(JTA) – I have a confession: I am a convert regarding conversions. That’s the stark realization I reached as chair of the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA)’s recent conversion review committee.
The committee was established last fall to review the RCA’s Geirus Policies and Standards (GPS) system, the network of regional Orthodox conversion courts operating under the aegis of the RCA and its affiliated Beth Din of America. Since its establishment in 2007, the GPS system has converted over 1,300 candidates through 12 regional courts.
When GPS was launched, I was a skeptic, deeply afraid that the drawbacks of establishing a formal system of conversion courts would outweigh the potential benefits.
Previously, Orthodox conversions in America relied heavily on the personal relationship between the conversion candidate and his or her “converting rabbi.” The rabbi was responsible for guiding the candidate through training, assessing the candidate’s progress and convening a beth din, or religious court, for the actual conversion. With knowledge of each candidate’s motivations, concerns, commitment, progress and limitations, the rabbi could best determine a candidate’s readiness for the life-changing step of Orthodox conversion to Judaism.
Everything changed with the launch of GPS, however. Most significantly, the rabbi’s role went from converting to sponsoring, with the final decision about a candidate’s readiness for conversion made by a separate regional court. Proponents of the changes argued that they would standardize conversion practices across [North America], grant greater validity to individual conversions, prevent inappropriate conversions and free rabbis from pressure to perform such conversions.
I, however, found myself wondering: Wouldn’t these changes depersonalize the conversion process and add another layer of bureaucracy? Would the regional courts, largely unfamiliar with the nuances of individual candidates, apply unhelpful uniform standards to all? Would the demands on each convert become increasingly rigid and overbearing?
In retrospect, I was right – but also very wrong. While the GPS system, like all systems, struggles with issues of distance, depersonalization and rigidity, its fundamental value to converts overwhelms its faults.
Ironically, this realization was driven home to me most powerfully in the aftermath of the devastating scandal involving Barry Freundel, whom I had known since high school and who, for years, served as the head of the GPS Beth Din in Washington.
A few days after hearing the shocking news that this “respected rabbi” had been arrested for clandestinely filming conversion candidates in the mikvah ritual bath, I traveled to Washington together with top RCA officials for an emergency meeting with over 60 converts.
Understandably, the meeting was tense. A palpable sense of betrayal pervaded the room. “How could this travesty have occurred?” the converts asked. But the most pressing question was about the status of their conversions: “How will the discrediting of the supervising rabbi of our conversions affect our halachic identity as Jews?”
To my surprise, we were able to assuage their concerns because of GPS. We had a formal conversion network and relationships with halachic authorities throughout the world that prevented the inevitable questioning of these conversions.
Within days of the meeting, at the urging of the RCA, the Israeli Chief Rabbinate released an official statement affirming the validity of all conversions that took place under Freundel’s auspices.
I shudder to think of the consequences had GPS not existed. Had these conversions rested solely on the reputation of one person, a public battle over their validity would have inexorably erupted, adding deep insult to injury for those who had already endured so much.
The value of GPS was driven home to me further when, in the midst of difficult questioning concerning the RCA’s oversight of the network, a convert at that Washington meeting expressed his heartfelt gratitude to the RCA for establishing and maintaining a centralized system of conversion courts. To the general assent of many present, he noted the precious peace of mind the system grants. GPS assures them that once finalized, their conversions will not be questioned.
It was at that moment that I realized how deeply, in this contentious world, converts need such reassurance. The Jewish community owes these extraordinary individuals a guarantee that having completed the arduous journey of conversion, their status as Jews will be unassailable.
GPS was established to provide that guarantee. Scores of rabbis volunteer hours and hours of their time as sponsoring rabbis and dayanim, or halachic judges, to provide that guarantee.
Appreciation of the value of GPS does not absolve us from asking tough questions about its functioning, however.
What are the system’s inherent weaknesses and shortcomings? How can these be better addressed? How can the personal experience of conversion candidates be improved? Above all, how can we avoid horrific abuse like that which occurred in the Washington Beth Din? Given that the process of conversion rests, by definition, on a power imbalance between the rabbis and the conversion candidates, what safeguards can be put into place to better protect potential converts?
To address these questions, I found myself chairing an extraordinary committee over these past seven months. Rabbis, converts, health professionals and others, males and females, collaborated on the twin tasks of seriously reviewing the functioning of the GPS network and making concrete recommendations for improvement.
Following hours of respectful yet no-holds-barred discussion, the committee unanimously presented a wide-ranging, comprehensive report in an extraordinary session at the recent RCA convention.
Before the report’s formal presentation, the microphone was given over to prominent halachic authorities, conversion judges and two women who had converted under Freundel. The reaction was immediate and powerful.
Rabbis around the room were brought to tears as one of the speakers described her difficult entry into the Jewish community. When she finished, hundreds of rabbis spontaneously rose to their feet – a sign not just of respect but of a sense of partnership.
By all accounts, the momentum established at that convention session will propel the timely implementation of the committee’s recommendations.
This is what a holy partnership can be about. If we really speak to and listen to each other, we can make this process better.
Contrary to the claims of detractors, the RCA is not running GPS to consolidate power over the Orthodox community. The many hours devoted by countless individuals toward the establishment, running and improving of this conversion system do not emerge out of a desire to impose halachic stringencies upon the community. GPS exists to benefit the converts and the Jewish community at large. That’s all that really matters.
Rabbi Shmuel Goldin is the honorary president of the Rabbinical Council of America and served as chair of the GPS review committee.