Thursday, December 16, 2010

Convert Issues: The Community Requirement

As I've mentioned several times here, a potential convert may have to move in order to complete his or her conversion. It may be an easy move or a very difficult one, depending on the convert and the community. Some may have to move across town, and some may have to move to a different country!

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!
I was sure that any beit din in the world would allow the convert parent of a special needs child to forgo the "I will send all my children to 12 years of orthodox day school" vow in such a situation simply because it would not be in the best interests of the child to keep him/her in these day schools. And we all know how protective of children halacha is. Yet I have seen several posts from converts online where their batei dins threatened to invalidate their conversions for exactly this decision. I don't know what decision those parents made, but I know I'd be pushed in a certain direction! That doesn't make any sense to me, nor to anyone I've spoken to about it. And with this requirement being so new, the unknown aspects of it are even more frightening simply because it's yet another "convert gray area." Does anyone have a better insight into this and could share?

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?


  1. Great post--that's an excellent summary of serious concerns with that policy.
    A few more I can think of:
    -People might want to homeschool (and in some places there are Orthodox homeschool groups).
    -Related to the special needs issue, it would be dangerous or impossible to send kids with certain medical problems to a mainstream school (I'm thinking severe allergies, for example). Other kids have to study with tutors because they're hospitalized for long periods of time.

  2. Ugh, that's what I could think of without knowing anything about kids! Now there's so much more to worry about! Le sigh :( But thank you for adding, those are great ideas! (I'm a little partial to the idea of homeschooling!)

  3. I dont know much about this issue, but I am the type of person who gets inspired by converts. They make me want to be a better Jew. Therefore, I feel that they should be scattered all over the country so that all Jews can benefit from coming into contact with them.

  4. I'm not trying to argue that your point is wrong, or say that the Rabbis SHOULD be requiring this, but here are some points to keep in mind:

    -Sinai offers programs for special ed kids for day school through high school in partnership with other yeshivas in New Jersey. is the website with information. Now that Sarah Brodsky above mentions it, I do recall hearing about homeschooling in Orthodoxy to an extent, especially when it comes to kids with special needs. It is also very common for kids with special needs but perhaps not so severe to attend a regular day school and yeshiva high school with a shadow. I worked as a shadow for one kid last year, and it's very very common to have shadows for kids. Either the school will pay for a professional shadow, or for behavioral issues, the parents pay the shadow $10-20/hr or so generally(basically what you'd pay a babysitter).

    -There are 12 years of Orthodox day school in many communities outside of LA and NY. You might not have any choices, really, but Denver and Columbus(where Shaanan currently teaches!) are two that I can think of that are very small Jewish communities with 12 years of yeshiva. Sharon, MA and Silver Springs, MD both have Jewish day schools, perhaps more than one. PA also has several. While NY/NJ may have the most, there are many other random communities with day school of 12 years of the Orthodox flavor. Beyond that, NJ and NY are huge when it comes to Jewish communities. There are many, many, many communities in such a small radius, most of which have schools, that it's not as if you are forced to move into one specific community. Parts of NY are even rather suburban and not city-like at all. There are many options here.

    I think I had a third point but have since forgot it. I guess what I'm saying is, there are Orthodox Jewish solutions to kids with special needs, and there are many qualifying Orthodox communities.

  5. I am so glad I live in the UK - where we have state funded Jewish schools!

  6. I have 3 kids, one with special needs... and we ALL have severe celiac disease. oh yeah, and I can't currently come even close to affording the live in NYC! (10-20$ an hour for a babysitter is considered reasonable!?!?) I didn't realize I was going to have to take out a loan to fund becoming the person I feel I was created by Hashem to be.

    ack! nothing is gonna stand in my way from converting... but it sure seems like there is an awful lot of "nothing" that keeps trying to!

  7. The old 'new' definition of conversion was based on the state of mind of the convert at the moment of conversion (as shown by their actions for a year or two afterwards). I haven't actually read of any conversions being annulled for behavior by a convert that occurred years after the conversion. (To clarify, even a conversion annulled 20 years down the road was annulled for behavior during the first few years that showed the convert was not sincere).

    Of course, no one today has any defense against the retroactive invalidation of one's beit din, which approach makes one's sincerity completely important.

    I get myself through these tough times by reminding myself that my wife and I don't want to live in Israel, that we aren't (alas) going to have children, and that our community accepts us without reservation. It is much harder for people who have or hope to have children someday.

  8. This is my experience as a convert and the parent of a child with special needs.

    I converted nearly 10 years ago. I don't recall whether I was asked by my beis din to make an explicit vow WRT sending any future children to Jewish day schools, but it was certainly my intention to do so at the time. And then about 6 years later, I realized that my bechor (then 3 years old) was showing signs of autism. Less than a year after that, he was formally diagnosed with autism. Initially, it devastated me. I kept thinking: After everything I did to change my life, I can't just put him in his uniform and walk him down the street to [local Jewish day school]? But I knew he needed something different before he could possibly handle being in day school. (The day school I'm talking about has no built-in support for kids with developmental disorders.) So I talked to our local rav, who said it was not only permissible but necessary to send him to public school for special ed services. I also talked to the rav who oversaw my conversion and asked whether sending him to public school would amount to breaking a vow. His response was that under the circumstances, any such vow would not apply. (He too could not remember whether I'd made an explicit pledge WRT day school enrollment but said it was irrelevant in my son's case.)

    So my son is now in his second year in public school. He is B"H doing very well, and we are very optimistic about moving him into day school sooner rather than later. (And his public school teachers will deserve a huge amount of credit for getting him there, once it happens.)

    The hard part, of course, is that we have to work harder to build up his Jewish educational base. But the flipside is that a friend of mine who is in a similar situation with her son has worked very hard to create Jewish educational opportunities for kids with special needs. Because of her effort and dedication, my son has benefited hugely.

    I'm getting off topic ... my advice to anyone who finds himself/herself in this kind of situation is: Make sure you have a good rav, and talk to him. Keep him in the loop, give him all the details and make sure he has a good idea of who you, your family and your kids are.

  9. I'm starting to think that it will eventually be practically impossible to have an Orthodox conversion anywhere but that the halachot for conversion will still remain "on paper" (i.e. theoretical) in order to satisfy the halacha of "not oppressing the ger". The Orthodox rabbis who do conversions should stop pretending to be different from the Syrian rabbis and just issue their own version of the Edict. Then people can claim that due to "yeridat dorot" (decline of the generations), today's prospective gerim just aren't as good as they used to be and therefore deserve to be rejected.

  10. None of this has solid foundation in halachic sources.