By Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried
Dear Rabbi Fried,
Thank you for your very direct and brave response to the sad and ugly allegations against a rabbi in Washington, D.C., and that you didn’t shy away from taking it straight on. There has been a very different, but, I believe, additional response from one of that rabbi’s converts, Bethany Mandel, in which she has drawn up a “Bill of Rights for Jewish converts.” In this piece, she outlines 10 issues which face conversion candidates or those in the process, claiming they are afraid of the rabbis, feel victimized, threatened and judged. I, personally, think she’s right on, and have heard similar claims from women in the process. If you haven’t seen this yet, you can look up her piece and numerous responses online. Are you involved in conversion and what is your opinion on what she claims?
— Brittany K.
As the chairman of the Dallas Conversion Court (Orthodox), and the author of a comprehensive work on conversion to Judaism, I have given much thought to the questions Ms. Mandel raises. I believe her claims are honest expressions of her genuine feelings during her conversion process and also the journeys of those with whom she has spoken. Some of her comments are truly thought-provoking points which should awaken any rabbi involved in this process to re-think how our candidates feel during this very difficult and stressful time. A number of points she raises, such as the feeling of persistent limbo, have been on my mind for years and is an on-going discussion between our rabbis and the candidates. I am saddened by the lack of empathy and level of insensitivity which she describes in certain communities and with certain rabbis, and am glad that much of that, as far as I can see, does not exist or not at that level here in Dallas; although I believe all of us can always do better.
As we are limited by space, I will address this Ms. Mandel’s first point. She complains that during their process prospective converts are not told how long it will take, keeping them in a constant state of limbo in many areas of life. She describes the psychological torture of not knowing if it will take days, months or years and nobody to answer that question, putting lives on hold for dating, marriage, jobs and the like for an indeterminate period of time.
I, personally, don’t know of any reputable conversion court that keeps its candidates in the dark to the tune of not knowing if it will take days, months or years! That is not to say there aren’t some insensitive rabbis out there who may be doing so, which would, indeed, be deplorable. We inform a new candidate that the process will probably take around two years, give or take a few months. Ms. Mandel claims that a candidate deserves at least a rough estimate, and that we do provide. At the same time we also explain to the candidates that they will need to have patience and fortitude, because the candidates will nearly always feel they are ready before the court feels the same.
This is a process that does not lend itself to pre-arranged, specific dates of completion. It is also not a graduation from a course that grants automatic rights to finish the process upon completion of a certain course of study. This goes to the crux of the process and what conversion is in traditional Jewish thought. What is the conversion process?
It is the belief of traditional Judaism that when one converts, he or she is not the same person as before with, simply a new commitment to a new belief system. The traditional sources of Jewish law and thought teach that when a gentile converts to Judaism they actually become a new person and are endowed with a Jewish soul. For this to happen they not only learn the material necessary to conduct themselves in a new way of life, they need to undergo a complete transformation. They need to become a worthy receptacle to be sanctified with a Jewish soul and become linked to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and thousands of years of Jewish tradition. For this reason no two people are alike, no two people study at the same rate or can go through this transformation based on a pre-arranged set time. It needs to be a natural, unpretentious and wholesome process of inner change, and is very individualistic.
All that being said, Ms. Mandel’s point is well-taken, not to change the process itself, but for the rabbis to focus more on communication with the candidates and giving them the opportunity to express their frustrations with the difficulties of being in this state, and providing more helpful and comforting guidance.
Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried, noted scholar and author of numerous works on Jewish law, philosophy and Talmud, is founder and dean of DATA, the Dallas Kollel. Questions can be sent to him at email@example.com.