Can conversion rabbis ever really understand the emotional issues that face conversion candidates? Worse, maybe even our friends and family can’t understand?
I don’t mean to downplay the suffering that other people face. We all have our own challenges, but orthodox conversion candidates face an outside restriction on the most intimate areas of life. Given the unique type of emotional challenges we face, do conversion rabbis really understand where we are coming from when we express frustration or emotional difficulties with the process? Do less friendly conversion rabbis consider this when they are borderline (or not so borderline) rude or cruel?
Almost every conversion candidate faces at least some period of time that feels like life is on hold. And your life literally IS on hold. Many of the fundamental life freedoms that normal people have are forbidden to us. I know of no other area of society or culture that essentially forces a person to stay put in one phase of life for an indefinite period of time based on the totally subjective view of a third person. Batei din give about 1 week’s notice that they are ready to convert a candidate. It may take anywhere from 1 year to 3 years to 10 years to get to that week. Until that time, you normally have absolutely no indication how much longer you must remain in limbo. Essentially, you can plan almost nothing meaningful in your life until after you become halachically Jewish. Personally, I think this undermines emotional stability in even the most stable conversion candidates.
Some of the challenges we face:
We cannot date [if we didn’t enter the conversion process with a partner], so we cannot marry or have children. For years. Our friends, both Jewish and not, are marrying and having children (and even getting divorced), while we cannot even begin the process that everyone else started long ago. Dating is grounds for termination of the geirus process as being deceitful. It's difficult to wait on the sidelines of life, even before you factor in the loneliness, frustration at missed opportunities, and feelings of inadequacy.
Married couples may be forbidden from having “relations” and/or told to not have children until the conversion is complete. For however long that will take. And with a partner, the conversion process is normally even longer because the conversion goes as the pace of the "slower" partner. The biological clock is ticking, not to mention the emotional toll of being married to someone you can no longer have a normal marital relationship with. Many couples will be required to live separately for some period of time, regardless of childcare concerns. At least one beit din (to my knowledge) lists pregnancy as grounds for termination of the geirus process. A second essentially adds a "penalty" that the (female only?) candidate must leave the program for the duration of the pregnancy and some time after birth, not being allowed to have tutoring or any other step towards the conversion.
While dealing with the issues above (which I believe are usually the most destructive to the emotional life of any conversion candidate), the candidate is also forced to make decisions against their normal social and financial interest.
We cannot move to a new community after finally assimilating into the community or else we will have to effectively start the conversion over, probably with a new beit din. This may mean staying in a bad community until whenever the limbo ends. This may result in turning down career advancements or preventing a move to a more appropriate (or welcoming) Jewish community. Further, because of Israel’s aliyah regulations, converts should stay in the converting community for at least one year after the conversion if they intend to make aliyah. Otherwise, they may have to rely on a spouse’s Jewish status in order to fulfill the Law of Return, despite the conversion. This could potentially affect aliyah benefits, which are often essential for making that move. And that assumes you are married at the time of aliyah! (Remember, this is the secular side of making aliyah. This is not dealing with Jewish status issues with the Rabbinate.)
We cannot begin our conversions until we graduate our current stage of schooling and are thus free to move to a new community. For whatever reason, transferring schools may be impractical or impossible. This can delay a conversion for years. What may have been an “acceptable” Jewish community for any other purpose may not be an acceptable community for conversion, but you will not know this until you are father along in the process. You may have chosen to attend school in what seems to be an acceptable community, only to discover later that you are required to move to Los Angeles, New York City, or somewhere else.
Those of us who are single are being required to move to Los Angeles or New York City because they are the “only acceptable singles’ communities” in the United States. There is no allowance for whether that move would be appropriate or beneficial for the candidate in question. We may not even be allowed to start learning towards a conversion until making this move, no matter how large the prior community is. The time in the prior community may not even count towards the "discouragement" period, meaning that after moving, the candidate may continue to be turned away from the beit din for up to a year.
In some places, we are required to move into the home of strangers for 6 months or more, usually a year or more. If we have pets or families, this may prevent us from completing a supposedly "essential" part of the conversion process. No one says what happens to those candidates (and I have yet to meet anyone who did this who was not single), so I don’t know whether they are allowed to complete the process.
In almost all cases today, we must move and leave behind our careers, our families, our friends, or our schools. We are placed in significant financial jeopardy by having to sell homes during down markets while having to buy in expensive urban areas. We have to move to some of the most difficult job markets in the country, potentially leaving behind all the networking contacts that many professions require. We may leave behind our families and support systems. Lech lecha indeed.
And we have to do all this before some batei din will even speak to us. I'm not talking about chareidi batei din either.
Have these conversion rabbis ever faced these kinds of issues in their own lives? Since converts who later obtained smicha (ordination) are not allowed to sit on RCA batei din for conversions, I doubt it.
With all of these emotional strains in the life of a conversion candidate, can even the most sympathetic conversion rabbi really know the emotional rollercoaster we face? Do less sympathetic rabbis consider these issues when they are rude or condescending or treat the candidate as a burden on their time?
Unfortunately, not only do many rabbis not consider these issues, some rabbis (an increasing number, apparently) view these challenges as essential for weeding out "insincere" candidates. However, even sincere candidates are being pushed away by these issues and rabbis' failure to be sensitive to these difficulties. Today, candidates are excited when someone treats them politely. We dare not hope for sympathy, validation, or understanding.
These are some of the things that made me initially say, "When you're converting to Judaism, sometimes you just wanna know you're not crazy."
At the risk of going 90s girl rock on you, this all reminds me of Jewel’s song, “I’m Sensitive”
I was thinking that I might fly today
Just to disprove all the things you say
It doesn't take a talent to be mean
Your words can crush things that are unseen
So please be careful with me, I'm sensitive
And I'd like to stay that way.