Reopen Jewish Conversion Courts to All RCA Rabbis

Open the Jewish Conversion Process Back Up to All RCA Rabbis

Barry Freundel, the former RCA chairman of conversion issues

In a controversial public exchange between Rabbi Avi Weiss and, as it were, Barry Freundel in 2009, Freundel described the system whereas only 150 people had been converted since 2007 and only 150 other candidates were in the process. The GPS had 15 authoritative Rabbinical courts spread throughout the United States, overseen by 40 judges.

There are far more than 40 Rabbis qualified in the United States to judge candidates for conversion. There are far more than 150 people interested in converting Judaism. There are more than 15 cities where they are located.

As a result of the GPS, previous conversion courts in Delaware, Michigan and Kansas are currently defunct. The GPS assumes that only so many Rabbis in the United States are responsible enough to judge a candidate’s suitability to enter the Jewish fold.

Yet, conversions are among the most legalistically simple procedures in Jewish law. Qualifications to sit on a tribunal to oversee a conversion are minuscule and require, based on the letter of the law, no special Rabbinical expertise or experience governing a Jewish community. In essence, if a layman can run a conversion court, for damn sure so can anyone who is a certified member of the Rabbinical Council of America.

With so little capacity to process candidates in place, it is inevitable that the supply of Orthodox conversions would fall. Relative to demand, supply has been deliberately strangled. It is no wonder that Barry Freundel spoke of only 150 candidates in 2009. There are millions of Americans with mixed ancestry who are likely to consider their Jewish identity in the future, and many of whom who will reach out for a spiritual lifeline from Orthodox Rabbinical authorities.

Unfortunately, the value of the conversion has suffered rather than appreciated from that lower supply. The tighter restrictions have resulted in cold attitudes by some Rabbis, and far worse a general perception among Orthodox Jews that converts are to be more suspected then marveled; more interrogated than honored; to never be fully accepted and to always be watched.

Converts’ Well-Being is More Important to the Torah than Doubts over Procedure

When in doubt over a Rabbinical law, err on the side of leniency. When in doubt over a Torah-based law, err on the side of caution.

While not all the concerns of stricter authorities are over Rabbinical legislation amended to Jewish law by the Sanhedrin in ancient times or customs that have developed over the centuries, many of them are. The amount of extra effort converts have had to make, plus the suspicion that follows them throughout the community, are the expense current Rabbinical bodies have paid in order to clear doubts over matters of procedure and suspected ulterior motives to convert. Rabbinical authorities have become lax in their attitude toward the many-mentioned edict of God in the Torah to not oppress the convert (Exodus 22:20, Exodus 23:9, Leviticus 19:33-34, Leviticus 25:17, and so on). The best course of action to reverse this is to undo the trend of unrelenting pressure. Trust the convert more than you might even trust the overseeing judge.

Be strict about adhering to these laws that demand Jews not verbally abuse converts, nor financially strangle them. Alleviate converts and would-be converts of financial obligations to the process, be it in classes or in travel. Do not foster a culture where converts are constantly forced to reaffirm their status with documents or to fear that their conversions might be reevaluated. In all likelihood, conversions are kosher by the bare standards of the Torah and would not have to be reevaluated anyway.

If there is a doubt over the intent of a convert during the process or what was taught to him leading up the actual physical conversion, those doubts cannot outweigh the commitments made during immersion in a mikvah. The act of dunking itself is a demonstration of commitment and enough to forget any lingering questions about procedure.

The Key Need Now is Trust

Reaffirm these commitments and assuredly converts will live more free of the fear they might be called back to dunk again. Of equal importance, Rabbis will begin to earn back trust the last decade’s politics have taken away from them, a trust so vital to instill a sense of respect from the community in its leaders.

 

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