Judaism needs a Formal Conversion Process

The Franz Kafka story “Before the Law” depicts a man waiting indefinitely outside a door marked “The Law.” The doorkeeper refuses to let him in. It is only when the man dies that the doorkeeper informs him that the door was meant only for him and now it is going to close forever. For too many converts, this story perfectly illustrates the conversion process. I understand that there is a great deal of resistance to formalizing conversions; however, I doubt very few Jews wish to be willing participants to the indifference and outright cruelty that passes for the current process.

I am not going to waste everyone’s time arguing for a formalized conversion based on the feelings of converts, because the current conversion program is not just awful for converts. It is detrimental to Judaism. Even if we do not believe that Jews are leaving Judaism in record numbers, we need to understand that Judaism is not being served from keeping out the most enthusiastic members. During my conversion, I heard “why would you do that? Judaism is so hard,” several times. This was coming from Orthodox Jews, who have stayed with Halacha. Is it any wonder that many Jews embrace every religion besides Judaism?

Yet, converts who are potentially the most passionate Jews are treated like irritants. Judaism is not an evangelical religion; however, Judaism should not become a dwindling cult that forbids new members.  From a purely practical position, converts benefit Jewish communities. They are not just eager to make minyan, they are also waiting to join the local shul and pay their membership dues. Their children will be Jews, unencumbered by risks for Tay-Sachs and happy to learn Torah.

Furthermore, Orthodox Jews have long argued that the only valid conversion is through an Orthodox beis din. This is a tough sell, but it becomes even harder to maintain when converts come to Orthodox communities, eager to learn, only to be perpetually put off.  The credibility of the Orthodox conversion suffers greatly when there is no actual conversion program. I personally knew someone who spent two years studying for conversion and after two years, she was no closer to mikvah than she was at the beginning. She converted through a Conservative beis din. Are we supposed to understand that she was never serious, even though she worked just as hard as any convert? Had there been any indication that she was getting anywhere, she would have stayed with the Orthodox process. Can we really say that her conversion is invalid because it didn’t go through the proper channels, when those “proper channels” are clogged with disregard?

At this point, I understand that there are objections on the basis that conversion is not supposed to be easy. In fact, I know that my arguments mirror those “we don’t have enough Jews” arguments that Conservative and Reform conversion advocates advance. I want to clarify that I do not believe in an “easy” conversion process. The conversion candidate still needs to learn the prayers, Halacha and Torah study. The candidate must be ready to be Shomer Shabbos and must keep kosher. Converting to Judaism cannot be as easy as converting to Christianity, Buddhism or even Scientology. Judaism is still the Cadillac of religions and the effort makes the end point special. No one wants a quickie conversion. They want a sane conversion. Conversion candidates will still drop out, but they should drop out because they decided against becoming Jewish. They shouldn’t be pushed out with indifference.

Of course, I understand that many of these issues seem removed from the average Jew. Yes, we should have more Jews and sure, the current conversion process seems to be undermining Orthodox Judaism, but what does this have to do with one’s daily life? In this case, allow me to invoke the old saw of the canary in the coal mine. Since converts are the most vulnerable members of the community, the way those converts are treated is going to echo through the community. If a rabbi is keeping the potential converts in perpetual uncertainty and playing power games, that is the best sign that the congregation hired a bad rabbi. Rabbi Freundel spent years mistreating converts before his mikvah cameras were discovered. He was even censured in 2012 for his behavior towards converts. No one cared. There are many Rabbi Freundels in America and the best way to ferret them out is to see what they are doing with the converts.

Finally, a formal process is ridiculously easy to implement. Yisroel Rosen’s article If only I could convert talked about how in Israel, his group “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.” For a congregation, this should be the bare minimum of care. For most American conversion candidates, this sounds like an impossible dream compared to the constant delays that they have been forced to accept as standard.

If anything I have written strikes you as reasonable, please demand a formal process in your neighborhood. If you know not-Jewish-yet people who have been waiting so long that you’ve forgotten their status and assumed that they were Jewish, you are living in a place where the rabbi enjoys exploiting converts and needs to be fired. His lack of transparency, guidelines and reasonable assignments is not just affecting the convert. You have the power to demand a formal program and you have the power to hold the rabbi up to standards.

A formal Orthodox conversion process is not going to open up the floodgates to casual converts any more than this current process is keeping Jews on the derekh. Rather, a formal conversion process will assure that fully committed converts become Jewish in a timely manner rather than languish for years as perpetually frustrated outsiders at the mercy of malicious rabbis and indifferent communities. Given the consequences, imposing a formal process is much easier than coming up with condescending excuses.

About the Author
Tim Lieder is a freelance writer who lives and works in New York City. He runs Dybbuk Press, an independent publishing house through which he has edited and published 9 titles including She Nailed a Stake Through His Head: Tales of Biblical Terror as well as King David and the Spiders from Mars.
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