Orthodox Jews have failed in our duty to welcome converts

This article first appeared in Ha’aretz 10/30/14

When I was a teenager, I had a family-friend who was going through an Orthodox conversation. Born into a Liberal Jewish family, he wished to be Orthodox and upon finding out that his mother had converted under non-Orthodox auspices he went to the Beth Din (rabbinical court) and applied for an Orthodox conversation.

About seven years later, after much humiliation and delay, my friend completed the process.

Hearing stories of his experiences during the conversion process scarred me. Born to a religious family, I was brought up being told you should not oppress the stranger (Exodus 23:9) and that you were actually commanded to love the stranger. (Deut 10:19). The rabbis’ interpreted the word stranger, “ger,” to mean convert. While I understand the rabbinical courts need to be sure that conversation are real, my friends’ experiences seemed to go well above and beyond that threshold.

One example is a painful story my friend once recounted to me: He was made to wait for months on end for a particular examination, only to be invited in before one of the key Jewish holidays. The Beth Din asked him hundreds of questions about the customs and traditions of the upcoming holiday, all of which he answered correctly. Toward the end, they asked him about a story that is told about one of the traditions.

The story is normally told to children in Hebrew school before their bar and bat mitzvahs. My friend, having never attended Hebrew school, did not know the story. The Beth Din humiliated him, saying any child would know this story, and dismissed him without telling him when he would next be called back in. Though he answered all the substantive questions correctly, he was left in this liminal state unsure and unaware of where he was up to in this seven-year process.

One thing that I never knew growing up was that converts were not being welcomed into the Jewish community. When joining any school, shul or camp, their papers are demanded, they are treated with suspicion and very much are not being loved, as the Torah commands.

I thought of my friend when I heard the news of Rabbi Barry Freundel’s arrest. Freundel had been one of the main rabbis in America to conduct Orthodox conversations. The secret filming of people in the mikveh, which Freundel has been accused of doing, makes every convert a victim of abuse.

When Israel’s Chief Rabbinate said it might retroactively annul the conversions carried out by Freundel, I was appalled. Doing so would have constituted a failure of spectacular proportions for the global Jewish community. What if these converts were victims of the rabbi’s alleged voyeurism? Would we be willing to let them get punished for their abuser’s abuse?

Fortunately, after furious lobbying by many groups, including Itim, the Rabbinate came to its senses and stated that the converts had nothing to fear, and that it would not reevaluate their conversions.

While many in the Orthodox community can justify why a long and arduous conversion process is necessary, the fact that many converts can be held hostage to the good graces of the rabbis who oversee their conversion is a scandal. There is nothing further from the Torah’s commandments to love the convert than to hold their Jewish identity hostage to the good behavior of those they have no control over.

I can’t imagine how distressing it must have been for Freundel’s converts, who have been failed on so many levels by a community they are desperate to belong to. One such convert is Bethany Mandel, who says was converted by Freundel. She has taken this opportunity to advocate a converts’ bill of rights.

Among the rights she includes in her proposal are providing converts with a timetable that indicates on what date they should expect to complete their conversion, an ombudsman, a welcoming committee, and a guarantee that once converted, converts’ Jewishness can’t come into question.

Neglecting to give these rights to converts already shows we have failed in our duty. Jewish tradition doest not make clear what is needed for conversion. The seminal story is that of Ruth, who merely made some declarations and followed her Jewish mother-in-law into poverty. Without strict legislation to guide us, we have inflicted angst and pain on those seeking to be part of us.

We need to implement the acts listed in Mandel’s bill of rights in order to get reach a place where we can love all those who join us. We must demand change and ensure that the converts among us are treated, at the very least, equally to any of us who were lucky enough to be born Jewish.

Modern Orthodox educators must reclaim what it means to be a Jew

Ha’aretz 21/12/11

I struggle to remember to last time I read a news item from Israel featuring an orthodox person and felt pride. With the segregated bus saga and the awful incidents of price-tagging, the Judaism that I know and love is being abused. I know for a fact that Israel is filled with thousands of religious role models, yet in public the image that is being projected is that of an intolerant ungovernable fanatic.

I am a proud member of the modern Orthodox community who spent two years living in Yeshiva in Israel. My first year was in a Hesder Yeshiva, my second a more American affair with an Israeli kollel attached. I grew up in Bnei Akiva and see myself as a graduate of that movement. Yet the voices that helped educate me, that fill me with a vision of Judaism and ethical conduct that I treasure and live by, are sadly absent from the public religious discourse going on in Israel today.

The image of what Orthodox Judaism is matters. It matters because we believe that we are commanded to be an “Or Lagoyim”, a light unto the nations. We do not proselytize our virtue or our truth; we live it. How our actions are seen by those outside the community can either glorify or desecrate G-d’s name.

The current news headlines and public pronouncements are dominated by religious ideologues that use textual interpretations to justify or rationalize actions that clearly desecrate G-d’s name rather than glorify it. No one could look on the actions of those who proclaim to be religious and feel inspired by a kingdom of priests, a holy nation.

As a modern Orthodox Jew, I do not think that I am “lesser” than the ultra-Orthodox. Holding that my connection to the Land of Israel does not justify all or any actions to control that land does not make me any less frum.

A moderate community often speaks quietly and politely. They educate their students on why those who participate in price-tagging are wrong. They teach their students the texts and rabbinical responses that show why it is perfectly allowed to have mixed sex buses. Yet when they leave the Beit Midrash, they do not feel it appropriate to take up the argument in a public space.

While there are many good reasons why we might not want Rabbis to have ideological disputes in public, I feel that now we need it. There are thousands of amazing modern Orthodox educators who have inspired generations of students who need to speak up and reclaim what it means to be an Orthodox Jew. They need to do this to restore the image of what a frum Jew is both at home and abroad.

This is more than just condemning the actions of those with whom we disagree. As a community we must reestablish the positive contributions that we make both to the Jewish people and to the world. We need to let others into our own internal conversations and demonstrate the diversity of opinion and multifaceted nature of our approach.

If we fail to do this, people will continue to point to the number of kippa-wearing commanders in the IDF as a threat to its integrity, rather than people advancing into command positions who have a deep commitment both the State and to a set of divinely inspired morals and virtues.

The task falls onto our teachers, as each of them has a network of hundreds of students who respect them and look to them for guidance. One of the blessings of the Orthodox community is the amount of educators it produces.

Those educators now have a responsibility to make sure the community’s image is not held hostage by the actions of a few within it. Rabbi Shlomo Riskin has fired the starting shot with an excellent public letter to the Hilltop Youth. His voice needs to be joined by the thousands of Rabbi’s who feel the same way as he does. This is about showing what the community is about and it requires all who teach to stand up and be counted.

Jewish education ensured that the Jews survived their exile. If we are to be that kingdom of priests that we are commanded to be, the moderate majority of Rabbis need to speak out and be prophets for the community and the world at large as well.