Friday, June 24, 2011

Are Conversion Rabbis Capable of Understanding the Conversion Candidate's Emotional State?

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.


  1. The Curmudgeonly Israeli Giyoret says:

    Excellent and to the point.

  2. Having gone through the conversion process myself with a very mainstream, right-wing beis din, I have to say I am shocked at what you are saying. I have never heard of conversion candidates being required to move to a different city or move in with a frum family or anything of the kind. I was allowed to go right on living in my smallish Midwestern city (in fact, there was never any mention of that being an undesirable or less than perfect circumstance) and I traveled to the "big city" (not New York or LA) for each of my three meetings with the beis din.
    What's more, I was already dating someone (an Orthodox Jew) by the time of my first meeting. They did not ask me to stop seeing him, but they did ask me to bring him in for my second meeting.
    I'm not sure which batei din have these requirements you're talking about, but based on what you've said here I recommend that anyone use the same one that I did. If you want to know which one, just ask here in the comments and I'll shoot you an email.

  3. Elisheva, if you converted more than 3 years ago, that's the difference. This is the definite trend in the US and Canada now (and every candidate in the UK is required to live with a family-this has not hit the US yet, but it is relatively common internationally).

  4. I identify with MANY of these frustrations, but I've never heard of the requirement of living with a family or having to move to NYC or LA either.

  5. 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.

    ---sad, but true :-((( same here...

  6. Sadly, I think that a big part of the conversion process is that feeling of being alone and that no one else quite understands how you feel, except perhaps for other converts.

    I had a moment yesterday when I thought about this and came at it from a different perspective. Often, the discouragement, frustration, and loneliness makes us cleave to the Jews around us, in our community who support us, all the more tightly and also make us turn to Gd even more for support. Could it be that this is a necessary part of forcing us to form bonds with those people who will be our new family and with Gd?

    I don't know, but I like to try to find the positive, even in situations that can seem very dark.

  7. You gave me a whole deeper appreciation for what converts endure in their holy quests. Never thought of these challenges.

  8. I agree with you completely that there are some seriously unrealistic expectations! Especially on the emotional front. it's an emotional process but it can so easily be misconstrued that if you are nervous with the beis din or say something wrong by mistake, that you are either insincere or not learned enough. A friend of mine was asked "what do you cook on Shabbos?" and she replied with a list of foods she generally serves on Shabbos to which the Rabbi on the beis din says "You cook on Shabbos!?". And she was all flustered as she thought, of course, that he meant what does she cook FOR Shabbos. It was such an unnecessary "test" that proved nothing but to make her feel about 2 inches tall.

    That said I have found, Thank God, a wonderful community that is very supportive of me. And I have never heard any Rabbi telling a converting family that they could not have relations! They are both non-jew at that point so it should not matter! however there is a 3 months period after conversion before they can be officially married which they either live apart if they have no children, or have a chaperon and separate sleeping quarters until their wedding. That part really doesn't seem all that big of a deal to me... I mean yes it's difficult, but a good beis din knows that. If they don't you'd have to get your converting Rabbi to explain the situation to them so that they can come up with a reasonable solution.
    This of course is why is is good to find a respectable and reliable beis din/converting Rabbi before you move to a community or start your conversion process. Otherwise you might find yourself starting over again and again.

  9. I hope I'm wrong, butJune 24, 2011 at 4:32 PM

    What a pity. I hate to say it, but some of this may stem from the attitude which some seem to have that there is really no good to be gained from converts (!).

    This is like the ugly underbelly of the idea, which many Jews are rightly proud of, that Judaism doesn't require or ask non-Jews to be Jewish to be "saved." Some therefore feel that this must mean that the Jews doesn't need converts. "So stay a Gentile, it's all good." So, perhaps they feel, it's not really abuse because candidates are choosing to go through a process which there is no good reason for them to go through except for their own insistence on doing so.

  10. @ Bethany - the Beit Din of London requires a convert to live for a period of time with a frum family.

  11. Kochava, I think another appropriate quotation for the situation would be W. B. Yeats: "I have spread my dreams beneath your feet/ tread softly because you tread on my dreams" :) *sad smile*

  12. Amen to that entire post! Oy vey!

  13. This really hit home for me! My Jewish boyfriend feels so ready to marry me, and I feel ready to marry him in all aspects except that I'm currently in grad school, and therefore "on hold". He doesn't understand as much, being born Jewish, because to him I could remain a goy and he'd be ok with it, but I've been dreaming of my Jewish family since I was 7 years old... I agree that this is another way rabbis attempt to "weed out the insincere" which is sad because...even though you're sincere, it's still hard.

  14. Oh my. I have to say I am Shocked with a capital S. I'm currently in the conversion process (and have been for just over a year now) only I'm converting to reform Judaism. I'm married to a (reform) Jewish man, and none of the rabbis involved have asked me to change the pattern of our marriage in any way, shape, or form. I would be gobsmacked if they "required" me not to have sex with my husband! They have been nothing but welcoming and kind to me in every way.
    Seriously, I'm just shocked. Maybe it is because we don't live in a particularly Jewish city? Or maybe just because we're a mixed reform-conservative synagogue? But wow. My heart goes out to you.

  15. I converted under Conservative auspices, Zara, and while not married, I think based on friends and acquaintances who have converted through Orthodox rabbis that the process in both the Reform and Conservative movements is considerably less... adversarial than it tends to be within the Orthodox community, especially in light of the events of the last few years with regard to the revocation of conversions in Israel.

    My rabbi definitely pushed me to expand my observance (which was already pretty observant, in a lot of ways) and challenge myself spiritually, but he was always very supportive of me, as were the people in my synagogue (whose observance level ranges from very "Reformative" to very "Conservadox"). I think the Orthodox issue is complicated by the RCA factor, though, in that you're no longer necessarily just dealing with one rabbi, but with a three-rabbi beit din (who may or may not know you especially well). I will say, though, that while my decision not to convert under Orthodox auspices was not solely based on the current conversion situation in the Orthodox community, the stories I have heard from friends and acquaintances involved with that process really put me off.

    I will say that I think it's entirely laudable to have a process that requires spiritual growth, growth in observance and a full understanding of what Judaism and halacha mean within your chosen community. Not just laudable, in fact, but necessary. People need to understand what they're getting into, and the community needs some assurance that the people it's (hopefully) welcoming are serious about being Jewish and committed to what that means. I don't think anyone, in any of the denominations, really disagrees on that front.

    The thing is, you can have a challenging, rigorous process without subjecting people to emotional and spiritual abuse. I'm reminded of when I was in ROTC and college: you want training to be tough. It's important, because it's going to dictate how you react in combat. It shouldn't be a cakewalk. But we all knew the difference between the cadet leadership who would have you do a ton of pushups and hold you to a high standard while still treating you with respect and courtesy and the people who were just looking to haze other cadets, because that's how they were "trained," and by golly, everyone else better have to put up with the same crappy treatment.

    I get the impression that there are some rabbis (and some lay people, and some converts!) who have a hard time making this distinction. It's a real shame, too, because I think it does Orthodoxy a disservice and it drives away people who might be completely sincere converts not because they want a "Mickey Mouse conversion" (and seriously, what is that, anyway?), but because they're not prepared to subject themselves to potentially years of emotional abuse. And I think we can probably all agree that no one should have to do that in order to be Jewish.

  16. It's nice reading about someone who feels exactly the same as I do. I am a few months into my orthodox conversion, 26, and it really upsets me, thinking that i'll be about 29 before I can even start creating a family...

  17. Chavi - I converted just last summer, not even a year ago.

  18. Diplogeek, I will go through a 3 rabbi beit din as well, even for a reform conversion. I thought that was standard?

  19. It is, but I didn't even meet the other two rabbis on my Beit Din until the day it happened, whereas my understanding (and any Orthodox converts/conversion candidates can correct me if I'm wrong) is that Batei Din are much more hands-on and directly involved in the Orthodox conversion process in light of the RCA thing. My instructions as far as what I needed to be doing and considering prior to my conversion came entirely from my rabbi. He was the one saying, "Well, have you considered taking this on?" or, "I'd really like to see you doing more of XYZ."

    By contrast, I know Orthodox converts who had all three rabbis at their Beit Din randomly show up at their house to "check up on them," namely to make sure that they were keeping kosher and didn't have any "unsuitable" books or DVDs. I think some of the increased involvement comes as a result of the fact that the RCA process is supposed to be "standardized," so the rabbis on those Batei Din are more involved than they might be otherwise. I would be curious to know whether there's a difference in this regard between RCA and individual Orthodox conversions.