Sunday, May 10, 2015

The Rabbis Who Might Be Involved in Your Conversion

Rabbis, rabbis, rabbis, everywhere you look it feels like there's another guy in a beard and a hat (well, maybe not in your community, but you get what I mean). 

Interacting with all of them and coordinating them doesn't just feel like herding cats, it actually is harder than herding cats because cats have less responsibilities and people to answer to. Not to mention, you're usually not allowed to participate financially in the community that pays their salaries. (You can't become a member and pay dues, for example.) You probably rank pretty low on the list of a rabbi's priorities, through no fault of your own. It's not personal; it's just how our community has become structured.

So let's talk about some of the rabbis who might be involved in your process and some of the roles they might play. One rabbi could serve many roles (and often do). Some may live down the street, some may only known on the internet. However you get the help, teaching, and services you need is a good way to get them. Be creative if you need to, but watch out for red flags that might indicate a huckster or someone abusive (emotionally, financially, sexually, or whatever). 

Rabbis are human. Remember that all the time, and you will be slightly less angry or frustrated with your situation. It's almost never personal. If you're in a difficult rabbi relationship, make "rabbis are human" your mantra, and repeat it frequently. As I say in that other post, neither of you has the like the other for you to both do your jobs. You can wish the situation were better, but you have to deal with what you've got.

The Bare Bones: 3 Rabbis

Let's talk about the absolute minimum number of rabbis you'll have to deal with: three. You really only need three rabbis to sit on a beit din, and one of those rabbis can be the rabbi whose community you've been living in, studying with, etc. So even at the bare bones level, you have three very busy people to coordinate. On the bright side, the beit din will do most of its own coordinating. Downside: you have little input in those dates, and you might have to change your schedule to accommodate theirs.

I think it's interesting that we really don't need 3 rabbis to sit on the beit din, as any knowledgeable Jew can as long as there's one rabbi to make sure everything is done correctly. That's just a shift that has occurred over time, but remains the structure of batei din in most non-orthodox Jewish communities.

The Normal 4th and Maybe 5th

Most people will have a fourth rabbi: the sponsoring rabbi, who is usually (but not always) your community rabbi. If your sponsoring rabbi isn't your community rabbi (for example, a tutor or mentor), then you'll also have your community rabbi involved, bringing you to five rabbis.

Beit Din Additions

Regardless of who is the sponsoring and community rabbi(s), you may have a fourth rabbi sitting on your beit din. It happens sometimes,  though I'm not entirely sure why, but people have walked into a beit din meeting and faced four or five rabbis instead of the expected (and stressful enough) three. This is unlikely, but it's something to be aware of, and don't let it worry you. From the people I've known, there doesn't seem to be a consistent factor on the side of the candidate, so I assume it's usually a practical scheduling decision when they're afraid one or more rabbis might not be available to also attend the mikvah. For example, in one case, a rabbi's wife was due to give birth around the expected mikvah date. Or maybe a rabbi had heard of you and was interested in meeting you, which was at least one of those cases.

The Takeaway

You'll most likely have to deal with 4-5 rabbis in the average conversion process. This is assuming you have only one beit din by the time you convert and no one retires or moves away (or gets arrested, of course).

But Wait! There's More Rabbis!

That doesn't mean there aren't other rabbis in your life. Some may not function as rabbis at all: some may just be friends, others might host you for meals a lot, or be the person who introduces you around in shul. There's no shortage of ways that people can help you, especially when those people happen to be rabbis.

You might have a rabbi tutor (or three). Your tutors never have to be a rabbi, unless your beit din requires at least one rabbi tutor. You may have multiple tutors because maybe you spend one semester learning in a group class with one rabbi, then get private tutoring from another, and a third teaches you to read Hebrew (or understand it, if you're more advanced). And maybe one or more of those tutors moves, retires, goes on sabbatical, becomes too expensive for your budget, realigns his priorities, whatever. Most people never get more than one or two tutors (formal or informal), but it's good to know you're not weird if you end up with 5. 

You might also have some specialized rabbis, if you face a particular halachic situation. Some examples: 
  • If you or a family member have a health problem (including mental health issues), you need a rabbi who understands those issues and the halacha that applies to them. Your average rabbi may be helpful at best, but harmful to your health at worst. Don't mess around here. It's a common problem for rabbis to either not know or not admit when they don't understand something well enough to rule on it. If you suspect a ruling is uninformed or ignores your particular circumstances (because your circumstances are always relevant to a halachic ruling, especially in health), move up the ladder to a rabbi who is more familiar with the issue.
  • If you have a pet. Most rabbis are clueless about both pets and how halacha applies to them, and thus, they give completely wrong halachic advice. They may even tell you it's prohibited to own a pet!
  • If you have Jewish roommates while you're not Jewish, you need someone very familiar with the halacha of people who are converting. Your beit din is the best place to start when you have a question like this.
  • If you have any other question that may be different for someone in the conversion process. See above.
  • If you have complicated family issues or like to visit your family often, you need a rabbi who is sensitive to those kinds of family issues and the halachic issues that can arise. You may need a different rabbi depending on whether your family is Jewish or not Jewish because the rulings can come out quite differently, and in my experience, these rabbis (usually kiruv or beit din rabbis) tend to specialize in one circumstance or the other. If you have a mixed family, you may need two rabbis to help with each group.
  • If you're in a romantic relationship with a Jew, you're eventually going to run into a lot of halachic questions. The beit din will usually address them as you go through the process. But speaking practically, a number of people have romantic relationships they never disclose to a beit din. If that's you, find a rabbi you trust, even if that means making a semi-anonymous relationship with a rabbi online.
  • If you work in a job that has halachic issues, you definitely need a rabbi who knows the field and knows Shabbat and yom tov halacha very well. This is especially true if you're a doctor, in medical school or residency, an EMT or other emergency personnel, or other people who tend to be "on call" any day, including Shabbat. If you're not in that lifesaving category, you will probably have to take some time to transition away from working on Shabbat and holidays, and a good rabbi can help you make better choices while in that transitory period. [That goes for students who feel compelled to study on Shabbat too. I survived law school without doing it, so I promise it can be done, and the break can actually make your other studying more effective.] As a sidenote, if you think you've been a victim of employment discrimination at your job or in a hiring decision because of becoming observant, you may want to consult with an employment lawyer. Usually those consultations are free, but you'll want to weigh the chilul Hashem factor and the emotional (and financial) cost of pursuing a claim.

In Conclusion

Rabbis are friends, not food. Wait, wrong cliche. [Finding Nemo, in case you don't know any children of the recent generation.]

I will openly admit I'm gunshy with rabbis, and I usually don't trust them farther than I can throw them. I've had too many bad experiences and seen too many others face similar situations because of my work here. However, the longer I'm around, the more good people I see trying to do the right thing. My heart is thawing towards rabbis, though it probably has a few more years to go. [Ha! We all know lawyers don't have hearts!]

Have situational awareness and pay attention to red flags and your gut instincts when you deal with rabbis in the conversion process, but don't let yourself get too cynical until you have a good reason to be. Look for people who just happen to be rabbis but could be your friends, especially if you're young and can find rabbis or rabbinical students your own age. 

Balancing naïveté, judging people favorably, and trusting the system when the system allows an inappropriate level of power over your life is a tightrope walk. Take it from me. But most people get through just fine, and hopefully that person is you. 


  1. During my conversion I had so many Rabbis involved... We started with one sponsoring Rabbi, he then left the shul so then we had to find another sponsoring Rabbi but then his son got sick and he had to step back. We then had to find another sponsoring Rabbi. So we had that Rabbi, plus the Rabbi that was teaching my husband because although he was jewish they determined he didn't know enough and needed further lessons. On the day of my conversion all 5 Rabbis sat in a room reviewing my written test and asking me questions!

    1. Good grief! How frustrating that must have been...

  2. There were so many rabbis involved in my conversion that at some point I just stopped counting and let the situation flow by itself...

    1. A very good perspective on things! That's probably the only way to stay sane. Rabbi roulette!