The recent arrest of an Orthodox rabbi in Washington, who was charged with having watched women showering via a hidden camera installed at the mikvah, or ritual bath, at his synagogue, has drawn attention to the challenges faced by potential converts to Judaism. The scandal put a spotlight on the near-total control exercised by the rabbi over converts into the Jewish faith. The system lacks oversight. It leaves those wanting to become Jews vulnerable to exploitation.
The Jewish tradition has shunned the proselytizing propensities of our Abrahamic cousins, Christianity and Islam, but in doing so, it has seemed, to some, to embrace an ethos of exclusion. The fact that anyone with the drive and perspicacity to convert is allowed to do so is one of the most important checks on the Jewish conception of chosenness; being Jewish is not a genetic condition, but a complex hierarchy of identity and choice.
In theory, Judaism is an inclusive religion that is willing to welcome individuals who desire to become Jewish. The reality is far more complicated. The Israeli chief rabbinate rejects conversions it deems un-Orthodox. This includes Jews of less strict streams, like the Reform and Conservative movements in the United States, and also some Orthodox converts around the world.
Not long ago, Israel passed legislation that intended to make Jewish conversions less difficult. The bill’s final form, however, gave the chief rabbinate control over the approval of all conversion certificates; this compromise will result only in more bureaucratic mix-ups and disagreements about the converts’ legitimacy — and their right to invoke the Law of Return, by which countless Jews have found safe haven and refuge in Israel.
The Rabbinical Council of America, which oversees Orthodox conversions, strictly adheres to the chief rabbinate’s standards. For example, unmarried conversion candidates are often required to refrain from dating until their conversion is approved, a process that can take years. Many candidates are required to move to Orthodox neighborhoods and enroll their children in full-time private Jewish day schools — a formidable financial obstacle.
The difficulties faced by those yearning to convert is especially painful for me. This is because my father is Jewish, while my mother is Christian. I converted — twice. After learning the traditional significance placed on matrilineal lineage, I underwent a liberal conversion as an adolescent. Later I underwent a rigorous Orthodox conversion.
I chose not to share my journey previously because I am now an Orthodox rabbi and, unfortunately, Jews by choice are sometimes perceived as being less authentic or authoritative than those who are Jewish from birth. Many feel shame and choose not to reveal that they are converts out of fear of having their, and their descendants’, status and credentials questioned. As a teenager, I recall breaking down in tears during my first trip to Israel when others questioned my Jewish status. I was interrogated with the most personal questions about my beliefs, practices and relationships, by strangers who controlled my religious destiny; I felt powerless to challenge them.
Current trends in Orthodox conversion are all in the wrong direction: Converts have to wait longer; their prior conversions are questioned; they are made to convert again before marriage; they are encouraged to distance themselves from non-Jewish relatives. While each rabbi needs the freedom to lead locally, there also need to be integrity boards to provide training and oversight, and serious standards for both the convert and the community. The legal standard for entry should be made more inclusive, and the standard for education and support made more rigorous.
The process needs to be performed with transparent expectations and timelines, no financial cost, greater respect for personal privacy, increased women’s leadership, broader ethical and spiritual parameters for eligibility and fair treatment of all candidates. Embracing a more pluralistic approach to Jewish identity requires a break from bureaucratic central authorities.
A small group of homogeneous Orthodox authorities, continuing to pursue more stringent requirements to the detriment of the wider and more diverse Jewish community, should not have the unchecked power to determine who can be a Jew. Nor should candidates need to fly across the country to meet a religious court because local authorities are not deemed worthy of handling the conversion. This grants too much authority to national and regional centralized powers and puts the inclusive nature of Judaism at risk. When a convert emerges from the mikvah, he or she should feel uplifted by a process of inclusion and holiness, not deflated by alienation and degradation.
Converts, like immigrants, should feel pride about their journeys and be viewed as courageous for responding to their transformative calling. Deuteronomy tells us, “You shall love the stranger as you were strangers in Egypt.” No other commandment is more essential to the moral destiny of the Jewish people.
Shmuly Yanklowitz, an Orthodox rabbi, is executive director of Valley Beit Midrash, an adult education and leadership development program, and president of Uri L’Tzedek, a social justice group.