Tim Lieder

On Converting to Judaism in an Exploitive System – Advice for Converts

Rabbi Freundel is not the only rabbi who has used his position to manipulate and harass converts; he is merely the rabbi who was caught re-enacting one of the creepiest scenes from Revenge of the Nerds. Had he confined himself to treating converts like free personal assistants, no one would be talking about the conversion process. We can thank Rabbi Freundel for the fact that converts are expressing their anger and frustration with the process, particularly Bethany Mandel’s article The Convert Bill of Rights which highlights a system of exploitation propagated by Jewish communities under the rubrics of “it takes a long time to convert” and “no one has the right to become Jewish.”

Currently, the RCA is trying to revise its conversion process to include female advocates for female converts (as if sexual harassment was the only manipulation available) and the input of several professionals including mental health workers and rabbis to examine the process. The fact that Rabbi Freundel was a popular conversion rabbi even though he was censured back in 2012 already shows that his manipulation is not an isolated incident. Truthfully, there are plenty of rabbis who manipulate potential converts and many Jewish communities that let them get away with it. Not all of them are members of the RCA.

There is no guarantee that the conversion process will improve. In fact, there is plenty of pushback. Converts who had a relatively easy experience want to show their loyalty to their community. Apologists claim that every incident of rabbinical manipulation is an “isolated incident” echoing the child molestation cases. So if you are seriously considering conversion to Judaism, you need to know that there are issues with the conversion process that go well beyond learning Hebrew, getting accustomed to Shabbos observance, etc.

The following advice is for people who are seriously considering a conversion to Orthodox Judaism. These are the people who already know the standard steps such as finding a community, finding a rabbi, reading all the introductory books and taking your time.

1. Be prepared to move

I don’t mean be prepared to move into a Jewish community. I assume you already know that. I mean be prepared to move away from that Jewish community if it proves unworkable. Not all Jewish communities are the same. Some communities are like small towns from 80s movies where no one is allowed to dance. I had to move to New York to convert because I was stuck in “not Jewish yet” for years in Saint Louis Park, MN. I put it off as much as possible, but it became obvious that it wasn’t going to happen there. I was not the only frustrated would-be convert in the community. Some of my friends just gave up and went with conservative conversions. Others managed to play the rabbi’s head games and convert. I knew one woman who was delayed every time she was seen talking to a male in shul. No one had any clue when or if they were ever going to convert.

When I moved to New York, I was shocked by how easy the conversion process felt. I learned what I needed to learn, established myself in a Jewish community, took classes until I felt ready to meet with the converting rabbi. We had a couple of meetings and he decided that I was ready. There were still delays. I had forgotten the post-snack bracha. At the time, I was supposed to find a third rabbi to sit on my beis din and my first choice was reluctant. The main converting rabbi had to administer a funeral on the first appointed day. Yet, these were normal delays and not the Kafka-esque nightmare that characterized the Saint Louis Park conversion program.

2. Don’t be the Shabbos Goy

At first, Shabbos Goy sounds like an attractive offer. Your conversion is taking forever and you feel like an outsider in the community. Suddenly, you can be useful as the one who turns on the lights and adjusts the air conditioner settings. Only as months turn into years, you are still not Jewish and everyone still expects you to turn on the lights. I still remember one Shemini Atzerets where I was seeking a dinner invitation and while I was looking for one, I was invited to go up to the attic and turn on the heater. As soon as I left the attic, I passed the bathroom and was told that I should use it (since the lights were off). By the time I got back to the dwindling crowd, another friend decided to “show me” that the bathroom light was off. By that time, everyone left and I went back to my apartment to eat alone. After that night, I responded to “hints” with purposefully oblivious responses. Example – Shul Member: “Tim, it’s really hot in here.” Me: “Nope. Feels fine to me.” I only wish that I had responded that way earlier.

Shuls hire people to be caretakes and Shabbos Goys. If they don’t want to pay for that position, then there’s no reason why they need you to do it for nothing.

3. Save your guilt for what matters

Conversion candidates are the most vulnerable members of the Jewish community because they are under constant scrutiny. Anyone can delay the conversion due to personal conflicts, unfortunate gaffes or just plain nastiness. Even after I converted, there were some people who thought that they could threaten me, claiming that they could “talk to the right people” and reverse my conversion. One woman, Keren, was so upset that I claimed that she played high school games, that she sent an email to all my friends asking them to talk to me and warn me that she totally had power over me, which is the quintessential high school game, but Keren never quite understood irony.

If this kind of threat is something that people think that they can get away with after the mikvah, it is only because they know that they can get away with it before the mikvah. As a potential convert, you are in a precarious position. It is very easy to internalize the tensions of a dysfunctional community because you are an outsider. You come into the community with your own history and issues. You didn’t spend a year in Israel. You never went to a Jewish camp. You probably hate Carlbach music. Shabbos is difficult and before you started this journey, you most likely never considered following halachot like shomer negia or yichud, much less kol isha. It’s easy to think that there is a great idealized version of Judaism that you couldn’t even come close to grasping, especially when kiruv groups like Aish push the most rightwing version possible.

In that context, it’s very hard to avoid feeling guilty about your past – your pot-smoking college days, the fact that you had sex with your ex-girlfriend, your affection for hip hop, etc. You might even be around baal thsuva folks who are going through the same self-recrimination. But really, you are trying to become Jewish. You are not trying to become a saint or a monk. If you are going to feel guilty, feel guilty for being mean to your friends or acting like a selfish jerk. Feel guilty for casual cruelty or bullying. Then let the guilt change you. Don’t feel guilty because you used to love eating pork or because a rabbi yelled at you for something that wasn’t your fault. Definitely don’t feel guilty because you watch television.

4. Recognize and avoid the jerks 

Initially, I was going to say “don’t idealize the community” and explain that you shouldn’t buy everything that everyone says to you about what constitutes Judaism. However, the main problem is believing the jerks who are trying to tell you that Judaism forbids pet (it doesn’t) or that only apostates believe in evolution (apostates who read Rambam). There are also the bullies and the people who are going to interrogate you. Dr. Laura might even still have fans. I remember a particularly awful Chasidic rabbi back in Minnesota who would spout some of the most racist tirades without shame and bully everyone around him. I took him seriously and didn’t speak out when he was behaving that way because I didn’t want to rock the boat. I’m still ashamed of my cowardice.

And here’s where I am going to say something controversial. The Chofetz Chaim provides a wonderful amount of meshuggas in the form of lashon hara rules that go well beyond standard Halacha. While gossip and slander needs to be minimized in order to have both a harmonious neighborhood, the application of these rules becomes strangely selective in most Orthodox communities. If you are a potential convert with legitimate complaints, you will see them dismissed out of hand and lectured for your lashon hara. On the other hand, if you want to talk about how the last bar mitzvah looked cheap, then knock yourself out.

5. Own your personal issues and don’t let others determine your worth based on them

This part of the conversion process trips up most people because it’s easy to see psychological problems as a legitimate reason for delaying conversion. The Chicago Rabbinical Council questionnaire that I filled out outright asked if the candidate was in therapy or on medication – with a very large space to explain everything. I mentioned guilt above and that’s enough to make you miserable, but when you have personal issues, they are all potential roadblocks that can delay it indefinitely. To a certain extent, that makes sense. ISIS and Timothy McVeigh are stark examples of what happens when mentally disturbed individuals “find religion” and then perform horrible acts in its name. No one wants to be the rabbi that converted the Jewish guy that blew up the post office.

Still, they take it too far. In Minnesota, I heard the story of the man who converted and then decided that he didn’t like Judaism and became very critical of Judaism until he stopped following Halacha. That’s the whole story. From this anecdote, the entirety of Minnesotan conversions were delayed indefinitely as no one wanted to take any responsibility.

When I became serious about converting to Orthodox Judaism, I was on the tail end of a four year relationship. When that ended, I was broken and emotionally fragile. I became infatuated with a woman that I saw as the answer to all of my problems. She was particularly attractive since she had no interest beyond friendship. I managed to project all my self-loathing onto the infatuation, believing that I would only be good enough for her if I became super-haredi. I would email her with halachic questions and all the while, I thought that she would be shocked and horrified if she found who I REALLY was. Of course, one day I decided to send her an email detailing all my faults and telling all the stories of my friends from college complete with polyamory, drug dealing and orgies that seemed to happen just after I left the party. I wrapped it all up with a confession of undying love.

Don’t do that.

Basically, I was a mess. The more I tried to hide my pain and brokenness, the more it came out. I got better, but that incident clung to me. Years later, I was being told to “watch what I say around women” (particularly that woman), even though I was already ashamed of my behavior in that regard. It wasn’t like I was walking up to random women and talking about furries or BDSM. I had made a full confession to one woman that I had once had a crush on. Yet, the rabbi who was supposedly in charge of my conversion was so enamored with the mussar movement that he decided that the only way that I could convert would be if I was married to another would-be convert and then once we were wed, we could convert together! And the Chicago Rabbinical Council went along with this plan. I had met the three women in Minneapolis who were trying to convert. We liked each other well enough but you know how it is when you only want to date someone in order to get married so that you can finally convert to Judaism. Or maybe you don’t because you don’t hate yourself to agree to such a foolish plan.

Yes, there is a good reason to make sure that converts aren’t the kind of disgusting guys who engaged in sexual harassment; you know, like Rabbi Freundel. It was only years later, when I finally got away from Saint Louis Park, that I realized that my issues only made me moderately neurotic. Definitely the experience of being raised by a bipolar single mother, having no self-esteem and a rather obsessive nature is not ideal, but if only the most emotionally healthy and stable individuals are allowed to convert to Judaism, there wouldn’t be any converts.

However, the main problem here was that I was an accomplice in the manipulation. On some level, I BELIEVED that I wasn’t worthy of becoming Jewish. I engaged in too many self-defeating behaviors. I alienated too many people. Even when I noticed cracks in the façade of the perfect Jewish observance (such as when I went to Crown Heights for a friend’s wedding and his frum-from-birth friends were paying for strippers and then demanding their money back when the strippers wouldn’t make out) I refused to see that as a sign that I wasn’t so bad. Instead, I thought that these guys had betrayed my ideal view of Judaism – the same one that I was failing to live up to.

I did not fully understand the level of manipulation until I saw people who were legitimately less stable than me converting, while my friends who were models of rationality were being kept in the same limbo.

So if you have issues, you have issues. There are plenty of crazy Jews in the world and just because you weren’t born Jewish doesn’t mean that you can’t join them. Sure, there are some behaviors that are beyond the pale, but blurting out way too information about yourself and saying the wrong things at a Shabbos meal are not among them.

6. You have the right to be treated like a human being

Much of the pushback to complaints about converts being exploited comes in the form of two phrases – “no one needs to be Jewish” and “you know it’s supposed to be hard.” And yes, converting to Judaism is not easy. You have to learn Torah, basic Halacha and Hebrew. You have to get accustomed to eating kosher and observing the Shabbos. This is what people think that they are talking about when they say that converting to Judaism is not easy. They do not understand just how much vulnerability is possible should you end up with either a rabbi or a community that chooses to treat you like a toy.

I was relatively lucky. Even though my conversion was delayed by a manipulative and unresponsive rabbi, bolstered by terrible advice from community members, I eventually left the community and started over. Other people have been abused and sexually harassed. The RCA is implementing a woman ombudsman in order for female conversion candidates to have an advocate, but it’s only one governing body that oversees conversions. The Chicago Rabbinical Council and the Rabbinical Council of California are strangely silent. Apparently, they believe that as long as no CRC or RCC rabbi is caught in a national scandal, there is no need for any oversight.

7. Make sure that there IS a formal conversion program in place

In the laissez faire attitude towards conversion that most congregations seem to like, there is no guarantee that you will be able to convert in your community. Obviously, you are going to have to move to an Orthodox community and prove that you’re serious about Shabbos observance, kashrut, etc. but make sure that you move into one that actually wants converts. If you ask the congregational rabbi to be your converting rabbi and he states that he is going to guide you to whatever classes you need and to touch base with him every month, you are in the wrong community. If you agree to this plan, then you are agreeing to waste years of your life.

A formal conversion isn’t hard to establish either. Before I arrived, Saint Louis Park had a formal conversion program in place and many of the residents are either converts or descendants of converts. However, the rabbi that performed the conversions retired to Israel leaving behind a confused set of plans for converts. If there is no formal conversion program in place, start asking why there isn’t a formal conversion program in place. Ask everyone in the community. Some people may not care, but others are going to wonder why you are being kept in limbo. As long as you aren’t Jewish, you can’t join the shul and the shul can’t collect dues from you. Be a pain and exhaust all possibilities in trying to establish a formal conversion program. If you seem like the happy not-Jewish-yet person who turns on the lights, you will be treated as such.

The difference between a formal conversion process and an “informal” one is dramatic. After years of getting nowhere in Saint Louis Park, I moved to New York and converted within a year and a half. In Minnesota, there was a manipulative rabbi who never had any intention of converting anyone and a group of potential converts who mostly gave up after years of confusion and being put off. There were a few people that converted through him, but they were usually the more easily manipulated ones.

Beyond that, good luck. As a convert, you will find out that the opportunities for manipulation are myriad; however, you will find supporters and great friends. It’s highly unlikely that the conversion process will change in order to meet the needs of converts but there are communities and rabbis that are actually supportive. Even in the best circumstances, conversion is difficult. However, it is not one of the Saw movies and Jigsaw is not sitting on your beis din. Do not let your rabbi convince you otherwise.

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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