The Conspiracy

Hanging by a Thread: Conversion Corruption in Israel

Beginning in 2006, I began the process of converting to Judaism – orthodox style. I came from a mixed family (and my Mom eveven converted via Conservative Judaism!), and for me it was probably inevitable after so many years of searching out the Jews. I lived in a pretty goyische town and grew up with little religious content. Even though I was converting just when the environment was becoming politically hotter, I still gave the benefit of the doubt to the Rabbis around me. My Mom had had a Conservative conversion, yet they still felt I should go through it.

They had a lot of views and policies I was not totally secure about, but I was in no position to ask more than just simple questions. “They know better than me,” I told myself, “and if they say I need to convert for myself, I am not about to start questioning their authoritativeness just because it is inconvenient.” Some day, I thought, I might differ in my opinion to the ones that the rabbis of our day are expressing, “but for now,” the thinking went, I will go with the flow.

That was then, this is now. By the end of 2007, as soon as my personal Rabbi told me I was ready, I began to push anyone else involved – particularly members of the Beit Din. I have followed the issue solidly ever since.

I am starting to get more and more cynical about conversion today, or at least being more outward about it. The problem still lies in the fact policy is the concern of people in charge of conversion, not halachah. So, it’s empowering people who are essentially inventing new rules. It’s turning people away just reading about it, almost as if these new rules are being designed as a new tool to push people from converting (the whole turn-away-3-times thing).

The idea that someone actually needs to be pushed away is remarkable. If someone were only pushed away twice when he first asked a Rabbi about it, his conversion is not going to be overturned – it can’t be. Why? Because this is not an essential part of the conversion process. The only essentials are a brit mila (if a guy) and dunking in the mikvah. Beyond that, it gets more complicated, but those are the essentials. There are a number of reasons to turn people away from converting, but actually trying to prevent their inevitable conversion is a stark perversion of this policy. It is the natural evolution of misunderstanding. Turning people away is doctrine to most people, even Reform and Conservative Jews. This is an absurd development.

We have control over what is an ancient act of policy – turning people away – that is, what is not a halachic precedent. There is no need to employ a deterrence system unless we think we need one. We are not obligated to it. Some say we have to prevent people who will not observe Jewish law from entering the community and diluting the seriousness of its members. This is a legitimate concern. But that is not what is driving these policies today. It is not even the emergent “doctrine” of turning away that I mentioned before. It is policy and politics. But the more people actually believe it is required of us to deter people from Judaism, the more difficult it will be for us to accept new members. All the more dangerous, we are scaring away people who have already converted, creating the most serious spiritual crisis Judaism has had since the European Enlightenment.

It is obvious Israel needs a coherent conversion policy. It is also obvious to population planners and policymakers that Israel’s Russian, Ethiopian and American communities need to have the option open to its members. Conversion allows people to be more mobile in Jewish society and opens doors to integration with people they’d otherwise be unable to marry (both observant and traditional Jews unwilling to cross this Jewish-legal boundary).

From the perspective of making policy for the religious community itself, considering the spiritual ramifications, we are watching the disintegration of the Jewish legal imperative to “respect the convert.” Even more frightening, this is one of the many social flaws that God, via Moses, warns us to avoid to the utmost in the Torah. The consequences of abusing converts, immigrants, widows and orphans are dire and impact the entire Jewish people.

A secular person, whether he is a believer or a traditionalist, needs to understand the gravity that it has, that Jewish religious leaders are ignoring these legal and moral principles. It is a fundamental corruption of Judaism. This marks a crisis in leadership.

There are plenty of Rabbis, both young and elite, that oppose the policies I am tearing apart right now. But, their voices are pretty lame. They are not taking the gloves off and especially not accusing the powers that be of the things that I am. Without a fiercer bite, nothing will change and new Jewish leadership will not emerge. A Rabbinical figure that has the guts to both organize a coherent opposition and articulate could save Jews the world over further embarrassment and division. In so doing, he would rescue Jews from the spiritual ramifications of this conversion crisis. And all the more likely, he would not only reverse the trend of people running away from Judaism, but cause a reverse movement of people flocking toward Jewish observance.

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11 Older Responses to “Hanging by a Thread: Conversion Corruption in Israel”

  1. Rabbi Menachem Creditor
    April 1, 2011 at 5:26 pm #

    Shalom Joshua –

    yes, yes, and yes! There is a Movement behind you – check out, and get involved in the explicit effort within Israel to accomplish the sacred goal you’ve articulated. may the day come that someone will read your post and not understand it.

    shabbat shalom,
    rabbi menachem creditor

  2. Chicky
    April 1, 2011 at 9:33 pm #

    Not only are Rabbis politically controlling the conversion process, but they also want to control the definition of ‘Who is a Jew’. Good luck to ya, we at HJ don’t care what your background is, one way or another.

  3. Esther Klein
    April 1, 2011 at 10:34 pm #

    I couldn’t agree more. The Chief Rabbinate is turning off legitimate converts and completely alienating many non-Orthodox converts and Jews by Birth. We need people who are Rabbis to speak up as well as many diaspora Jews as possible to make their voices heard. Netanyahu received over 50,000 emails over the Conversion Bill. We all need to continue speaking out to make change possible.

  4. Yakov Wolf
    April 2, 2011 at 2:50 am #

    I’m a bit unclear if you are focusing on Israeli or Diaspora conversion issues in this piece. I’m going to respond as if you are concerned with the former, since you note the necessity of Israel having a coherent conversion policy.

    I would argue that Israel has a coherent conversion policy right now. That policy is that non-Orthodox conversions are treif, because non-Orthodox Judaism is treif. Only Orthodox Jews are free to avoid military service, only Orthodox synagogues can recieve any sort of state funding, only Orthodox Rabbis can be in the Chief Rabbinate. Most importantly for your concerns, only Orthodox-officated marriages are legally recognized as Jewish marriages–it’s a strange situation that Israel is the only democratic nation that does not allow Freedom of Religion specifically for Liberal/Non-Orthodox Jews.

    I think the fact that a Jew of Ethiopian, Russian, or US origin NEEDS to convert to be upwardly socially mobile is whats wrong with the system, not that conversion options are too hard. Conversion should be a deeply personal, spiritual choice, not simply a practical, , utilitarian, pragmatic one that one HAS to do to do something as basic to society as, you know, GET MARRIED to the person they love in the country that they call home.

  5. Yael
    April 2, 2011 at 3:55 pm #

    Well said.

    Could it be that the massive group of people who the rabbinate will not recognize as Jewish – who are nevertheless an integral part of the “Tribe” of Israel, has already become so significant, that the rabbinical court has become nothing more than a puppet show that people humor when needed but most would rather ignore?

    We have the converts, and children of converts and their children. Army converts. Orthodox converts from Israel, if found not to be observant enough according to the rabbi of the day. Immigrant converts (who’s orthodox rabbi is not on the mysterious list of “authorized” orthodox rabbis held by the chief rabbinate ($?) Jews who can’t prove their ancestry four generations back (especially if their names are known in the reform movement); Russian immigrants, Ethiopian immigrants… it’s a growing list.

    As an orthodox convert with six children presently under grave attack in divorce proceedings in a rabbinical court, do I feel the Jewish status of my children is stable, guaranteed, safe? Of course not. The bias and hatred there is extreme. Would a conversion annulment issued by that same court make a difference to our part in the tribe of Israel? No way.

    Converts are caught in a terrible blip in history. They would be in a better position as Jews if they had a reform conversion – or better still, would not convert at all. There are other ways into the tribe of Israel. In this, they guarantee that the evil now present in the rabbinical system will have no power over them and their children in the future.

    And to state the obvious: it is not any mortal that decides when to bless a soul as Jewish (or to repeal that blessing). It is the creator of it all. Or did the rabbinate stop believing in him, deciding to take control in his absence?

  6. David Zarmi
    April 6, 2011 at 6:24 pm #

    This reminds me of the last conversion piece in New Voices (it was written by a young lady I can’t remember). There are really questions for serious people as to what is required in gerut. There are real politics that are shameful. But you are the primary purpose for having a policy of deterrence. My G-d. You admit straight out that you didn’t agree with halakha s understood by traditional Judaism, but that you’d convert first and decide whether to keep that halakha later. You list the ONLY requirements of gerut as mila and t’vila. No mention whatsoever of accepting ol malkhut shamayim or tora. As if we’re all the worst things the Christians have ever said about us being ritual with no substance. mila and t’vila are necessary, but the most important part of conversion is accepting upon yourself the obligations and responsibilities of being a Jew – keeping halakha to the best of your ability. And while traditional Judaism has a range, Conservative and Reform are beyond it (obviously one is further than the other, and Conservative at least has a concept of halakha, but they are both missing key components). So while Israel would benefit from more clarity in gerut, as would the Jewish people and the prospective serious gerim, for whom I feel empathy in their suffering, people like you only make this worse.

    How can you live with such a lie? How did your personal rabbi tell you that you were ready? Did you tell him that you don’t really believe in this conversion, think you’re probably Jewish anyway, are just doing it for expedience and don’t really believe all the things the conversion court wants you to believe? Did you tell him you don’t really have plans for practicing everything you’re learning and espousing to the court? Is he in on the fraud?

    I know there are potential gerim who lose out. But the more I learn about potentials who are complaining about the process in Los Angeles, the more I learn that maybe the bet din is smarter than I think it is. Sometimes rather than say no, they want the potentials to realize it themselves, so the process drags on. Sometimes there may be hope that the potential can get their head straight and figure out what they really want, if they really want Orthodox Judaism or not. And sometimes the bet din gets it wrong, no doubt.

    What are the Orthodox to do when faced with the ever-increasing number of Conservative and Reform converts? I suppose hold on as long we can, and if they ever take over Israel, just turn back to the way it was before we had a state. We’ll keep our own records and the separation between the communities will become larger and larger, as it was with the Karaites and the Orthodox for over 1000 years in Europe and the Ottoman Empire. It’s certainly a mess but not of our making. And, most likely, as the Karaites all but disappeared, so will Reform and Conservative. But that will take hundreds of years and be a very depressing state of affairs.

  7. Joshua גדליה חיים Reback
    April 6, 2011 at 7:26 pm #

    I observe Halacha and follow Rabbinic directives. In this situation, the directive was to convert despite the possible lack of necessity. My Rabbis acknowledged I might not have to convert. Since you ASSUME my background is that I am a disingenuous observer of Judaism, it should be enough to know that my Mother’s conversion was conducted by a reputed Conservative Rabbi, whose converts today walk the American streets as fully observant – that means of Halacha – Jews. I KNEW that I could eventually uncover that type of information.

    I will say, that your attitude is much more problematic – not merely from a perspective on mutual respect, but also the ban in Halacha of ona’at devarim – the use of words to abuse a convert. Your response, rather than repudiating me, proves my point.

    What I mean by “experience” is the thorough absorption process I underwent which included regular learning and a strong introduction to Judaism. I gained perspective in the midst of the process on what the mentality of a convert should be, and by extension any Jew.

    In regards to the issue of Kabbalat Mitzvot, it does not hold a candle to brit milah and tevillah as it pertains to the conversion taking effect. It depends on how you define the term – am I accepting on myself the DOING of the mitzvot, or the fact they merely ARE the mitzvot? That is to say, they are the Judaism I am converting to and that these are its imperatives. In other words, I believe this is Judaism and this is real. That analysis is independent of the first interpretation, DOING. If I could remember the exact citation for the Shulchan Aruch, Shach and Taz in and around Yoreh Deah 268, I would cite it for you, but alas I don’t own a copy and it’s 2:22 AM.

    There are responsa which say a convert’s lack of intention to perform mitzvot does not negate his conversion (to put it in a sort of noir way, we all have the right to elect God’s punishments as much as his rewards). More fundamentally, the consensus view has been that the principle “d’varim sh’b’lev ainam d’varim” – “things kept to oneself, don’t exist,” mean that even a false declaration of belief would be inconsequential to the conversion. Intent is impossible to prove, hence we determine true intention by action and not thoughts. Even Maimonides, when giving people an idea of how God might evaluate you on Yom Kippur (Hilkhot Tshuva) would grant credit for a positive mitzvah done without intention while not counting against someone a sin done without intent.

  8. Harpo Jaeger
    April 6, 2011 at 8:52 pm #

    And the award for the most condescending comment ever goes to…David Zarmi!

  9. Robin Margolis
    April 7, 2011 at 1:22 am #

    Dear Friends:

    The Half-Jewish Network has been fighting unjust and exclusionary conversion policies in Israel and the Diaspora for quite a while now. Any descendants of intermarriage who oppose the infamous “who is a Jew?” policies is welcome to visit our website.

    Robin Margolis

  10. annie green
    January 29, 2012 at 2:21 pm #

    Israel does not have a unified conversion policy and this has begun to affect diaspora conversions worldwide, even in America. Communities, seeing this, are becoming more insular and rabbis do not want to involve themselves in conversions lest their conversions and the people they convert be dragged through the mud. I am talking about Orthodox conversions here. An Orthodox conversion in America through proper channels as stated by the Israel rabbinate can be denied in Israel. More and more diaspora Orthodox converts are having trouble making aliyah and being told their diaspora conversions are invalid and only a handful of haredi conversions are acceptable. All this despite the RCcA capitulating to Israel and “streamling” the process in America, all the while making it more bueracratic and less spiritual. Prospective converts are stuck in limbo for years. The very things that were sought to be prevented are happening: some rabbis and batei din are charging thousands of dollars for conversions and turning away those who cannot pay. It’s becoming all about who you know and converts coming in, rarely have connections. Converts, whether in the process now, or having converted 30 or 50 years ago live in rational fear forIs their children and grandchildren. Jews by birth knowledgeable about the current conversion crisis are stigmatizing converts even more in the dating proccess as it seems Israel can revoke conversions at any time for as little as wearing pants or becoming Modern or modern Orthodox. The idea that any conversion can and should be revoked is sticking in the minds of born Jews and leaving converts afloat forever in fear that their own friends and communities can lie about them (has happened) and destroy their Jewish lives. Some have taken it upon themselves to attack converts everywhere and to create suspicion en mass for all no matter who or where they converted. Converts are being turned away in Israel from marriage registrars, away from mikvahs everywhere. The convert is now a second class citizen and its own minority within the minority as converts are matched with converts and families with any conversions in the past (mother, grandmother, greatgrandmother) are matched with others of the same lineage lest the bloodlines become polluted. One day the Interior Ministry controls aliyah by Orthodox converts, the next day it is the rabbinate holding many diaspora Orthodox converts in Israel as illegal aliens while these converts fight for recognition the rabbinate has denied them simply because they do not like their rabbi. Outside of America, the proccess for a conversion can go on for anywhere from five to ten years with no rhyme or reason, dooming female converts to childlessness and spinsterhood. The Jewish community is becoming more insular just as the world becomes more global and access to information about our beautiful religion becomes more readily available. All converts are treated with suspicion. Being turned away three times has become thirty times, has become stringencies that have no halahakhic bearing but merely are rooted in fear and ensuring control and domination of and breaking the convert.

  11. annie green
    January 29, 2012 at 2:34 pm #

    CerIf you think only converts and their families are suffering, you are wrong. Jews by birth who cannot have children are thrown into the same terrible process when the attempt to convert their children Orthodox. Whether the child is an infant, toddler or teen, these childless Jews by birth are put through the same process and stringencies of anyone trying to convert Orthodox. They are (mis)treated like converts themselves. They must sign documents about how they will cover their hair, where they will daven, where they will send their children to school even if their adoptive child is nowhere near ready for school. If they do not abide, no conversion. They must sign on for certain hair coverings, certain shuls, certain schools, certain Orthodox lifestyles if they want their children converted. I have seen some parents dragged right up to bar mitzvah age thrrough this process for their adoptive children.

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