Nearly a dozen potential converts have already made use of a new Orthodox rabbinical court set up in Bergen County six months ago with the goal of standardizing the process.
"Going back ‘0 years, the Rabbinical Council of America recognized the many benefits of centralized, consistent standards so that all communities and rabbis in every country could have a way of accepting converts," said Rabbi Basil Herring, executive vice president of the RCA, the rabbinical organization representing centrist Orthodoxy.
"We set out guidelines and standards adopted by many RCA rabbis, but some RCA rabbis continued to perform conversions that did not meet those standards," Herring continued.
"Then, about two years ago, the Chief Rabbinate of Israel decided they wanted a more reliable way to judge the status converts who came to [live or get married in] Israel, so we launched a process to formulate standards and to set up regional, standing batei din [rabbinical courts] with a formal structure and administrator, proper standardized documents, and judges approved up front by the RCA."
Rabbi Steven Pruzansky of Cong. Bnai Yeshurun in Teaneck was asked to serve on the joint committee of the RCA and the Beit Din of America that drafted the standards. He now heads the regional beit din that began operating in September.
"We here in the RCA are acting out of love, trying to see to it that all converts are acceptable throughout the Jewish world," said Pruzansky.
He stressed that although Israel’s Chief Rabbinate provided the nudge that led to the RCA’s effort and recently endorsed its new system, it is not involved in any individual conversion.
However, if any of the converts decide to live in Israel or get married there, "this facilitates the process, because in the past the Chief Rabbinate would have to investigate the rabbi who handled the conversion, while now they’ll know immediately that it was done according to halacha and is acceptable."
Rabbi Barry Freundel of Washington, D.C., chairman of the RCA committee, wrote in The Jewish Week that the system also assures that "converts and their offspring [will] be accorded acceptance and recognition in other Jewish communities in the future."
Freundel explained that every candidate will have a sponsoring rabbi as a spiritual and pedagogic guide, who will work with the regional beit din. (Neither the sponsoring rabbi nor the judges are required to be RCA members, but they must be verified as Orthodox-ordained, practicing rabbis.) It is expected that after the conversion, the sponsoring rabbi will help the convert integrate fully into the community.
The new structure does not preclude RCA members from performing conversions outside the system, wrote Freundel, but such conversions will not have a universally acceptable status. In addition, "nothing in this system is designed to change anyone’s previous status as a convert."
Pruzansky says he has been approached by potential converts from all over New Jersey and as far north as Albany and Boston, which do not yet have regional batei din in place. Because the other local rabbinic judges serve on a voluntary basis in addition to their congregational duties, they have had to turn down some of the out-of-towners.
In addition to Pruzansky, the judges in the new court all members of the Rabbinical Council of Bergen County include Rabbis Shalom Baum of Cong. Keter Torah, Lawrence Rothwachs of Cong. Beth Aaron, and Michael Taubes of Kehillas Tzemach Dovid, all of Teaneck, and Yaakov Neuberger of Cong. Beth Abraham and Zvi Sobolofsky of Cong. Ohr HaTorah, both of Bergenfield.
"On a rotating basis, we do an initial intake and evaluation to gauge the candidate’s sincerity and level of knowledge, and to find out about their family, their health, and their psychological background," said Pruzansky. "Based on that, we then set up a learning program for them that lasts 1′ to 18 months. Over that time, they have to begin to observe mitzvot. It’s hard to go from the life of non-Jew to the life of a practicing Jew overnight. There is a voluminous amount of detail and it takes adjustment."
Candidates will meet several times with the judges as well as with the sponsoring rabbi, to assess progress. According to the protocol outlined in full at rabbis.org, the sponsoring rabbi then submits a form attesting to the candidate’s intention to accept the 613 commandments. In front of the judges, the prospective convert makes a declaration embracing the God of Israel as the one and exclusive deity, accepting the divine origin of the Torah, and indicating that he or she commits to observance of both the biblical and rabbinic laws of Judaism.
The final step is immersion in a mikvah (for a man, this is preceded by an actual or ceremonial circumcision). Afterward, the convert will receive a document that attests to the validity of the conversion, a copy of which is to remain at the RCA’s New York headquarters. A year later, the sponsoring rabbi is required to provide the regional beit din with a brief progress report.
"All the candidates we have now are coming out of sincerity, not for marriage," said Pruzansky. "Something turned them onto Torah, and they want to be part of the Jewish people."
Not all Orthodox rabbis have welcomed the RCA’s conversion agreement with Israel’s Chief Rabbinate. Writing in this newspaper last week, Rabbi emeritus Marc Angel of Cong. Shearith Israel in New York, a past RCA president, and Rabbi Avraham (Avi) Weiss of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, N.Y., called the agreement "deeply disturbing . [T]he new arrangement not only undermines the power of the local rabbi as teacher and spiritual guide, but even worse, puts fear into the hearts and minds of many wonderful converts who are upstanding Torah-observant and God-fearing Jewish souls."