Defending RCA’s Conversion Policy
An open letter to Rabbis Mark Angel and Avi Weiss
Regarding “Thou Shalt Not Oppress The Convert,” Opinion online): We write to you with a deep respect for your heart, passion and decades of dedicated service to the Jewish community on many levels.
Once again, however, you have seen fit to attack the Rabbinical Council of America in the media concerning its establishment of “Geirus Protocols and Standards” (GPS), a centralized system for the performance of Orthodox conversions in the United States. We take great exception to your attempt to rewrite history and to accuse us of purposely inflicting pain on the vulnerable. Most problematically, you do so while pursuing an approach that will continue to create problems for sincere converts.
In this most recent attack, you hearken back to the days when “Members of the RCA routinely convened a bet din, or Jewish court, and performed conversion.” You maintain that, “When confirmation of these conversions was requested by rabbis in Israel or America, “the leadership of the RCA would pro forma verify that the RCA rabbis who performed the conversions were members in good standing, knowledgeable and reliable.”
Contrary to these claims which were first made (almost verbatim) in an op-ed in the Jerusalem Post in 2014 and then rebutted by Rabbi Basil Herring (former RCA Executive Vice President), there was never a time when membership in the RCA automatically granted its members pro-forma recognition for private conversions.
Then, as now, while the vast majority of conversions performed by RCA rabbis were accepted in America and Israel, there were conversions that were not accepted. This is confirmed by Rabbi Binyamin Walfish, (executive vice president of the RCA from 1980-1994) who reports: “[It is] not true that we stood behind every [RCA] member for conversion. There were rabbanim who were very angry with me.”
In fact, it is extremely surprising that you, Rabbi Angel and Rabbi Weiss, continue to make these claims because, in 1987, when Rabbi Angel served as a vice president of the RCA, a survey was conducted among RCA membership due to the growing discomfort with conversions performed by some RCA members. That survey confirmed the existence of serious problems including (and we quote directly from the survey report):
1. The running of “factories” where there is a “profit motive” for conversion.
2. In cases of conversion for marriage, pressure exerted on the rabbi from members to convert individuals even in cases where commitment is lacking.
3. Ignorance on the part of some individuals involved in gerut [conversion] as to the proper standards, requirements, and procedures.
As a result of these findings, in 1989, the year before Rabbi Angel assumed the presidency of the RCA and during the time when Rabbi Weiss was an active member; conversion guidelines were distributed to all RCA members. Even more significantly, the decision was made by the RCA executive to establish regional Batei Din [religious courts] or to develop cooperative relationships with existing ones. This decision, as with all subsequent decisions concerning conversion on the RCA’s part, was motivated by a sincere desire to create a system that would protect potential converts from ever having to defend their conversion after-the-fact.
We sincerely believe that potential converts in the United States are best served by a well- functioning uniform but nuanced system that will allow their status be to be unquestioned in the future.
In a letter dated October 4, 1989, the RCA announced: “Geirut procedures which will be approved by the respective Batei Din will automatically receive the imprimatur from the national office. Those conversions which will not be authorized by the regional Beis Din will not be registered at the national office. Consequently, if an inquiry will be made by Israeli or other recognized Batei Din or Rabbonim, the national office will refuse to respond positively regarding the status of the conversion.” By insisting that all conversions performed by RCA members be done so in consultation with regional courts, the RCA moved to protect the converts from subsequent questions concerning their Jewish identity.
Unfortunately, for technical reasons, neither this plan nor a similar plan put forward in 1996 was ever fully implemented. What is clear, however, is that a minority of conversions performed by RCA members could not be pro forma authenticated by the RCA; discomfort was steadily growing due to the vulnerability of specific converts created by these circumstances; and concrete efforts were made by the RCA to remedy the situation.
To claim that all conversions performed by RCA members were automatically accepted prior to the establishment of GPS in 2007 is either a terrible lapse of memory or an egregious attempt to advance an agenda that is more favorable to some rabbis than converts. The attempt to trumpet this in the media reinforces the perception of your politicizing the issue. Similarly, to repeatedly and publicly maintain that the establishment of GPS represents a “capitulation to the Israeli chief rabbinate” ignores the clear historical evidence that this act actually marks the culmination of repeated attempts by the RCA to assume real responsibility for the process of conversion in the United States.
Dear colleagues, instead of yearning for a process that never existed and could certainly not exist today, we should be looking for ways to make conversions in America more compassionate, more reliable, more respected, and more halachically valid. We should be searching for ways to ensure that none of our converts to Judaism will ever be open to after-the-fact scrutiny of their conversions. While we debate lofty goals, the practical concerns of the converts must be uppermost in our minds. We encourage you to speak with us, or turn to the RCA president, Rabbi Shalom Baum, who has been, as were we, open to working with all segments of our community. We recognize that while our GPS system has resolved many problems both with conversions in America and with their acceptance, there is still room for improvement. Therefore, we continue to work to improve GPS not only by listening to rabbis, but to the converts themselves.
We sincerely believe that potential converts in the United States are best served by a well- functioning uniform but nuanced system that will allow their status be to be unquestioned in the future. This, GPS has accomplished. As a recent survey of hundreds of recent converts affirmed, 94 percent of GPS converts chose an RCA Beth Din because of a desire for a “recognized, Orthodox conversion.”
As in the past, questions will naturally arise when rabbis perform conversions outside of the system. This is an unfortunate consequence of anyone functioning outside of an accepted structure. However, we continue to respect the right of every RCA member to perform private conversions when they deem it necessary. We have supported, and will continue to support, any conversion performed by one of our members, whether prior to or after the establishment of GPS, that meets halachic standards. Recently, in fact, we have privately and publicly defended several conversions that were done outside of the GPS system.
We and many others are working diligently to support and protect those who sincerely desire to join our people. By attacking us in the press for these efforts, you inadvertently cause pain and create needless anxiety among these wonderful present and potential converts.
Rabbi Shmuel Goldin | Congregation Ahavath Torah, Englewood, NJ
Rabbi Leonard A. Matanky | Congregation K.I.N.S. of West Rogers Park, IL
Rabbis Goldin and Matanky are both past-presidents of the Rabbinical Council of America. However, this letter represents their own opinion and not necessarily the position of the RCA.