Much public comment and debate have been generated in the wake of the shocking arrest of Rabbi Barry Freundel on deeply disturbing charges of voyeurism, including upon conversion candidates. For its part, the Rabbinical Council America (RCA) promptly moved to announce the formation of a committee that I will chair to review its Geirus Policies and Standards (GPS), the guidelines that govern its network of conversion courts. As this committee begins its deliberations, it is important to provide the greater Jewish community with appropriate context and perspective for this important initiative.
Before the creation of GPS in 2006, Orthodox conversions in America were largely performed by local rabbis and ad hoc batei din (religious courts). Such conversions were generally accepted on the basis of the convening rabbi’s reputation. As the Orthodox community matured, however, and as questions were raised concerning specific conversions, many rabbis and other community leaders believed that a more formal structure for Orthodox conversion in the United States had become necessary. After much deliberation, the RCA, in conjunction with the Beth Din of America, decided to establish a formal network of conversion courts. Such a move, it was felt, would better serve the needs of everyone involved in the conversion process by standardizing procedures and expectations, reasonably ensuring worldwide acceptance of conversions granted and protecting local rabbis from pressure to perform inappropriate conversions, among other benefits.
Many other rabbis, including myself, questioned this decision at the time. Conversion is, after all, a deeply personal process, ultimately dependent upon the trust established between the convert and his or her rabbi. We believed that the creation of a network of formal courts would depersonalize the process by adding another layer of bureaucracy. We were very concerned that rabbis who had not developed a relationship with candidates over time would not be suited to properly determine their readiness for conversion.
It turns out that we were partially correct. These concerns, however, were a small price to pay for the overwhelming benefits created by GPS.
Thanks to the extraordinary efforts and deep dedication of numerous rabbis across the country, most acting as unpaid volunteers, more than 1,200 individuals have successfully converted to Judaism through local courts that adhere to GPS. Overwhelmingly, the GPS process has been smooth and candidates have been treated with great dignity and sensitivity.
The personal relationships between converts and their rabbis have been, in large measure, preserved through the vehicle of a “sponsoring rabbi” who serves as the convert’s mentor and his or her eventual advocate before the court. The autonomy of local courts has been maintained, yet regular meetings between representatives of these courts has allowed for a measure of centralized coordination. The relationship between the RCA and the Israeli Chief Rabbinate has been strengthened, ensuring acceptance of GPS conversions. Additionally, those who choose to convert outside the GPS system can still find individual Orthodox rabbis willing to perform independent conversions.
Nonetheless, no system is perfect and a network dealing with matters as sensitive as the life-changing issues surrounding conversion is bound to encounter complex challenges. In the eight years since GPS was established, some complaints have emerged concerning various aspects of how it functions. The RCA leadership has felt for some time, therefore, that an objective review of GPS was needed to ensure that we are serving conversion candidates in the best way possible, without compromising halachic standards.
It is against this backdrop that the tragic events in Washington unfolded, revealing how even a well-intentioned system can be abused. Operating under the aegis of GPS, the Av Beth Din (rabbinic court chair) of the Washington, D.C., court, had allegedly been guilty of grave excesses of which the RCA and the Beth Din of America had been unaware. It is true, as we have already publicly made clear, that specific concerns surrounding Rabbi Freundel’s dealing with converts had surfaced in the past — concerns which we had dealt with under rabbinic and legal guidance. It is also true that no one could have predicted the extent or gravity of the actions that ultimately led to Rabbi Freundel’s arrest. Nevertheless, the arrest and its aftermath convinced us that oversight within GPS can and must be improved.
While the alleged actions of one rabbi clearly do not reflect on the exemplary character of the vast majority of the rabbinic community, responsible action must be taken by the RCA to maintain the integrity of the GPS system.
The resulting GPS review committee’s mandate is at once straightforward and daunting: to conduct a thorough review of the current structure and procedures of GPS in order to “identify changes that will lead to a more effective and appropriate conversion process,” while maintaining the halachic standards for which GPS has become known. The committee has been carefully selected to represent the spectrum of viewpoints that characterize today’s Orthodox community. Comprised of both men and women, its membership includes converts, mental health professionals, rabbis and other community leaders. Each committee member is deeply committed to working with those involved in GPS towards further ensuring the dignified and appropriate treatment of all who approach our doors.
The experience of conversion inexorably creates an unequal relationship. A potential convert is deeply dependent upon rabbinical aegis to help effect a fundamental, life-altering decision. A successful convert remains reliant upon the community as a whole for acceptance and integration. Nonetheless, a true understanding of Jewish law reveals the opposite, as well: the Jewish community also remains dependent upon its converts. No mitzvah in the Torah is repeated more often than the commandment of Ahavat HaGer, literally “love of the convert.” When we are called to our ultimate reckoning, God will clearly judge us on how well we dealt with his precious population of righteous Jews — individuals who, against great odds, voluntarily choose to join His “Chosen People.” May God grant us the strength and the wisdom to pass that eventual test.
Rabbi Shmuel Goldin is past president of the Rabbinical Council of America and rabbi of Congregation Ahavath Torah in Englewood, N.J.