Traditionally, all converts have been required to live within an "easy walking distance" (which may vary based on convert and beit din) of an "orthodox community" before completing the conversion. My understanding is that it could be any community that was regularly able to muster a minyan for Shabbat and had some kind of access to kosher food (even if through the mail). Converts throughout the ages have made sacrifices to move across town or across continents to fulfill this requirement. It can often be one of the most demanding requirements, particularly if the convert owns a home, has children, or is part of a tight-knit family.
Today, this requirement is changing. Several groups have already changed, and it seems that new groups are adding this requirement all the time.
Now, batei din are beginning to require that a convert of child-having age (meaning of child-bearing age or having children under 18) must move to an orthodox community that has a 12-year orthodox day school program. This means that a "community" day school or an orthodox day school that is not from elementary to graduation cannot satisfy the requirement.
Moving isn't necessarily the requirement itself. The converts are required to take a vow during the conversion itself (usually in writing beforehand AND orally while standing in the mikvah) to raise any children as Jews and to provide them with 12 years of orthodox Jewish day school education. It's been a requirement for as long as I know of to require that the convert vow to raise all children as Jews. This education component is very new. As in the last 1-2 years new. In practice, this results in a requirement for anyone who has children or could have children to move to an "appropriate" community before the conversion will be completed.
I'm unmarried and have no children, but I was told this was a requirement of the first beit din I interviewed with. I was told I should switch to a more geographically-appropriate beit din, but this requirement seemed unsettling to me even then. I don't know my new beit din's position on the subject yet, but I'm sure it's the same. However, I was already planning to move to a new area, which happens to be NYC, so there would be no problem. I didn't think much about it. I know of a couple converting (yes, both!) whose children are already grown, so they were not given this requirement by the same beit din.
I made the innocent mistake of sharing what I had been told with someone from a small community. I was shocked by the amount of pain and anger I gave this person because he had spent over 20 years working diligently to build his community, only to find out that it is "unacceptable" as a home for converts. I had simply shared the story because he was curious about my meeting, and I thought this requirement was noteworthy. I had no idea it would create such negative feelings, and I'm very sorry it did. Of course, in retrospect, I completely understand his reaction. As an example, my personal calculations say that my shul is comprised of approximately 20% converts. If they had been told to move, where would my community be today? Small communities may need the passion of converts more than anywhere else. However, the perspective of people in the larger communities seems to be very negative against the smaller communities (the "Jewish boonies," as I like to call them), but that's a different story for another day.
This requirement severely limits the available communities, as you might imagine. According to the Education Encyclopedia, two-thirds of all American orthodox Jewish day school students are in NY and NJ. So guess where you're moving! You could probably live in Los Angeles too. But besides that, who knows? You'd have to search city by city to locate an appropriate community, then you'd need to be sure there would be no chance of the only orthodox day school in town closing in 5 years because of lack of funds. Then you'd have to move again! (Assuming you have kids or plan to have kids, of course.)
What's the real worry for converts behind this requirement? What happens if you intend to fulfill this requirement at the time of conversion, but your circumstances change and make it unreasonable for you to fulfill it? Worse, given the Jewish instability in the last 10 years where everyone is going around and saying that everyone else is "fringe" and "questionable," what if you thought you had fulfilled the requirement, then the school you sent your children to was ruled to be "not orthodox enough"? In general, there are simply too many unknowns, and there is no way to know how any beit din will enforce the rule, especially since batei din will change rabbis over time.
- G-d forbid, but perhaps you have a child with special needs, and this creates a conflict with your conversion requirements. It's generally conceded that the Jewish day schools (minus a few special schools) are not equipped for special needs children, and then perhaps you as a parent are forced to choose between giving your child the best education for him or her (or even an adequate education!) and bringing your Jewish status into question because you've broken the "terms of the agreement," so to speak.
- Less compelling, but I also could imagine a child with a special talent who would like to attend a special school. For instance, imagine your amazingly talented Jewish child gets into Juliard for music! What do you say? "Sorry, honey, but that would make me stop being Jewish, and [if this is the mother talking] thus, you too. You get to choose between being Jewish and going to Juliard." We're going to punish our children because their best interests may force the parents to choose between their child's legitimate, kosher wishes and being Jewish??
- This could also very much limit the convert's and the convert's spouse's job opportunities if they can only live in very particular areas. Most of the areas that can support 12 years of an orthodox Jewish day school are very expensive. Not to mention the fact that Jewish day schools' yearly tuitions are more expensive than most private colleges! I'm lucky that I'll have a professional degree, but many are not so lucky. And it's sad that even I, someone who lives frugally and will be a lawyer (not to mention not even having kids on the horizon yet!), still worries a great deal about how to afford a day school education. (Personally, it seems like the Jewish communities are reaching a breaking point where something will have to change.) I think this is particularly notable for foreign converts, who may have only one available community in their country to begin with, if not already having to move to a new country!
On a more fundamental level, I'm a little surprised that rabbis can change the "terms of the agreement" for conversion. It's one thing to require more before the conversion will be completed, but it seems odd to me that the rabbis can add to the conversion requirements themselves. Does this make sense? To make a silly analogy, it seems similar to requiring that the convert only wear purple after conversion. First, how can something like that be used to invalidate a conversion that was valid according to halacha (as understood for a thousand years) when made? Second, especially if it needs to be broken for a good reason, I don't see why batei din may not allow a loophole to invalidate a vow, which is done on a regular basis in other areas. Third, if the convert really intended to do that at the time of conversion, I don't understand how a beit din could go back and invalidate the conversion by saying that even if you had the proper intent at time and it was a kosher conversion, but we're going to pull your Jew card anyway. That's a little more complicated of an argument than I have the knowledge to argue, but it's certainly an idea floating around in converts' heads, and therefore, should be addressed.
It seems like one thing to set the conversion bar higher, but a very different thing to create new requirements for the conversion itself. That's a very fundamental change to halacha itself, it seems. Anyone more knowledgeable than myself know about this?