Todd Berman

Looking in the mirror

Many of us have been shocked to our core at the revelations of impropriety and “Chilul HaShem” in connection with the conversion process and mikveh in general. There is nothing to be said in defense what has transpired and the crisis is only highlighted by the comments of Rambam in Hilchot Yeshodei HaTorah 5:10 “there are other things which are in the category of Defiling God’s name, which are when a person great in Torah and renown for piety does them …everything in accordance with the greatness of the sage…”  We have been accosted too often as of late with rabbis falling into this category.

Presently a deluge of suggestions and demands washes over the Orthodox blogosphere. Most of the suggestions I have read have been very constructive and the RCA has quickly and appropriately announced moves to implement several of these including bringing more women into the process. As a longtime advocate for increasing women’s leadership roles I see this as a silver lining to a very dark and devastating cloud. Hopefully, as the rainbow after the flood, these promises will be the harbinger to a better and safer world.

Bethany S. Mandel penned one of the most powerful pieces entitled A bill of rights for Jewish converts calling for social changes across the board. She raises welcome and important points. And as more has come to light, demands for stronger oversight of rabbis and batei din have also appeared.  Yet, I am afraid that the onslaught of suggestions and demands might represent a fundamental misunderstanding, as I see it, of rabbis and the batei din.

For a very brief time as the first JLIC rabbi at Brandeis, I volunteered on the Beit Din of the Rabbinical Council of New England. At that time, my wife and I were pioneering a new OU program on college campus with very little direction. We had to navigate our time between hundreds of students, Hillel programming, and even our small family of four children (we now have eight.) To be honest, my first professional responsibility was to my students and I joined the beit din because I had several students who, despite being part of the Orthodox community, wanted to go through Orthodox conversion.

Under tremendous constraints, I tried to find time to volunteer on the beit din. I deemed it only appropriate to give of my time if I expected other rabbis to be there for my students. It wasn’t easy. It meant taking off an entire day and canceling multiple learning sessions with students. I didn’t attend beit din sessions as often as I should have and felt guilty if I went, because of canceling on students, and guilty if I didn’t go, because I expected others to do all the work. The heroic volunteers of the beit din dealt with numerous divorce cases, conversion cases, and other legal issues. This was almost entirely on a volunteer basis. In fact, I was shocked that I was once paid $40 for helping out with some legal case or other. I gave the money to Tzedaka.

The point is, it was a tremendous amount of work and always meant sacrificing other rabbinic responsibilities. Unlike in Israel where the batei din are paid for by taxes, in many communities in the U.S., they are primarily volunteer organizations. Even in cases like in New England where they have a kashruth division, the rabbis of the beit din are primarily volunteers. I remember speaking with a few Boston area rabbis who did not volunteer. They told me they simply didn’t have the time and that synagogue responsibilities consumed their week. To put it mildly, too few rabbis were willing to volunteer. I understand them. These courts are time consuming, intellectually and emotionally demanding institutions.

There is another point worthy to remember.  Let’s be honest, pulpit rabbis are often poorly paid and have little job security. I know many rabbis, not only Orthodox, who have been let go in a manner which in other contexts would have been met with a law suit. Ageism, capricious boards, whimsical congregants, can all cause tremendous amounts of difficulty.  Most rabbis I know went into the pulpit to help people, to learn Torah with others, and to do good. Yet they often find themselves in environments which stymie their potential, offer meager compensation, and are highly demanding.

In the wake of all the recent revelations, we hear calls for more professionalism and greater oversight of both rabbis and courts. These demands are right and proper. But the focus can’t only be on the RCA or the local rabbis and batei din.  Will communities, already overtaxed by day school tuition and the general cost of being Orthodox in America, step up to the plate and fund these changes? As needed as a bill of rights for converts, is one for rabbis and batei din. Who will pay for more women to oversee the process?  Who will donate to programs which train women to be leaders and then pay their salaries? Who will give time or money to have an oversight committee which acts punctually? Who will donate generously to pay for clerical staff in the courts so that the process can be done in a timely and less pressured manner?  Who will support those institutions which value these changes and train young men and women to value these changes?

While pointing fingers, we had better be ready to look in the mirror and ask not only what we can demand but also what we can do to help.

About the Author
Rabbi Berman is the Associate Director at Yeshivat Eretz HaTzvi. In addition, he has held numerous posts in education from the high school level through adult education. He founded the Jewish Learning Initiative (JLI) at Brandeis University and served as rabbinic advisory to the Orthodox community there for several years. Previously, he was a RaM at Midreshet Lindenbaum where he also served as the Rav of the dormitory.
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