One would think that the conversion process, due to its importance, would be guarded by laws and regulations to ensure an effective selection of candidates, supervision of their process and a fool-proof system in order to protect both sides simultaneously applying a certain level of fairness to the subjects upon whom the will of the beit din is being executed.
Despite the fact that the process should be, by all means, difficult in order to weed out those who aren’t serious about taking upon themselves thousands of years of tradition, it should bare in mind that it deals with people, not subjects, not files, not numbers – but people, more than just bags of blood and bones.
The fact is rather, that in many aspects these laws serve only as guidelines. There is a vast sea of discrepancy between what the law says, what you are told and what actually ends up happening to you.
Application Process: Israel vs. USA
Because I’m a champion, I have experience with applying to the Orthodox conversion process in both the United States of America and in Israel. Please note: I did not complete an Orthodox conversion in both locations, rather one was discontinued in favor of the other.
I approached my Local Orthodox Rabbi in the States, because my state of residence does not have a beit din for the purposes of giur (conversion); thus I had to apply to a beit din in a neighboring state. This is not as unique as one might think, considering that I know converts who were forced to move across state lines for years before their conversions were completed. Fortunately, this was not the case for me as my local community was large enough to sustain my learning and the head of the beit din often traveled into my state to oversee our local cholov Yisrael dairy production. I would be required to have quarterly meetings with the chief rabbi, in addition to regular studies with my Local Orthodox Rabbi. The total cost including required reading was over $1000 USD (many other batei din charge at least double this in fees).
The actual application process entailed an intake meeting with the beit din’s chief rabbi, an application fee and a seven-page, type-written application that sought information on everything from my legal name, date of birth, and legal state of residence, to where I completed my education and whether I had any background in Jewish studies. The application was thoughtful and honestly didn’t feel as intrusive as other applications I’ve seen (which included questions as to whether my parents were married at the time I was born). The head of that particular beit din was very scholarly and I enjoyed acquiring the required list of reading, though it wasn’t inexpensive. It was the Chief Rabbi’s suggestion that I consider the conversion process in Israel, making Aliyah first via my reform conversion.
After successfully making Aliyah to Israel, I applied to a local conversion program paid for under the auspices of the Jewish Agency – the programs existed to provide a route for non-halachically Jewish Israeli citizens to become fully recognized members of the halachic Jewish community in Israel. Because my Hebrew wasn’t – and still isn’t – fluent, my host family helped me reach out and get the necessary documents for the program. I was shocked to realize that the study program was fully subsidized. The rabbis assisted me with my application for the beit din and I was prepared for 10 months with halachic and ritual knowledge. The process culminated in three meetings with the beit din and immersion in a mikvah. While the cost and bureaucratic process at this stage was fairly simple, the conversion process itself was anything but.
NOTE: I don’t necessarily begrudge that there is a fee process for conversion courts. These rabbis are working and they need an income to support their efforts. Whether these costs are exorbitant or if there should be some kind of subsidized process is an another discussion entirely.
ESTHER’S NOTE: I don’t have too much experience with the Beit Din in London, mostly due to personal research and approaching people who converted through LBD, but in contrary to Israel, the process seems “tidier”; meaning the UK postal services works efficiently so you end up receiving letters informing you about upcoming appointments. In addition whenever you call or message the office you can speak with their secretary and get an answer regarding your next milestone. In Israel the letters reach you after your appointment dates and quite often these aren’t even sent out to the last minute, so you end up dropping everything and running to the beit din, because, frankly, even if you have a life, this process is at the top of your priorities.
On the plus side, you don’t have to be a millionaire to convert in Israel. The beit din fees are fully subsidised, as Elisheva already mentioned, and your potential financial “contribution” to classes is absolutely optional. In London, the solely running one-on-one classes will bankrupt anyone who doesn’t have extra financial support. The teachers often give the candidate a time frame for their conversion based on how many lessons per week they are ready to pay for hence putting a price-tag on the process. This can often reach as much as 500 pounds per month if one has a couple of classes per week for at least a year. On the other hand, the uncertainty of the process in Israel makes you incur costs too, so it’s more of a give and take, but at least one doesn’t have to be a millionaire here.
Bureaucratic Process 1: inter-department
Upon completion of my giur in Israel, my final papers were sent from my local conversion court to the Ministry of the Interior (Misrad Ha’Pnim). Because of my prior reformed conversion, the State of Israel had already recognized my Jewish status – which is a confusing distinction – but the local conversion court only now recognized my halachic status. I received a paper copy and photocopy of my official application, certificate, and a profile for my legal records in the mail and that was the official completion of my conversion in Israel.
Bureaucratic Process 2: inter-rabbinate
When I began the process of applying for a permission to marry with the rabbinical offices, I discovered that the bureaucratic processes were not so clear cut: I lived in a different city than my fiancée, as such I was instructed to go to my local Chief Rabbinate to procure a certificate verifying my status as a single person and eligibility to marry in the State of Israel, called a teudat ravakut. That in itself seemed reasonable, however, I then needed to go with my fiancée to his local Chief Rabbinate office to formally open up the file with them. Despite the fact that I had my teudat ravakut, my conversion certificate (all my paperwork, really), I had to answer all the same questions between both Rabbinate offices – where did I convert, which rabbis did I study with, do I now live a halachically observant life and do I plan to live the same observant life upon marrying, etc. I was upset that my conversion certificate didn’t appear to have any weight with the Rabbinate offices – furthermore, the certificate from one rabbi to the next wasn’t an “automatic guarantee” that I was committed to this life for which I’d spent 3.5 years studying. It was insulting.
The final process of opening the “marriage file” was a meeting in person with the local Chief Rabbi, because I was a convert. I was told that it was standard protocol for him to meet with converts, but after hearing horror stories of converts having their conversions revoked I was frankly terrified. The meeting ended up being fine and the Chief Rabbi was kind about it, however, I was asked the very same questions again regarding my conversion. To say I was agitated was an understatement, but I made an important realization – these rabbinical officers feel they must be so sure of the converts and applicants, they do not trust one another. Not once did they pick up a phone to make a verifying call, they simply questioned the convert, repeatedly. Deuteronomy 10:19 says, “Love the convert for you were once strangers in the land of Egypt”: the Torah actually reminds us 46 times of the mitzvah to love the convert. While this is clearly a missed opportunity to fulfill this positive mitzvah, it’s also a sad implication of the state of Israel’s Rabbinate organization.
Elisheva’s process in comparison to mine was straightforward. Difficult, but straightforward. The dates were kept and the group was fully informed about what was going to happen to them at each stage.
I was caught in a bureaucratic mess, legally trapped between the State and the Beit Din, in the no-man’s land, which both sides are unwilling to touch. The head of the conversion committee disagreed with my visa status so he rejected my entire application without providing any opportunity to appeal. That would be less of a problem, if I was informed formally about his decision and any possible actions I could have taken to deal with his discontent. Instead, I had to personally make phone calls and request confirmation of rejection in order to have something to work with. They refused to provide it. Eventually I called up ITIM and had one of their representatives request the copy of the rejection, which was unwillingly granted in the end. That took around 6 months. It took another several months to appeal against the committee’s decision, which in practice meant convincing one, very powerful dayan, to reconsider his standpoint. After a considerable amount of imploring he agreed to allow me to start the process. Up until that point I was led to believe that I had had already started. The truth was that I hadn’t and the clock began running from the moment he typed one sentence, thus giving me permission to undergo the conversion process in Israel through the rabbanut in Jerusalem. Prompted by my experience I requested a formal letter, which was granted after I went to their well-hidden office where the public is allegedly not supposed to go to and stood there until I had a copy in my hand.
In my case the fact that I have learned about Judaism for years also, despite the rabbis’ opinions, didn’t change anything. The rabbis also failed to mention that after 10 months you only approach the committee the second time for the dayan to decide whether or not you are ready to meet with the beit din. Then you need to wait another 3 months to meet with the beit din and then even longer for the documents. So essentially the process itself takes at least 14-15 months. That wouldn’t be a problem whatsoever have I been informed about it from the beginning. I can’t complain though, some girls I met have been kept in limbo for much longer. I had some kind people on my side.
In addition, despite the fact that the process is guarded by laws, your fate, literally, depends on rabbis. It depends on whether you are liked enough, you’re nice enough, you smile enough or whether you look harmless enough. My down to earth, let’s-do-it attitude didn’t fit well with them on many levels. But, as a side note, we hit it off with my beit din. For some reason, despite the stress and the stern look of one of them, their questions were reasonable, though sometimes intentionally misleading, providing both sides with an intellectual game, which everyone involved seemed to enjoy. I forgot that the more intelligent the candidate appeared, the more questions they asked and the more contradictions they were looking for. They told me to inform them about the wedding date. I will sure send them the invite – they deserve it! (And I quite liked them too).
The system houses many lovely people, teachers and rabbis alike, but it also opens up the door for all the strings that can be pulled through contacts, bribes or any other potential services. As all systems, this one also has its faults.
That lack of transparency and lack of accountability of the rabbis to any higher system judging their dealings with the converts creates a barren ground for the lack of the essential component to complete this process: trust.
I was continuously urged that I needed to have trust in people and in the system, but how can you have trust, when during the interview you are told that everything is fine, your documents are fine, it’s all just formality and the next thing you know your application is rejected based on the ongoing war between the rabbanut and the State of Israel? When you are just a chess piece to make a point? How can you trust the system, when one day the rabbi who is dealing with you says X and another day he says Y? How can you trust them, if each time you are not at your best with a smile on your face they give you silent treatment?
No, there is no trust in the system, because we know that the system is run by people and people have their preferences. The only way to get through it is to do whatever you are told and keep your mouth shut. The problem with me was that, considering that I needed to spend more time learning I preferred to learn something more advanced, I got caught up between two rabbis with at least one of them having serious control issues. I am however grateful to him for all his help, but would not want to be in a vulnerable position around him again.
The fact that converts are doing at least two different conversions – one being the state-recognised conversion and one “more religious” in Bnei Brak to make sure that they won’t have a problem marrying whomever they want – shows that we don’t trust the rabbis. We don’t know how the alliances are played out and the last thing we want is to be caught up in another pickle at some point in later life. What about us 10 years down the line? Perhaps there will be another rabbi, who will annul conversions as part of a political fight? Or someone will annul them for him because he was, chas v’shalom, yet another peeping Tom? Perhaps our children won’t be recognised by some kind of a rabbi who finds the concept of conversion problematic? Are we, the converts, expected to pay for their mistakes and political alliances?
See, the fact that the rabbanut is required to put converts through all those tests creates a vacuum for that one person or more who sees it fit to abuse their power. The fact that converts have to rest their very lives in the rabbis’ hands leaves them an open target for anything out of norm. They are a walking magnet for everything that can be wrong with the system, because they cannot defend themselves. It is particularly problematic for women.
Until a convert proves the rabbanut wrong, the former isn’t worthy of trust. That in theory changes after they prove them wrong by reaching the point when they say Shema in front of the dayanim. That is where, in theory, the rabbis start trusting the convert. However, the convert, who underwent this process, will always have doubts lingering at the back of his mind for the rest of their lives fearing any potential shift in alliances.