A Bill of Rights for Conversion Candidates

Bill of RightsI propose that the American Jewish community adopt a Bill of Rights for Conversion Candidates, to be agreed upon by any of my rabbinic colleagues engaged in the holy work of preparing individuals (and their families) to join the Jewish People.

By Rabbi Arnold D. Samlan

I have heard enough from those who are going through or have gone through naturalization to the Jewish people. Even before the recent revelations (to be fair, allegations) regarding one of the lead rabbis in Orthodox Jewish conversions [I prefer “naturalization,” as it indicates joining the Jewish people, not merely the religion], it had become clear that the entire system was broken and that potential converts were often being misled or taken advantage of.

It is not my place to detail the abuses in the system, which are, quite frankly, most evident to me in the Orthodox conversion system. Nor am I particularly interested in the competitive political game that plays out within the American Orthodox community or between the American rabbinate and the ruling Israeli rabbinate, something that I am interested in attempting to tackle. There are far greater minds than mine who have attempted to address that particular disaster area.

My concern at this moment is the rights of the individual who comes sincerely before a rabbi, seeking to join the Jewish religion and people. I propose that the American Jewish community adopt a Bill of Rights for Conversion Candidates, to be agreed upon by any of my rabbinic colleagues engaged in the holy work of preparing individuals (and their families) to join the Jewish People.

Not being a member of any denominational rabbinic organization, I have admittedly no standing to bring this before any such organization. Instead I speak with pride as a rabbi ordained by a prominent Orthodox yeshiva, and with the independence that gives me some detachment and hopefully objectivity.

My recommendation is that such a Bill of Rights assert the following:

  1. The Jewish people is a holy nation. As a rabbi, it is a privilege to prepare a potential new member of that nation. That privelege is a holy one and is not to be taken lightly. Through our rabbinical role, we are taking an individual, created in the image of God, and bringing him/her to Sinai.
  2. Halacha is very clear about what is done to initially discourage an individual from conversion. Adding additional obstacles in the path of the sincere candidate is not merely unnecessary, but actually contradicts halacha.
  3. We recognize that the conversion candidate comes with his/her own life story. We honor that story, treat the candidate with kavod, with respect for their dignity. A rabbi might wish to explore an individual’s motivations for seeking to join the Jewish people, but always in a respectful way, allowing the individual to maintain his/her privacy.
  4. Some rabbis might choose to ensure that the conversion candidate is of sound emotional / psychological health. Unless a rabbi is specifically trained as a mental health clinicial, any such evaluation will be done by an outside professional, who is trained to make such a determination.
  5. We recognize that most conversion candidates have to make significant financial sacrifice in order to pursue conversion. There is no stipulation that allows only the wealthy to be able to join the Jewish people. As such, we rabbis will endeavor to make the conversion process affordable to anyone, regardless of his/her financial situation. This respect for the convert’s economic standing must extend even to the conversation regarding where the new convert will choose to educate his/her children.
  6. We respect the conversion candidate’s family – his/her parents, spouse, children and extended family. While the person’s spiritual home will be far from the family s/he comes to us from, their emotional ties and the respect due to a person’s parents remain. As rabbis, we will endeavor to steer the conversion candidate to his/her new Jewish life, while at the same time, giving him/her the latitude s/he needs to successfully maintain his/her family ties.
  7. As rabbis, we guarantee the emotional and physical safety that every conversion candidate should expect. While the rabbi will need to make certain demands of the candidate’s studies and religious observance, the rabbi will never use a position of authority to coerce, encourage or allow any inappropriate relationship or otherwise use his power to demand anything of the convert that is not expected from any other member of the Jewish people.
  8. In the event that the conversion candidate believes that any part of this Bill of Rights is being violated and the rabbi not adequately address his/her concerns, we encourage him/her to contact another rabbi or a local or national rabbinical organization for guidance. Obviously, should any action on the part of the rabbi violate civil law, the appropriate authorities should be notified.

We welcome you on your holy journey and appreciate your putting your trust in us to guide you on this path.

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OK, which of my rabbinical colleagues is ready to run with this or a version thereof?

Who of you is prepared to ask that your local or national rabbinical organization adopt this as its practice?

Rabbi Arnold D. (Arnie) Samlan is Executive Director of the Center for the Advancement of Jewish Education.