A bill of rights for Jewish converts

Rabbi Barry Freundel oversaw her conversion -- she shouldn't have to fear she won't be considered Jewish
Illustrative: An Israeli rabbinical court reviews a conversion case. (Flash90)
Illustrative: An Israeli rabbinical court reviews a conversion case. (Flash90)

I am one of Rabbi Barry Freundel’s converts. He was my sponsoring rabbi and is the first signature on my RCA conversion documents. For a long time, I’ve been angry about my conversion, conversion in general and how I have been treated in the Jewish community post-conversion. I’ve been hesitant to speak out because I was afraid of rocking the boat, which holds not only myself, but also my husband and child(ren). Given this scandal, which has rocked my whole world, including my conversion boat, I’m no longer afraid to speak my mind.

Much of what is written about conversion is from the perspective of born-Jews and rabbis. Few converts are willing to speak out. We are afraid. We are victimized. We are threatened and judged. Which is why I’ve decided to make for myself and other converts a Bill of Rights. These are the things I deserved during my conversion and deserve now, afterwards, but have been too afraid to demand.

1. Converts are in a state of persistent limbo. During the process we are never told how long it can or should take. We cannot get married if we are dating, we cannot date if we are single. We lose control over the most important choices in our lives and hand them over to men with whom we are unfamiliar for an indeterminate amount of time. I was unable to give a new job a start date, to give my former job proper notice, sign a lease on a new apartment or set a wedding date because I was kept in the dark about how much longer my conversion could possibly take. Days? Weeks? Months? A year? Several? This is psychological torture. A rough estimate and a clear plan for how to move forward to get to the finish line, the mikvah, is the least that a convert deserves.

2. We have no safe governing body or individual to turn to if we feel as we have been victimized, manipulated or lied to by our rabbis. The RCA is not this body.

3. The reasonable costs associated with conversion should be clearly laid out from the outset. This is a complaint I have heard many times, though thankfully not from my converting Beit Din. Conversion candidates well into the process, after having invested a significant amount of time with a Beit Din, have been told about mandatory fees in the thousands of dollars they were unaware of at the outset of their work with a group of rabbis.

4. Communities have welcoming committees for Jews who move to the area but nothing in place for converts in the process. In order to convert many individuals have to leave their homes and move to strange towns or cities. They are left to eat Shabbat meals alone, isolated from the social groups that born Jews form via their families, camps, schools and youth groups. Welcome the ger, even before they become a ger.

This obligation stands for both communities on the whole, and for rabbis. I do not know a single convert who, after finishing the process, did not have trust issues with rabbis after the treatment they received during their conversion. My conversion personally taught me to be fearful and wary of rabbis, and given the situation that has transpired with my conversion rabbi, that personal wariness has been validated this week. Rabbis should be aware of the damage that the process does to the spiritual and emotional health of their congregants during conversion and take special care to rebuild rabbinic trust and relationships with those among them that went through a conversion process.

5. Converts are constantly asked to discuss extremely personal questions by strangers in social settings. We are not aliens from another planet. Most converts, including myself, try to avoid mentioning my status at any cost to strangers at meals, parties and events in order to prevent these sorts of intrusions into our personal lives and choices. So no, random person across a 15-person Shabbat lunch table, I don’t want to yell over the din of conversation my personal spiritual journey. I refuse to even entertain this conversation from now going forward. It’s an invasion of my privacy for the sake of someone else’s curiosity.

6. Help us with matters of Jewish ritual. This falls on rabbis and community members alike. When a convert gets married, makes a bris or bar mitzvah for their sons, we are flying blind. We have no mother to call to ask how things are done (though I am personally blessed with an incredible mother-in-law). If you know a convert about to go through a significant life change, ask them if they need help. If a congregational rabbi knows a member of their community is about to make a wedding, bris or bar mitzvah, offer to help not only with logistics and halachic advice on how it is done properly, but also with suggestions how non-Jewish family could be included in some way if they choose to be. We should not have to ask with fear how a parent or sibling could participate in our wedding in a meaningful way.

7. If converts are expected to provide their “papers” proving their Jewishness for a school, synagogue, or wedding ask born Jews for the same. I will never again provide my documentation until my husband is also asked to provide a photo of his parents’ ketubah or a photo of a gravestone of an ancestor.

8. The conversion process for those of Jewish heritage should be accelerated and unique. I was born to a Jewish father and was raised Reform. I didn’t know I wasn’t halachically Jewish until a college Birthright trip (thank you to my tour guide who gently explained that inconvenient truth to me). While in the process I was treated with the same unacceptable dismissiveness and disdain afforded to girls who were converting for marriage. Intermarriage is the biggest threat to Jewish life in America. Help those of patrilineal descent, many of whom try to convert Orthodox, correct the mistakes of their fathers. They should be welcomed back into the Jewish people, not turned away like mutts at a dog show.

9. Converts deserve to be treated with the same love and care as Jewish orphans from the moment we become Jewish. We are given new names, we become the sons and daughters of Avraham, the patriarch, who is no longer with us. We are asked to renounce our families in many ways. My deceased father, a born Jew, is not listed as my father on my ketubah.

Even I, as a patrilineal Jew, have given up a great deal of my relationship with my Jewish family to become Orthodox. I can no longer spend holidays with my family, I can no longer eat their food. Immediately after conversion, I married into a wonderful family with whom I can do this, but I will never again sit at my aunt’s Passover table and hear my uncle complain about the length of the Haggadah, and that brings me much sadness.

Jews who enter this people as adults without a significant other, as I did, have even less. They spend Shabbats alone, they scrounge for holiday invitations, they receive the absolute worst shidduch recommendations for potential marriage partners, if they receive them at all. A corporate lawyer does not deserve to be constantly matched with the likes of a janitor just because he happens to be another black convert (yes, this happened to a friend on a serial basis).

There is no group in the United States or Israel (that I am aware of) whose sole mission is supporting converts acclimation into the Jewish community after their conversion. A fraction of the money spent doing kiruv could be set aside for a project of this nature. A convert may not be a born Jew, but we are still Jews in need of outreach and support.

10. We should not have to live in fear about the status of our conversions in perpetuity. I should not be afraid that the actions of a rabbi on my Beit Din could mean my conversion won’t be universally respected somewhere down the line. My first instinct hearing reports of Rabbi Freundel’s improprieties after shock was fear. Fear for my status, fear for what it would mean for my daughter and unborn child. I have lived an Orthodox Jewish life since the moment I emerged from the mikvah. I should not have to be afraid of how the actions of others who I have no control over (but who at one time yielded plenty of control over me) could affect myself or my children. I have no indication that my conversion is in any way jeopardized at this moment, and I have asked around plenty to ascertain if there is (I want to make that crystal clear for other Freundel converts). Yet, I live in the real world where I have seen this happen too many times already.

About the Author
Bethany Mandel has worked as a teacher in rural Cambodia, as an online fundraiser at The Heritage Foundation and most recently was the Social Media Associate at Commentary Magazine. A graduate of Rutgers University with a BA in History and Jewish Studies, she is currently a work-at-home mother. Bethany has appeared on CNBC's The Kudlow Report, Huffington Post Live, BBC World's World Have Your Say, and was a regular guest on "Powers to the People" on Talk Radio 1380am WNRR. The Jewish Week picked her as one of its "36 Under 36" in 2013, an annual list of individuals reinventing Jewish life. Her husband Seth Mandel, is the op-ed editor at the New York Post.
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