As I read the powerful call from Bethany Mandel for a Convert Bill of Rights, the only statement with which I agree without any level of dissent was the last of her 10 points, in which she argues that once we have made it through the conversion process with a Beis Din religious court that (at that point in time) was acceptable according to Halacha, Jewish law, our status should not be questioned at any time in the future. Most of her other points are not a solution for a possibly dysfunctional process, but rather are related more to the specific community where the procedure is being overseen, and general lack of tact.
Point one (Timeline) – Conversion is not a college degree where if you earn enough credits, you’ll graduate on time. By its nature, the process does not have a roadmap that can be given. I actually believe (after being told once at 35 weeks pregnant that I was not ready, and being heartbroken) that this can be a crucial part of the process designed to test one’s resolve.
Point two (Governing Body) – First, Ms. Mandel merely stated that the RCA didn’t meet this capacity without giving a reason as to why she feels this to be the case. Keep in mind that having a national governing body hoards power in one place. You can see from the situation in Israel what that might lead to: be careful what you wish for. However, there does need to be accountability for those who have positions of authority. Perhaps some sort of anonymous system could be established such as those in place for doctors, where converts and applicants could report on their experiences.
Point three (Fee Structure) – If the argument is that the fees are unknown, the solution seems to me to be proactive about the process. Ask at the outset if there are fees, and when those are due. Get this in writing, and refer to the “contract” if any additional funds are requested. However, my larger argument is with the high fees in the first place. When added to the costs of possibly moving to a religious neighborhood, purchasing food with strict kashrut requirements, possibly buying a completely new wardrobe, and other expenditures of this vein, fees for tutors and administrativa can make becoming Jewish unaffordable on a purely practical level. Is this fair? I would suggest that each community should decide upon a fair cost for all of the necessary training, and then set up a sliding scale fee system. Then communal funds could be used to subsidize the process.
Point four (Communal Acceptance) – My conversion was stressful and certainly a less than ideal situation, primarily due to my own life circumstances at the beginning of the process. In my case, the Rabbis of the Beis Din, as well as those of my local Kollel were very supportive and by the end, had more than earned my trust. Ms. Mandel speaks of the obligation for Rabbis to assist the convert as one over and above the obligation of the lay community. I disagree. Rabbis in this instance should function just as members of the community, modeling that it is everyone’s responsibility to help the ger, and not only the leaders.
Of course, Ms. Mandel’s suggestion of a New Jew Welcome Wagon also has implications regarding point five (lack of privacy). Many of us (obviously not me, but some people I know), specifically do not want constant reminders of our status as converts. From experience, I’ve learned that, out of a sense of camaraderie and simple curiosity, those very people most likely to assist converts in fitting in will also be the ones most likely to ask us about our life stories.
Point six (Jewish Ritual) – With the number of Baalei Teshuva who are returning to Observant Judaism, and the increasing resources available online, it is easier than ever to find out about the procedures and expectations of Jewish rites of passage. This is not an issue that affects only converts. There are also groups, both online and offline, which cater precisely to converts, and where you can ask questions that you find truly difficult to bring up with Jews by Birth.
Point seven (Documentation) – Without knowing about her community, it is difficult to say what led to the requests for documentation of her status that she mentioned. However, in most cases in the Orthodox , it is the woman, whether born Jewish or having experienced a conversion, who is requested to show documentation, for the simple case that if your mother is Jewish, you are as well. There isn’t much need to inquire about the father’s status once that has been established. Additionally, when it was relevant, such as for Aliyah and certain school applications, my husband was often asked for more documentation than I was.
Point eight (Heritage Brownie Points) – What. There is no way that some Jews should go to the head of the line merely by having a Jewish family member. You know those movies where the mentor asks the hero if they have any training, the hero replies that he doesn’t, and then the mentor breathes a sigh of relief because it means there are fewer bad habits to unlearn? Yeah. It’s like that.
Many converts have studied Judaism on our own for years before formally beginning the conversion process, and know more than most Jews by Birth regarding ritual and Halacha. Of course if the convert has an actual background in Judaism (for example, I knew someone who had a Masters degree in Jewish Studies prior to conversion), then the process should be much faster than someone who “kinda feels Jewish…”
Point nine (Treatment) – I found this to be the most depressing part of the entire post. I’m sure that Ms. Mandel has received some sort of guidance regarding how to treat her family. However, I do know of converts who are able to balance obligations and pay tribute to cherished relationships. Converts need not be left adrift when they have family, even if that family is not Jewish. There are also accommodations that can be made, if one should wish to do so, in order to share meals and holidays. I’m not saying that this solution is the answer for everyone. But there are more ways than one to deal with family post-conversion.
And also, in what, to me, sums up the attitude I find prevalent amongst many members of the Jewish community, Ms. Mandel laments “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).”
Deserve?! Dating a non-professional is a punishment? This is exactly the same underlying mentality that allows people to discuss conversions in public and treat converts as second class citizens. Stereotyping is okay if it’s on the basis of class, but not on the basis of birth status or race. Okay.
I certainly understand where Ms. Mandel is coming from. Conversion is a stressful process and runs rampant with opportunities for abuse of power. However, when suggesting solutions, it is important to thoroughly parse through potential consequences, and not throw the convert out with the mikveh water.