Sunday, November 9, 2014

The RCA Conversion Ombudsman Shouldn't Just Be for Women

In the wake of the Freundel scandal, the Rabbinical Council of America announced several measures it will take, including appointing a female ombudsman (or group of ombudsmen) to be available for complaints from female conversion candidates. Honestly, I was surprised. It's a great idea, and I'm glad they came to this realization even before the recommendation panel was established. It speaks well of the RCA's seriousness and that they're addressing this in a practical way (and that they've probably got a smart lawyer involved).

Here is the original announcement:
"The RCA and the Beth Din of America have agreed that every Beit Din assembled under their Geirus Protocol and Standards (GPS) will appoint a woman (or group of women) to serve as ombudsman to receive any concerns of female candidates to conversion. The name of this person will be provided to all conversion candidates at the beginning of the conversion process. Prospective converts will be assured that their standing in the conversion process will not be compromised by communicating with the ombudsman, and that any such communications will remain confidential to the extent possible."

But what's an ombudsman, you might ask. I heard that funny word for the first time when my mother became disabled from a stroke, and encountered it again as she was re-diagnosed with breast cancer and eventually passed away one year ago. Merriam-Webster defines it as "a person (such as a government official or an employee) who investigates complaints and tries to deal with problems fairly." 

I encountered it in hospitals and nursing homes, places where people are vulnerable in the most physical ways. A complaint taken seriously could literally save lives and prevent elder abuse, whether sexual, financial, or just power-tripping. But apparently it's also in government offices and educational facilities: other places where there is a pronounced power dynamic. I would bet that ombudsmen also sort through a lot of delusions, vengeance, and misunderstandings, but the job is still one of the most important resources we can give vulnerable people. It's a no-brainer that the conversion process should have one (or three). They're proven to be effective for sorting out real v. imaginary problems, handling those problems, improving trust in the system, and leveling the playing field in an uneven power dynamic. 

But should it be limited to female conversion candidates? No way. Should it be limited to only conversion candidates? No, when the situation is still conversion-related.

An ombudsman, in order to be effective and helpful, needs to be available to all conversion candidates and for any convert who has been threatened with inappropriate behavior because of their conversion. Freundel's actions weren't just sexual, and we will do our community a disservice if we pretend these changes are a direct response to Freundel's actions. The issue is that people complained about Freundel (and who knows who else - I know at least one other beit din had complaints because I was approached for my experiences Freundel), and either nothing happened, nothing standardized happened, or nothing productive happened. Some complaints appear to have been ignored, and others were handled off-the-cuff by people with (thankfully for them?) no experience in these kinds of complaints.

Sexual innuendo (or action, chas v'shalom) isn't the most common complaint of conversion candidates. It's about financial misrepresentations, inappropriate financial requests, exercising power for the sake of having power over another's life, and other arbitrary actions that make conversion candidates' lives more difficult than necessary.

It's because you can get kicked out of a beit din without knowing why and with no ability to appeal.

It's because a beit din can hold you to a halachic standard higher than the community standard (that is also an accepted halachic position), simply because they can. What if the conversion candidate believes that is not the halacha? Should she play along (lie), and then follow the community standard after conversion? Ex. television, some tznius standards, cholov yisroel, or wearing a black hat. Experience tells me that the serious candidates get disgusted and leave (and usually convert conservative), while the people who are less serious are the ones willing "to put up with it for a year or two."

It's because a beit din can delay your conversion for a year because they told you move within walking distance of your shul, and when you moved in 1.1 miles away, they said they couldn't work with you until you lived within 1 mile of the shul. So you have to wait until your lease expires.

It's because you can be in the conversion process for 3, 4, 5, 10 years (yes, 10 years), and feel totally powerless to control your life. 

And who knows what else? 

Men and women have an equal need for an ombudsman, even though women are more likely to use it. Women are the overwhelming majority of conversion candidates, so that's a statistical reality, but they're also the gender more vulnerable to abuse in a system populated entirely by men in a power role. That's not good or bad; that's being realistic.

An ombudsman and the RCA need to be more involved to prevent arbitrary wielding of power either because it's nice to have control over someone else's life when you feel like you don't have any control in your own life or because conversion candidates are the weak gazelles who don't know who to turn to. Whether it is intentional or unintentional, there are abuses in the system, and we need a way to deal with them. We're pushing away good people who are destined to be Jews for all the wrong reasons.

Rabbi Pruzansky believes that conversion candidates already have an ombudsman: their sponsoring rabbi. But not everyone has a sponsoring rabbi (I didn't). And neither is it a given that there is trust or even a basic relationship. And while he knows that the local rabbi has no connection to the beit din, that is not something the conversion candidate knows. Also...sometimes the local rabbi is the problem, as it was in my own case, when I was kicked out of a beit din with no ability to appeal or know why. 

Let's review why conversion candidates are the canary in the coal mine of orthodoxy:
From a blog post from January 2013: "A Rabbi Asked Me Inappropriate Questions" Is a Red Flag...But You Probably Can't Do Anything About It If You Want a Conversion (funny how this post didn't get any traction then but has had over 3,000 hits in the last 3 weeks!)

The truth is that conversion candidates are the easiest people in our community to abuse, whether for the sake of rabbinic politics, something illegal, or something exploitative. In my opinion, there are four major reasons for this:
  • A candidate may be uncertain that conduct violates the Torah (or other Jews may assume the candidate has misunderstood the alleged behavior, thereby rationalizing it away)
  • Candidates usually lack people to turn to in the community when things go poorly (especially if the rabbi is well-liked)
  • They lack access to the people they could complain to, and 
  • A conversion candidate knows that the rabbi holds his or her future in his hands. He is the gatekeeper to the candidate's hopes and dreams for the future.
Rationalizations run rampant:
  • "I'm sure you just misunderstood him."
  • "He would never do that!"
  • "Why should I believe you when I've known him for five years?"
  • "Maybe she's making it up because he didn't recommend her to the beit din."
  • "But how can I help?! I have no influence over him!"
  • "The rabbi can ruin everything, so I can't make him angry. Maybe it'll stop/never happen again."
  • Or worst: no one seeing or hearing anything at all because the candidate is the Child Who Is Afraid to Ask.

Seems pretty relevant today, right? Except that people were complaining and not getting anywhere. Hell, the person who investigated my situation was Freundel himself! That's a screwed-up complaint investigation process if you ask me.

I had been blogging here for 2.5 years before I wrote that. Why on earth would I have waited so long to share this serious problem? Because I had finished converting with another RCA beit din and had gotten married two months earlier. I finally had the "freedom" to speak up, without worrying about sabotaging my conversion or my shidduch prospects. (Though I suppose someone could negate my conversion - just try making me get a geirus l'chumrah!) Even then, I had to ask my husband's permission and make him realize that speaking out on these issues could one day affect our (currently non-existent) children. Baruch Hashem, he saw the importance of sharing it.

Likewise, I was told not to share the fact that I was kicked out of a beit din and not allowed to know why or to appeal. For my own good and the good of my future children, you understand. People wouldn't understand and would make the wrong assumptions about me. I honestly think the men who gave me that advice meant it kindly and to protect me from yentas, but it was still bad advice. Because it isn't talked about, no one knows there is a problem. Only last July did I finally decide to come out of that closet: What If You're Rejected by or Kicked Out of a Beit Din? (though I had shared it individually in many conversations and thus knew people usually didn't scream "burn the witch...I mean apikores!").

I was the oddity who had connections to other orthodox Jews through the internet, and they were my cavalry. I had also been blogging here for about six months, and that gave me access to a lot of people who might not otherwise have taken me seriously. Obviously I cared about Judaism, and they could even see I was knowledgable. Who else has those resources and street cred? Very few. Who or what can a conversion candidate turn to?

Another example:
If a person is in the conversion process for more than 3 years, we need a second opinion, and the ombudsman can alert the RCA to that need. Is it a personal problem with a rabbi in the process? Is there a disagreement over what standard the candidate should be held to in an area of halacha? Is this a family and the family members should be converted as they become ready (like the celebrated The Mountain Family)? Should the candidate be cut loose? What on earth is going on there?? Obviously something is up and needs to be reassessed. And if the candidate is just taking a long time (for whatever reason: whether health, family, financial, education, housing situation, etc), at least we will have an outside verification that the system is working like it should and that both sides understand what the delay is. Rabbis are funny about assuming that the conversion candidate knows what the problem is. The rabbi may have even said it, but it got lost in an emotional conversation or was said off-hand. Let's make sure everyone is on the same page.

What about after the conversion process?
In the Freundel case, there have been accusations of inappropriate requests for monetary donations, complete with insinuations that such support would be necessary for him to continue to vouch for their conversions. It's not a problem for a rabbi to ask a convert for money for whatever cause; it's a problem when only converts are asked or asked for larger amounts because they have a "special relationship" with the rabbi. That's just good fundraising, right? That person owes you on some level, and it's your fundraiser duty to recognize that and use it for the greater good. But from the other person's perspective, that can feel like exploitation and an implicit threat to his or her conversion. It's tricky, and we need to recognize that.

It's past time for ombudsmen in the conversion process, but not in the limited role the RCA has initially announced. I hope they realize that female conversion candidates aren't the only vulnerable people in this situation and that sexual situations are not the only threat.


  1. "and they were my calvary"

    I'm betting they weren't your calvary. :-)

  2. Thanks :) I am incapable of innocent mistakes in language. Somehow I dragged Jesus into it.

  3. Thank you for posting this and blogging about this.

    This is indeed one of the reasons why I looked at the issues of converting Orthodox and decided to go with a less observant stream because the thought of putting myself through that only to be basically psychologically abused.... well, i couldn't stand it.

    I'd have no problem being observant but the politics surrounding conversion? I simply cannot deal with them. Its some inherent flaw in my personality.

  4. Reading this "Candidates usually lack people to turn to in the community when things go poorly" and this "I was the oddity who had connections to other orthodox Jews through the internet, and they were my cavalry... Who else has those resources and street cred? Very few. Who or what can a conversion candidate turn to?" makes me wonder if there could be some kind of 'buddy' system for conversion candidates whereby they are paired up with a person or family within the community, but with no power over their conversion. Converts who have finished their conversion or ba'alei teshuva would be best, so they can give the perspective of an outsider entering the community. This buddy wouldn't have any power to influence the conversion process, but would be able to provide practical support and an informal sounding board as to whether something the candidate has been asked or told is acceptable without formally issuing a complaint.

    I'm not really familiar with the conversion process (aside from what I've read here and on other conversion blogs), so do tell me if this is impractical or already exists. I'm just concerned with removing the isolation that conversion candidates feel, which seems to be unnecessary.

  5. "Experience tells me that the serious candidates get disgusted and leave (and usually convert conservative), while the people who are less serious are the ones willing "to put up with it for a year or two.""

    You nailed it.

    Frankly, I am so glad to be done with the whole conversion thing. The orthodox beis din was horrible. They wasted 2 years my life and a few thousand dollars. No one to turn to except for the corrupt rabbis, who spun any question into an indication that I was not a serious candidate. Got in touch with a Conservative shul, got it done, and now live a full Jewish life--ironically, probably closer to Orthodoxy than to the standards of those in my conservative community. I studied the actual halacha and history surrounding Jewish conversion and there is no doubt that the conversion is 100% legit, despite the Orthodox who have cast doubt.