Jewish Action writer Yehudit Garmaise speaks with Rebbetzin Abby Lerner about those who embark upon the arduous journey of conversion
Rebbetzin Abby Lerner serves as the first national director of conversion services for GPS (Geirus Policies and Standards), the network of conversion courts established in 2008 to serve communities throughout North America. In this role, Rebbetzin Lerner supports candidates through the process of conversion, answering questions, addressing concerns, and acting as a liaison to the batei din. The Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) oversees the batei din and sets standards for the more than 200 Orthodox conversions that take place every year in the United States. Prior to this position, Rebbetzin Lerner taught limudei kodesh at Yeshiva University High School for Girls in Queens, New York, for nearly three decades. She currently also serves as the rebbetzin of the Young Israel of Great Neck, New York.
Jewish Action: It is no secret that your position was created in the aftermath of a highly publicized abuse case that involved converts. What do you think is the most effective weapon in preventing abuse of Orthodox conversion candidates?
Rebbetzin Abby Lerner: The RCA created this new position for which I was hired—national director of conversion services for GPS—to let the rabbinical courts know that conversion candidates’ questions and concerns will be taken seriously, and that there can be [legal] ramifications for breaches in proper behavior on the part of rabbis or batei din. My cell phone number and e-mail address are currently posted on the RCA web site for those who seek to convert. The fact that a conversion candidate has someone to communicate with, someone who provides a safe place to turn to for questions, is a significant step in preventing any kind of abusive situation. Even one case of inappropriate behavior, or an incident that might lead to a case of inappropriate behavior, is too much.
Along with members of the GPS Committee, I am working to ensure that candidates have an address to turn to with whatever concerns they may have. Together we will be regularly reviewing conversion courts to ensure that they adhere to the guidelines issued by the RCA and the Beth Din of America in 2007. It is critical to let the local batei din know if a conversion candidate is being made to feel uncomfortable by any dayan or sponsoring rabbi.
JA: Do you feel conversion candidates are particularly vulnerable to mistreatment?
AL: Within the GPS network, 200 to 300 people per year complete the conversion process; women comprise over 70 percent of conversion candidates. The relationship between a potential ger/giyoret and a rabbi is one which could involve an imbalance of authority. Firstly, only a rabbi is able to grant the candidate the ability to become a Jew. A potential convert knows that his or her future depends on this rabbi.
Secondly, the lack of background in Yiddishkeit puts a potential convert at a distinct disadvantage. Because a convert is an outsider at the start of her journey, she can benefit from a conversation with someone who understands the process but is not part of the beit din. This could help her understand whether what she is experiencing is a legitimate part of the process of converting, or God forbid, an ethical or legal breach of conduct on the part of the rabbis involved in her case. Since my appointment to this position, when a conversion candidate encounters something that seems unusual, he or she can pick up the phone and ask me, “Is this incident wrong in terms of human relations, or is this another interesting thing about Judaism that I am not fully understanding?”
JA: What kind of behavior on the part of a rabbi might betray a lack of sensitivity toward conversion candidates?
AL: In the year since I began working in this position, I have been overwhelmed by the sensitivity, understanding and compassion I have encountered among the sponsoring rabbis and dayanim of the beit din. That’s not to say there isn’t work to be done. The oppression that Jews have historically experienced as a people has rightfully made us more cautious with regard to admitting converts. Not all sponsoring rabbis—especially young ones—have experience with conversions. Sometimes a rabbi might feel he has to apply stricter standards. In that case, he should convey that he’s not trying to be insensitive, but that there are standards to which he must adhere.
While most rabbis actually exhibit exquisite sensitivity and compassion, I have occasionally heard some complaints. A rabbi may speak with a candidate while checking a cell phone or without making eye contact or actively listening. These are challenges that we all face in an era when everyone is connected to one electronic device or another—but this universal cultural problem is greatly magnified when dealing with potential converts who may walk into an interview already feeling intimidated.
Some rabbis, due to their hectic schedules, may take what seems like too long to return a phone call; some may fail to return calls. While it is true that rabbis are often overburdened, we try to emphasize how important it is, even through small acts, to demonstrate compassion, validation and respect for all the learning and efforts a conversion candidate invests to become Jewish. Again, I want to emphasize that while certain insensitivities do occur, on the whole I’ve seen sponsoring rabbis and dayanim exhibit extraordinary sensitivity and compassion as well as an awareness of what both men and women go through as a convert.
JA: Why do you think that more than 200 people each year are determined to become Jewish?
AL: Often those who want to undergo Orthodox Jewish conversions are on a search for truth, similar to the way any ba’al teshuvah comes to Torah. I’ve seen people who were very successful professionally come to a point in their lives where they ask themselves: Is this all there is? Other conversion candidates have become disenchanted with their religions of birth. Still others are inspired to explore Judaism because they feel morally out of step with the American culture. I recently spoke with a woman who grew up in a Catholic home and graduated from one of the top universities in the US. She said, “I felt that there is no place on campus for someone with my values; I felt so alone.”
About a third of the candidates approach the beit din because they have Jewish roots. Perhaps only their father is Jewish, or they are aware of a Jewish grandparent. In the southwest portion of the US, in some states with larger Hispanic populations, we often see candidates whose parents practiced Jewish rituals quietly, perhaps attesting to the history of the Spanish Inquisition and the traditions that their families passed down from Jewish ancestors who were marranos or conversos.
Finally, there are those who are searching for a community. Their entry point to Judaism is not theological but social. While some batei din feel that’s a legitimate motivation, others do not; they contend that there needs to be a theological component.
JA: What do you mean by the search for community?
AL: Sometimes the search for meaning and the search for community come together. There are individuals who are fascinated with Judaism after having shared a Shabbat meal with Jewish friends at college. They are thrilled with the sense of community and belonging that characterizes frum communal life. Being part of a community makes you feel that you’re not alone in the world. With all our cell phones and FaceTime, it’s a very isolating universe.
Many years ago in our shul in Great Neck, a ba’al teshuvah couple made a brit milah for their second son. More than 200 people showed up. The father got up during the simchah and said, “At the brit milah of our first son, there were about fifteen people in our living room. Now that we’ve become observant, at this brit milah there are 200 people here, and I know everybody! No one tells you that when you become Orthodox, you suddenly have a whole family around you. The non-religious can’t even begin to understand what kind of life change this is.”
“It’s a journey— the day you convert is the first day of a very long journey.” -a convert who became Jewish over twenty years ago
JA: What happens when marriage is the primary motivation for one choosing to become Jewish?
AL: The batei din understand that marriage may be the motivation, and when that is the case, the rabbis are not only meticulous regarding the potential convert and his or her commitment to keeping the mitzvot, but they are also meticulous regarding the Jewish partner. Often, the conversion candidate or would-be candidate is very enthusiastic about becoming observant, but the Jewish partner is much less so. When this happens, the conversion will not go forward. It must be a journey for the couple as a whole.
JA: Can you describe a recent conversion you attended?
AL: I recently observed a conversion overseen by Rabbi Zvi Romm, the administrator of the RCA’s New York beit din for conversion. After the woman immersed in the mikvah, Rabbi Romm sang the beautiful mi shebeirach prayer about changing the woman’s name; he then explained it in English. The rabbis on the beit din danced and sang Siman Tov u’Mazel Tov welcoming this newest member of Klal Yisrael. The woman’s female Torah teacher was there too, and we three women danced together in celebration of this most emotional event. Rabbi Romm then said to the giyoret, “Please recite Birchot HaTorah now.” The young woman, who by then had long been observant, replied, “But Rabbi Romm, I already davened this morning and I said Birchot HaTorah.” He said, “But now . . .”—and I’ve heard him say this to other candidates since—“I want you to say these berachot as a Jew.” I listened to her say, “asher bachar banu mikol ha’amim v’natan lanu et Torato—Who has chosen us from all the peoples and given us His Torah.” It was an extraordinary experience to stand there and to hear this woman say those words for the first time as a Jew. These are the same words that we, for the most part, say unthinkingly every day. I have seen the beit din rabbis approach each new conversion with the same fervor and enthusiasm—with joy, singing and dancing. It’s beautiful.
JA: Do the batei din ever turn converts away?
AL: For candidates who realize that changing everything—what they eat, where they live, what they wear, and what time they leave work on Friday—is too much for them, we may encourage them to become involved with the Noahide community. For some people, the Noahide community is a sufficient place to feel comfortable and at peace with themselves.
JA: Are there ways in which those who have already converted can be supportive towards conversion candidates?
AL: Many converts write blogs and have Facebook groups in which people can ask questions and share information. I am excited to be one of the teachers who give shiurim to conversion candidates. These shiurim are not necessarily about conversion issues, but concern topics of interest to all Jews. For example, in a webinar about the High Holidays, we address questions such as, “How do I ready myself for the High Holidays?” or “What should my mindset be during this time of year?”
JA: Do you have any advice to offer converts about how to integrate into the community?
AL: I tell all conversion candidates that becoming a frum Jew is not the kind of thing you can do alone. Some who want to convert come upon Judaism through reading or via the Internet, but they might be living all alone in a community with no religious Jews. Being far away from even a tiny, functioning Orthodox community, these conversion candidates have no way to connect, and they are stymied as to how to proceed.
Being Jewish is about being part of a community. No Orthodox Jew lives by him or herself anywhere. We often encourage conversion candidates to move in order to experience a thriving Jewish community.
Integration must happen before conversion. The rabbis need to see that the candidate is already part of a community before they will proceed with the conversion process.
JA: How can Orthodox community members be more welcoming to those whose neshamot were also at Har Sinai and want to join the Jewish people?
AL: Small things that we take for granted can create discomfort for geirim. For example, someone recently shared with me how painful our common pastime of playing Jewish geography can be for converts. So firstly, we must not pry. When we meet someone new, and we notice that his or her answers are not what we expected, we should stop inquiring so as not to not create any discomfort. When we realize that someone is a convert, we should be careful not to exclaim in an initial conversation, “Wow, what drew you to Judaism?” Some converts are happy to speak about their experiences, but most just want to be part of our world, and every time they meet somebody new, they don’t want to have to share their innermost thoughts about what made them choose Judaism.
Secondly, while yamim tovim are usually a time for extended family visits, converts do not have Jewish families with whom to spend the chagim. So the usual question “What are you doing for yom tov?” can be painful. Don’t ask people where they are going for yom tov; just invite them.
Thirdly, sometimes we make assumptions about what is halachically prohibited for converts. What we really need to do is take the next step to determine what the halachot actually are by asking a she’eilah. The answer is often more sensitive to the convert than we could have imagined. A convert who aligned herself with a Yeshivish community wondered whether her parents could walk her down the aisle; the answer to her she’eilah was, “Why not?”
And although halachah does not require converts to sit shivah for non-Jewish relatives, every person, convert or not, who loses a parent needs the opportunity to mourn and receive comfort. A convert who is mourning the loss of a loved one can be listed in the shul’s weekly e-mail with the times and dates that he or she is receiving visitors, and in that way an unofficial shivah is created, whereby people in the community can visit and share their condolences.
Fourthly, when we notice that a convert may not fully grasp the subtleties of dress codes or other conventions of Orthodox life, instead of offering “helpful” tips, we should simply try to quietly focus on modeling the most tzanuah and refined behavior that we want to see in our communities. We are part of one family, and we should treat each other as such. Everyone who lives in supportive communities with Torah values will eventually figure out how to best conform to the minhagei hamakom.
Finally, we need to be sensitive to the fact that converts, even after having fully integrated into the Jewish community, may still be self-conscious about their background. One of my good friends is a Modern Orthodox woman whom I’ve known for more than twenty years. She had never spoken to me about her status as a convert until recently when she shared this anecdote. “Just a few months ago, I was at a Shabbat table and a kashrut issue came up; the guests and hosts at the table were unfamiliar with the halachic concept of eino ben yomo. [an absorbed taste inside a utensil becomes stale if it remains unused for more than twenty-four hours.] I proceeded to explain the concept of ben yomo to everybody at the table, after which I thought to myself, ‘Oh my gosh, I’ve made it!”’ This is a woman who has served at the helm of prestigious Jewish organizations and is already a grandmother. But none of that had made her feel completely accepted. It took this incident to make her feel like she was a bona fide member of the Jewish community. I cried when she told me the story.
A longtime high school and college literature, writing, and art teacher, Yehudit Garmaise teaches language arts at the Yeshiva Rav Isacsohn Toras Emes Academy in Los Angeles, where she lives with her husband and four daughters.
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