Respecting, Caring for and Helping the Convert

Mikve_naia_3EnglishFamous Tanach expert Rav Yoel Bin Nun once said he is saddened when people sing the popular song vesamachta bechagecha vehayita ach sameach, which is rather surprising, since all the song is about is to repeat the mantra, lifted from parts of two biblical verses, that convey “you shall rejoice on your holiday and be gladdened.” What can be sad about that? Rav Yoel Bin Nun explained that his sadness stemmed from a misuse of the verses, as the thing which is to gladden us is (Deuteronomy 16:14-15):

And you shall rejoice in your feast, you, and your son, and your daughter, and your manservant, and your maidservant, and the Levite, the stranger, and the fatherless, and the widow, that are within your gates. … and you shall be gladdened

When we rejoice together with the poor, the weak, the downtrodden, the lost souls and those who wish to be part of our holy nation but have no Jewish parents or siblings with whom to celebrate the holidays, then we shall legitimately be gladdened. (Rav Yoel Bin Nun would want us to sing the first verse in its entirety. I tried it, but it is hard to fit to the tune 32px-Sert_-_sad_smile.svg.)

This is one of the many instances in which we are enjoined to help, support, protect and respect the convert. Following in the wake of a scandal in Washington DC, in which cameras were allegedly installed in a women’s mikve, a number of articles have been penned in support of converts, particularly female converts, and the challenges they face in the course and procedures of conversion. In this post, I would like to address one of those articles, A Bill of Rights for Jewish Converts by Bethany S. Mandel. In a different post, I address A Modest Proposal for Women’s Conversion by Michal Tikochinsky.

Bethany Mandel argues for ten rights of converts:

  1. Let conversion candidates know when they will be able to convert, because during the process they live in a kind of 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. … 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. Converts lack “safe governing body or individual to turn to if we feel as we have been victimized.”
  3. “The reasonable costs associated with conversion should be clearly laid out from the outset.”
  4. Conversion candidates and converts should be more actively welcomed in communities. Particularly they should be invited for Shabbat and holiday meals.
  5. “They shouldn’t constantly be singled out to tell their uinique story, it is private.”
  6. They need and desire help in matters of Jewish ritual, including also the planning of life cycle events.
  7. “If converts are expected to provide their “papers” proving their Jewishness for a school, synagogue, or wedding ask born Jews for the same.”
  8. She wants an accelerated process for Non-Jews of Jewish descent
  9. “Converts deserve to be treated with the same love and care as Jewish orphans from the moment we become Jewish.”
  10. Finally, converts “should not have to live in fear about the status of our conversions in perpetuity.”

Many of the points she raises are legitimate. Following on my introduction above regarding the song Vesamachta beChagecha, I obviously fully agree with her point 9, about treating converts with love and care. Her point about needing to welcome converts already before their conversion (Point 4) is well taken. In practice, those people whose conversion I was called upon to shepherd, were invited by many families and progressively integrated into the community, but it is worth repeatedly emphasizing how important this is. I often cite Rav Osher Weiss of Jerusalem, who in one of his masterful and profound halakha shiurim expounded upon the commandments to love and surely not oppress the convert, and stressed how those obligations begin already prior to conversion, as soon as a duly constituted rabbinical court or a rabbinate recognized and empowered by the court makes the determination that the conversion candidate is serious and indeed intends to abide by his or her future obligations.

I similarly acknowledge that it is desirable for converts to have someone to turn to when they feel they are being victimized (point 2). Though at the time she published her article she legitimately claimed that the RCA was not that kind of body to whom the conversion candidate in doubt could turn to, this was swiftly remedied. The RCA has established a committee of ten-twelve people (details were not yet finalized), almost equally balanced with men and women, to look into those aspects of the conversion process where some candidates could be exposed to risks or uncertainties, and is also establishing an obmudsman position staffed by a woman, to be that person people could turn to when in doubt (press release).

The stories she alludes to regarding conversion fees (Point 3) are horrendous, and the existential angst of converts fearing the future invalidation of their conversion (point 10) are indeed valid. Which is why candidates should prefer to deal with broadly recognized bodies, like the RCA‘s GPS network in North America, the ORD beit din in Germany, the batei din of respective national rabbinic infrastructures in a number of countries, the European Beth Din for European countries where there are no recognized batei din, etc. All the above bodies regulate fees and provide a higher level of assurance than what independent batei din could offer. Point in fact, though the culprit of scandal that led to this whole discussion had himself been the chairman of the RCA’s GPS committee, and headed the Washington DC GPS beit din, once the scandal broke, the RCA could quickly determine that despite the immediate suspension of the offending rabbi (who had been relieved of certain responsibilities long before his misdeeds became known) that the conversions were nonetheless valid. Halakha does not always allow for such a determination, but nonetheless it was the organizational nature of the GPS and its standards that allowed it to immediately provide assurances, which, despite a few days of uncertainty, were quickly accepted and adopted by the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, too.

There is no shame in conversion, and people ask all kinds of private questions when having Shabbat dinner together (what do you do, where did you go to school, where do you work – a touchy subject as some people may be unemployed), so it is not surprising that people are fascinated by converts’ stories. Most Jews are Jews by rote, even if their faith is very profound and their passion for Judaism very great. To meet someone who chose Judaism is thus fascinating. Nonetheless, it is true that some converts prefer not to share their story so often (point 5). From experience with many proud and extrovert converts I would abstain from using her categorical language, but sensitivity is always called for in human interactions. The mirror of this point is her next one (6), about needing help with ritual. Some people desire it, others want to be left alone, others want it but paradoxically also want to be left alone. Cultivate a good relationship with your rabbi and rebbetzin, and you will be able to ask all you want or need to know.

Other points she raises may only be partially correct. Let’s run through the remaining points chronologically. First, she asks for a clear timetable. Though the astute reader will see that she is not asking for a fixed time table, just more and better feedback, other readers may gloss over those subtleties, so let’s be clear about this. Conversion is not predominantly about knowledge, but about observance. Therefore, a course of study does not suffice, though in practice it is needed, and continuous study is anyway part of the Jewish lifestyle. But conversion is not about that, it is about faith and about observing Jewish law. Furthermore, as the conversion candidate desires something from the Jewish people, namely, admission, and that such admission is halakhically conditioned on acceptance of the Yoke of Heaven and the Yoke of Mitsvot, therefore, it is up to the candidate to convince the rabbinical court of law before whom she stands, that she indeed observes Jewish Law, believes in G”d and His Torah (including the Oral Law), and will continue to practice it forever more. This does involve by necessity a terrible loss of privacy, as the court is tasked with finding out whether the claims made by the candidate are serious or whether the candidate was well coached to blurt out “the right answers.” This may involve cross examination of the candidate and people who know her.

The time necessary for completing a conversion is thus totally dependent on (a) prior knowledge of the candidate, (b) the rate of adoption of Jewish practices, and (c) the ability of the candidate to convey truthfully and convincingly that he or she intends to abide by Jewish Law and concomitant beliefs forever. In my twelve years in the rabbinate, during which I was involved in several conversions (averaging 2-4 per year), sometimes as the sponsoring rabbi, sometimes as a dayan, sometimes both, I have come across a number of individuals who kept on wanting to finally convert, but whose commitments kept on being violated by themselves. Here is some news, planning a vacation where you won’t keep kosher, posting Facebook updates on Shavuot, or failing to take off on Shemini Atzeret (all actual cases) will not be ignored, and should not be ignored.

That said, many batei din, including those in which I have been most involved (at present the Beit Din of the Conference of Orthodox Rabbis of Germany), does make an effort to provide several feedback loops to tackle exactly this problem. Conversion candidates do have a right to proper feedback, including tentative timelines. But remember, if you are not convincing – and dayanim are trained to fish out the impostors and actors – if your commitment is not solid, then conversion will indefinitely be delayed.

Regarding the cost of conversion (point 3), we should separate between conversion fees and tutoring expenses. If you choose to be tutored one on one, expect to reimburse that person for your time. If you study seriously on your own and attend public shiurim regularly, those will cost you little or no money (well, books do cost something), but it is not reasonable to expect free tutoring, especially not for an extended period of time. Yes, there are tzaddikim out there who volunteer to tutor, but you cannot demand it.

Where the author is totally missing the boat is regarding converts being asked for their papers (point 7). In the institutions I have been involved in, we do ask everybody to provide papers. You cannot join the community without proving your Jewishness, even if you claim to descend from Rashi, the Baal Shem Tov, the Gaon of Vilna and Nechama Leibowitz* all at once. However, even where such is not the case, it is unreasonable to ignore the very large number of people presenting themselves as Jews, who are either only descendants of Jews on the paternal line, who converted under non-Orthodox auspices, or who, while converting under an Orthodox rabbi, were not asked or did not intend to observe halakha.

(*: note that Nechama Leibowitz sadly never had any children. But if she would have, hers would be an even better ancestry than Rashi’s, the Baal Shem Tov’s or the Gaon of Vilna’s, as she would be a Jewish mother, and as we all know, it is through the maternal line that Jewish identity is granted by birth).

Finally, she asks for an accelerated process for gentiles of Jewish descent (point 8). This is tricky. On the one hand, this is indeed already the case, in that such people are not discouraged from converting, and they may already know a great deal that other newcomers don’t. However, this does not obviate the need for acceptance of the Yoke of Heaven and the Yoke of Mitsvot. At the end of the day, those are non-negotiable, despite claims by some authors to the contrary.

So, this is it. Converts and conversion candidates do have rights and deserve to be treated with dignity, love, care and respect, but candidates and converts also have obligations and need to understand why certain things are the way they are.

But admittedly, and this is where conversion standards and ombudsmen become particularly important, as Rabbi Dov Fischer of Orange County, CA wrote:

For a non-Jewish woman who cannot possibly know what is right and what is crazy in our strange religion (burning bread crumbs on sidewalks, not believing in ghosts but opening doors for Elijah, blowing into a part of a ram’s head, throwing crumbs into lakes, praying for rain when the weather finally is perfect, buying a multi-million-dollar house in a gated comnmunity and then living for a week in a squatter’s hut, shaking $60 lemons that have no flavor or use, wrapping leather straps around the arm, taking a handful of dough out of a pile and burning it, paying a guy five bucks to ransom a new first-born boy like from Rumpelstiltskin, adults shaking noisemakers and banging on pots during a religious Bible reading in the holy sanctuary, all while demanding that parents keep their children absolutely silent during the reading, not carrying outside on Saturday unless all the telephone poles are wired along with these little upright things nailed to the base of the poles, bedikah cloths (not to mention swinging chickens) — who is to say (for the beginning newcomer) what in Judaism is crazy, and what in Judaism demands utter deep respect and obeisant adherence that must not be challenged?  So there is real concern among many conversion candidates as to what they may ask without incurring reprisals and time-line setbacks —

“The rabbi demanded that I set up a joint-checking account with him.  Do I challenge him?  Maybe that is a requirement.  How should I know?  Whom should I ask?”

“The rabbi wants me to do a practice dunk.  Maybe that is requirement.  How should I know?”  And is it so obvious that any dunk makes any sense?  The Baptists do it in lakes and rivers — it happened in ‘O Brother Where Art Thou?’ and in an episode of “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”  But an indoor dunking pool?  If once makes sense, maybe they do require a practice dunk?  There are thirty days of ostensibly practice ram-horn blowing.  There is a Model Seder the week before the real seder.  The Bar Mitzvah boy spends a year practicing reciting his half-page of Hebrew. How am I supposed to know whether it is weird to have a practice dunk?”

One Response to Respecting, Caring for and Helping the Convert

  1. […] understand the frustration of converts with being not being accepted by the community, with being burdened with what may seem like […]

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