The Con Version of an American Conversion Scandal

There is no question that Orthodox conversion standards in the US, adopted by the RCA and validated by the Chief Rabbinate of Israel in a magnificent agreement this past summer, have brought sanity and order out of chaos.

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Rabbi Prof. Dov Fischer,

Rabbi Prof. Dov Fisch
Rabbi Prof. Dov Fisch
צילום: PR

It is one of the most dishonest scandals ever to have been fabricated — fashioned falsely out of one of the most horrible scandals ever to have happened truly.

By now, all Jews throughout the world have read of the incomprehensible incident that saw a rabbi in Washington, D.C. arrested on charges of surreptitiously filming women in a mikveh dressing room.  For several weeks, with jaws dropped, we have had little to say.  During that vacuum, opportunists have jumped in, the disciples of Rahm Emanuel who taught that a politician “never should let a crisis go to waste.”

There is no question that Orthodox conversion standards in the United States, adopted by the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) and validated by the Chief Rabbinate of Israel in a magnificent agreement this past summer, have brought sanity and order out of chaos.  Through a program that RCA calls “Gerut Protocols and Standards” (GPS), a non-Jew converting to Judaism through an American GPS Bet Din L’Gerut (Conversion Court) now enjoys a clearly defined program, serious and delineated requirements, and a remarkable peace-of-mind assurance that the conversion never will be annulled retroactively, will be respected and honored from the Halls of Montezuma to the Shores of Tripoli — and, more importantly, in the Cities of Judea and the Gates of Jerusalem — and for all time. 

A GPS conversion means that a convert’s great-grandchildren will be recognized as authentic Jews long after ancestors have gone to their Heavenly reward, long after the rabbis of the Conversion Courts have gone, for all time to come.

This remarkable GPS system has virulent opponents. Predictably — and quite understandably — Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist groups (all phenomena and outgrowths of Nineteenth Century anti-Semitism in Germany and the early Twentieth Century aftermath, thus making those groups irrelevant to Israel’s Sephardic demographic majority) oppose the Chief Rabbinate’s adherence to halakhah (Jewish law) in setting the rules of Judaic conversion. 

More interestingly, a radicalized left wing on the outskirts of Orthodoxy, calling itself “Open Orthodoxy” and based out of the Chovevei Torah Academy and the Maharat (Woman Rabbi) Academy, oppose GPS.  They, through their “rabbinical” arm, “International Rabbinical Fellowship,” want every rabbi in America to be autonomous and to have the power to run his or her own conversion court, according to their own practices at their own local congregations. 

For two years, “Open Orthodoxy’s” IRF Conversion Administrator has been the only “Dayan” (Judge) ever ordained a Religious Judge by the Chovevei Torah Academy, himself remarkable for publishing ubiquitously that he does not even believe that Patriarch Abraham existed.

When word of the mikveh-camera scandal broke, RCA urgently convened immediately, on the eve of Shmini Atzeret, and unanimously suspended the accused voyeur.  His synagogue rapidly suspended him.  His friends were in shock.  And, in a vacuum of crisis, the cynics did not let the moment go to waste.  Rather, they converted the tragedy of the moment — a local synagogue rabbi with unbridled access and keys to the mikveh of his congregation, arrested for violating his congregation’s trust — and they conned the public with a version turning the mess into a full-scale assault on the national GPS system. 

They found left-wing publications happy to abet the con.  And in the con version of this scandal, they converted a local minister’s ostensible moral turpitude into an unbridled assault on the finest institution ever created in the West to bring order out of chaos in the world of American Judaic conversions.  Suddenly, they published attacks on the GPS system, seeking its overthrow, so that they might supplant it with their preferred chaos where every local rabbi or “Maharat” (“Open Orthodoxy” woman rabbi) does what is fitting in his or her eyes. May G-d protect the great-grandchild born to someone undergoing such a rogue conversion by lone wolves whose identities today will be indecipherable to future generations.


May G-d protect the great-grandchild born to someone undergoing such a rogue conversion by lone wolves whose identities today will be indecipherable to future generations.

The RCA, under withering heat from the far-left wing of the American Orthodox community, the camp that ordains women as rabbis, decided to mollify the squeakiest of wheels on the Left and set up a committee to look at GPS and to evaluate future best practices.  RCA promises that it will not change an iota of the GPS halakhic structure but merely will explore ways to finesse and fine-tune aspects.  In and of itself, that can be beneficial and deserves cautious support.  And, yet, it is remarkable how the Radical Left GPS opponents of RCA and of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel — remember that Rabbi Avi Weiss, the Father of “Open Orthodoxy,” used the New York Times Op-Ed Page to publish a virulent attack against the Chief Rabbinate of Israel only recently, pressing “Open Orthodoxy’s” demand that Reform conversions be recognized in Israel — have intimidated RCA into forming the committee. 

The whole situation is akin to a local State Bar of attorneys, presented with a local lawyer who sneaks a video camera into his client’s bathroom, reacting by initiating a thoroughly unrelated nationwide investigation into the practices of the United States Supreme Court.  Here, a local rabbi apparently perpetrated what otherwise might have been perpetrated by a miscreant temple janitor with keys to the mikveh or by a female mikveh attendant with lesbian voyeur tendencies.  One example is as unbelievable as the next, but this apparently happened.  And it has nothing to do with the American GPS system.

If GPS is to be revisited, here are the Fischer Conversion Principles that I respectfully put forth:

1.  The National GPS Administrator and all Rabbinic GPS Oversight Officers should not be Dayanim on any conversion courts.  The roles should be separate.  One cannot supervise himself.

2.  Every conversion candidate should be required to find a Rabbinic Sponsor.  That Sponsor must not be a member of the Conversion Court but should be a separate resource and passionate advocate — the heart and voice of the Conversion Candidate, an intermediary with the Bet Din.

3.  Conversion candidates should be given a formal syllabus and curriculum from Day One, and they should be advised that a proper Orthodox conversion in America typically will take between one and two years.  The timing will depend on many factors including the candidate’s progress in learning, in adopting practices and observances, moving to live within walking distance of an Orthodox community, establishing a pattern of arriving home timely for Shabbat, and the like.

4.  A candidate should be presented, from the outset, with the formal fee structure of the Bet Din.  That fee structure, based on current American economies, should be approximately $500. The Sponsoring Rabbi should be barred from accepting any fees or emoluments.

5.  Conversion candidates should not be approached for donations to any Jewish organizations, associations, or causes related to the Sponsoring Rabbi  or to any Dayan (Judge) of the Bet Din.

6.  Every candidate’s primary Judaic studies teacher should be a mentor of the same gender.

7.  Every candidate should be assigned a “Mentoring Lay Household,” namely a husband-and-wife couple within the congregational membership who assume personal responsibility to befriend the candidate, to voice otherwise-unspoken concerns to the Sponsoring Rabbi, to arrange regular Shabbat dinner and lunch invitations, and to assure the candidate’s warm social integration within the congregation.

8.  Every six months, the candidate should receive a formal written evaluation briefly stating the Bet Din’s assessment of the candidate’s progress and estimating how (s)he is progressing on her timeline, so that (s)he can pursue important personal life plans and aspirations related to work, domicile, love, and marriage.

Rabbi Dov Fischer is author of General Sharon’s War Against Time Magazine (Steimatzky: 1985). His political commentaries have appeared on the op-ed pages of the Wall Street Journal, The Weekly Standard, National Review,  Los Angeles Times, and in other major American publications.  He formerly was Chief Articles Editor of UCLA Law Review, is an adjunct professor of law at two prominent American law schools, and is Rav of Young Israel of Orange County, California.  He is author of Jews for Nothing (Feldheim: 1983) and is in his fifth year as a member of the National Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America. His writings can be found at Home - RabbiDov.com  As with all of Rabbi Prof. Fischer’s writings, this commentary expresses his own views.