for orthodox conversion. We found the RCA (Rabbinical Council of America) GPS conversion system too inflexible, and I have to say after using it exactly one time for one of my conversion candidates, I was hooked on never using them again. Their demands of the candidate, and insensitivity towards her, were utterly devoid of the Jewish image of words of Torah being pleasant or peaceful. This Beit Din was an embarrassment and left the woman traumatized to this day.
The mikvah ladies in Baltimore at the time had a set procedure with women candidates. The prospective convert would come in, be shown to the preparation room, take a shower, and wait for all three rabbis of the Beit Din to arrive. Once settled in an ante room prepared to meet the candidate, the rabbis would ask that she be brought in. And she was- with a full length thick cotton robe reaching to her ankles and covering her neck, with the belt snuggly in place. She wore paper slippers. We never heard a complaint.
Until…. I described to my wife what procedure we followed. Being sensitive to the vulnerability of female conversion candidates, she couldn’t believe this is what 3 orthodox rabbis felt was appropriate. She couldn’t believe how we wouldn’t be aware of how much more distressed we made the woman feel, given that we have all the authority in this scenario and she is defenseless. How could we not realize that she was so exposed even though she was ostensibly covered from neck to ankle? Frankly, I thought of our group of rabbis as being caring and sensitive, but now, as I sat dumbfounded during my wife’s remarks, I knew she was absolutely right. I could have said, and perhaps I did, that this is the way it’s always been done. But now, after having my eyes opened, I knew I had a few more eyes to open as well.
I got in touch with my colleagues and shared my wife’s defense of female prospective converts who have enough anxiety and discomfort sitting in front of rabbis they don’t know while having to exhibit their mastery of Jewish knowledge and practice, all of which could be for naught if they don’t present well or worse, smack of insincerity or cynicism. They have enough sitting on their heads and shoulders without the strain of wearing a bathrobe and paper slippers in front of suited and tied men. My colleagues agreed immediately and we set a new policy, which was easy enough to implement once our eyes were opened. From now on, the candidate would come and meet with us first, and if we approved of the conversion, the mikvah attendant would take her from there.
There’s been a lot of discussion about rabbis watching women as they immerse in the mikvah at the time of conversion. Our group of rabbis was not comfortable with this, and with the help of the attendants, we followed this procedure: once the women was in the mikvah with a sheet of bubble wrap floating on top of the water in a way that exposed only her head, we were called to the closed door. The attendant would open the door slightly, long enough for us to confirm this was the woman we spoke with, and then she would dip and the door was closed. The entire viewing time was less than 4 seconds, and the attendant then continued the procedure as required. The attendants and their procedures were under the supervision of the Star-K, an internationally recognized supervision, and they were most cooperative in enabling the women to enjoy as much modesty and privacy as possible.
Though our small cadre of rabbis thought of ourselves as decent and sensitive and caring souls, we needed to have our eyes opened. I hope and pray that current accounts of perversions with conversions serve to open up our collective Jewish eyes.