I have had a few friends undergo conversions, both in Israel and abroad, and some who are going through it now. The process is cumbersome and invasive, and no one goes through it without a good reason. Of course, sometimes the reason is making a parent or grandparent happy. But in today’s world, with so many alternatives, it is more likely that the prospective convert has a sincere desire to join the Jewish people.
I was disappointed with the results of the recent elections for Chief Rabbi, primarily with that of the Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi, Rabbi David Lau. This is not because I feel he is incapable of doing the job. I lived in Modiin for a year under his stewardship, and he managed to meet the needs of the growing religious community while calming the fears of the majority secular population. However, I believe that it is time for a change in how Israel’s religious establishment interacts with its citizens.
According to a Times of Israel article, Rabbi Lau’s plan is to “continue tradition” when it comes to conversions. Given the lengthy waiting periods and general air of uncertainty which is currently part of the procedure, this fails to provide much succor.
Additionally, there is a report (Do not fear the Hebrew. Google Translate is your friend.) from the Hebrew language paper Maariv that, in return for support during the election, Rabbi Lau plans to submit decisions regarding conversions to Rabbi Avraham Sherman. He is the rabbi who struck terror into the hearts of thousands of converts when, in 2008, he retroactively nullified nearly a decade’s worth of state sponsored conversions performed by Rabbi Chaim Druckman. It is unfortunate in the extreme when a convert who follows all of the instructions given to him is unable to rest assured that his conversion will be accepted by the very people in charge of the government body who directed his efforts in the first place.
I understand on a deeply personal level the stakes involved in the process. My husband and I found out I was pregnant with our first child about a week after my first meeting with the rabbis in charge of my Orthodox conversion. While I was trying to slip this new piece of information into the conversation at a natural break, my husband decided it would be best to leave on a high note, and yelled, “She’s pregnant!” after being kicked out of the meeting for refusing to accept that we were living in sin.
It took almost exactly nine months to prove to the conversion board that I was ready, and perhaps even more importantly, that my husband was ready. The scariest moment of my life was the Thursday that the conversion board arranged for me to meet with them at the mikvah. Well, technically, the scariest moment of my life was when the anesthesiologist told me it was too late for an epidural, but the conversion was certainly in the top three.
I was 41 weeks pregnant, and earlier that week I had already had an episode of contractions strong enough to convince me to go to the hospital. My daughter would ultimately be born that Shabbat. When we arrived, I could see the mikvah lady trying to control her panic. I have no idea what happens to a mikvah if someone’s water breaks mid-dunk, but I imagine that at the very least a few appointments might have to be rescheduled. To make things even more worrisome, the cleaning cycle of the pool began unexpectedly, and could not be turned off. While it did not keep me from being able to go in, there was so much noise that the rabbis actually had to be in the room with me to be able to hear my answers to their questions.
So, to preserve my dignity, and presumably to put a damper on the extreme power of all my gravid sexiness, I was given what, for all intents and purposes, amounted to a sheet with a hole in it. And that is when I felt like laughing at the absurdity of it all. I had finally gotten to the bottom of one of the longest lived myths regarding Judaism, and while it did have something to do with the “miracle of life”, it was more of a rebirth motif that a pre-birth one.
After it was all over, the rabbi who had made me cry at our first meeting asked my husband and me if we understood why the process was so difficult. We both said that we did. And it’s true. I believe that the conversion boards have one of the most extraordinarily difficult tasks within all of Judaism, acting as the gatekeepers for shepherding people into a new religion. It should be difficult. Becoming a citizen of a new country is even more demanding, and carries no threat of possible punishment from on high for making the wrong decision. However, at the very least, the Rabbinate should be prepared to engage with converts as partners, acknowledging that most of us are sincere, instead of throwing continual stumbling blocks in our way. It would be a good idea to remember that Hillel and Shammai both had accepted ways of dealing with converts, and that while it is always easy to be strict, sometimes it is appropriate to be compassionate.