Thursday, January 10, 2013

"A Rabbi Asked Me Inappropriate Questions" Is a Red Flag...But You Probably Can't Do Anything About It If You Want a Conversion

Today, we're going to discuss something heavy, and I'm going to share one of my "conversion woe" stories. 

A rabbi once asked me inappropriate questions. Nothing physically inappropriate happened, and he didn't look like he was relishing every detail of the answers he made me give, but it was inappropriate and exploitative nonetheless.

Unfortunately for him, I had resources to turn to and connections to complain to. But I am the rarity. 

The truth is that conversion candidates are the easiest people in our community to abuse, whether for the sake of rabbinic politics, something illegal, or something exploitative. In my opinion, there are four major reasons for this:
  • A candidate may be uncertain that conduct violates the Torah (or other Jews may assume the candidate has misunderstood the alleged behavior, thereby rationalizing it away)
  • Candidates usually lack people to turn to in the community when things go poorly (especially if the rabbi is well-liked)
  • They lack access to the people they could complain to, and 
  • A conversion candidate knows that the rabbi holds his or her future in his hands. He is the gatekeeper to the candidate's hopes and dreams for the future.
Rationalizations run rampant:
"I'm sure you just misunderstood him."
"He would never do that!"
"Why should I believe you when I've known him for five years?"
"Maybe she's making it up because he didn't recommend her to the beit din."
"But how can I help?! I have no influence over him!"
"The rabbi can ruin everything, so I can't make him angry. Maybe it'll stop/never happen again."
Or worst: no one seeing or hearing anything at all because the candidate is the Child Who Is Afraid to Ask.

In many ways, this is not very different from any other kind of abusive relationship: a power differential being exploited by someone with bad intentions who knows the victim either would not be believed or would be too afraid to speak.

My case was thankfully very mild. It could have been much worse. And I don't know whether his "boss" came down on him for it, but I do know that my complaint was heard by the most appropriate authority figure, and that he was shocked and bothered by my story. He heard me, and he took me seriously. And of course, I wonder what happened after that, but I trust that person enough to think that he did the right thing. I can't say that I don't wonder though. [UPDATE: That "boss" was Barry Freundel, so who knows what came of that.]

The worst part in my case was that the situation could be very hard to defend as inappropriate. On the surface, it looks up and up, until you really listen to the conversation being had. And I agree that everything but the discussion was on the up and up, as far as I can tell.

As part of an evaluation to be considered for conversion, a rabbi gave me a psychological test. While I don't know, I suspect that he is not a trained psychologist or social worker, so an untrained person interpreting a psychological written exam as a means of determining someone else's entire future sounds like a bad idea. ...I digress. (But will return to the topic of psychological evaluations soon.  Those are actual interviews with a mental health professional separate from the beit din. It's a growing trend - and I support it.) [That promised blog post: Psychological Testing - The Growing Trend in Conversions]

So there I was, spending forever filling out this test. It asked the questions you would expect from a psychological exam. Those ones where you usually know what the "right" answer is. "Have you ever tortured small animals?" "Do you think the government is out to get you?" Ok, maybe not quite that obvious, but you've probably taken one of these exams before. I have twice; both job related. One to work in a grocery store, and one as a personality test to determine whether I would "fit in" to a law office. I suppose I passed both of those, and I seem to have passed this one with the rabbi. But not without some healthy embarrassment.

It has been several years, so this may not be exact, but one question was "Have you ever had any sexual acts that some people may find unusual?" I do specifically remember the "some people may find unusual" because my lawyer sense tingled. As happens many times a day, my brain stops, I get an annoyed look on my face, and I say, "Well. That depends." Who is "some people" and what are their perceptions of appropriate sexual behavior? Are we talking about secular people my age, secular people  the rabbi's age, or conservative orthodox Jews? I think I even wrote "that depends" on the test because I hate answering Yes or No when I don't believe either answer fits. So yes, in other words, I was not a virgin by that point in my life, though I was certainly more conservative than most people my age. It's weird to out myself that way, but it's necessary to understand the story, and this story is important to tell.

I turned in my "exam," and waited while the rabbi read the answers and marked the "worrisome" ones. We sat down to discuss those questionable answers that might point to an off-her-rocker-Kochava. That question obviously came up. I explained my hesitancy with an answer as I did above: depends on which "some people" you're talking about. And maybe *I* would believe that group is insanely repressed sexually because they insist on just lifting up the nightgown in a dark room. Who knows? And I suppose I'm an idiot for giving the answer I actually thought rather than providing the obvious "correct" answer. Again, I digress.

My questionable judgment aside, what matters is how the conversation unfolded. I explained the general kinds of "acts" I wasn't sure if that question was asking about. For all I know, maybe it's talking about dungeons and dominatrixes. But that wasn't enough. I was then asked to detail how many boyfriends I had done these things with and basically detail my entire sexual history. I'm no psychiatrist, but I don't think that level of questioning is necessary for an intake exam. This was the first time I had met this man, and this was perhaps the fifth minute of seeing him.

He sat there calmly and otherwise acted professionally. I couldn't see under the table, so who knows what may have been going on there. Whether it was for the purposes of creating new fantasies or a pure abuse of power, it was inappropriate.

And the average conversion candidate, as I did, would sit there and answer the questions. Because this man holds your future in his hands. I pursued the conversion a while longer with this man because it was the only conversion option available to me. However, my distaste increased, as apparently his did with me. [Added later: I was eventually kicked out of that beit din, but I had already made plans to move to another state precisely because this beit din held a conversion monopoly, and I wanted nothing to do with it. A side topic: I was told not by both Barry Freundel and my new beit din to avoid discussing this issues "lest someone might doubt your conversion." I generally agree with that advice, but I think the reasonableness of that advice is precisely why abuses can flourish - we're not supposed to talk about it.]

This is not an isolated incident, based on conversations with others. And it's not confined to a few rabbis. This is relatively common, especially the more "benign" abuses of power. And no one feels safe enough to seek help, and those who do are inevitably thrown under the bus by the rabbi, the community, or both. When it's the word of a "goy with a goal" versus the rabbi, you know who will lose. It's sad to say that I've generally stayed quiet about my problems, except for sharing these kind of general details in face-to-face conversations to explain some of the problems in conversion today. But I never would have written about them here. I was trying to get converted! And after that, I had to worry about my shidduch value! Now that I'm converted and married, I feel a strange sense of relief that I can share some of my "conversion woes" to help re-start the larger conversation about rabbinical abuses in conversion and how the system is generally broken. If you have suffered, you are not alone. And one of the most comforting and freeing things anyone ever told me: a psychological evaluation isn't required for smicha. Rabbis can be crazy. Rabbis can be sociopaths. Rabbis can be power-hungry. It's rare, thankfully. Very rare. But the people with those qualities can find easy prey in the conversion community, and some do.

Yes, it gets even worse. There are actual really horrible abuses that have been committed against conversion candidates that became public scandals, but we'll talk about them soon. Sorry to give so many teasers for future posts, but this post would be ridiculously long if I explored the whole topic here. 


  1. I am very troubled by the rise of "psychological tests" in a variety of areas of life. Firstly, they are invasive and quintessentially fascistic.

    They were designed for very specific uses by very specific people and their interpretations are hotly contested even among psychologists and neuro-psychologists who use them in the context for which they are designed.

    There are any number of complaints that the questions are too vague and too reliant on perceptions of what is "normal" that were prevalent when the tests were designed, generally from the 1920s to the 1950s with some updating afterward. A case in point being the question about engaging in sexual acts that others might find abnormal....after the Sexual Revolution, a good deal of "norms" were overturned.

    In many cases these tests are used by employers and others without proper supervision to provide an excuse for screening out undesirables, by which they mean, the poor, the mentally ill, minority groups and even, ironically, those who think in traditionally religious ways who are deemed idealogically backward. There are few jobs were psychological testing is actually useful and defensible, such as persons who will be alone with minors, or in postitions of abusable power. The way testing is normally used, is on low status jobs frequently held by the poor which involve physical labour. In what way can a psychological test help tell you about how well the person applying at a grocery will stack the shelves? It can't. It's just humiliating the poor in one more way and making them just through more hoops to get a simple job. Even in jobs where it's use COULD be defended, the simple fact is that most sociopaths lie constantly and know how to answer what people will approve of.

    Even in their correct usage, it is still possible for them to go horribly wrong. After my head injury, I was told that I had no head injury symptoms based on the neurological testing, but that I was a lifelong neurotic. Other patients results were mixed in with mine, which I pointed out to them, yet they still refused to redo the report. As a result, I got no compensation for an injury which still causes me problems. In reality, with my frontal lobe injured, it was hard for me to figure out the oddly phrased questions, and I tended to be overly literal and too honest in answering the literal sense rather than the implied meaning.

    The use of these as a screening method in Judaism is not at all something that should be approved. It's repugnant and disgusting on top of pointless. And writing about it in the midst of a culture that is moving toward ideas of "Jewish privilege" and Jews being an elite just makes it look like Rabbi's too are deliberately screening out "undesirables" and not just wanting to make sure that people are making the right decision and will be able to be happy in the community in furture.

    1. Then I'll give a short preview of my opinion. I do not support paper tests. I support psychological evaluations by trained social workers or other counseling/mental health professionals, who can then render a professional opinion to the beit din whether the candidate understands conversion, is coming for positive reasons rather than running away from something else, and whether the person appears stable.

    2. And a "poor" evaluation should not be an automatic bar usually. It could lead to advice that the candidate seek assistance for a specific problem and check back in a few months or some other arrangement to address any concerns raised. Batei din seem to have no trouble weeding out "undesirables" before this started becoming more common, so I don't expect more abuse. On the plus side, it can help candidates understand their decision to convert better and deal with any potential mental health issues that may be at issue, especially depression. Depression is disturbingly common among candidates, probably due mostly to the conversion process, but that's my unprofessional opinion.

  2. Sadly, I know of few conversion candidates who haven't had to switch Rabbis a time or two due to something like this happening. I think, in some cases, the abuses come from the Rabbi genuinely trying to be "discouraging" and not knowing where the line between discouragement and abuse lies. In other cases, it may have been outright preying on conversion candidates. Either way, the potential convert is left thinking that the best thing to do is keep things quiet and move on, lest they jeopardize their chances at conversion.

    I think a lot of this stems from the fact that few congregational Rabbis receive much training or guidance on how to handle conversion candidates. They know they are supposed to "discourage" them, but beyond that, for most the process is murky and fraught with political pitfalls. I think the RCA has tried to help make this process clearer and take more of the political risks away from the local Rabbi, but many Rabbis are still not familiar with how the RCA process works.

    I think education, for all, is the only way things will get better.

    1. While abuses (and accidents) are more common at the congregational level, this was not a congregational rabbi. This was a conversion rabbi.

    2. Wow, then. Very sad.

  3. Did you consider bringing a recording device to your meetings with this Rabbi after the first incident?

  4. If you feel like you have to take a recorder with you to have a meeting with your rabbi, you shouldn't go back to him.

  5. Its good to be aware of this! I didn't know this could happen! I didn't start the conversion process yet, and I hope I don't have to pass through these questions :/ But if the rabbi happens to ask me that, what should I do? :( Should I just say I haven't done anything "abnormal"? (I mean, what goes between my walls only concerns to me!) [sorry for my bad English] And yes, I'm totally normal for someone at my age.

    Also, for me finding this rabbi was already super hard. There is no rabbi in my city... :( I hope I won't need to change... and I hope he is a nice person...

    I've been reading your blog, and it's super interesting! So I'm gonna take the chance, and comment here a little more about other post I read, the one about converting liberal/orthodox.

    I wanted to convert orthodox, but I discovered (from Google) the rabbi I got is from liberal movement. I didn't talk to him yet, since every time I call I discover he is not back from his trip yet. He lives in another city. I don't know if I'll have to go there many times, or how it's gonna work... But do you think it would be better to convert liberal, and go to orthodox, or just go directly to orthodox? (an orthodox rabbi i will be able to find only in other cities too).

    Congratulations for the awesome blog, and I just saved it here so I can check it always :)

    Have a nice week!

    1. If you're planning on converting Orthodox, just go Orthodox. Don't waste your time on a conversion you won't be sticking with.

    2. The correct reply is: None of your god-damned mother-fucking business! Swearing is not against Jewish Law - so long as you don't curse The Name. It is, however forbidden to ADD TO THE TORAH just as it is forbidden to remove from it. Requiring potential converts to take psychological evaluations is adding to the Torah. End of story. Go back and read your Talmud silly fat man with glasses. Short-sightedness is a physical defect which qualifies you as acting as Judge in the first place. Tractate Sanheidren. If you're planning to convert to Orthodox Judaism, you'd better learn how to be argumentative, and a stickler for the law, and you'd better learn fast!

    3. I should probably add that I'm not trying to give anybody a "licence" to do as they will with their booty. I'm merely pointing out that it is not the job of the Rabbi to judge converts on such matter. It is Hashem who will be the final judge on such matter. The Rabbi's are over stepping their earhly juristriction. If you would like to know what Hashem wants from you sexually - then consult a good English translation of the Torah. Or even better, learn Hebrew.

    4. Its not? Lo Yi'rah Be'Cha Er'vath Da'var...Such am ha'ra'tzuth...It amazmes me how so many will set them selves up as expert.

  6. I think it would be interesting to have more posts about your conversion woes, and as many as possible. I have a theory that all these woes that you went through other people also went through one way or another, and it may be the standard for conversion Rabbis to do this so as to push people away--use even abuse.

    I think they have a tendency to target certain things, such as your weaknesses, things you are sensitive about: such as making people switch from one Rabbi to another (sooner or later, even later, so you start the process all over again, perhaps you give up while doing this), have you switch communities and move around (perhaps you move to a nonJewish community or you end up moving from place to place), they tend to do things to embarrass you and make you feel guilty to break you down so they see what you do next, try to get you to get upset or angry on them, and the list can go on, or find petty reasons so as not to let you convert. By the way, I think even the most reputable Beis Dins do this, but they pick and chose who they do it to. that is if you come to one Beis Din from another beis din, both Orthodox, the second Beis Din may treat you better. but if you go to a really good Beis Din the first time, they may be mean to you because they know how hard is to switch Beis Dins and they may tell you to go to a different (and a person may have to settle for something of a lesser quality) but then they do this because if they do this to you, you may end up switching from Ortho to a diff movement....or just leave completely.

  7. Wow, this article really struck a chord with me... I decided that I wanted to convert in my late teens and in retrospect was very naive and, due to the reasons you mentioned like the lack of community support, I was very susceptible to exploitation. One of the young couples in the synagogue told me that they'd be happy to help me with my learning and of course I jumped at the opportunity. They were from a very 'high ranking' religious families in the community and as a result held great sway over 'synagogue politics'. As time went by I realised that the husband was behaving increasingly inappropriate towards me, constantly pushing the limits until he began to ring me from his bathroom and garden while his wife was asleep saying sexually explicit things and telling me that he hadn't had sex with his wife in months. I felt horrified and turned to the only girl my age in the synagogue who I thought I could trust... the girl went straight to the Rabbi who immediately cornered me and told me that I was no longer welcome in the synagogue and not to come back again... I was incredibly hurt and left feeling very bitter following the incident. However, after a few months of trying to put Judaism to the back of my mind, I found that I simply couldn't... So I joined another non-Orthodox community and following 2 years of study converted with them. I'm hoping to make aliyah and convert orthodox, but my experiences have definitely made me much more wary of who I allow to get close to me.

    1. You should've recorded his phonecalls, and went straight to the Rabbi with the recordings. Then called the cops if they didn't listen. They got around to kicking you out because you did not have proof to back up your words. Without proof, they were able to kick you out. Same applies for Kochava, she should've made audio recordings of the inappropriate questions the Rabbi was asking her. For future reference, make sure you have proof to back up your story. Unfortunately, they will question your motives and proof is the only way to be believed. Otherwise, anyone can make up stories or imagine things. You can prove yourself retroactively if you become a very religious frum/Ortho Jew....if you can get to that point, then it means the people who did not believe you were wrong...and you can go back to that Rabbi as an Ortho Jew and tell him he was wrong in the way he judged you before.

  8. When I unfortunately needed help in obtaining a get (another tough milestone of Jewish life) some 18 years after my conversion, I went to a highly recommended Orthodox rabbi/rosh yeshiva/counselor.
    His very first question to me was, "How old were you when you first had sex?"
    Perhaps he was learned enough to realize that such a question to a ger/gioret is assur (forbidden) by Jewish law.
    In any case, I wanted help desperately enough that I went along with him & answered all his questions honestly.
    His conclusion was basically that there was something wrong with me for wanting out of an abusive marriage & the solution to the get problem was for me to go to the beit din & cancel my request for the divorce.
    He then said that if I had found the session with him helpful, I should pay him US $100. I gave him nothing, but cried all the way home.
    May Hashem bless all the Yidden with shalom bayis and wise & compassionate leaders.

  9. I have to say that as a trained but non-practicing Orthodox rabbi I find these questions totally inappropriate. It is unfortunate that you had these experiences.

  10. I suppose the rabbi has to decide if you are likely to do them again. That is why he has to know about them. Before you go to a job interview you have to prepare yourself of what you will say. This conversion business is no different. You dont have to tell the truth. It will not negate your conversion. I suppose most of those who reply here dont really know the main difference between an orthodox and non orthodox conversion except that the non orthodox one is not accepted by the orthodox.
    There is also no reason why it takes so much 'study'. How many born orthodox have studied that much.

  11. Going through the comments it seems like these incidents are rabbis targeting women who are looking to convert, based on they hold the key to their conversion so they can ask and act inappropriately as they want. No one should be treated this way. A rabbi being realistic about the conversion process and being abusive is two very different things.To the women that have encountered rabbis like this,some people are trustworthy and some are not at the end of the day regardless of religion.Put your faith in Hashem and not man. May Hashem bless you and encourage you through all trials you may face.