Yaakov Jaffe
Rabbi, Maimonides Kehillah; Dean, Maimonides School

The Value of a Nationwide US Jewish Conversion System

Recently, two Israeli rabbis seized upon a somewhat public dust-up about US conversions to author blog posts and op-eds – one appearing on this website – about the state of Orthodox conversion to Judaism in the United States.  In particular, the two presentations focused on the GPS (Geirus Policies and Standards) Conversion system, overseen by the Rabbinical Council of America, with both rabbis seeking the dissolution of our centralized, nationwide system. Yet, my reading of current events have led me to the exact opposite conclusion: we need the GPS system now more than ever.

We all realize that the moment of conversion is a sensitive one, with a sometimes solitary individual undergoing tremendous personal change.  A potential convert shifts his or her worldview, and his or her own concept of their past, present, and future, through changing religions.  Consequently, it is a time when a convert could face discrimination or abuse; and we are sadly familiar with cases when potential converts have faced financial exploitation, bigotry, emotional abuse, or worse.   And it is precisely for that reason that Modern Orthodoxy should shy away from private rabbis supervising private conversions, and move towards a more centralized system.

The GPS involves more than one hundred volunteer rabbis from across the entire vast spectrum of Modern Orthodoxy (not a “select few” as one author claimed), who – as part of a unified system – share best practices, standards of conduct, and work collaboratively on improving the conversion experience for all that apply.  Each rabbi who participates in the GPS accepts and commits to open a file for any applicant, irrespective of their financial status and geography, and this allows anyone in the continental United States who is so motivated to come and convert, even without powerful connections.  Supervisors are dedicated to nationwide oversight and a web presence also helps gives transparency to the system.  The result: few surprises for converts moving across the path, and a greater sense of comfort that it is their own growth which is at the forefront.  Having converted more than 600 individuals in the last three years, no one can claim the courts are too exclusive, too demanding, too slow, or too ineffective.

Rabbis do this not for the honor, as the contribution of many of them is anonymous even to their own communities, nor for the publicity which they routinely shun, and surely not from a desire to elbow others out of conversion to increase their own market share; rather, they act to help those in need, and for the sake of the Jewish people writ large. They do it for a greater purpose and a higher calling, in a humble and understated way.

To be sure, no system is foolproof, and one lone improper actor can always engage in criminal behavior, but the protections afforded by a nationwide system are far better than what either author has advocated for instead.  Moreover, the GPS meets regularly to share new insights and best practices to improve protections as needed.  I ask what the other bloggers would prefer?  Would they rather return to individual rabbis singlehandedly controlling the conversion of those close to them?  Or to the insidious fee-for-service system common in other circles?

I understand there may be issues that rabbis in Israel are presently confronting regarding conversion, and I wish them wisdom, insight, and clarity of moral vision as they decide how to confront the situation in Israel in the future.  But as an American Rabbi who mentors conversion candidates, I would not want politics halfway across the globe to ruin the fine system for conversion we have here.  From my perspective, the GPS works, and I would hate to see it replaced in this country with private rabbis supporting private conversions, without supervision or oversight.

American Jews looking to do something to improve the opportunities for conversion to Orthodox Judaism in the united states should redouble our efforts in support of the GPS.  Perhaps adding a budget line in your shul’s budget to support the local GPS court financially, or asking your rabbi to only mentor candidates through a nationwide system, with its added oversight and transparency.  If we want to do things above board, this is clearly the way.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Yaakov Jaffe is the rabbi of the Maimonides Kehillah, and the Dean of Judaic Studies at the Maimonides School in Brookline, Mass.
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