Post-Freundel, New ‘Gold Standard’ For Conversion
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Post-Freundel, New ‘Gold Standard’ For Conversion

In response to mikvah scandal, committee urges sensitizing rabbis to conversion students’ concerns.

Hannah Dreyfus is a staff writer at the New York Jewish Week. She covers abuses of power in non-profit and religious settings. She heads up the Investigative Journalism Fund, an initiative to fill a gap in investigative and enterprise reporting. Reach her at hannah@jewishweek.org

Two months after the sentencing of mikvah-voyeur Rabbi Barry Freundel, the Orthodox community’s leading rabbinical council has released what it calls the new “gold standard” for preventing rabbinic abuses of power during the conversion process.

The 22-page report was prepared by a special committee chosen last fall, made up of 11 members, including five women – two of whom are converts to Judaism. It seeks to improve the Rabbinical Council of America’s Geirus Protocol and Standards (GPS) conversion process that, ironically, was implemented by Rabbi Freundel in 2007. Though the GPS process initially sought to standardize and centralize conversion procedures, it allowed breaches in the system to go unchecked, the report notes.

“Don’t make the mistake of thinking the crime was just about the cameras,” said Bethany Mandel, a convert and one of the members of the review committee. “Freundel was abusing his power long before that.”

Aside from his crimes of voyeurism, the rabbi employed seemingly arbitrary benchmarks for assessing a candidate’s readiness for conversion, and was vague about how long the conversion process would take. The report found that Freundel was not alone in causing potential converts to feel unsettled about a lack of precise requirements and timetables.

A primary goal of the GPS review was improve the conversion experience based on the experiences of converts while maintaining halachic standards. According to RCA executive vice president Rabbi Mark Dratch, the report marks the beginning of a new era.

“This is the first time the stakeholders themselves are deeply involved in the process,” he said, referring to the converts on the committee as well as the 835 Jews by choice and conversion candidates who were surveyed. “We learned the most from looking at this through their eyes.”

The report included several recommendations, including increased transparency of expectations for converts; additional training for sponsoring rabbis to sensitize them to conversion students’ concerns; support for converts during and after the process; a mechanism to deal with concerns and complaints; exploring the possibility of establishing more beit dins around the country; and hiring a full-time RCA employee committed to national oversight of the process.

Though the report was “just step one,” Rabbi Dratch said attention is already being directed towards the “implementation phase.” Details are not yet set but the RCA aims to appoint an implementation committee, with many of the same members from the review committee, he said.

Additionally, increased standards of modesty will be enforced at local mikvahs, robes and other pre-immersion coverings will be mandatory, and in the case of female converts, another woman will always be present, according to the rabbi. (The survey found that 78 percent of converts in the RCA-Beth Din of America network are women, and the peak years for conversion are ages 20 to 29.)

“Involving converts in the process gave us an important new perspective, and we gave them a voice,” said Rabbi Lenny Matanky, president of he RCA. “I view the entire review as a major accomplishment.”

Still, though the GPS review is widely seen as a significant step forward, the report has rekindled debate over a return to conversions performed by local rabbis versus the centralized system of 12 regional bet dins around the country, which the RCA maintains.

“Power in the hands of the few has several pitfalls,” said Rabbi Adam Starr, a member of the GPS Bet Din in Atlanta, Ga., and a member of the review committee.

In some ways the discussion here about keeping a centralized system or broadening the process mirrors the debate in Israel. On Sunday, the Israeli cabinet repealed a measure intended to decentralize the process and allow regional rabbis to establish local conversion courts. The move, which was supposed to make conversion more approachable for tens of thousands of Israelis who have Jewish ancestry but are not considered halachically Jewish, signaled the renewed clout of charedi parties in the ruling coalition formed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Rabbi Seth Farber, founder of Itim, an independent advocacy group that helps people navigate the Orthodox bureaucracy in Israel, said that while the GPS review is a positive step, it failed to address the larger issues at the core of conversion reform. He referred to the initial implementation of the GPS system in 2007 as a “huge error for the future of Orthodoxy in America.”

“If conversion is one solution to intermarriage, than it is an embarrassing statistic that only 1,300 candidates have converted to Judaism through the GPS process,” he said, noting the report’s additional qualifying statistic that 45 percent of the converts surveyed already had Jewish ancestry. “I speculate that GPS has undermined the conversion process for hundreds of Orthodox hopefuls by taking the power to perform acceptable conversions away from local rabbis.”

He said that each week at Itim “people come to me because their conversions are being questioned.”

Though not responding directly to Farber’s comments, Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, chair of the review committee and honorary president of the RCA, said that though he was once skeptical of the GPS network because of the added layer of bureaucracy it imposed, interviewing converts led him to appreciate the system’s “tremendous benefits.”

“Converts want a degree of clear acceptability, above all else,” he said. “They want to know that once converted, they won’t be questioned.” He described meeting with converts in Washington, D.C., directly after Rabbi Freundel was arrested in October 2014. “The first thing they wanted to know was the status of their conversions,” he said.

Rabbi Avi Weiss and Rabbi Marc Angel, frequent critics of the RCA’s centralized conversion system, wrote last fall that it causes emotional distress, overly strict standards, and ultimately fewer converts. (Rabbi Weiss has allowed his RCA membership to lapse, in part because of this issue.)

Acknowledging such criticism, Rabbi Goldin said the GPS review, pending implementation of the committee’s recommendations, will “cut down the negative dimensions of a system that largely works.” He noted that among the converts surveyed, it was a minority who experienced problems.

For the two female converts who were part of the review committee, the focus remained firmly on improving the current reality rather than overturning the system.

Evelyn Fruchter, an attorney, convert and member of the review committee, said that she does not take a position about whether a centralized system for managing conversions should exist or not. For her, the operating question was how to improve the existing GPS system. “If we take for granted that the system is needed, how do we make it work?” she said. “The RCA needs to be prepared to meet the duty of care associated with operating this system.”

With regard to the survey results from converts, Fruchter said as a general matter the data “didn’t reveal problems that weren’t self-evident.”

Bethany Mandel, the other convert on the committee, said that although many of its recommendations seem obvious, like respect for punctuality and empathy between sponsoring rabbi and convert, these basic courtesies were not always taking place.

“One-third of the converts surveyed described feeling ‘vulnerable,’ ‘powerless,’ or ‘judged critically’ during discussions with the conversion court,” she said. “That’s not OK. Why did less than half of converts feel any sense of ‘encouragement’ or ‘empathy’ from the court? It shouldn’t be that way.”

For Mandel, knowing her work on the review committee will improve the conversion process has been a source of comfort. “I signed up for this,” she said, “with the explicit understanding that we can make a positive difference for the next convert.”

editor@jewishweek.org

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