Conversion has become the most contentious issue in modern Judaism. Both in Israel and in North America, tensions simmer over who can join the Jewish People, and what the standards are for admission.
While the majority of candidates convert to Judaism with few difficulties, the community’s internal politics can trip up the unlucky. The most egregious reports of converts being mistreated surfaced recently in Washington D.C., where Rabbi Barry Freundel was charged with voyeurism after a hidden camera was found in his synagogue’s mikvah. He has pleaded not guilty to the charges.
Complaints about his treatment of converts, including demanding donations and requiring unpaid clerical work, which had been reported to the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) two years earlier, have also emerged.
Though the scandal has raised issues beyond conversion, it underscores the fact that potential converts can find themselves in a tenuous position, because they must rely on their sponsoring rabbi to help see them through the process of becoming a Jew.
“There is a vulnerability that exists between a spiritual guide and a congregant. And for the convert, the rabbi is also a gatekeeper,” says Rabbi Adam Cutler, who oversees conversions at Toronto’s Beth Tzedec Congregation. “There’s a real power piece. Rabbis are certainly aware of it.”
The allegations concerning Rabbi Freundel are unprecedented, and rabbis are as dismayed by the unfolding story as their congregants. But in other ways, the conversion process can have potential pitfalls.
Rabbi Jarrod Grover, at Toronto’s Beth Tikvah Synagogue, says he sees the fallout in his office. Some of the people he counsels are candidates who have spent time and money on unaffiliated rabbis who don’t end up converting them. Others have had run-ins with a beit din that makes unreasonable demands. “I have felt for a while we could be doing more to protect them [converts],” Rabbi Grover says.
Rabbis, and particularly those who are members of beit dins (rabbinic courts), must walk a fine line between wanting to encourage converts and maintaining high standards. But in Toronto, critics claim the city’s Vaad Harabonim, the only body that can perform Orthodox conversions, has veered too far from community norms.
The Orthodox Vaad is far from transparent about the process, and its standards are “out of touch with reality,” Rabbi Grover says. The Toronto Vaad has no website, an uneven record of replying to candidates and is not welcoming to converts, he adds.
One Toronto Orthodox rabbi, who did not want to be named, says he has seen a number of serious candidates who were discouraged by the beit din.
“Some of the requirements they make go well beyond what Halachah requires. They are reflective of the religious and cultural norms within a particular segment of Orthodoxy, but are not reflective of more modern Orthodoxy,” he says.
For instance, one potential convert, who was already observing Shabbat and kashrut, was told she could never shake hands with a man, which would pose a problem for her in the business world where she worked. The demand was the final straw, and she ended up not pursuing conversion.
After a number of such incidents, the rabbi decided to stop sponsoring conversion candidates to the Toronto beit din and now suggests that they travel to a religious court in another city.
By comparison, Montreal has two rabbinic courts that perform Orthodox conversions. Both groups, one modern Orthodox, the other haredi, have websites and publish codes of conduct outlining exactly what is required of candidates. Both beit dins in Montreal offer formal classes.
Leah (not her real name) learned first hand of the difficulties dealing with Toronto’s Orthodox beit din when she converted a few years ago.
She had converted through the Conservative movement when she was in her early 20s, shortly before she was married. Two decades later, she and her husband were attracted to an Orthodox shul, but they could not join and hold their son’s bar mitzvah there until she completed an Orthodox conversion. Although the family was living a committed Jewish life – the kids were in day school, their home was kosher – she found it to be a gruelling process.
The lowest point in her conversion journey was when the beit din told her to change one of her children’s Hebrew names to a more biblical one. “They didn’t like the Hebrew name we chose,” she says.
But the biggest obstacle was the beit din’s attitude. “They were disrespectful of my time.” Meetings were cancelled, and “quite often it was on the spur of the moment.”
With three young children, a job and elderly parents living out of town, time was her most precious commodity.
Not only did she feel vulnerable, she felt the reputation and credibility of her sponsoring rabbi and his wife, who was her teacher, were also riding on the conversion.
“I considered going to Buffalo. I didn’t want to deal with the politics of the Toronto board,” she says.
Rabbi Asher Vale, director of Toronto’s Orthodox beit din denies that the body is out of touch with communal standards.
“In Toronto, most of the rabbinate is haredi. We accept people if they come from a modern Orthodox shul or from a haredi shul,” he says. “Our main thing is whether the person is going to make a commitment to Halachah. If they’re part of a community and have a sponsoring rabbi, we feel comfortable with that.”
For example, the beit din would not tell a convert that a knitted kippah was unacceptable, or that they could only wear white shirts, he says. Questions such as whether women are permitted to wear pants or must cover their hair would need to be addressed by the sponsoring rabbi, he says.
The beit din sends prospective candidates a description of the process and what it entails, and tries to give people an approximate timeline of when they will be ready for conversion, he says.
In response to the Freundel allegations, the RCA has said that every beit din under its auspices (which includes Toronto’s Vaad and one of the beit dins in Montreal) “will appoint” an ombudswoman to handle female converts’ concerns about the process.
In Montreal, where the position will be added, the ombudswoman can “go over our heads to the national office,” says Rabbi Michael Whitman, head of the beit din. Converts “can give feedback that will not affect the conversion process.”
Toronto has yet to discuss the issue, Rabbi Vale says. “We haven’t had any major issues,” he adds. “Every person has a sponsoring rabbi. If an issue comes up, we are in touch with them.”
Rabbinic spokespersons for the Conservative and Reform movements say that an ombudsman is not necessary, because their process is quite different. Candidates are taught during a year-long course by a variety of rabbis and are free to switch from one sponsoring rabbi to another if a there is a bad fit.
Sometimes a mismatch occurs not because of personality, but because of ideology. While Rabbi Grover says he steers many of his candidates toward the course run by the Rabbinic Assembly, the governing body for the Conservative movement, sometimes candidates are unsure of the level of commitment they will adopt. For them, he recommends a new course offered by a group of rabbis with a variety of affiliations.
“In the RA [classes], people feel like they cannot be honest. We put so much pressure to be up to a high standard, so they fake it,” he says.
The alternative class lets candidates discover where they are on the Jewish spectrum before making a commitment to a sponsoring rabbi or denomination, instead of deciding at the outset of the program.
As conversion loses its stigma in the Jewish community, rabbis are finding more potential Jews in their offices and classrooms.
“We’re working hard to not turn people away. We want to create more Jewish families, to welcome people into the Jewish community and at the same time be honest with people,” Rabbi Grover says.
“I spend a lot of time doing conversions. We’re overwhelmed with it,” he adds. “We have to get it right.”