Will the Rabbinical Council of America's (RCA) reform of its processes of conversion to Judaism make any difference for potential converts who are, frequently it seems, exploited in one way or another by the rabbis who are supposed to be their spiritual guides?
Almost a decade ago, the RCA's most important rabbi, Yeshiva University's Hershel Schachter, was fooled by Israel's haredi chief rabbis. A fawning Schachter and the American rabbis who follow him made a litany of concessions to those haredim on conversion to Judaism.
Those concessions came with a prize for the RCA – centralized control over almost all Orthodox conversions done in America and Canada. The Israeli haredi rabbis conditioned that central control given to the RCA to implementation of many haredi standards on conversion, forcing Modern Orthodox conversion candidates to move rightward religiously and greatly encumbering the process of conversion. These concessions – called reforms by the RCA at that time – also left potential converts even more open to exploitation and abuse than they were before.
Meanwhile, as Israel's haredi rabbis manipulated the willing Schachter, they quietly moved to have the newly established central control over conversions transferred to haredim working with the now disgraced Rabbi Leib Tropper.
Tropper, it soon turned out, abused conversion candidates. For example, he allegedly had one of them, a young attractive blonde woman, have a type of three-way with Tropper and his wife – a story broken by FailedMessiah.com (but stolen by the Jewish Week).
Tropper's problems were not unlike the problems of the rabbi who spearheaded the RCA's conversion committee, Barry Freundel, who was arrested late last year for using hidden cameras to secretly video nude women as they prepared to immerse in the mikva (ritual bath) he controlled. He's now serving a 6-plus year prison sentence.
The RCA knew a lot about Freundel's alleged wrongdoing – but not the voyeurism – long before he was arrested, but claimed it never had enough evidence to do anything more than warn him.
It is Freundel's voyeuristic abuse of female converts along with his other alleged misdeeds – which include allegedly sleeping with young attractive conversion candidates and using others to do his unpaid secretarial work – and the resulting outcry from the public that forced the RCA's hand.
It put victims of Freundel on its conversion reform committee and ramped up its importance.
And while these new reforms might help, it is likely nothing will truly solve the problems inherent with the system. Converts are ripe for exploitation and, unfortunately the rabbinate is especially bad at policing itself.
That said, here is the RCA's press release. The full report the RCA says is available to the public on its website is, as far as I could see after some extensive looking, nowhere to be found:
RCA Committee Completes Historic Review Of Conversion Processes
Membership Receives Recommendations Enthusiastically Following Emotional Presentations, Leadership Committed to Swift Implementation Full Report and Recommendations Available for Public Review
July 6, 2015 – The committee charged with reviewing the conversion processes of the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) for the purpose of better serving conversion candidates has completed its task and submitted a detailed report that was enthusiastically received by the organization’s membership. This followed a series of presentations by committee members at the RCA’s annual convention – held June 29-July 1, 2015 in Tarrytown, New York – that included a transparent discussion of the issues at hand, a thorough presentation of the committee’s findings and recommendations, and the deep emotion felt by those involved in the review process.
The mandate of the committee – consisting of rabbis and other community representatives – was to evaluate the entire system of conversions in order to identify best practices, understand the delivery of services from all perspectives and make recommendations for establishing a “gold standard” process that is professional, respectful and spiritually engaging. Over a nine-month period, the committee paid attention to both the issues and systems it found deficient, and those areas it found to be appropriate and effective. Its 22–page report is available to the public on the RCA’s website at www.rabbis.org.
Bethany Mandel, a member of the committee who converted to Judaism, said in her address at the RCA convention, “I am hopeful that this report will make it better for American conversion candidates going forward. Working with this incredible group of Jewish professionals and rabbis has reinstilled a lot of the faith I had in Jewish communal life at the outset of my conversion. Evelyn [Fruchter] and I were chosen with those in the RCA knowing that we weren't going to be ‘yes women,’ that we weren't going to sit back and take a passive role in this process. We came to the table with our sleeves rolled up, and we were accepted at the table as equals. I have a great deal of respect for that. I'm cautiously optimistic. The framework we've laid out here…is a great start, but it's up to many of you in this room today to make sure that the spirit of these recommendations is carried out. I hope that we are all up to the task.”
The focus of the committee was the Geirus Policies and Standards (GPS) processes and network. GPS was established in 2007 by the RCA and its affiliated Beth Din of America in an effort to standardize conversion practices and better serve conversion candidates. The network is comprised of 12 regional conversion courts administered by a national GPS office and, to date, more than 1,300 candidates have converted to Judaism through the GPS process. A review of the GPS processes had been previously commissioned, but the October 2014 arrest of Barry Freundel expanded the mandate and urgency.
Appreciating that converts are the experts of their experiences and have much to offer in understanding the experience of conversion, much of the committee’s focus was on gathering information from them on how the GPS courts can make their experience more comfortable and meaningful. Although the committee found in its research that many aspects of the GPS process are working, it also identified systemic and procedural issues that must be addressed. Recommendations focused on areas of support for conversion candidates during and after their conversions, professionalism, transparency of expectations, sensitivity to candidates, educational experiences, the responsibilities and support for rabbis and rabbinic judges, and, most importantly, oversight, supervision, and grievance processing.
Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, chair of the committee, stated, “This is a historic moment in which the RCA rose to the challenge with complete transparency. Recognizing the critical importance of their perspective, we involved converts, our stakeholders, throughout the committee's lengthy deliberations. In addition, we encouraged them to publicly present their feelings, positive and negative, to our entire convention last week. The result was deeply moving and potentially transformative for our members. The review process helped us better understand the conversion process generally and will help us fulfill our religious mandates with greater sensitivity and responsibility.”
Recordings of select presentations at the RCA convention can be found at www.rabbis.org.
Evelyn Fruchter, another member of the committee who converted to Judaism, stated at the convention, “I joined [the committee] with high hopes and ideas about how GPS could be improved…. Though we did not always agree, I found that members of the Committee took my concerns seriously. But being on the Committee also left me with questions that I think the RCA needs to carefully consider going forward.”
Rabbi Leonard Matanky, president of the RCA, stated, “While there are those who are publicly critical of a centralized conversion process, we base our conviction on the feelings of converts themselves. Over and over again, through surveys and focus groups, they have told us of the deep value that a centralized process provides in granting them the critical peace of mind that their conversions will not be questioned in the future. We are committed to building upon a system that has seen many successes, but in which there were issues that needed to be addressed. We will redouble our efforts, along with the dedicated rabbis and rabbinic judges throughout the country who work directly and successfully with converts, to enhance both the conversion experience and converts’ integration into our communities.”
The RCA leadership is committed to swiftly implementing these recommendations and has begun to assemble a broad-based committee to oversee this matter.
Rabbi Mark Dratch, Executive Vice President of the RCA, stated, “The Torah commands a special and unique love for converts and prohibits any and all forms of abuse and disrespect. The review of GPS was an expression of the RCA that we need to and want to listen and hear from people who have converted – and we did and we will. Bethany Mandel and Evelyn Fruchter represented the thousands of other converts. Their voices were honest, and sometimes critical, making them outstanding partners. We want to hear these insights and improve in this critical area.”
The members of the GPS Review Committee were:
• Mrs. Evelyn Fruchter, a convert to Judaism and an attorney specializing in litigation;
• Rabbi Shmuel Goldin (chair), Honorary President of the RCA and Rabbi of Ahavath Torah, Englewood, NJ;
• Mrs. Abby Lerner, educator and teacher of family purity laws;
• Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, Rabbi of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun, New York, NY;
• Mrs. Bethany Mandel, a convert to Judaism, former staff member at Commentary Magazine, and freelance writer who recently authored a column entitled, “A Convert’s Bill of Rights”;
• Rabbi Yona Reiss, Av Bet Din, Chicago Rabbinical Council; Dayyan, Beth Din of America; and Chairman, GPS;
• Ms. Bracha Rutner, Yoetzet Halachah (advisor in Jewish family purity laws) for the Riverdale, NY and Washington, DC communities;
• Mrs. Shana Yocheved Schacter, CSW, a psychotherapist in private practice;
• Rabbi Yaakov Shulman, Rabbi of Congregation Talmud Torah, Brooklyn, NY, and Dayyan, GPS Bet Din, Brooklyn;
• Rabbi Adam Starr, Rabbi of Young Israel of Toco Hills, Atlanta, GA; Dayyan, GPS Bet Din, Atlanta;
• Rabbi Kalman Topp, Rabbi of Beth Jacob Congregation, Los Angeles, CA.
Rabbi Mark Dratch, RCA Executive Vice President, and Rabbi Reuven Tradburks, RCA Israel Representative, provided input and professional support to the GPS Review Committee’s efforts.
Update 11:14 am CDT – The RCA posted the entire report this morning. Note that the file's date is June 28, but the RCA didn't manage to get the report posted until now.
Please right click to open and view in a new window or tab or left click to download: