A Bill of Rights for Conversion Candidates

I have heard enough from those who are going through or have gone through naturalization to the Jewish people. Even before the recent revelations (to be fair, allegations) regarding one of the lead rabbis in Orthodox Jewish conversions [I prefer “naturalization”, as it indicates joining the Jewish people, not merely the religion], it had become clear that the entire system was broken and that potential converts were often being misled or taken advantage of.

It is not my place to detail the abuses in the system, which are, quite frankly, most evident to me in the Orthodox conversion system. Nor am I particularly interested in the competitive political game that plays out within the American Orthodox community or between the American rabbinite and the ruling Israeli rabbinate something that I am interested in attempting to tackle. There are far greater minds than mine who have attempted to address that particular disaster area.

My concern at this moment is the rights of the individual who comes sincerely before a rabbi, seeking to join the Jewish religion and people. I propose that the American Jewish community adopt a Bill of Rights for Conversion Candidates, to be agreed upon by any of my rabbinic colleagues engaged in the holy work of preparing individuals (and their families) to join the Jewish People.

Not being a member of any denominational rabbinic organization, I have admittedly no standing to bring this before any such organization. Instead I speak with pride as a rabbi ordained by a prominent Orthodox yeshiva, and with the independence that gives me some detachment and hopefully objectivity.

My recommendation is that such a Bill of Rights assert the following:

  1. The Jewish people is a holy nation. As a rabbi, it is a privilege to prepare a potential new member of that nation. That privelege is a holy one and is not to be taken lightly. Through our rabbinical role, we are taking an individual, created in the image of God, and bringing him/her to Sinai.
  2. Halacha is very clear about what is done to initially discourage an individual from conversion. Adding additional obstacles in the path of the sincere candidate is not merely unnecessary, but actually contradicts halacha.
  3. We recognize that the conversion candidate comes with his/her own life story. We honor that story, treat the candidate with kavod, with respect for their dignity. A rabbi might wish to explore an individual’s motivations for seeking to join the Jewish people, but always in a respectful way, allowing the individual to maintain his/her privacy.
  4. Some rabbis might choose to ensure that the conversion candidate is of sound emotional / psychological health. Unless a rabbi is specifically trained as a mental health clinicial, any such evaluation will be done by an outside professional, who is trained to make such a determination.
  5. We recognize that most conversion candidates have to make significant financial sacrifice in order to pursue conversion. There is no stipulation that allows only the wealthy to be able to join the Jewish people. As such, we rabbis will endeavor to make the conversion process affordable to anyone, regardless of his/her financial situation. This respect for the convert’s economic standing must extend even to the conversation regarding where the new convert will choose to educate his/her children.
  6. We respect the conversion candidate’s family — his/her parents, spouse, children and extended family. While the person’s spiritual home will be far from the family s/he comes to us from, their emotional ties and the respect due to a person’s parents remain. As rabbis, we will endeavor to steer the conversion candidate to his/her new Jewish life, while at the same time, giving him/her the latitude s/he needs to successfully maintain his/her family ties.
  7. As rabbis, we guarantee the emotional and physical safety that every conversion candidate should expect. While the rabbi will need to make certain demands of the candidate’s studies and religious observance, the rabbi will never use a position of authority to coerce, encourage or allow any inappropriate relationship or otherwise use his power to demand anything of the convert that is not expected from any other member of the Jewish people.
  8. In the event that the conversion candidate believes that any part of this Bill of Rights is being violated and the rabbi not adequately address his/her concerns, we encourage him/her to contact another rabbi or a local or national rabbinical organization for guidance. Obviously, should any action on the part of the rabbi violate civil law, the appropriate authorities should be notified.

We welcome you on your holy journey and appreciate your putting your trust in us to guide you on this path.

 

OK, which of my rabbinical colleagues is ready to run with this or a version thereof?

Who of you is prepared to ask that your local or national rabbinical organization adopt this as its practice?

 

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9 responses

  1. As a convert of color, these can not be stated strongly enough. What we face is horribly exhausting, spiritually, emotionally, psychologically. This needs to be shared.

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  2. I thought long and hard about who was going to handle my conversion. I had a few things that swayed me. First and foremost, I would not have had the full support of the potential Jewish side of my family, including my now husband. Secondly, the vagueness and astronomical expense associated with even beginning the process, on my slightly more than minimum wage income (at the time), made it out of reach. Third, I was deeply concerned about a number of issues, particularly the role of women, that led me to a Conservative bet din. Fourth, I realized, even with an Orthodox conversion, my Jewish-ness would always be up for question, and significant sections of the Orthodox population might have dinner with me (should I convert and remain Orthodox) but would never consider my children Jewish enough to make a shidduch. And finally, fifth, I was raised in an exclusionary, dogmatic, fundamentalist religious denomination. I did not want to leave that only to jump into another, which is what would have happened had I converted Orthodox.

    I would welcome some more formal bill of rights, along with a more explicitly stated “instructional guide” for those already in the Jewish community by birth who do not seem to understand how to treat a convert. I’ve had times in my life where I avoided discussing the fact of my conversion, almost hiding it. I now am pretty open to any and all that I converted. I’ve had times of greater and lesser levels of observance, although I am significantly more observant than many in my shul, and would likely be reasonably comfortable in a more observant kehillah. I have always been rather independent in my thinking, so I doubt I would ever be fully comfortable anywhere. If the Orthodox community were more welcoming to the convert in general, and appropriate and open with women and Jews of color regardless of origin, I would more likely consider a more formal affiliation. Although such a move would not be supported by my husband, so I would not move into a fully Orthodox community.

    Because of life circumstances and choices, I studied with three different rabbis over the course of my conversion, which started in the fall of 1985 and continued for almost three years before the mikvah and bet din. Each of them treated me with respect, although one had a more difficult time understanding my relationship with my family. I have since studied with and met a large number of rabbis and found that most are very respectful, with the largest number of exceptions being among the Orthodox rabbis I have met. It is one of these that cemented my position away from the frum community after a conversation about my son and his daughter.

    I hope we can find a way to settle our differences before the mashiach comes!

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  3. beautifully stated. Kol Hakavod.

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  4. I believe that perspective and new converts would benefit from contact with more experienced converts and their spouses and their children. A support network of that type would have been wonderful for me 35 years ago.

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  5. I think it is a very good start. I think that the foundation needs to be sensitivity. I always had the feeling in the conversion process, that I needed to prove myself…my motives, my sincerity, over and over again. This is in spite have several people give references and speak on my behalf. I almost felt as if I wasn’t trusted…or even wanted. Little to no consideration was given to my personal circumstance and the limbo I was in (I had a non-Orthodox conversion prior, so in many ways, I was already seen as a Jew by the larger community). However I did not date out of respect for the process and halacha. Yet my conversion took 5 years! So now it is very hard for me to suggest an Orthodox conversion to anyone who wants my honest advice about it. This is very, very unfortunate 😦

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  6. Dear Rabbi Samlan,
    Your suggested guidelines are wonderful and necessary. But that alone will not solve the sexual abuse which is also terrible and also a Chilul Hashem. What needs to be done is to redefine the process so that no rabbi is working alone and in a private situation with prospective female converts.This is not new. Yichud is an halachic prohibition. No man needs to enter the Mikveh alone. Even at the final dipping, the whole Bes Din is there. More women should be involved in the teaching process and the administration. If no women are available, maybe two men should tutor prospective converts together, so that neither can mislead or mishandle the new convert with regard to sexual matters. etc.

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  7. Rabbi Samlan,

    This is a great concept and opens up important conversations about the candidates being treated righteously as well as the overall process of conversion. In our modern times where Jewish life happens in and out of pillar Jewish organizations and brick and mortar traditional venues- i.e. Synagogues, JCC’s etc-what are the accepted paths of Jewish conversion – length and type of education, what constitutes being a Rabbi fit for leading the conversion process if you weren’t traditionally ordained from one of the mainstream schools etc? Perhaps a unique conference and convening from a multitude of pluralistic thought leaders can tackle these and many more burning questions on the subject?

    I applaud you taking the first step of opening our minds to new ideas and look forward to hearing about emerging progress.

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  8. Arnie, you are making me consider the rabbinate purely for the sake of signing, affirming, and championing this document. Yasher koach!

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  9. Thank you so much! Your words are definitely a motivation to not give up 🙂

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