Aliza Hausman is a Latina Orthodox Jewish convert, freelance writer and educator. Currently working on her memoir, she lives in New York with her husband who is pursuing rabbinical ordination.
You can find Aliza blogging at alizahausman.net.
The following opinion piece originally appeared in the May 14th, 2008 issue of the Teaneck, NJ-based paper The Jewish Planet.
Aliza will respond to reactions elicited by the piece in a follow-up post.
A Jew-by-Choice Reacts to the RCA’s New Conversion Standards
By Aliza Hausman
I suppose I should be happy that according to Jewish Week, Rabbi Haskel Lookstein of Manhattan is “on the list.” I should breathe a sigh of relief that in the opinion of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, my conversion is ‘glatt kosher.’ My family won’t have to suffer endless Israeli bureaucratic woes years down the line. At least, that’s the theory. But I worry about the practice.
Two years ago, Rabbi Lookstein’s name was not on the list approved by the Israeli State Conversion Authority, so even though Elie Weinstock, assistant rabbi at Kehilath Jeshurun, thought I was ready to convert, I was conflicted. Pressure from chareidi groups made me question whether my ‘modern Orthodox’ conversion would be accepted everywhere — or at all. In the end, I decided that a halachic conversion was more important than an “approved” one. I would be legally Jewish, but perhaps not in Israel.
In the summer of 2006, prior to my conversion, I studied at an Israeli school for converts. One of only two Orthodox programs that exist, it naturally came highly recommended by the Chief Rabbinate. At such an institution, I expected to find piety and kindness, and while I did learn the ‘dos’ and ‘don’ts’ of halachic Judaism, I also observed a dismaying pattern. The students, each a testament to the tenacity of converts everywhere, were tested in ways that compromised their dignity. One young American woman gave up everything in order to travel to Israel, only to be dismissed from a conversion program where tales of abuse were rampant. A European woman who arrived at the program with her young daughter had been a computer programmer in her previous life; lacking fluency in Hebrew, she took a job as a cleaning lady so that she might stay in Israel and become a Jew.
The level of commitment on the part of prospective converts was not praised; it was ignored — or derided. The American worried about being rejected for saying the wrong thing. After finally completing the prescribed conversion process, the European was asked to make a second trip to the mikvah so that a rabbi from a different camp could perform yet another conversion. Luckily, she had enough knowledge (and emotional strength) to refuse. Both women thought it was laughable that I could convert in the U.S. after just one year of study, while they had been living in limbo for years.
The headmistress of my school told me that by exposing my collarbone or wearing “tight” clothing, in flagrant disobedience of her obsession with modesty chumros [stringencies], I would ruin the Jewish people. It didn’t matter to her that I had wanted to be Jewish since my early teens, when a Holocaust survivor – a guest speaker at my Washington Heights public school – unwittingly offered me an alternative to the Catholicism I’d been raised with. At 13, I reasoned that Judaism must be something special if people were willing to kill you for it. But that summer in Israel, I learned more about the thickness of stockings than I did about halacha [Jewish law].
In Israel, prospective Orthodox converts are forced to prove themselves time and time again. A kernel of dishonesty, of dual identity, begins to grow, as Jews-by-choice find themselves having to toe the ever-shifting line just to survive the conversion process. Later, their “normal” frum [religious] friends assure them, and they assure themselves, they can become the Jew they want to be, not the version of a Jew they’re told they have to be. My friends kept insisting that my school was not representative of all Jewry, but I couldn’t shake the ugly “us versus them” mentality – of Ultra-Orthodoxy versus other strains of Judaism, including the non-Chareidi but observant variety. In a diatribe during our final meeting together, the headmistress of the school likened my Modern Orthodox rabbis, those who had introduced me to the beauty of Torah Judaism, to “dogs.”
Given my background and conversion experience, when the RCA recently capitulated to demands from the Israeli Chief Rabbinate to streamline Orthodox conversions in America, I went numb. Two years ago, at the height of the conflict, my rabbi was not on the list, and thus my conversion was not acceptable in Israel. So it is with skepticism that I read the new Geirus Policy and Standards. This document can be amended in the future “as necessary.” The question is, by whom?
The new standards establish a small number of “objective regional Batei Din” [rabbinic courts] to cover all American conversions. But who will these rabbis represent? While streamlining the process, the new rules threaten to homogenize applicants. Despite an RCA “individuality” clause, new stringencies will turn away righteous gentiles who would otherwise become good, G-d-fearing Jews. The type of prospective and actual convert will change. “Interesting” converts need not apply.
Couples on the cusp of intermarriage who seek a rabbi to help them avoid this situation will be forced away by new bureaucracy. Jewish couples adopting non-Jewish children will balk at converting their children in the face of a thirteen-year commitment to exorbitantly priced Orthodox day school education. Those same parents are not asked to make similar commitments for their Jewish-born children. Children should attend schools that suit them, not the Beit Din.
The Israeli rabbinate has insulted and disempowered congregational rabbis. Most will no longer have the power to convert those they see fit, but will be relegated to the role of ‘sponsor.’ And new guidelines warn such sponsor rabbis to avoid deep early involvement with the prospective convert, because the Beit Din now holds the exclusive power to decide whether the candidate is fit to become a Jew.
I entered the Jewish people embraced by the hope and admiration of rabbis who had helped mold the Jewish person I would become. Now, like new members of an HMO, converts will be handed conversion brochures by rabbis they don’t know. They will share their joyous day at the mikvah with a Beit Din of strangers. While the local rabbi has “raised” the prospective ger [convert] and is the only one who truly knows that person’s soul and whether he or she is ready to be Jewish, it is the Beit Din of strangers that will end up deciding whether someone is ready to follow the path of Avraham Avinu [Abraham our forefather].
Conversion is difficult. Disappointment derives not only from the rabbi who turns you away three times. The community fosters it when they make offhand racist comments, unaware of your ethnic origins. Your non-Jewish family does it when they accuse you of turning your back on their values. Your friends do it when they cut you out of their lives. Your boss reprimands you for taking off work for yet another holiday. And coworkers who you thought were your friends reject you, revealing their own latent anti-Semitism, so perturbed are they by your religiosity. Conversion is not for the insecure.
People forget the sacrifices of the convert. If the problem which led to the constricting new guidelines is that not all the rabbis were on the same page, why not offer more individual rabbinic education to ensure that uniform standards are met? Why create impersonal Batei Din and make the convert’s path more arduous?
Is the Israeli model what we really want to adopt? Why has no one insisted that the Israeli Rabbinate adopt American standards for conversion? Has anyone talked to converts about their views on the current conversion process? Why is policy being created without speaking to the people whom it will affect?
Yes, I want my conversion to affect my grandchildren. I just don’t want the Israeli rabbinate to affect them more. We do not love the ‘stranger’ when we do harm to people born with Jewish souls but to non-Jewish mothers. Geirim [converts] everywhere are questioning their Jewishness and what ramifications the new standards will have down the line. Will the individual convert’s rabbi still be on the list in twenty years? Will these converts ever be accepted as Jews? Or will they remain permanent outsiders, their Jewish identity always in question?
Posted on May 20th, 2008 Filed under: Guest Posts |