Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Other Bloggers' Take on the Current Orthodox Conversion Hullabaloo and Kochava's Proposed Solution

Frequent commenter Elle at On Becoming Devoted has written a post called The Reality of Conversion.

I suggest that you all read it for another convert's perspective on today's orthodox conversion process! However, she focuses more on the after-conversion concerns, which can be just as painful (if not more so) than the initial conversion.

I am in no way swayed by the fact that she writes glowingly about me :) If anything, I'm swayed by the fact that she's awesome enough to be a doula!

The Kvetching Editor, one of the two Kochava-labeled experts in the conversion field (and also the "other" convert blogger named Chavi), weighed in on the topic this week at Conquering the Conversion Conversation. She shares a perspective I generally share: there's no point in getting upset about the things you can't change.

And after a few weeks of dealing with the lowest-of-the-low in conversion stories, I would really like to write all this stuff off. Put it out of my mind and focus on my own conversion process. (Or heaven forbid, on my school work!)

But I can't. I have to talk about this precisely because other people aren't. And I honestly believe that I can affect change by creating this conversation. (Reason #6,205 I know I'm Jewish: Being a rabble rouser for what's right.) The news stories come and go, and lots of people discuss the politics of conversion every week, but few (if anyone other than the individual involved) focus on the emotional toll the current conversion process is taking on sincere candidates. Judaism should build us up, not tear us down like a Marine bootcamp. Conversion is plenty discouraging enough without rabbis and laypeople taking it upon themselves to treat the grand majority of conversion candidates like dirt until we emerge from the mikvah.

The RCA's Geirus Policies and Standards sets no policies on (nor even mentions) how to treat the potential convert as a human being. However, they do have a relevant policy which is not currently being enforced by any RCA regional beit din that I'm aware of: "Working with the Regional Batei Din, the RCA/BDA will create informational brochures for rabbis to use when meeting with potential converts. These brochures will assist the rabbi by conveying the standardized procedures and requirements to converts and those associated with them. For similar reasons, the RCA/BDA may establish a website with public access." Section 3.b.ii.

Making the beit din's conversion expectations concrete and measurable, as well as being clearly presented to the candidate, will resolve 90% of these issues. Most of us are content to wait however long we must for a conversion, but we want to know why we're waiting, and we want to know what's expected of us so that we can be sure we're on the right trajectory. Too many of us are told to "go and learn" for 1-2 years before entering any formal training/tutoring, and by that point, we've learned many things that must be un-learned.

My suggestion for the information a beit din should provide to a conversion candidate: an average timeline with the steps of the conversion process (or several versions of a potential conversion timeline), observance level required before conversion, what is prohibited before conversion, "appropriate" communities, "appropriate" congregations (since many batei din hold that Chabad need not apply as a sponsoring congregation), the required involvement and observance level of involved significant others, etc. These batei din appear to have answers to these questions, but refuse to release any useful information because obfuscating the process is their best discouragement technique. However, these same rabbis wrote and adopted the policy above, so why can't they enforce it? There are plenty of other areas for discouragement, not to mention that becoming an orthodox Jew is discouraging enough without the "guiding" rabbis tearing down your self-esteem.

It's the truly sincere candidates that the RCA is driving away, and most of them go through conversion anyway with a liberal congregation or an independent orthodox beit din. But of course, that fuels the argument that they "weren't sincere after all." After the stories I've heard recently, I don't blame them for leaving, and I in no way doubt their sincerity and desire to live as an observant orthodox Jew.


  1. ack I just sent you a comment and it got lost somewhere out there in the interest! I will try again:

    That was quite a mention you gave me! :)

    I just wanted to make sure you did know, I haven't converted yet. I'm actually going for ym first meeting tomorrow. We were living as "Noachide" for a while before decided to pursue conversion. (it's a big decision when it involves 3 kids!) I finally found who I think it going to be our best conversion resource. I will let you know after tomorrow when I go to our first meeting! be sure to email me personally if you want me to pass along his info, since I know you were disappointed with your last experience.

  2. Elle, I was aware you hadn't already converted, but I didn't know how far along you were in the process. I hope your meeting went well! I checked your blog but couldn't find an email address :( My email is listed on my About page, since that's probably the safest way to tell me your email without alerting the spam bots!

  3. oh wow I didn't realize I didn't have my email listed! How silly of me.

    becomingdevoted @ gmail dot com

  4. p.s. the meeting went good and we checked our a local community yesterday... and today we are going to check out some housing options. I will write more about it when i'm back home. the internet sucks where we are right now :)

  5. Just a few comments:

    1. "Orthodox" conversion is redundant, as there is no other kind.

    2. Candidates certainly should not be treated like dirt.

    3. Converts are unfortunately not all treated as they should be.

    4. Interesting to note that it is considered lashon hara to say that someone is a convert, within a community which is [unfortunately] known not to be nice to converts. OTOH, it is difficult to perform the positive misswoth related to converts without knowing who they are. :-) ...kind of a bind.

    5. Another interesting note - Na'omi turned Ruth away three times, which is a tradition.

  6. Your point about the convert mitzvot is interesting. In theory, the mitzvah to not embarrass a convert presumes that you know the person is a convert. Therefore, if one doesn't know the person is a convert but follows all the other interpersonal mitzvot that applies to people and Jews specifically (lashon hara, avoiding embarrassment, judging favorably, etc), there shouldn't be an issue. When they know the convert status is where the issues arise. However, following those same laws would theoretically make a convert-specific rule unnecessary. I think converts were singled out simply to emphasize that these other interpersonal laws apply to converts, and perhaps even more stringently because the potential for harm is greater (ruining a shidduch, bring shame on them for past actions that weren't prohibited to them at the time, etc).

  7. Kochava: The traditional interpretation of the law against shaming the convert is to avoid saying things like "My fathers were great rabbeim, while yours were idol worshipers." I think this properly extends to avoiding denigrating non-Jews in general - if you don't know if someone listening is a convert, then if you say something derogatory about non-Jews you could be insulting someone's parents.