You've already heard that conversion is like falling in love. But you may not know that getting an orthodox conversion can sometimes be like an abusive relationship.
In a cosmic sign that I can't escape this topic this week, Frum Satire posted yesterday "Stop Screwing with the Converts Already!"
The world Jewish community and Jewish politics have caused a "frummer than you" approach to conversion where the meaner, harder, and more demoralizing BD is considered to be giving a "superior" conversion that no one will question. In essence, if you're willing to suffer actual emotional abuse, you REALLY must have been sincere! A conversion can be plenty strict and "unquestionable" without breaking you like military boot camp. Conversion is painful enough without adding to our burden.
I want to emphasize that not all American batei din are like what I'm about to describe. However, it is the unquestionable trend, and new policies are popping up in the established batei din while more and more independent batei din "go out of business," so to speak.
Leaving specifics aside, this post will address the general issues: a) how/why have conversions changed, b) why are conversions more susceptible to rabbinic politics, and c) how are these changes affecting conversion candidates?
So let's talk about what it's like to convert orthodox in America today.
First, you should know that things changed about 5 years ago. In Israel in 2006, there was a mass de-conversion thanks to the discrediting of a prior head rabbi of conversions in the Israeli Rabbinate. News articles estimated that approximately 10,000 people were de-converted thanks to the discrediting of this rabbi. This made the rest of the world scramble to "standardize" their orthodox conversions to avoid such a thing in the future. If that doesn't sound like a big deal to you, please realize that all of those people, living their lives like anyone else, were suddenly declared "Not Jewish" because of rabbinic politics and a bad apple convert. Suddenly, they were intermarried, and many of their children to also be declared "Not Jewish." There's been very little discussion of how this issue was "fixed," but word on the street is that a gerus l'chumrah could "retroactively" restore their Jewish status. (As a side note, that means those born-Jewish female children who were suddenly "Not Jewish" also won't be eligible to marry kohanim.)
Three years ago, the Rabbinical Council of America (the RCA) approved a set of "Geirus Policies and Procedures" after negotiations with the Israeli Rabbinate. The Rabbinate apparently agreed to create a list of "presumptively approved for Jewish status for Rabbinte standards" batei din (BDs) and that the RCA could establish regional BDs to carry out conversions that would be accepted in Israel as being under the umbrella of the RCA. Today, there are 12 of these BDs in the US and Montreal. Some independent orthodox batei din (generally "liberal" modern orthodox and very strict chareidi/chassidishe) still function, but increasingly, everyone is being pushed through the RCA process. Some of these independent BDs are on the Approval List. (The list can change at any time and is not officially published by the Rabbinate. This has been compiled by an independent Israeli group.)
There is a severe lack of current statistics, so we're left with anecdotal evidence. I suspect that a majority, if not a super majority, of new conversion candidates are going to the RCA-approved BDs. Quite honestly, it's the smart thing to do as the halachic and Israeli rulings stand today. However, we all know that the tides of change come quickly when converts are involved, and those changes are always retroactive. (For example, see Converts and Aliyah.)
Soon...a conversion may require a vow against television and "unfiltered internet." (Just about everyone already requires that converts "of childbearing years" vow to send all children to yeshiva day school for 13 years, which limits new converts to living in approximately a dozen US cities. These young converts aren't allowed to even begin the conversion process until they've moved to an "acceptable" community.) I laughed when I first thought about the TV and internet comment, but then I met a someone with an (at the time) indefinitely delayed conversion whose community members told him the kedusha (holiness) of his home just wasn't high enough for a conversion because of those two things. Yes, this is really happening.
Why is the conversion process especially vulnerable to rabbinic politics? It’s much easier to let Jewish politics play out in the conversion arena. Converts-in-progress don’t have the standing or the resources to challenge corrupt, cruel, and/or ridiculous conversion regulations and rabbis. Who are they going to complain to when they're still learning the Jewish community? Who is going to be willing to stand up for someone who isn't part of Klal Yisrael yet? It’s singling out the weakest members of our communities to practice power politics. Even worse, there is practically no one willing to risk their rabbinic neck to stand up for these people. (Though there are wonderful, notable exceptions! But let's be honest: they may be risking their jobs and standing in the community.) If we conversion candidates challenge questionable/overly-stringent policies, people unfamiliar with today's orthodox conversion process think that we’re a) not dedicated enough to becoming Jewish, b) just don’t understand the halacha, and/or c) are whiney.
Remember the mitzvah to not oppress or abuse the convert or remind him/her of a non-Jewish past? Doesn't apply until the person is a "convert." (Of course, there are several interpretations of this mitzvah, but the bottom line is that none of those mitzvot appear to apply to the conversion candidate.) In fact, until the candidate comes out of that mikvah, that candidate is a gentile and there is no heightened standard of behavior as is generally required towards other Jews.
Before conversion, we’re essentially 3/5 of a Jewish person. With all the Jewish rights and power that idea conveys. (Not to make light of the historical reference. We really just aren't "worth" as much pre-mikvah as we are post-mikvah. Stories abound of borderline-cruel rabbis who suddenly become buddy-buddy as soon as the convert pops out of the mikvah!) A lot of people in the conversion world think that they’re “doing us a favor” by meeting with us/putting up with us, and therefore, we should be grateful for whatever bread crumbs of kindness we receive. And as noted near the beginning, the more they treat us like dirt on their shoe, the more the greater Jewish community is willing to accept that conversion. We are rewarding those with the worst behavior.
How are converts reacting to the increasingly hurtful American conversion process?
The converts/candidates I've spoken with in the last week (and before that) are overwhelmingly bitter, angry, and distrustful of rabbis. Instead of rabbis being seen as "guiding" a conversion, the candidates have become trained to expect that the BD will sabotage them at every turn, and they become paranoid, looking for the next instance of the BD's cruel words or outright sabotage. In many cases, the rabbis seem to believe that the ends justify the means. Newsflash: If you make a person despise you because you've unjustifiably broken his/her heart time and time again, they will never trust you. Never. You will never be friends. They will never respect you. The best of those people will avoid speaking lashon hara about you, but unfortunately, that is unlikely since we're all imperfect beings. Deigning to grant the candidate the privilege of becoming Jewish will not suddenly justify all the pain and suffering you have caused. And you have caused the candidate to sin because it is nearly impossible to avoid holding a grudge, speaking lashon hara, or the 4 million other interpersonal mitzvot that hatred and anger can cause. The ends do NOT justify the means.
The most sickening case I've heard was someone whose file was "lost" after receiving approval for a tutor. This isn't unusual; at least one BD has an unwritten policy to lose every application multiple times (purposely creating months of lost time). A year later, the candidate contacted the BD and was told to go back to the very beginning of the conversion process. The BD supposedly had no record of the previous meeting, so they had written the candidate off as a "drop out." Even the sponsoring rabbi thought everything was hunky-dory. If the BD sticks to their guns, two years of that person's life have potentially been wasted. Straight up wasted. And the candidate is facing another two years of what has already been done. A long-time frum, devoted, community leader is a victim of seemingly-purposeful bureaucratic inefficiency that would rival the French or Israeli government. All in the name of rooting out the "insincere" candidate. If that candidate still isn't sincere, who of us is??
So what about me? I have a vague plan for myself at this point, but there are still a lot of issues to work out. I'm thankful to be in a position that I can completely turn my plans upside down with no more "real" hassle than confusing friends and family. After all, in a few months, I'm unemployed and unattached. I'm optimistic about the new plan, but it's intimidating. Thankfully, I've been blessed with the patience of many good friends who are familiar with the conversion process. Once I shared my discoveries, they were just as shocked as I was. I was pretty afraid I was overreacting! So if you feel the same way...trust me, you're not overreacting. The world has gone crazy. And we conversion candidates must be crazy for staying, but this Jewish neshama came with a stiff neck, so I'm not going anywhere.
/rant. Let's hope someone out there is still willing to convert me after this post. But who else was going to say it? :/