Friday, November 5, 2010

Converts & Fear: Is a Beit Din on Halachic Thin Ice?

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.


  1. Interesting post. As someone who has taught several candidates (and who wrote a skeleton manual which has been adopted by other rabbis), I suspect that one of the main reasons for this requirement is to provide a deterrent for candidates who are looking for an easier route. They would prefer that such candidates go elsewhere.

  2. The "one year" makes sense, though it can be complicated for some, like a pregnant woman who dreams of giving birth to a Jewish child. A neighbor finished conversion just hours before going into labor with her first child. She had contacted her rabbi/teacher saying:
    "I don't want my child born a goy." And he called the Beit Din to complete her conversion that day. Her son was born the next day.

  3. Rebbetzin's Husband: You're right. But it seems like there are plenty of other ways to discourage than disadvantaging those who have already completed the process :)

    Batya, you made an interesting point! The Vancouver policies also require that all women who become pregnant during the geirus process must leave the program temporarily, either before or after the birth. They specify that no conversion will be performed before the birth, which seems perfectly reasonable, but forcing her to leave the program for a while seems odd!

  4. Tangential point, but you asked (sort of): The affiliation of many Canadian rabbis and congregations with American bodies is simple. Most of the developed and older resources are in the US. Many Canadian rabbis were educated in the US in places like YU (NY) or Ner Yisrael (Baltimore). The largest congregational umbrella groups like the OU or Young Israel are based in the US. Same for the largest kashrut agencies (though Canada has several fine ones).

  5. A very interesting point! Thank you for sharing it! It seems so obvious now that you've said it, lol...

  6. The one year "probation" period is according to the Israeli Rabbinute rules. If the conversion is to be accepted in Israel then the candidate must remain under the supervision of the local Beis Din for one year AFTER the conversion is complete.

    This has been the rule since 2007 when the RCA revamped their guidelines in response to the Israeli Rabbinute's statement that all Diaspora Conversions previously performed will not be accepted until they are verified by an accepted Beis Din. (This affected countless families including the children and grandchildren of women who had converted decades ago).

    I always recommend that Diaspora conversion candidates work with Rabbi Seth Farber of ITIM to make sure that their conversions meet Israeli Rabbinute requirements.

    I hope that this will help in some way.

    1. That is absolutely not true. That is not an RCA position or a Rabbinut position; withholding geirut paperwork is the position of this specific beit din. I will note that it is one of two beit dins that I know of who do this currently. Almost every RCA beit din gives the convert their paperwork the day of mikvah or within a week. (Myself included, and their conversions are unquestionably acceptable to the Rabbinate.) The Rabbinate theoretically doesn't accept a convert who leaves their community within one year of conversion, though that is also not an exceptionless rule. You have been misinformed.

    2. The Johannesburg Beit Din withholds certificates for 18 months.

  7. Why would someone want to become Jewish on the first place? What is the gain? I see many congregations concerned on looking for ways on how to convince a non-Jewish husband of a Jewish woman to convert to Judaism; with a lesser concern to convince a non-Jewish wife of a Jewish man for a conversion. I understand this is because of the matrilineal right for the first scenario, the children will be born Jewish no matter if the father is not a Jew; while in the latter one this is not the case because the mother is not Jewish.

    Then, what about some one interested in becoming a ger and he/she is not married to a Jew or is a single? I ask the question again to the people authorized in approving the conversions, why these prospect converts would be interested in becoming Jewish? Jews have always been persecuted, murdered (Holocaust, terrorist victims), discriminated against, slaved, etc and etc. To me, for now a gentile, the only reason for which I will embrace again Judaism (because there is not such thing as conversion in Judaism) is because of a true meaning, purpose in life and certainty that there is only one whole indivisible G-d; otherwise, I would prefer to be a 100% atheist rather than being an idolater. Besides, I'd also like to leave you link to message for a more compelling spiritual reason why prospective ger should be treated with much respect and consideration. Link: