Tuesday, July 1, 2014

What If You're Rejected By or Kicked Out of a Beit Din?

Let me tell you an almost-secret: I was kicked out of a conversion beit din. And I’m not alone. Heck, I wasn’t even alone in my own kicking out: three of us were given the boot at the same time due to one bully's accusations.

But it wasn’t the end of the world for any of us. And it won’t be for you if you’re even unfortunate enough to go through a situation like this. Maybe you apply to a beit din, even meet with a rabbi or three, and they don’t accept you to the program. Maybe you you’re accepted and later kicked out for whatever reason. Either way, there are steps you can take to keep moving toward your conversion if that is your desire.

Really, I’m serious: a rejection by one beit din does not have to completely derail your goal of getting an orthodox Jewish conversion. But what you do after things hit the fan might.

First, and most important, when you get the news…stop whatever you’re doing and take a few deep breaths. Feel your feelings. Really. Let them rush over you rather than trying to force them down. Go to a bathroom, closet, or your car if you’d rather not have a breakdown in front of others. You will feel better and be able to take calm and rational action if you don’t try to repress these feelings. Take however much time you need and cry if that’s your reaction. Your feelings of rage, hurt, rejection, and fear (or whatever else) are valid and justified.

I wish I had taken this advice myself. I got “the news” by email while sitting in a law school class. (The #1 reason I advocate blocking email and social media and other apps in class.) I went into shock. Full-on medical shock. I don’t remember much about the rest of that class, but I think I sat there in silence and panic for a good half hour or more. It was not healthy, and it left a lot of feelings for me to process later, which took much longer than embracing them in the moment would have.

Let’s talk about the steps to take after the initial shock wears off.

2) Sit down in a quiet place and brainstorm what may have gone wrong. Odds are, you weren’t given a reason for your rejection or dismissal. For instance, despite being in the orthodox community for years and fully observant for over a year, this was the “reasoning” my rejection letter gave (and is actually the entire text of the letter, no grammatical corrections):
"As part of its diligence and efforts to maintain an effective giyur program the [Beit Din] looks into the background and references of conversion candidates. We contact references, examine our own data, and try to reach the conclusions which are fair and appropriate under the circumstances.
We have concluded that we cannot continue to supervise your conversion. In truth we question the wisdom of your pursuing an Orthodox conversion altogether because, while it it will open some doors for you, it also closes others. That is ultimately your personal decision, but we urge you to rethink the whole matter. It is a life altering choice.
Either way, we cannot in good faith continue a process which we do not believe is ultimately for your benefit. We share your disappointment that this did not work out, and hope you will reexamine your options to live a fruitful and fulfilling life. All the very best to you."

Think about whether there is some validity to the reason given or whether you know something went “wrong.” But don’t spend too much time here, and don’t let yourself wallow in self-blame. Whatever happened happened, and you have options to move forward and make things right if you actually did something “wrong.”

According to those I’ve spoken to, most of you will not have an answer at this point. You won’t know why you’re here. Or you’ll have some guesses, but nothing that seems like a legit reason. For instance, in my case, I contacted the four people who had been given as references for my case or had contacted the beit din about me (that I knew of and one had recently passed away). None of these people had been contacted, confusing me further. Where was this background and references the letter speaks of, and who was providing it? If they found bad information, why didn't they contact the references I provided? In the end, the decision was made based on the opinions of two people about me: a bully and the Av Beit Din. It appears (based on what I know about the investigation that followed with my new beit din) that no effort was made to elicit any other opinions or information. Sometimes it's them, not you.

3) People you need to let know: your rabbi (whether or not he is a “sponsoring” rabbi), close friends or family who might be able to help you brainstorm or work through your feelings.

4) Keep on doing what you should be doing. Continue being as observant of Jewish law as you were before the bad news, perhaps even increasing your observance if this was the kick-in-the-pants you needed to move to the next level. Attend classes and shiurim as you were before, unless you find this too emotional. Be stronger than the haters, and don’t let them rule your life. And don’t give them the ammunition to say the rejection was “obviously valid because look at what s/he did after!”

5) Contact the beit din and respectfully request (but not grovel, though it will be tempting) the reason and what can be done to remedy the situation, perhaps including a probationary period.

6) If this fails, ask whether there is an appeals process. It’s preferable if you can ask a different person than the last one your asked/begged. My experience says that the beit din will say there is no appeals process. Because you’re not Jewish, a beit din doesn’t have to follow the rules of the “real” beit din, including appeals procedures. Or that is the reasoning you’ll be given. I’m not convinced because one person (the Av Beit Din - head of the beit din) should not have that much power without any oversight. In that case, a simple personality difference can lead to a real chilul Hashem and prevent a conversion that should happen.
By this time, most people have given up and will leave Judaism altogether or will pursue a non-orthodox conversion. Batei din can use this to "prove" the rejection was warranted, but I'm not sold. If you're treated poorly (or as barely a human being), I cannot blame those who abandon orthodoxy. I believe many Jewish souls are turned away unjustifiably (and/or with unjustifiable behavior). These people are not always lost forever, whether they convert in a future incarnation or simply a few years in the future. Good interactions with orthodox Jews are often key. Keep this in mind if you ever feel the need to speak poorly about someone who "abandons" the orthodox conversion process.

7) If you are told there is no possibility of appeal, consider contacting someone “higher up” in the organization. Be assertive! If you were rejected by a RCA beit din, contact the main RCA office and explain the situation and that you were denied an appeal (and a reason, if that is the case). If you’re working with a private beit din, then your options may be more limited. Look around and ask.

8) If all this doesn’t get you anywhere, don’t lose hope. You will be incredibly frustrated and emotionally exhausted by this point…or full of righteous anger. It’s time to try a new beit din.

Contrary to your fears, being rejected by one beit din does not necessarily “black ball” you from another beit din, even within the RCA system. And you're not necessarily going back to square one. Expect to be investigated and for things to take longer, but you might actually move faster after such an investigation! After being kicked out of one beit din, I was converted within a year by another. But in my case, the accusations against me were about my psychological fitness, but everyone apparently didn’t question my knowledge or my sincerity for converting. Even the apparent-insult of being asked to undergo a psychological evaluation can make your conversion more resistant to challenge and speed things up by addressing several beit din concerns in one fell swoop.

Is there another beit din that covers your geographic area and would be acceptable to you? Most batei din today cover a predetermined geographic area. In some areas, this has created a monopoly on conversion, intentionally or not. And I do mean “monopoly” with all the potential for abuse that word implies. If there isn’t a beit din that “covers” your geographic area, there may be another beit din in a neighboring geographic area that would accept someone from your area.

Wherever your potential new beit din is, consider whether its hashkafa is compatible with yours. If you were with a chareidi beit din, perhaps you should consider a RCA beit din. If you were with the RCA, you may want to consider either a chareidi or independent beit din. There are conversion beit dins arranged by communities or the International Rabbinic Fellowship (IRF). Any beit din not listed by ITIM may not be accepted by the Israeli Rabbinate, but many people do not need Rabbinate recognition. Honestly, many religious communities in Israel don't accept the Rabbinate's conversions, so keep that in mind when you worry too much about Rabbinate recognition. If you're not making aliyah in the foreseeable future, then you don't "need" recognition. And if you change your mind later, you can get a geirus l'chumrah if it is required. Again, not the end of the world (though I would challenge most "demands" for geirus l'chumrah). Even I would get a geirus l'chumrah if someone important enough demanded it from me. This is politics, not Jewish law.

9) If you suffer from a rabbinic monopoly, consider moving to a new geographic area. If you can't do that temporarily (university, for example), consider waiting until you can move. Most batei din will want and/or require you to move to a larger community anyway, especially if you're single. If you are married, past childbearing age, and have no school-aged children, you have much more freedom in where a beit din will allow you to live. You don't need dayschools or other singles, so things are much simpler.

10) If you can't move to escape a rabbinic monopoly, your options are very small indeed. But not impossible. If you choose to pursue an orthodox conversion, you will have to find an independent beit din. In the opinion of many (most?), such a conversion is halachically valid, but you can expect more pushback. People will wonder why you couldn't "cut it" with a recognized beit din and will wonder why you chose them. But you can probably get your children into the local schools and get an aliyah on Shabbat. Your mileage may vary, of course.

Your best "revenge," as they say, is living well. The best way to prove haters wrong is to continue living a religious life, being involved, and being an example to the community. You're going to be an example to the community either way (whether that is fair or not), so embrace it and make it a good example. The Jews are the Chosen people, and that means we must be an example to the nations of the world. Within the community, converts are "chosen" in a similar sense. If people know you are a convert, you will be held to a higher standard, consciously or not. You can try to hide your status, and many do, but it's easier to embrace the responsibility and grow tremendously in the process. When converts live proud, the entire Jewish community gets inspired to be better. Don't let rabbinic politics get you down for longer than necessary.