August 22, 2005

Conversion American Style

The evacuation from Gaza is still going on as I write so I’d rather let the dust settle before I deal with it.

I am returning to the issue of conversion because the refusal by the London Beth Din and Chief Rabbinate to accept conversions carried out in Israel and elsewhere continues to rumble on and get worse. We Jews it seems have an amazing capacity to take a perfectly good and sensible religion and turn it into a total laughingstock.

Yet in the United States of America someone seems to have got it right and is actually trying to do something positive about it. The following advert has been appearing there in the Orthodox Press these past few weeks:


Not Every Intermarried Couple is Lost Forever

What happens when an intermarried couple decides that the non-Jewish spouse should have a universally accepted conversion?

Inaugural Conference on the Issues Pertaining
to Conversion in an Intermarriage

An unprecedented conference of Orthodox rabbis involved in outreach who wish to learn the halachic standards for universally accepted conversions.

Highlights of the conference:

The need for sensitivity when dealing with conversion in intermarriage

How universally accepted conversion can change families

Life after conversion: the community, the synagogue and the family

Addressed by the foremost halachic authorities and leading Gedolei HaTorah, including Harav Reuven Feinstein, Rosh Yeshiva, etc., etc.

All hotel, airfare and necessary costs for rabbis attending will be paid for.

So whereas London in particular seems to have adopted an unsympathetic and hard line, thank goodness other Orthodox communities take a different line. And it must be said that, almost universally, the American Orthodox attitude is pretty sympathetic, so long as there is a reasonable willingness to take on Jewish practice regardless of the original motivation.

But here’s an illustration of everything that’s wrong with the current British position. Quite coincidentally, the following email was sent to me via the popular Jewish web site, www.somethingjewish.co.uk:

Dear Rabbi,

I converted to Judaism in 1990, in London, taking lessons and supervision through the Orthodox community. At the time I was advised to do it this way, as I wanted to live with my then-boyfriend (who is now my husband of 15 years) in Israel. I was told never to tell anyone that the reason I wanted to convert was to marry.

I went through almost two years of suffering, being charged extortionate fees for tuition and frankly taken advantage of as a babysitter to the Orthodox family with whom I studied, a Shabbat goy and horrible experiences that I will not go into here. Quite frankly, instead of being introduced to the beauty and depth that is the Jewish faith, I was left feeling sad, empty and used. I eventually converted in Israel, after my future father-in-law "had a word" with his rabbi. You can imagine how frustrating and angry that makes me feel.

I am now married for 15 years and the mother of two sons. I harbour an extreme resentment towards the system through which I was converted, so much so, in fact, that I actually regret doing it at all.

Please can you explain to me why people with true and sincere intentions to convert get used in this way and also, if there is a way I can reverse my conversion?

I look forward to your reply with interest.

Mrs. C.K.


Now where do I begin?

Shall I comment on the sad state of a religion that it feels the need to encourage hypocrisy and humiliate people whose error was to fall in love with the wrong person and to assume they would receive an honest and fair hearing? Yes, the halacha requires us initially to warn potential converts of the demands and difficulties of leading a religious life, but it nowhere requires us to be rude, offensive, insensitive and downright obstructive. Certainly it does not require us to submit potential converts to humiliation and suffering.

We encourage lies and deception. "Don’t tell the truth, otherwise if you let out that there’s a Jewish partner in the background you’re sunk. So lie!" And, sadly, I know of several people who have done just that to get away with it.

I am not for one minute suggesting we make conversion an open farce. The halacha as it stands is fair and reasonable and does not exclude people married to or seeking to marry Jews from trying to convert, so long as they have come to really love and admire Judaism and a Jewish way of life. It is we who have made things unreasonable by being so rigidly offensive and restrictive.

Do I need to say how embarrassed and ashamed I am that as a result of our rigidity we have opened up a black market that allows corrupt rabbis to convert vulnerable or rich people for money, and thereby mislead many potentially wonderful new adherents to Torah? Is this religious behavior to be proud of?

As the correspondent has pointed out, all her experiences have done is to create anger and antagonism. And it could so easily have been avoided without in any way compromising Jewish Law.

Yet it must be said that if one blames the whole of a religion and comes to hate it solely on the basis of the behavior of some very, very poor examples, then one is bound to wonder what the nature of the original intention was. I agree that if someone retroactively shows no interest in living a Jewish life, the conversion is not worth the paper it was written on. But if we are responsible for pushing a woman to desperation, then we must share the blame.

I believe it to be a crushing condemnation of our religious leadership that it seems incapable of being sensitive and flexible on so many issues. Even if on occasion it speaks fine words of tolerance and universalism, somehow when it comes down to practice it is as narrow-mindedly petty and exclusive as the least enlightened examples of religious leadership anywhere.

Mrs C.K. doesn’t need to "undo" her conversion and leave Judaism. She was never really there. But her pain and anger is our reproach. Why the heck can’t Anglo Jewry follow the American example?

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