Disclaimer: I had never heard of the Vancouver Beit Din until this week, when I was given access to a copy of their conversion manual. For those of you who are also unaware of them, they are (among other things) a regional conversion beit din for the Rabbinical Council of America. This means (for today at least) presumptive acceptance of their conversions in Israel. (Lesson on presumptive acceptance: that means it can still be challenged and potentially not accepted.) Don't ask me why a Canadian group is affiliated with an American group; I'm just as confused as you are.
Those of you who are not familiar with the orthodox conversion process should probably review the new page titled "About Orthodox Conversion." Also, the Glossary has been updated.
I got a copy of the Vancouver Beit Din's Geirus (Conversion) Manual.
First off, they have an exceptional manual. I love the concept so much that I could marry it. They explain all their conversion policies, procedures, and expectations. It's thorough, it's clear, and it's straightforward. In short, I adore it, and I wish every group performing conversions had something like this written out for their conversion candidates. I think it makes for a better and more standardized conversion process, a saner candidate, and less nagging emails to the beit din. This is practically the definition of a win-win concept in conversion.
However, and this is a big however, one policy in particular really surprised and dismayed me. The beit din requires a "12 month waiting period" after conversion (the actual dipping in the mikvah) before they will give the ger his or her conversion documents. And during this year, the ger must continue participating at least weekly in a beit din-approved class. At the end of the 12 months, the ger must (a) again meet with the beit din and (b) again request support letters from the sponsoring ("assigned") rabbi, the weekly teacher for the prior 12 months, and "any Jewish community members or organizations with whom the ger has worked."
To their credit (and proof of their awesome thoroughness), they list the criteria that the ger will be measured against: (1) "a demonstrated commitment to a Torah observant [sic] life," (2) "continued learning," (3) "community involvement," and (4) "observable involvement in all aspects of being Jewish." What happens if you fall short? "If the Bais Din is not satisfied after examining these factors or any other pertinent information, the geirus document will not be issued[,] and the geirus will be called into question."
To be fair, this policy implies that it applies to every single one of their conversion candidates and, therefore, doesn't single anyone out. It also tells the ger exactly what is expected of him or her, and the consequences of noncompliance. These are all good things.
On the other hand, it seems irrelevant to have this kind of policy (and contrary to my limited knowledge of conversion halacha). Assuming that the beit din is worried about people not intending to accept the mitzvot at the time of conversion, halacha has specified processes to negate a conversion that was later shown to be invalid. But on a practical level, if a convert is "faking it" for the entire conversion process (an incredibly hard feat in itself), what would stop him or her from faking it for one more year? They've probably already had to fake it for 2-4 years at this point, so why would one more year matter? And if that's the rationale, why not hold the geirus documents for the rest of the ger's life since they may go off the derech at any time? Can you hold a conversion hostage?
To make a legal analogy, just because a law is well-written (and passed by Congress, signed into law by the President, and you're given constitutionally-sufficient notice of the new law) doesn't make it constitutional. But without a Sanhedrin, we have no forum to challenge these kinds of policies nor anyone to give a conclusive ruling on their "constitutionality." If you want to convert to orthodox Judaism, you will accept that you have to follow whatever rules and policies your rabbis give you above and beyond the mitzvot...or you won't convert. Or as many people do (and as I did), you will seek a liberal conversion instead.
Thankfully, on a practical level, I can't imagine that many people will fail this test. If you've made it far enough for a beit din this strict to let you in the mikvah, you're probably doing just fine. (And your beit din's reputation for strictness can be very helpful for preventing challenges to your conversion later.) But the fear factor of this policy is cruel, in my opinion. Converts, especially those living in Israel or considering eventually living in Israel, already live in fear of some rabbi "challenging" (for lack of a better term) their conversion. Every time a convert moves to a new community, his or her new rabbi has the right to refuse to accept the conversion if he believes the conversion didn't comply with his understanding of halacha. And heaven help every convert mother when her child decides to get married and thus, must prove that she is halachicly Jewish. Of course, the geirus paperwork is usually enough...but sometimes it's not.
These fears are (sadly) relatively normal/common and, for the most part, unwarranted if you continue to live an observant life (albeit probably still needing to be stricter than your neighbors). But giving these fears physical form (especially when appropriate halachic procedures already exist) just serves to raise our blood pressure and make us constantly feel like we're living in a glass house. This fear isn't limited to the Vancouver conversion candidates; any one of us who has not yet completed the conversion process could face a similar change in policy at any time. It reflects the ever-increasing "guilty until proven innocent" mentality about converts because of the conversion issues in Israel.
As an example, anyone reading this article who has been involved with the conversion process (as a rabbi, mentor, or candidate) probably thinks I'm an idiot to have written this. And maybe I am; I certainly wonder if I am. The first rule of Conversion Club is "you do not talk about your beit din." (The second rule of Conversion Club is "you do not talk about your beit din.") This isn't my beit din, but you get the point: You don't bite the hand that feeds you. At least not until after your conversion, but even that would be questionable. (For instance, I've heard good advice that is unfortunately true: Converts should avoid being on the synagogue board because of the potential that they may be forced to vote on firing the rabbi that converted them! Besides the obvious conflicts, it could also call your conversion into question.)
But if conversion candidates are afraid to stand up for themselves, who will? "If I am not for myself, then who will be for me? When I am for myself only, what am I? If not now, when?" (Pirkei Avot 1:14). So yes, I may be crazy for questioning this policy in a public forum, and it may have severe repercussions. But who else is going to start the conversation? There are some born-Jews and after-conversion converts who seek to help us conversion candidates, but aren't conversion candidates the best ones to say how policies affect us and harm our sanity? It's too bad we're all too afraid to speak up for fear that all the beitei din will refuse to convert us. The problem is certainly not limited to this policy or this beit din. Fear is endemic within the conversion community. But since when have Jews ever not given their opinion?? Why would we expect any less of our converts and conversion candidates?
This policy is just one more thing to help us converts practice the middot of patience and acceptance of the things we cannot change.