Thoughts on the Conversion Mess
In the wake of public discussion regarding R. Haskel Lookstein’s conversions, Ivanka Trump’s halakhic status, demands by so-called “Open Orthodox” rabbis for Israel broadly to recognize their private decentralized conversions, wildcat and other outlier Orthodox rabbis who have contributed their own decadence to the process, and the delicate subject of the unity of the Jewish People — herewith thoughts on the conversion mess:
Preface: Reform / Conservative / Mikvah / Cookies.
Several years ago, I was invited to participate as the Orthodox rav on a three-rabbi panel with one of the most prominent and deeply respected Reform rabbis in Southern California and with a counterpart Conservative rabbi who also commands substantial respect and prestige. The topic was the Orthodox rabbinate’s predominant role in Israel on matters of conversion to Judaism, and the venue was Valley Beth Shalom, the predominant Conservative/Reconstructionist temple in the San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles. I was warned politely by the people who invited me that the congregation would be coming to eat my alive and that two other Orthodox rabbonim had been invited before me but respectfully had declined.
I accepted eagerly. Although at the time I still had never joined a Board of Rabbis, my Poskim permitted such engagements where the opportunity arose to speak with, meet, listen to, engage, and educate other Jews, and to expose them to Shomer Shabbat rabbonim and personalities.
The debate’s format began with each of us serially presenting an initial ten-minute overview of our respective perspectives on conversion. Then there would be questions from a moderator. And, finally, questions from the floor.
The Reform rabbi began. He explained how he does conversions, his views that a conversion must come from the heart and need not include mikvah or circumcision, and he generally berated “the Orthodox” but in a very dignified manner. The Conservative rabbi followed and presented his views, expectations, and requirements, and he also expressed great dismay over the Orthodox rabbinate’s control in Israel. Both rabbis echoed a common theme: “Who are these rabbis in Israel to say that our conversions are not valid?” It next was my turn.
I began by turning to the Conservative rabbi and asked him: “You just heard [Reform] Rabbi [X] say that he does conversions that often do not include mikvah or circumcision for men. I just heard you say that, by contrast, you do require those rites as part of conversion. Therefore, I am wondering: If someone comes to your temple and asks to be counted in your minyan, telling you that he has been converted to Judaism by our esteemed Reform colleague and good mutual friend, but without a circumcision or mikvah, would you recognize that conversion?”
The Conservative rabbi did not even pause before answering. Knowing his ethics, I was not surprised when he responded straightforwardly: “No, I could not accept such a conversion.”
That was my presentation that night. The rest of the evening was spent with the Reform rabbi challenging the Conservative rabbi for refusing to recognize his conversions, the Conservative rabbi explaining his standards and why he could not accept those conversions, and me eating the cookies on the dais. Most of the questions from the moderator and the audience continued on that theme. I was younger then, and I may have eaten all the cookies while they battled.
The American Mess
The conversion situation in America is out of control, with thousands of non-Jews presenting conversion documents from Reform and Conservative — and also some profoundly unscrupulous Orthodox-denominated — rabbis, who have “converted” them in processes that have no halakhic bases whatsoever. The Reform rabbis are acting in the best of good faith and deep honor. They truly believe they are acting rightly. Same with the Conservative rabbis. They expend great effort to teach. It is serious for them, no joke. They have real curricula, reading lists, standards, and expectations. However, for others who truly believe in halakhic requirements for conversion, those standards are not met in most, if not all, cases.
There also are unscrupulous rabbis denominated as Orthodox who run specious wildcat “conversion factories.” Their standards border on the bogus, and their fees trample the conscience. Armed with ordination and unable to find income at a synagogue pulpit, yeshiva or day school faculty, community or outreach organization, or kosher-certifying agency, they ply their trade among a clientele including the most innocently unsuspecting and the most cynically cognizant. I think back to the case of the Israeli professional basketball team, bridled by their league rule limiting the amount of foreigners whom league teams can import for their squads. The league did not want Israeli basketball simply to be a haven for NBA rejects. So the team arranged for an American non-Jew to be insta-converted by an American Orthodox rabbi and then to have that character gain Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return. Now an “Israeli,” he could be on the team without counting against the foreigner quota. It worked like a charm until the guy found out that, as a full-fledged Israeli, he now had to fight in Tzahal, the Israeli armed forces. A decade later, he was convicted in America of conspiracy to import heroin, importation of heroin, and possession of heroin with intent to distribute and was sentenced to ten years prison. Kiddush!
In yesteryear, not everyone was getting intermarried and converted. Times have changed. Today, more than fifty percent of American Jews “marry out.” For many intermarrying, there is Jewish parental pressure on the non-Jewish spouse to convert. To the degree that the non-Jewish spouse is not intensely wedded to any religion anyway, the sense is: “Sure, OK, if it makes your parents happy. I don’t want you being written out of your parents’ wills.” Thus, a conversion is pursued. Where the couple are not driven by any particular halakhic motivation but instead are impelled by parental pressure or a sense that they both should associate with the same system for the kids whom they will bear or have borne, the much-easier step is a non-halakhic conversion. Many fewer demands, much speedier timetable — although much more expensive. And so it goes . . . in the thousands.
Consider America’s immigration laws. Let’s leave all the Democrat-Republican politics out of it, all the rhetoric about “sanctuary cities” and “building walls” and “anchor babies” and “dreamers,” and let’s just focus on Title 8 of the United States Code. For all the political tension over immigration, we rarely if ever read or hear of a federal judge making up her own laws of immigration and granting United States citizenship to people who have not complied with the federal statutory requirements. Imagine the utter chaos if judges in one state followed one set of immigration statutes while those of other states each followed their own rules. American does not work that way. We all follow Title 8. If someone is granted citizenship in California, that status is good for all nifty fifty states. Moreover — again leaving out politics — all federal judges swear an oath of fealty to the same Constitution and to adhere to its laws. Therefore, although individual judges may differ as thinking human beings, there is a sense that everyone, regardless of agenda, is playing on the same field with the same ground rules.
Jewish conversion should work that way, too. It needs to work that way. Otherwise, we truly lose our peoplehood. Taking all politics aside, if an Orthodox Jew by definition truly believes in halakhah, then she needs to marry a Jew. And if a man has converted to Judaism in a manner outside the halakhic framework, conducted by a judicial panel — a Bet Din — who are not committed to the Halakha Constitution and to all its statutory requirements, then that Jewish woman cannot marry that converted fellow because he simply is not halakhically Jewish.
When the situation affects an outlier person here or there, the matter can be managed privately and sensitively. However, once the society reaches a point where thousands of such converts are presenting as “full Jews,” chaos ensues for those non-political individuals trying to adhere to halakhah. “You tell me you are Jewish, and you believe you are Jewish, and I eagerly want to believe you are Jewish, and half a century ago the odds were that you probably are Jewish — but today it is chaos.” What with the non-Jewish children of unconverted non-Jewish moms presenting as “patrilineal Jews” because they have a Jewish Dad who promised to rear them as Jews, and with converts who did not go to a mikvah or never accepted the Divinity of the Oral and Written Torah or never accepted the personal undertaking of the halakhic lifestyle — or whatever — it is utter chaos.
And there are mighty ramifications. May an halakhic Jew marry someone who believes he is Jewish but is not? May a patrilineal be counted in an Orthodox minyan? Given a Torah aliyah? May a person converted outside the rubric of halakhah be so denominated? It is a mess. It is such a mess that applicants to yeshiva day schools now are asked respectfully to provide grandparents’ identifications because once a child enters a yeshiva and gets a diploma after twelve years of yeshiva, many would assume without asking that the person is an halakhic Jew.
We desperately are endeavoring to avoid so severe a schism that we truly become two separate peoples, unable to marry. Thus, all Jews are Jews — Reform Jews, Conservative Jews, Reconstructionist Jews, agnostic and atheist Jews — but non-Jews are not Jews.
Whose Conversion Is This — the Convert’s or the Rabbi’s?
Until 2006, I did as did virtually all my Orthodox colleagues among shul rabbonim. When approached for conversion, I taught, mentored, and eventually helped the prospective Ger reach the moment of Giyur. At that point, I gathered two rabbinical colleagues, and we supervised the mikvah and, for men, circumcision (or hatafat dam) requirement. Our converts all were taught halakhic requirements, and we did not conclude the process until we were as certain as three humans can be that the prospective Ger thenceforth would live an halakhically observant life.
That decentralized system worked well for the local shul rav, but it increasingly left the prospective Ger exposed. In an era of completely chaotic American conversions, the Ger’s proof that her conversion was halakhicallykosher was the certificate presented by the local shul rav and his two colleagues. If the rav was known and respected, that worked fine. But what if the rav were not known outside his hamlet? In an era of conversion chaos, what if a Ger would present papers in another city or state where the converting Bet Din were unknown as Mystery Rabbonim?
Typically, the rav in the new location would call the rav who had conducted the conversion and confirm his halakhic fealty in a brief phone call or noting where he was practicing. It would not be sufficient merely to check that the converting rav was a member of one or another Orthodox rabbinical association, although that would help. But what if the rabbonim on the certificate could not be found? What if they had passed away? What if they had passed away thirty years earlier? Fifty years earlier? How check them? Indeed, what if the shuls where they had been rav no longer existed? Or what if the shuls had changed halakhic practice over time?
Chaos. And if that chaos is bemusing within the United States, imagine an Israeli rabbinate trying to figure out who the rav in America was, what his halakhic standards were.
In 2006, recognizing the growing problem that the conversion chaos in America was causing and the need for a more formally structured procedure to help the Israeli Chief Rabbinate ferret more efficiently to determine with maximal certainty the kashrut of respective people’s halakhic conversions in America years earlier, the Rabbinical Council of America and the Israeli Chief Rabbinate entered into a formal agreement known as the Geirus Policies and Standards Network (GPS). See, e.g., http://www.judaismconversion.org/ Under that system, anyone who wishes to convert to Judaism according to halakhah after 2006 can do so with a rav who is registered with and who works in tandem with a Bet Din recognized as part of the RCA’s GPS network. For example, on the West Coast the GPS Bet Din is the Rabbinical Council of California. All conversions I have sponsored since the day that GPS began are sponsored under the RCA’s GPS rubric. I mentor and sponsor Gerim, but I do not “sign off” on conversions.
This new GPS system has taken away some of my authority and my formerly decentralized power to direct the tempo of the conversion process. I now serve more as the local shul rav supervising and teaching, but I voluntarily have ceded some of my “power and authority” by agreeing to conform to the GPS system.
How does it feel for me to be presented with this limitation on my authority?
Frankly, I am satisfied that my feelings utterly do not matter. My “power and authority” in this area do not matter. The Giyur is not about me; it is about the Ger. Now, the person who converts halakhically under my sponsorship does not have to worry about whether the Chief Rabbinate has heard of Rav Dov Fischer of California. They do not worry whether their great grandchildren will have to document who the converting rav was a century earlier. Rather, they have the peace of knowing that the conversion carries the rubric of the Rabbinical Council of California, a participating GPS Bet Din. The conversion is about them, not me.
Dealing with Pre-2006 / Wildcats / Independents
Even as the RCA and Chief Rabbinate coordinated to solve a central aspect of the conversion problem to assure greater equanimity for Gerim who convert as of 2006, they also addressed the matter of kosher conversions that pre-dated the launching of GPS. When someone who converted halakhically before 2006 seeks to have that decentralized kosher conversion recognized and accepted in Israel today, the person applies to the Rabbinical Council of America’s Bet Din of America (BDA) for a certification of the past conversion’s kashrut. The RCA’s BDA then conducts a proper and comparatively efficient investigation by contacting the sponsoring rav at the time, asking predictable questions, and confirming that the conversion was done k’das u-k’din. When that rav is not available — perhaps he even is not alive anymore — the BDA investigates in other manners, contacting those who knew that rav, determining that rav’s bonafides from his career, considering where he got his semikha, where he was a shtella rav if he had shul positions, and other considerations.
As it happens, I have on my desk in my office right now the formal documentation that I recently received from the RCA’s BDA after a successful Giyur-confirming investigation that I asked BDA to launch on behalf of one of my congregants who underwent an halakhic conversion decades and decades ago. I contacted Rav Michoel Zylberman at BDA, provided him with the documentation and information he requested of me, and BDA confirmed the conversion’s kashrut. I also now have in my inbox a communication from another rav elsewhere who has a family claiming in his neighborhood that I was their Gerut rav a few decades ago. He is checking with me, and we will get a BDA certification for that one, too.
I am not at all offended. It is not about me. It is about a uniform system for everyone so that halakhic Gerim can have peace of mind hereinafter for their future generations.
Now here is the thing. Even in this Age of the RCA-BDA GPS system with the Israeli Chief Rabbinate, I still am free to bypass GPS and to do as I did thirty years ago, conducting my own conversions and convening my own Bet Din with two colleagues. However, I choose not to do so because I cannot guarantee any American Ger in the year 2016 the kind of long-term peace of mind if I act independently that she would have if converted via GPS. If the certifying document merely bears my name and that of two colleagues, then the Ger is back to asking the Chief Rabbinate to check me out again. By contrast, when the conversion is through GPS, then uniform standards undoubtedly have been met.
I could vie to have my name be included on a special list of rabbonim who independently are recognized by the Israeli Chief Rabbinate. However, like almost all of my colleagues, I have no desire to do so. I want for people who approach me to know they are being converted under the stronger institutional imprimatur. For that same reason, I advise any person who is seeking conversion or considering conversion or who knows someone doing so to ask any individual rav or rabbi who presents as head of his own conversion Bet Din: “Please provide me with a formal written guarantee that any conversion I do under your sponsorship will be accepted by the Israeli Chief Rabbinate now and in the future.” I give such a guarantee to the GPS Gerim whom I sponsor. It is, to me, a matter of transparency and best practices, just as medical providers provide full disclosures in advance of procedures. It would not be surprising that a conversion pursued with any rav or rabbi who will not provide such a written guarantee may raise red flags.
The recent matter regarding a long-ago conversion conducted by Rav Haskel Lookstein, for which the Israeli Chief Rabbinate requested more documentation, generated great media attention because, years later, he also was associated with the halakhic conversion of Ivanka Trump. The media had a field day as they do whenever they tackle any subject dealing with Jews, and they misrepresented facts as they often do because, as a White House advisor recently stated, the media are comprised of many inexperienced journalists unschooled in the finer points of certain subjects they are covering and lacking the time to do the research before an impending deadline. As facts actually have it, Ms. Trump was converted under the GPS rubric. There is no question regarding her conversion. She was converted with the full institutional imprimatur. By contrast, Rav Lookstein’s earlier conversions that pre-dated the GPS can be subject to the same pro forma confirmation process that I would expect would be applied to those who converted on my watch. We have one basic standard that should treat all of us equally. And it must never be about us.
The Pink Elephant
The Washington, D.C. scandal was a unique and outlier tragedy and travesty. Because the matter is in litigation, this article cannot address it directly at this time. I will say this: There is no GPS Bet Din in the United States where a rav directly mentors female conversion candidates. Thus, in my shul the female conversion candidates are mentored and taught by a fabulous and gifted same-gender mentor, while my wife and I provide many Shabbat meals where we teach at the table, and the female candidates also are required to attend two of my weekly shiurim regularly — one on Chumash and commentaries, the other on halakhah andhashkafah. However, only the female mentor teaches one-on-one. That same-gender requirement long has been a universal GPS mandate.
It would be inconceivable that a conversion candidate would be required to pay membership dues or otherwise to donate time or money to the shul where the sponsoring rav is spiritual leader, or to perform other duties or services or clerical assistance for the rav. What happened there is one of the most horrific and inexcusable occurrences in American Jewish history. I personally have been among those who have reached out to some victims. Some have accepted, and some have rejected. And, fully cognizant that it is not about us but about those who converted, our own sense of bitterness and betrayal is palpable.
Rav Dov Fischer, Esq., who has served two three-year terms on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America during the past seven years, is an adjunct professor of the law of Torts and of Civil Procedure at two major Southern California law schools and is rav of Young Israel of Orange County, California. His views on this and other subjects are his own and can be found at www.rabbidov.com