Sunday, February 17, 2013

Psychological Testing - The Growing Trend in Conversions

I know, this sounds like a "typical Debbie Downer post from Kochava." But I don't think it is, though what I have to say will probably stir a lot of emotions.

Some of you may not know (and those of you who do may have kept silent) that psychological testing is a growing trend in the conversion world. I have had both a psychological "written test" as well as an actual psychological evaluation by a therapist. 

So let's talk about psychological testing in the conversion process. There should be no shame in these discussions, which is why I will describe this issue using my own case as an example.

I wrote previously about my experience in the written psychological test: "A Rabbi Asked Me Inappropriate Questions" Is a Red Flag...But You Probably Can't Do Anything About It If You Want a Conversion. The written exam is definitely the growing trend in both conversions and the job interview process. I've had them in both contexts, multiple times in the job hunting arena. (Thankfully, I got all those jobs, so I suppose that means I "passed.") Written exams have "right" answers, "wrong" answers, and ones that require further evaluation by talking to the person. A right answer for one authority figure may be the wrong answer for another, so don't assume every test is created equal. 

I do not approve of psychological testing in the conversion context, at least how I have seen it being used. Some of my problems:
A) The test is often "too" thorough, as I noted the sexual questions on the test in the prior post. Job interview psych tests don't have those kinds of questions; they focus more on theft, embezzlement, and laziness. I believe a reasonable conclusion about a person's sanity, assuming you can get one from this method, can be done without hitting all the Freudian notes.
B) The test is usually (if not always, in some groups) administered by someone who is not trained in psychology or any related field. I can't know this, but it seems like (based on my experience) someone could simply print this questionnaire from the internet and analyze each question based on the analyst's (can't imagine it's anyone but a rabbi) interpretation of the "correct" answers for that particular question. I find it hard to believe these rabbis have been specifically trained in how to give such a test, much less how to evaluate it or deal with "questionable" responses (or how much weight those questionable responses should be given).
C) It is so easy to lie. As I said in the prior post, I answered honestly, and I know I was an idiot for doing so. If you've ever taken a psychological test, the answers are often very clear: "Have you ever killed an animal?" "Have you ever taken office supplies home?" "Do you take frequent breaks while working?" There are even "how to" instructions for how to pass these kinds of tests! See, for example, eHow. A "bad" candidate can get through this test almost as easily as a "good" candidate, if not more easily. A "good" candidate is more likely to answer honestly and then be punished for doing so.
D) What does it even prove? So maybe you do have issues stemming from childhood physical or sexual abuse. Maybe you do have low self-esteem. Maybe you do have a diagnosed psychological issue. Maybe you are a little nutty. Does that mean you'll be a bad Jew? I don't think those are mutually-exclusive. If the test were being used to spot potential issues and deal with them, that would be one thing. My suspicion is that they're simply a way to weed out "undesireables" or maybe even to target "discouragement" more effectively. I don't believe these tests are being used correctly, and that even if they were, do they really accomplish anything to begin with?
So if I disapprove of psychological tests so strongly, how can I be "okay" with psychological evaluations? Most importantly, psychological evaluations are done by an out-of-house professional: someone unconnected to the beit din (except maybe socially) and who has no stake in your conversion. But it's also a professional: someone who knows what traits to focus on, how to test troublesome issues, and how much weight any issues should be given. And even better, if issues are present, the counselor/therapist/psychologist can explain potential follow-up options and help you get any assistance you may need (or want!).

Psych evals are the growing trend, but no one talks about them. No one wants to say, "Yeah, the beit din sent me to a head shrinker." The Jewish community, particularly in some communities, still stigmatize mental health issues and believe they'll go away if ignored. I was sent for a psych eval, and I knew it was not something you mention to your dates later. Of course, I did, but only because I made it into a funny story or an anger-inducing story as a call to action to protect conversion candidates, as the situation required. As you know, I'm a weirdo. 

My understanding is that batei din are increasingly requiring every candidate to go through a psych eval. In my opinion, this is the best case scenario. No one is singled out; it's "standard operating procedure." It should be (but probably isn't) listed in their conversion application and costs disclosure. (Yes, every beit din should disclose potential costs to you at the beginning, which is getting more common.) Psych evals cost money, and it's money the candidate will have to pay. There may be ways to find a mutually-acceptable person approved by your insurance company or to negotiate reduced fees. As I was unemployed and without insurance, I negotiated a reduced fee (technically, the beit din negotiated it for me because they're awesome guys), but it was still very expensive. In the end, I asked my parents to pay for it as my Chanukah gift that year, and the therapist was very patient and accommodating. 

I believe that a psych eval can be very helpful to the candidate, as well as the beit din. I'm a strong believer in psychology, self-improvement, and personal growth. I'm the annnoying person who reads books about those topics and actually tries to implement them into my life. I recognize that this is unusual; most people are content to address problems when they become a problem, not seeking out problems. My college's motto was "Know Thyself" (like probably 400 other colleges), and I strongly believe in that. Conversion candidates are obviously already open to change and discomfort, so they are in the perfect position to do a self-evaluation of their motives and history and how it lead to this life path. I believe a psych eval can help by bringing in a disinterested third party with professional training to help you identify the path that lead you here. It's also harder to lie to yourself that a problem isn't really a problem until you have an objective observer. That's just human. In short, I suggest that everyone, candidate or not, can benefit from this kind of discussion with a professional.

Problems I'd like to see addressed: How much information and what kind of information is passed from the psychologist to the beit din? Is it merely a "I do/do not believe this person is an acceptable conversion candidate from a psychological standpoint" or "I believe this person is an acceptable conversion candidate from a psychological standpoint, but has issues with X, Y, and Z" or "I do not believe this person is an acceptable candidate for conversion because of X, Y, and Z"? Who gets the info: the entire beit din? Their intern or secretary? Only the administrative rabbi? Only the av beit din? From a lawyer's perspective, the rabbis and psychologists should be paying more attention to the HIPPA issues and create a form that explains what information is being given to whom. (And get the candidate's signature!)

Others are asked to do a psych eval on an ad hoc basis, as I was. However, in my situation, certain bullies had made very public accusations about my mental health. Unfortunately, when someone calls you crazy, it's not very effective to turn the insult around. So I was asked to undergo a couple of sessions (number to be determined by the therapist) with a licensed social worker who was also frum and had worked with many other conversion candidates. It wasn't the most pleasant experience, but it certainly wasn't a bad one. I was nervous and I was angry to be there in the first place, but she did her job efficiently and respectfully. I suppose I "passed," but she did give me her evaluation of my personality and struggles I faced and some psychological options to pursue if I wished. Everyone could use a professional to talk to (and has at least one issue to deal with). However, it's a luxury that many of us cannot afford. But I won't lie to you, I would like to have that luxury one day, as my life has been very difficult in many ways.

From the perspective of the rabbis, I think standardized psychological evaluations would also benefit them. There must be few things scarier than telling someone that you believe that she, that individual, needs a psych eval. If you believe (or have been told) that a person is mentally unstable, you have no idea how they will react. Even "normal" people could break down in tears or become angry. When I was sat down for "the psych eval" conversation, I noticed immediately how nervous the rabbi was. I became terrified because I didn't know what could make him afraid! He gave a long explanation of the facts that had lead up to that moment, and then climaxed by saying they had decided the fairest (and most objective) way to deal with the accusations was to ask me to go through a psych eval. To his visible shock, I took it in stride and agreed with him that the situation required it. I wasn't pleased that bullies' accusations were going to put me out almost $500, but I did (and still do) believe that was the only practical option available to the beit din. And I was thankful for the opportunity to address the accusations, as I had not been given that opportunity by others. I felt that my word was being given equal weight finally, and I was thankful.

There is a deeper question that is sidestepped by this post: why is an analysis of a candidate's mental health an issue for the rabbis at all? That is a much tougher question, but the longer I'm in the conversion community, the more I understand part of the reason why. I will not sugarcoat this: there are some really effin' crazy people trying to get converted. Sometimes the craziness is totally harmless, and sometimes it is the sole reason someone is seeking a conversion. For example, in my case, I believe the therapist (I guess that's what you call social workers doing therapy?) explored a great deal into whether I was converting as a means of escaping my past (and I believe she would investigate that thoroughly in every conversion candidate). For example, someone who suffered in a former religion may simply be running to another religion, without really caring for what religion it is. Or someone with a missing or abusive family history may be trying to build a new family and community, again without really affiliating with the Jewish religion. Someone with aggressively religious family may be using conversion solely as a rebellion. Some people may want to build a new persona to escape their history, much as some people lose themselves in World of Warcraft or other "communities." I believe these can be factors that bring a candidate to Judaism (and even keep him or her there), but if it is the sole factor, that person isn't an acceptable conversion candidate under the halacha. Many things bring a person to Judaism, so those factors aren't bad in themselves, so long as there is the sincere affiliation with the Jewish religion and faith. I've written before about some of these factors: Why on Earth Would Someone Convert to Judaism? Even if those issues aren't an issue worth blocking or delaying a conversion, it can be very powerful to pinpoint those issues and working through them either alone or with a professional. Know thyself.

ADDENDUM: A smart friend made a very insightful comment that I thought should be included: "The further removed we are from one another and the less known you are as a person to your converting rabbi, the more standard this will become. But instead of seeing this as the inevitable result of concentrating the business of conversion into fewer venues, I guess we can see how this now 'makes sense'. And the more extreme things get the more things will continue to make sense until someone decides enough is enough. Obviously, I'm not in favor of routine psych evals. However, the more extreme the system gets the more 'normal' the extreme will seem."


  1. i personally think there was nothing wrong with you and this whole 'send you to a psychologist thing to get a psych eval" was only used to test you and check if it works to push you away from Judaism by such a cheap method as questioning your sanity, so as to get to you to break down and question your "old self". This is one of the conversion methods that Rabbis use, old school. Conversion Rabbis purposely do things to annoy people in the conversion process and drive them crazy, then they send them to a psychologist to get evaluated when really there's absolutely nothing wrong with the person. This is the standard 'treatment' that Rabbis give to wanna-be Jews. It's bogus. Because it creates issues that aren't there. It's as if they give the wrong medicine to the healthy patient, and the treatment makes the person sick because this was not necessary in the first place. there may be people who have "real issues" but mostly I doubt there are any real issues of concern as much as it's Rabbis using tricky methods to push people away and make them feel bad about themselves. like really do all the religious conversions out there make use of "psychological evaluation"? If someone wants to become a Catholic, a Muslim or whatever other religion, are they really told to get a psych evaluation? No, of course not. Even if they would have certain psychological issues, so what? What does that have to do with religion? Not even in the other more liberal forms of Judaism, as far as I know. This only happens in Orthodox Judaism....and that's because there's this attitude to push people away in all the ways possible, including by cheap means.

  2. RCA is the number one Beis Din to do this to virtually every one. it's written in their GPS standards. It's not because there would be anything out of the ordinary with you in particular, but rather they do it to every single person they can. if they skip a few people, that's only because they don't want the other people who got a psychological evaluation to think they actually did nothing wrong and it's to ensure people don't realize that's how their conversion methods are like.

    every single person who successfully goes through this process ends up feeling guilty and blames themselves thinking OMG what did they do wrong? or OMG, there's something wrong with them, they're mentally unstable. and the Ortho Rabbis make the people feel embarrassed and humiliated and bad about themselves and then everyone keeps it a secret and says nothing about it being ashamed and embarrassed...but the conversion Rabbis do this to everyone. these are their conversion methods. it's the halacha to do this to people converting.

    conversion should not be like this. it should be a beautiful process where a person is embraced for who they are, regardless of any personal imperfections they might have. but according to their conversion methods, regardless of how good you are pre-mikvah, you'll never be good enough. so they'll pick on you to make you feel bad about yourself. so that when they actually convert you, you'll feel such a high achiever and so accepted, and how amazing a person you've become.

    that's how they ensure keeping people in the system. by first breaking people down with conversion methods that make people feel like they're the biggest losers on earth before conversion and the greatest achievers after conversion.

    if you search for conversion methods that other religions/sects use to gain converts, you'll find overlap between the conversion methods to Judaism and conversion methods to other religions, even if certain things would be different (such as different believes, rituals, etc), the methods are meant to achieve the same effect (though there may be some variety in how they get applied).

    1. While the GPS standards may allow for this, I do not believe that most (or maybe even many) RCA-approved batei din use actual psych evals. However, I think the use is growing. Psychological tests may be used by a majority, but I can't vouch for that either. I believe that trend is growing much faster than actual evals by a professional.

    2. But as a side note, remember that "the RCA" is not a beit din. They are an umbrella organization that is putting their stamp of approval on regional batei din. Each beit din is (theoretically) independent, but they must meet common standards in order to provide "RCA conversions."

    3. I converted with an RCA Beit Din and never had a psych eval.

  3. I cannot thank you enough for being brave enough to come forward with this.

    I consider myself a fairly logical and reasonable person. I lead a pretty low-drama life and work in a challenging field with a high degree of responsibility. So, I was rather shocked when my own sanity was questioned, early in my conversion process.

    I think this is just another common tactic used to discourage conversion candidates and a pretty horrible one at that. For me, it happened in my first meeting with my prospective sponsoring Rabbi, toward the end of the meeting. I had just poured out my heart, explaining all my reasons for wanting to convert. That was when he asked me if I had ever been treated for a mental illness.

    I'm normally a pretty strong person, but I left that office in tears. I felt like there must be something wrong with me. After all, if a Rabbi could not understand my reasons for wanting to convert and thought they were crazy...maybe they were?

    I spent a year in that community and my relationship with my Rav never recovered. I questioned every question I ever asked him and censored anything I ever said to him. Even when he eventually agreed to be my sponsoring Rabbi, I don't think we ever trusted each other. Finally, I moved to another community, but I don't doubt that this issue will resurface here and I'll likely have to prove my sanity yet again.

    I'm not a young woman and I've never had my sanity questioned in any other area of my life. Only when I wanted to convert did someone ever think I might be crazy. Personally, I think that says far more about what this Rabbi really felt about being Jewish...that you had to be crazy to want to be a Jew, than about me. Like you, I've tried to take this all in stride. Basically, if you complain or show any signs of stress through all this, it simply confirms any suspicions. As a conversion candidate, you are guilty until proven innocent and everything is up to the subjective judgment of the Rabbis you are working with.

    And yes, you can bet that if I ever am given a test to take, I will choose the answers I think they want to hear. I've already learned that lesson. Honesty is all too often a luxury a conversion candidate cannot afford if they want to be accepted.

    1. I agree with you that the Rabbi was speaking from weakness and insecurity. Torah true Judaism is fun, easy, rewarding, and very intellectually compelling. You should only frequent Shuls where they encompass these aspects of Yiddishkeit (Judaism)

  4. When my Rabbi questioned my sanity, i told him to cut it out, I know these are his conversion methods and they suck. and he got upset for that, but either way I am right and he knows it too.

    anyway, think about it this way:

    later in life, people from various walks of life, whether Jews or not, and especially not Jews, may personally attack you in some way, including telling you that you are insane/crazy/lost your mind for being jewish and having converted to Judaism....the fact that you get a psych evaluation before you convert will serve you as a reminder later on that you made the right decision since even the psychologist told you you're not crazy,so it's a reinforcement. on the other, to some extent it's also rather unnecessary and humiliating.

    but i think that this serves two purposes: on one hand, it's for the Rabbi to know what kind of a person you are. on the other hand, it's for yourself, so that you get someone else's objective perspective at this point so you would be prepared for challenges later in life....

    anyway i think that the Rabbis through all these methods try to emphasize for you in various ways that conversion to Judaism is like no other conversion that exists, and how "serious" this is....because they think that are people out there who will convert and drop their conversion later on in life and walk away from everything....and when they come and convert, all these people appear very sincere and committed and so that's why the rabbis have to make it really hard for everyone.

    but it also sucks. that's the thing. and to some extent, it's just too much that they do this....and it becomes pointless and a waste of time for some people who are really committed to doing this...the innocent ones end up paying because of those who would want to cheat the system....

    i also think that ultimately, there are no conversion methods out there that will 100% prevent people from walking away from Judaism if they do end up changing their minds like 10-15 years after their conversion. people can change their minds, regardless of how hard the Rabbis will make their conversions. there's no way to prevent this with 100% certainty. and given this, i think they should make their conversion procedures less stringent so that more people will end up converting...because the way they have their system nowadays, even the sincere ones can be turned away. they are creating unnecessary suffering with the way they designed their conversion methods....

    if the Rabbis would be more welcoming to converts, then perhaps that's when their success rate would increase. but the way they are doing it, it can also be that the painful memory of the conversion process can one day in the future turn away even the most sincere and committed converts....

  5. I am converting through an RCA beit din and I have been told that there will be a psychological eval in the future. The way this beit din does it is that they have a test (I am assuming multiple choice but maybe some writing as well?) that was written by a third party. When the candidate takes the test, it gets sent off to the test writer, who writes up an evaluation, and sends the evaluation back to the beit din. In other words, the beit din never sees your answers.

    I feel a bit mixed about this. My sponsoring rabbi is very "in" with the beit din, having converted a lot of people both as a sponsor and as a judge, and has told me stories about people's test results raising red flags (mostly people with very volatile personal history - crime, etc). I am glad that the beit din doesn't claim the psychological know-how to do this all by themselves (although my rabbi has a PhD in clinical psychology anyway), but I'm also a little weirded out that some guy that I will never meet gets to evaluate my mental stability just from my answers to a test that he invented.

    1. Kohava, were you also told this? Can you write about your experience with the RCA Beis Din please? Thank you.

    2. Anonymous directly above this post: The two experiences I have shared were with 2 different RCA-approval batei din. Very different experiences from both. My understanding is that the one I finished with (and loved) only requires psychological stuff when a case "requires" it.

      I have never heard of the mail away test, but it seems like a somewhat better version of the written test. However, I agree with the concerns mentioned about it.

    3. I know the RCA Beis Din in New York that you went through and though you may have had a "positive experience" with them, you should know that this was for your case in particular.

      I know other people who had a negative experience with this Beis Din, and this Beis Din is not as great as one may think.

      The Rabbis there can actually be very cruel sometimes. this is neither subjective nor an exaggeration.

  6. So the baseline assumption is that only a crazy person would want to be Jewish and/or frum? That... seems like a poor stance to take if you're an Orthodox rabbi or beit din. And let's be honest, the people who are loony and trying to convert are, in all likelihood, known by their rabbi and by the community to be loony. With a few exceptions, I really don't think that requires a psych test to figure out.

    Had my rabbi tried to tell me that I was mentally ill for wanting to convert or, shortly after making my acquaintance, demanded my psychiatric history, I think my reaction would have been much like Anonymous's above, and I doubt our relationship would ever have recovered. Granted, with the line of work that I'm in, it would be pretty laughable to try and insinuate that I'm nuts, but that's not really the point.

    I would have some very, very detailed questions about anyone involved with my conversion requiring me to take some kind of psych eval, ranging from what they're doing to ensure my HIPAA rights are being protected to what kind of test it is, who designed it, who would be evaluating it and what their qualifications for doing so are. This seems like another tactic that's going to be used to bully conversion candidates and is really inappropriate. I'm a believer in seeking professional help if you're depressed or having other mental or emotional issues, so that's not my problem with this. My question is whether they're asking BTs to take a psych tests, or people applying to rabbinical school, or cheder teachers, et cetera. I suspect the answer is "no," which tells me all I really need to know.

  7. I do think that psychological testing plano isn't a bad thing to go into. And it doesn't mean that you have a problem in the head. That's the common misconception but actually it can help you with your feelings and your thoughts.