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Jewess » Guest Post: A Jewess-by-Choice Reacts to the RCA’s New Conversion Standards

Guest Post: A Jewess-by-Choice Reacts to the RCA’s New Conversion Standards


by Guest

aliza6.jpgAliza 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?

15 Responses to “Guest Post: A Jewess-by-Choice Reacts to the RCA’s New Conversion Standards”

  1. Good for you for addressing this issue in such a thoughtful way, and thank you. In my (converted) opinion, the spiteful shenanigans of the particular Israeli body in question belie its authority. They appear to serve no interest but consolidating their own power and authority. This nonsense of “retroactive de-conversion” is nothing but shameful back-door excommunication by the aspiring tin-pot theocratic dictators that plague Israel today. Haven’t the US and other countries in the Middle East provided ample admonition of the dangers of religious fundamentalists hijacking the state? Guh, don’t get me started.

  2. As a male, I guess I gravitate towards sports, so here’s a conversion tale:

    [Israel] has been stirred by allegations that American players have secured unkosher conversions to Judaism in order to play professional hoops there. Each of Israel’s 12 pro teams is allowed to sign one foreign player a year, but many Americans evade the rules by becoming Israeli citizens. The easiest way for a gentile to obtain citizenship is to convert or to marry a Jew and now the government claims some teams have been recruiting non-Jewish Americans and arranging quickie conversions for them.

    Such chicanery is apparently a recent development. Americans began playing pro ball in Israel in the mid-’60s, and most of the early ones were Jews. Non-Jewish whites followed without much trouble. Then came non-Jewish blacks. One of them, Aulcie Perry, a 6′ 11″ veteran of the ABA, converted to Judaism without fuss and is now a hero in Israel, where he’s called Alisha Ben-Abraham.

    The cases of two other American players, Philip Dailey and Chris Rankin, aroused the ire of the Ministry of the Interior. Dailey and Rankin arrived in Israel in 1982 brandishing conversion certificates signed by three Milwaukee rabbis. Coincidentally or not, their team, Maccabi Petach Tikvah, generously donated $6,000 to the rabbis’ synagogue. But the documents were invalidated when somebody in the ministry noticed that they’d been dated four years before the alleged conversions took place. Undeterred, the team tried to smuggle Dailey and Rankin in again by marrying them to a couple of matronly women, both 30 years their senior. The players were shipped home.

    The furor over Dailey and Rankin eventually led investigators to 6′ 9″ John Irving, who was born a Baptist in Baton Rouge and played college hoops at Hofstra in the mid-’70s, leading the nation in rebounding as a sophomore. But Irving never quite reached the NBA. Instead, he drifted off to play pro ball in Europe. Three years ago he resurfaced in a Brooklyn gym, where an Israeli pro team recruited him. “Do you want to play basketball in Israel?” Irving was asked. “And would you like to be a Jew?” Sure, he said.

    Irving says he was sent to a rabbi in Manhattan. The Rabbi handed Irving a book entitled What Is a Jew?, asked him some perfunctory questions and told him to come back in a few days. On Irving’s next visit, the rabbi talked to him for I 0 minutes, shook his hand and said, “Welcome to Judaism.” Conversion papers were signed, entitling Irving to citizenship under Israel’s “law of return” and the right to play basketball in the pro league. Next stop, the Promised Land.
    http://www.whoisajew.com/footnotes.htm

    You don’t play basketball, by any chance, do you?

  3. Yisrael -
    Good story! And it gives me pleasure to know that not only does Israel provide a haven for Jews around the world but also to C-list American basketball players.

  4. Aliza,

    First, Yasher Koach on such a journey as you have traveled.

    My conversion was warm, inspiring and loving as the Rabbi who “raised”me. It was over a year of learning( and screwing up) until I felt so at home lighting Sabbath candles, of obseving sukkot and reading the prayers on the bimah, that it was like a second nature. My Catholic family accepted this decision, and me, since it was my decision and are learning right along with me. Even learned and became Bat Mitzvah at the ripe age of 48, 18 months after that conversion.

    As a Conservative Jew, I am more concerned about who says one is ( or isn’t) a Jew, since I read/hear stories that we ( I believe the term is masortim) are not even WELCOME in Israel, which was not the intention of the founders. But I feel for those many thousands of gerim, in Israel, who live Jewish, love Jewish, raise children to be Jewish only who are now told ” Nope, NOT Jewish enough” by a small group of zealots.

    C-list hoopsters converting to play are more welcome than a Conservative Jewish Convert in Israel? Esta lamentable!

  5. Shalom Alizam,

    As another Jew By Choice I think there can only be one criteria: is any convert, any Jew, Jewish enough to have been sent to the ovens?

    Anything else is politics, ego and power games.

    B’shalom,

    Jeff Hess

  6. Thank you so much for sharing your story with us. It’s troubling that the ultra-strict approach is what converts are kept to, but not those of us born into it.
    This reminds me of a couple I know who recently announced their engagement. They’re both active members of the Jewish community (but not Orthodox), and they’re thinking of getting married in Israel. But in order to get married in Israel, they have to ‘prove’ that they’re Jewish. This brought up stories from others who talked about relatives needing to dig up old documents and find grave stone to prove that they were Jewish enough to get married in Israel. oy.

  7. Let me interject here on R’s comment: The new US immigration law permits now grandchildren of American citizens who were born abroad to children of those grandparents to become a US citizen (previously, my child, born in Israel, could be registered as an American citzien but his/her progeny could not.

    However, in order to go through the process, I have been going through all my life’s documnetation to prove that I was resident of the US and a citizen for such-and-such years: birth certificate, circumcision certificate (yes, I have one), high school diploma, university diploma, passports, change of name authorization/certificate, etc.

    Sound familiar? Like to proving you’re Jewish? Let’s not get carried away here. And let me blunt: just like I personally wouldn’t trust a hechsher certificate for the kashrut of Cham Yankel’s salami from a Conservative or Reform or Reconstructionist Rabbi but only an Orthodox one, so, too, I would accept one as having been converted only if he/she was recognized by an Orthodox beit din. Plain and simple. It just so happens that such matters, in Israel, are state-affiliated but that’s what a Jewish country is all about.

  8. BS”D

    to Yisrael Medad

    with all due respect, your posts are so far from the subject matter of the article that one has to wonder if you read past the headline, or if you simply saw the words ‘a Jew-by-choice reacts…” and chose to step up on a well-worn soap box.
    Aliza went through an Orthodox conversion. She is al pi halachic a Jew, and committed to observing the halacha, as interpreted by Orthodox rabbis. her husband is studying to be an Orthodox rabbi.

    and no, she did not go to Israel to play basketball.

    The problem with the RCA accepting the bullying of an Israeli government office which has consistently violated halacha in the way it conducts itself- in particular in regard to conversions- (having been present at more than one I can tell you the scene at Rabbinut mikvahs is just that, with men clad only in towels racing up and down hallways and ‘mikvek ladies’ who don’t even pretend to check for loose hairs or any other potential barriers which might render the immersion invalid, and mikvehs so close to the bare minmum in depth that one wonders whether the last person to immerse on any given day is actually immersing in the required number of se’ahs)- is that genuinely valid conversions conducted by genuinely frum rabbis, with gerim who learn, understand, and are committed to halacha and who have a deep love of the Jewish people and Torah will be invalidated by the RCA while assembly line conversions in both Israel and the US will be recognized, even- perhaps- in cases where they match neither the letter nor the spirit of the law.
    and the lack of personal involvement on the part of the rabbis will simply make it more difficult for gerim to learn all that they need to know, and easier for people with dubious motives to slip through.
    the Israeli rabbinut is not in a position to set the halachic standards for anyone. Most frum Jews wouldn’t eat meat under their hechsher- should we allow them a say in anything as central to Jewish continuity as the question who is or isn’t a Jew?

  9. Chana, I am mixed up. Are you referring to me? For I was responding in my last comment about the need to prove, as Rachel had mentioned. Proof by me means an Orthodox conversion. And I think that I was not specifically linking a proper conversion to Israel per se. In fact, when I did mention Israel, I pointed out that its uniqueness (in addition to low water levels in mikva’ot - although in my experience, that is not true as a rule but, hey, you picks your water hole, you gets your depth) is the link between state and religion. As for the basketball comment way up at the beginning (oh, maybe you didn’t get to read my second comment?), it pointed out the foibles of Rabbis who, well, certain Rabbis (just as at times certain Prime Ministers), will prefer money instead of mitzvot. I wasn’t referring directly to Aliza - can’t you read? I was writing about the woeful state of conversion, so actually, you are agreeing with me. So, you see, if you had gotten past what you viewed as my ‘headlines’, you would have understood better.

    And just to be personal, in 1971-72, I did my first accompaniment of a giyoret through most of the process - no, I wasn’t in a towel at the Mikvah, I just coached and helped with the Halachic knowledge test. She was an Italian Catholic from Brooklyn and passed with flying colors.

    Better try next time if you are intent on cutting someone up, unnecessarily.

  10. Oh, and as for you assertment: “Most frum Jews wouldn’t eat meat under their (Israel’s) hechsher” - Hechsherim for the past few centuries have always been problematic mainly because of money (although the controversy started by the Chassidim over additionally sharpened knives, in addition to financail aspects also was based on Kabbalah) but frummers know that better than me for there are maybe 15 different hechsherim in Israel and maybe a dozen more than that in the US - which one (or three) do you trust? So why is the Rabbanut’s hechsher the only untrustworthy one? Methinks you are more biased than knowledgeable but I may be wrong so don’t take this personally (you didn’t mean your comment personally either did you - or are you frum and don’t care about such bein adam l’chevero matters?)

  11. And after checking, I see that you, Chana, are Chabad. Well, that explains a lot.

  12. BS”D

    Yisrael,

    Perhaps you should double check your own comments. You began with a story about sham conversions by basketball players and then , in a later post, assert that you would only accept Orthodox conversions- altogether it adds up to the implication- with or without the inappropriate ‘joking’ stab at the end of post one- that you are assuming Aliza is protesting the RCA’c decision to toe the line set by the rabbinut because she prefers that less Orthodox conversions be validated.
    BTW- it is not a Chabad issue. Many, if not most, Jews in Israel have issues with the rabbinut- from the left, right, and center of every spectrum. The chareidim have long organized their own beitei dinim for marriage and conversion, the dati leumi have been at odds with them since they issued a ruling forbidding soldiers to refuse immoral orders, many people- even those who call themselves ‘masorti’ question the allowance of chalav achum in milchig products (considered ok by some regional branches of the rabbinut, not sure where they got that heter from), and Jews who consider themselves secular often go to Cyprus or elsewhere to get married without having to deal with the rabbinut. Though many of the dayanim themselves are erlich rabbonim, the institution is, unfortunately, a bit of a bane. and the fact that they recognize a particular rabbi as being ‘authorized’ to do conversions, while not recognizing others, says absolutely nothing about the qualifications of any of the rabbonim in question.

  13. CK wrote: “you are assuming Aliza is protesting the RCA’c decision to toe the line set by the rabbinut because she prefers that less Orthodox conversions be validated.” Nope. Not at all. That is your presumption of me. Sorry, but you’re wrong there. I did not relate to her at all but commented on the state of some Rabbis who get involved in conversions. I think you misinterpreted me. Tam v’lo nislam.

  14. Hi Aliza, my name is Ana and I want to tell you thank you for all the u write, is so helpful for me, I”am a Spanish woman like u trying to convert, I have many meeting with orthodox rabbis and they tell me that they are going to help me finding a sponsor rabbi to teach me, 7 months had done after that and I didn’t get nobody yet, I don’t know if u can help me, I live in Teaneck new jersey. Thank you hashem bless you. Ana pamela

  15. Thank you for sharing your story. As a Jew by choice under Reform auspices, I was interested in your reasons for converting (very similar to mine, although I am much older), and I was touched by the honesty with which you tell of your experiences. Reading your story as well as that of one of your commentators (Ana), I worry about the difficulties and obstacles that people interested in pursuing Judaism face. Our traditions are so amazing, that it saddens me that “we” seem to make it so difficult for people to approach us and to learn more about who we are — in all the incredible variations — and what our traditions have to offer. In any event, thank you so much, and best wishes for the new year.

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