RCA conversion review

On June 29, the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) released its report on upgrading the conversion process. Their conversion protocol is called GPS and we refer to the review as GPSR. Go to the RCA website (www.rabbis.org) for the complete report. The GPSR examined the the efficacy of the present conversion procedures, emphasizing the perspective of prospective converts, and suggested changes in the protocol. The suggestions are excellent.

Unfortunately, the RCA has a history of procrastination in implementing (ignoring) excellent suggestions. A GPS document of November 2007 states that a suggested syllabus and a suggested reading list for prospective converts ‘will be formulated in due course’ (Sec. 6.d.3&4). It’s now July of 2015 and a suggested syllabus and reading list have yet to appear. Better late than never – the GPSR recommends a written standardized curriculum for prospective converts.

The GPSR is a reaction to the Freundel scandal and to the failure of the RCA to deal with it. Barry Freundel was in charge of RCA conversions in the Washington D.C. area. He exploited his position of authority in many ways – famously by making videos of potential converts disrobing prior to immersing in the mikveh.

Kay Bailey, one of the women converted by Freundel, submitted a formal complaint to the RCA concerning Freundel’s behavior and the RCA did nothing. As Allison Kaplan Sommer wrote in a Forward article of May 22,

For Bailey, the sentence {of Freundel} represented a vindication. ….The last straw came much later, when she was a member of the synagogue and Freundel called her.….At first, she said, she thought he was calling to ask her to do more unpaid secretarial work, as he had with other converts. He wasn’t; instead, he wanted money. He asked her if “it was important” to her that the Israeli rabbinate recognize her conversion, and said that if it was she should donate $1,000 to his conversion court.


That was when she decided to complain to the RCA, detailing the exploitation of her labor, the inappropriate comments about her appearance, the “redunk” and the fundraising attempt. …The RCA told her to submit a formal complaint that included her name and a statement. Later she was told that in order to back up her story she would have to find other women who had similar experiences and encourage them to complain as well. “I did,” Bailey said, and nothing happened. “They kept telling me, it’s so great, no one would come forward by name in the past, you are so brave … and then, after telling me how great and brave I was, they kind of dropped off the face of the earth.” The RCA did not respond to requests for comment.’

Given this gross failure, it would be foolhardy of the RCA to say anything without legal advice!

As part of the GPSR, a survey of converts was made. The survey shows high marks for many aspects of the interaction of prospective converts with the conversion court. They felt welcome (77%); felt the court was empathetic(65%); that the court was encouraging (67%) and supportive (64%)and respectful of potential coverts(78%). Our percentages are a sum of responses that were in substantial agreement and partial agreement.

However, potential converts feel very vulnerable, and rightly so, because they are at the mercy of the sponsoring rabbi and of a Rabbinical Court that is the gatekeeper on conversions. 43% of potential converts felt powerless and 49% felt vulnerable. These were the feelings that were exploited by Freundel. Kay Bailey was victimized by her feelings of vulnerability.

What are the GPSR suggestions for dealing with this vulnerability?

The GPS Review Committee urges the RCA and the GPS Committee to put into place the followingrecommendations and work closely with the GPS Advisory Committee to develop a full grievance procedure that will be published on the GPS website:

a. Local advisors, independent of the conversion system, including male(s) and female(s) and successful convert(s), shall be appointed in order to help conversion candidates by providing them with advice and perspective, and by helping them navigate the conversion process.

b. A system must be set up for conversion candidates to voice concerns and grievances, and to register complaints to individuals other than those directly involved in their conversions. This should be done on the local and national levels. Teachers, sponsoring rabbis, candidates, and other dayyanim should also be encouraged to lodge any grievances about the GPS network or individuals involved through this system.

c. A system must be developed to evaluate grievances and to effect necessary and appropriate changes. A system must be put into place that will address grievances, such as incidents that rise to the level of impropriety or violations of adopted codes of conduct, through the local Batei Din and, if necessary, with the National GPS Office and the RCA. Where such grievances call for a change in national policy, such grievances should be brought to the attention of the GPS Committee.

d. This grievance process, and the names and contact information of individuals involved, must be made available to conversion candidates at the beginning of the conversion process and be accessible on the GPS website.

It is the view of the GPS Review Committee that the RCA and its affiliates cannot tolerate any abuse, mistreatment, or misconduct by participants in the GPS Network. Where a grievance may rise to the level gross misconduct, which includes but is not limited to complaints of a sexual, financial, or other abusive behavior — the complaint must be referred to a review body to be developed by the RCA, the GPS Committee, and the GPS Advisory Committee similar in structure and function to the Vaad Ha’Tzedek. It is important that grievances of this nature be investigated at arms-length by neutral parties (not just RCA members) and that investigating bodies be empowered to relieve a rabbi or dayyan of his responsibilities related to the GPS Network.

Terrific suggestions but they must be implemented. Perhaps an outside ombudsman should deal with major grievances. Also a provision should be added – that in cases of possible criminal behavior, the GPS office will turn over all relevant information to the authorities. The Freundel scandal showed that it is a mistake to have rabbis policing other rabbis behavior.

About the Author
Richard Chasman, 1934-2018, was a member of the Modern Orthodox community in Chicago. Professionally, he was a theoretical nuclear physicist. Richard, who described his perspective as "centrist," wrote a newsletter for more than 20 years called "Chovevai Tsion of Chicago," on subjects of interest to the Modern Orthodox community.