Since 2007, when it first centralized its conversion system, the Rabbinical Council of America — the organization of modern and centrist Orthodox rabbis — has been navigating the tension between regulating the relationship between potential converts and acknowledging the personal connections at that relationship’s heart.
Last week, at its annual convention, the RCA presented new guidelines, offered by an 11-member committee that worked for about eight months in a series of stressful late-night meetings. The guidelines are designed to streamline and regulate the conversion process.
The RCA’s need to shape the conversion process — a need that had been acknowledged for some time, according to Rabbi Shmuel Goldin of Englewood, the RCA’s immediate past president and the committee’s chair — was given new impetus by the arrest and conviction of Rabbi Barry Freundel, who is now serving a 6 1/2 year sentence for voyeurism. Rabbi Freundel took advantage of the intensity and privacy of the relationship between a potential convert and a sponsoring rabbi in ways that were both venal — making some of them do his office work — and outré — secreting cameras in the mikvah and then demanding that converts perform what he inventively if inaccurately called “practice dunks,” for his private pleasure.
(The RCA still faces the possibility of lawsuits as a result of Rabbi Freundel’s voyeurism, Rabbi Goldin said; the group might be accused of not acting on knowledge that it should have had.)
The report, by what is called the GPS Review Committee (GPS stands for Geirus Policies and Standards Network, and geirus means conversion), is 22 pages of densely packed prose, presented in outline form.
“It’s bureaucratic and very technical because we have a lot of moving parts here,” Rabbi Goldin, who heads Englewood’s Congregation Ahavath Torah, said. “Our primary concern is the converts, and then there are the dayanim” — the judges who sit on the beit din, the rabbinical court that decides whether a potential convert can be admitted as a member of the Jewish people. “Many of the people involved are volunteering, and we have to be careful of their time. There are many constituent groups that we have to satisfy and keep on board.”
When the GPS network was created, many rabbis, including Rabbi Goldin, thought it unnecessary. “I had strong reservations about it,” he said. “This is the debate. Do you allow individual rabbis to do conversions, or do you create a centralized system? There are benefits to both.
“The benefit to allowing conversion to remain in the hands of individual rabbis is that they are the ones who know the converts best. When you create a centralized system, you are putting another layer on top of it. On the other hand, what we have found — what has turned me into a proponent of this system — is that the converts want it.
“The converts say, ‘We want a conversion that will not be questioned.’ As long as you leave it to individual rabbis, then everyone is going to question it. By creating a centralized system, we are giving converts peace of mind.”
When he talks about conversions being questioned or accepted, Rabbi Goldin is talking in large part about Israel, where the system is highly centralized — in fact, it is government-run — and where over the last decade or so many conversions, even Orthodox ones, have been questioned.
“As a critical case in point, when the whole thing broke with Rabbi Freundel, a number of us — Rabbi Matanky and Rabbi Dratch — went to meet with a group of converts and significant others, who had gone through the process with Rabbi Freundel.” (Rabbi Leonard Matanky is the RCA’s president, and Rabbi Mark Dratch is its executive vice president.) “It was a very difficult meeting. The first question they posed to us was not how could this have happened, it was what will happen now? Will our conversions be accepted?”
The rabbis understood not only how important the question was to the converts, but also that its answer was not necessarily clear. But “we were able to contact the authorities in Israel, and ensure that there would be smooth continued acceptance of their conversions. Within a few days, we had clear statements from the Israeli authorities that their conversions would be accepted.
“That could not have been accomplished had we not set up this system.
“Some critics will say that by definition, any system that you create becomes more bureaucratic, and potentially more stringent. Our response is that we have to work to make sure that it will remain reasonable, and that the benefits of the system outweigh the deficits.”
The GPS review committee includes women, two of whom have converted to Judaism.
The committee’s including them is reflected in its report. The language throughout talks about the need for sensitivity, in ways that range from the words sponsoring rabbis use when they talk to potential converts to the care taken to ensure that a woman feels safe as she disrobes to immerse herself in the mikvah for conversion, and that the safety allows her to feel the moment’s overarching spirituality.
The review committee decided to begin its work with a look at GPS statistics. It hired an outside consultant, Avraham Y. HaCohen. Mr. HaCohen interviewed people whose conversions had been completed, people still involved in the conversion process, and some people who had entered the system but left without converting.
Mr. HaCohen’s report showed that a full 78 percent of potential converts entering the GPS system are women. Of them, 45 percent are between 20 and 29 years old, and another 27 percent are between 30 and 39. In other words, almost three quarters of the female potential converts are “at the most vulnerable period of their lives,” as Rabbi Goldin put it. “They are young, and their lives — including their childbearing — is being put on hold.”
That, Rabbi Goldin said, accentuates the power imbalance inherent in the relationship between the potential convert and the sponsoring rabbi. There are many such imbalances, in all kinds of relationships, he said, and there is nothing wrong with that — but it can lead to feelings of powerlessness, and even, at times, as with Rabbi Freundel, to outright abuse. “We are trying to sensitize everyone to it,” he said. “If only the people going through conversion with Rabbi Freundel had a safe place, a way to raise some of their concerns openly, we would have known about him sooner. As it was, the way he operated, he created a situation where they were dependent to a degree where they were afraid to bring it forward.”
Another interesting piece of information, according to the report, is that 45 percent of all the conversion candidates have some “Jewish ancestry.” Of that group, 70 percent had grown up in Jewish households. According to Rabbi Goldin, some members of that group were considered Jewish under the Reform and Reconstructionist movements’ understanding of patrilineal descent — in other words, their fathers or grandfathers were Jewish. Others were the children of mothers converted “through a Reform conversion, or one that did not include the acceptance of mitzvot the way we understand it, and therefore could not be accepted within the Orthodox world,” Rabbi Goldin said.
The report suggested that until they were sensitized to the individuality of potential converts, sometimes sponsoring rabbis could overlook the facts of their lives, and that can cause pain. The balance between structure and experience must be negotiated constantly. “For example, those with no experience or history of engaging in a religion other than Judaism should not be asked about rejecting Christmas,” the report reads.
“There you see the danger of a bureaucratic process, and how we have to work to fight it,” Rabbi Goldin said. “The bureaucratic process sees everyone in the same way. The personal process means that you have to look at the person before you.
“The majority of people we surveyed said that their experiences were fundamentally positive, but significant numbers of people raised significant issues,” he concluded. “That’s what we are focusing on.”
“The committee really brought together a variety of different viewpoints,” he said. “There was a spectrum of rabbinic participation from left to right within the RCA, women, converts who had gone through the process with Barry Freundel, and mental health professionals. It was a fascinating experience.
“We would hold weekly conference calls, beginning at 9:30 at night and running until 11:30 or midnight.
“There were last-minute discussions, adjustments to the language that had to take place to satisfy the entire group. And in the end, everybody was on board.
“We didn’t want the report to be a consensus. We wanted to know that everyone on the committee agreed with the report and was willing to put their names on it.”
Two of the women who converted with Barry Freundel, Evelyn Fruchter and Bethany Mandel, spoke at the meeting. “That was important,” Rabbi Goldin said. “The rabbis have to see the converts. They have to look them in the face. They have to see who they are dealing with.
“There were rabbis in tears. We are dealing with some exceptionally courageous women.”
To read the full report, go to www.rabbis.org and click on the New and Noteworthy link on the left.