Shmuel Goldin, the senior rabbi at Congregation Ahavath Torah in Englewood, has agreed to chair a new committee the Rabbinical Council of America is convening to review its conversion process.
Rabbi Goldin also is the RCA’s immediate past president.
The committee includes 11 members; six are RCA-member rabbis and five are women. Two of the women are converts, one is a yoetzet halacha – an advisor in Jewish law – and one is a psychotherapist.
The committee has been established in response to the arrest of one of the RCA’s members, Rabbi Dr. Barry Freundel of Kesher Israel: The Georgetown Synagogue, in Washington, D.C. (Rabbi Freundel’s RCA membership has been suspended in response to the arrest, and he has been suspended from his job, without pay.) The shul arguably is the most prestigious Orthodox synagogue in the nation’s capital, and Rabbi Freundel’s arrest, for videoing some of his conversion candidates with a camera hidden inside a clock radio as they stripped for the mikvah, has been profoundly disturbing, both within the Kesher community and outside it.
After his arrest, other accusations against Rabbi Freundel have surfaced, including reports of his having demanded that some of his female conversion candidates perform secretarial work for him; he also has been accused of asking for donations, setting up a joint bank account with one of them, and sharing an overnight sleeping berth on a train with one of them. All involve the abuse of power. (It must be noted that these are just allegations; his arrest was for voyeurism.)
The perhaps unsophisticated but nonetheless telling word that is used surprisingly often to describe Rabbi Freundel is “creepy.”
“We are reviewing the conversion system,” Rabbi Goldin said. “The issues that have been reported with Rabbi Freundel, and others that have not been reported, indicate to us a need to have greater oversight over the individual courts in our system.” (It is through those three-rabbi courts, the batei din, that prospective converts are given the approval that allows them to immerse in a mikvah – a ritual bath – and emerge from it as Jews.)
“A number of years ago, the RCA, in consultation with the Beit Din of America, which is an independent but affiliated organization, determined that it would be in converts’ best interests to establish a national network of conversion courts,” he continued. “This allowed for a more standard procedure toward conversion, and would insure the acceptance of a conversion done through this network by the Israeli rabbinical authorities.”
There is always a tension between standardization and subjectivity in a conversion, he said. “Conversion is a deeply emotional process, so there always is a subjective element to it. The rabbinical authorities are trusting the person who is converting in the commitment that he or she is making, and the conversion should take place only when you arrive at that level of trust. On the other hand, by creating a standardized beit din it will be a bit more objective, because the determination does not come from the people who have been working most closely with the convert. It provides a certain amount of distance that adds some difficulty to the process but hopefully also makes it a bit less subjective.”
Some of the problems converts face do involve the power imbalance, he said. “Like any relationship where there is a power imbalance, the possibility of abuse exists, and that is what we are trying to address. We are trying to minimize the possibilities for abuse.”
The committee’s composition “is an indication of our willingness to hear other voices,” he said.
One of its members, Bethany Mandel, who converted, is a journalist who wrote a wrenching column about her experiences, “A bill of rights for Jewish converts,” in the Times of Israel. “We included her because of what she wrote,” Rabbi Goldin said. “We didn’t know her before, but when we read it, we were impressed. We spoke to her, to see if she’d want to be on the committee, and if she’d be appropriate for it.” She did, and they decided she was – and she’s on.
The committee was formed quickly; the RCA recognized that the need to deal with the issue was pressing. “The first part of our process is information gathering,” Rabbi Goldin said. “We are going to gather information about the existing batei din, and about the experiences of the converts who have gone through the system to identify where the problems, if any, might lie, and to see where we can improve the system to minimize the potential for abuse and to maximize the respect and dignity the converts experience.”
The committee already has begun its work, and plans to report its findings to the RCA’s executive committee by January 31; once that is done its recommendations will be made public, and its work will continue.
“Certain kinds of things can be done quickly,” Rabbi Goldin said. That includes adding female ombudsmen to the batei din, which is seen as a pressing need.
“In the final analyst, it is important to remember that a true convert occupies an exalted position in our tradition,” he said. “Three times a day, in our Amidah, we identify the righteous convert as someone to be exalted.
“Every effort should be made to assist those who are committed to conversion to be able to do so in a way that is dignified and appropriate.”