Published On: Wed, Jul 20th, 2016

The Tragedy of Conversion from the Perspective of a Convert

Conversion  2011_Hebrew_Name_Blessing    photo source- cbict.org

 

In reference to the recent and ongoing  issues Enclose please find:

1. LETTER: to Converts by Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun, New York

2. OPINION: A Convert’s Response ignored by the Rabbis of KJ and Lincoln Square Synagogue, NYC

3. OPINION: The aftermath of the Supreme Rabbinical Court’s ruling,  by Rabbi Seth Farber

 

It seems obvious to me that these Rabbi lack concern for the converts for they ignore my inquiries. They seem more interested in their status and image versus the real needs of their flock.

 

The letter from KJ to converts from Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz:

Dear Friend,

A few weeks ago, a rabbinic court in Petach Tikvah, Israel refused recognition to one of KJ’s converts. The Rabbinic court claimed that they did not “know” Rabbi Lookstein, and therefore could not validate his conversions. His convert was unable to get this ruling reversed, and she had to repeat the conversion ceremony before the rabbinate would issue her a marriage license.

We know that many of you are now concerned and have many questions: will this case affect my conversion? Will I be accepted as Jewish by potential spouses? Will my children be accepted by their peers? And some of you have said you feel humiliated as if you are not true Jews.

Nothing could be further from the truth. It bears repeating a fundamental Jewish teaching: converts are beloved members of the Jewish people. The great Rabbinic sage Maimonides writes in his Letter to Obadiah the Convert that “no difference exists between you and us.” Not only that, Maimonides recognizes the enormous sacrifices converts make to join the Jewish people, and says “While we (i.e., naturally born Jews) are the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, you (converts) derive (your Jewish identity directly) from Him through whose word the world was created.” The spiritual journey you have taken is inspiring and heroic; no one can impugn your Jewish identity in the eyes of God. Indeed, anyone who insults you insults God, who cherishes the convert. And at KJ, our Rabbis, leadership and congregants are here to support you unconditionally.

Sadly, this convert’s situation is due to the bureaucratic pettiness and religious fanaticism in one Rabbinic Court. However, several organizations are now working to change the way the Rabbinate in Israel treats sincere converts. In fact, in the wake of this case, both of Israel’s Chief Rabbis announced that they accept Rabbi Lookstein’s conversions.

Most importantly, any convert who intends to move to Israel should please consult with the Rabbis at KJ, to ensure that they present their credentials to a rabbinic court that is familiar with Rabbi Lookstein and our standards for conversion. We believe that we can prevent this from happening again. We know this is a troubling issue for everyone. Please let us know if you would like to speak further about this.

May God bless you and support you in all of your endeavors.

Sincerely, Haskel Lookstein Chaim Steinmetz Elie Weinstock Daniel and Rachel Kraus

 

My response sent on 7/18/2016 addressed to KJ and Lincoln Square Rabbis:

Dear Rabbis,

I received your letter addressed to converts in face of the recent events in not recognizing conversions and Rabbis conducting those. You encouraged further discussion and I would like to take you up on that since this matter is of great importance and not resolved by far.

It wasn’t until a couple of years ago that my Jewish roots were confirmed even though I felt them strongly all my life. I’m a descendant of the Brandeis family tree and had to convert because not all of my more recent ancestors are Jewish.

In your letter you quote Mamonides’ views on converts that he stated long before the RCA was established and therefore must have been all inclusive and didn’t pertain to certain conversions through specific groups only.

Your letter sounds all inclusive and I would like to ask you whether it is meant that way or if it is only addressed to converts who converted through KJ? What is your attitude towards converts who converted through other Beit Dins guided and conducted by deeply religious and learned Rabbis? Do you accept or reject their converts?

You point out how anyone who insults a convert sins and insults G-d and that converts deserve unconditional support. Again, does that apply to certain converts only who are being pressured into a RCA conversion that fosters centralized authority that offers no guarantee for recognition in Israel as we have recently observed?

Rejection by KJ and Lincoln Square RCA authority figures due to the fact that I didn’t convert through the RCA is my personal experience and that of many other converts who followed another path. When we listen to our hearts and surrender to G-d’s will, we are often led towards a path that is not the proper socially and politically accepted way, but the way of the heart and soul. Once my path was illuminated, I had no other choice unless I didn’t want to be true to my calling and instead just do what was expected within a rather political arena versus a in a spiritual realm. As soon as I had no doubt that I wanted to convert, everything took on its own dynamic from that moment on. Some call it synchronicity. I surrendered to it and followed my intuition instead of outer expectations based in power games and ego.

For the following of my heart I am receiving glorious rewards in the spiritual dimension manifesting in my life since my conversion and the deepening of my Jewishness. In the worldly realm that is ruled by man I am experiencing limitations and rejection mainly due to the conversion crisis that is fought on the backs of converts.

Could it be that what your organization is experiencing now is a taste of your own medicine? A taste of embarrassment, uncertainty, humiliation, ignorance, rejection, being questioned, doubted, pushed away, not heard, disrespected, etc.? I am not exaggerating in any way. This is how converts are being treated.

I dare to say that this may be G-d’s way to interfere with the cruelty that is being perpetrated against converts. A wake up call which can be taken the right way or the wrong way, as free will to choose is a divine law even though a choice that causes suffering leads back to more suffering only until the cycle is broken through wisdom and realization.

The right way would be to develop a deeper understanding and compassion towards all converts and shield them from the battles of the Rabbis. To find ways that unite versus that separate.

The wrong way would be to just defend your own turf, attempt to save face and still put power, worldly prestige and authority before the keeping of G-d’s laws no matter the price. In my experience, many KJ and Lincoln Square Rabbis seem to act in the same injurious manner towards converts as the Supreme Rabbinical Court seems to have recently acted towards KJ.

I say ‘seems’ because no one knows the most inner workings of the Highest Rabbinical Court in Israel other than the Court itself.

Could it be Lashon Hara to call the Rabbinical Court in Israel petty and religiously fanatic while practicing the same type of rejection towards conversion Rabbis and their converts who are not part of your organization? Wouldn’t it be more diplomatic to aim at identifying commonalities, finding solutions together, and practicing mutual respect?

Wouldn’t everyone deserve a benefit of a doubt (dan l’chaf zchut) as in possibly just acting according to their deepest religious feelings and convictions by their religious standards?

Where does the buck stop? Is the solution a centralized conversion organization or should Rabbis be permitted to organize their own Beit Dins in accordance with Halacha and convert people as they did for centuries?

Aren’t all these events signs of a loss in the trust in and respect for G-d’s laws and their purpose for divine guidance? Is everything concerning Judaism being shifted towards ego power and childish attitude as in “I’m privileged to convert, you’re not!”?

As Rabbi Marc D. Angel put it: “Eventually, sanity and justice will prevail. Meanwhile, a lot of people suffer unfairly”.

An immediate concerted effort is needed to end the tragedy of conversion and spare people the pain.

I hope this provides some food for thought, productive emotion and discussion.

Respectfully, Chayah Pokorny

Date: 7-19-2016

 

The aftermath of the Supreme Rabbinical Court’s ruling

by Rabbi Seth Farber

In the aftermath of the Supreme Rabbinical Court’s ruling that refused to certify as Jewish a convert of Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, a number of misconceptions or inaccuracies have made their way into the press. Though this is to be expected, I am appalled by the multiple rabbis who have cynically used the tragic story of Nicole (the convert who was forced to “reaccept” the commandments last week) to advance other agendas. Thus, I want to address three misappropriations of Nicole’s story in order to set the record straight.

In many press reports, the two chief rabbis said they supported Rabbi Lookstein’s conversions. They even wrote letters that said they supported these conversions though they said they couldn’t be responsible for the decisions of the rabbinical courts.

The facts are that the chief rabbinate is directly responsible for the behavior of the rabbinical court. For more than two years, ITIM, the organization I direct, has petitioned the chief rabbinate to publish a list of rabbis or institutions whose conversions would be recognized. In my first meeting with Rabbi Lau, more than two years ago, we discussed the fact that Jewishness certification – particularly from North America- was in a state of chaos.
Last year, ITIM took the unusual step of suing the chief rabbinate to provide such a list. The judge in the case stated clearly that the behavior of the rabbinate was” unJewish and inhuman.” And yet, nothing was done about rectifying the situation from the chief rabbinate. The chief rabbis have consistently attempted to avoid this issue, rather than address it frontally.

Another misconception, ancillary to the first one and propagated by the Chief rabbis, is that once a rabbinical court got involved, there “was nothing” to do. This is unfortunately an attempt to spin the issue. The case was originally heard in front of only one judge in the Petach Tikva regional rabbinic court. Had the chief rabbis chosen to intervene, they could have fixed the situation by demanding that three judges hear the case on the municipal level. Worse than that is that once ITIM filed an appeal in the Supreme Rabbinical court, the chief rabbis could have accepted the case into their docket as they both sit on that court. Instead of spending time writing useless letters, they could have issued a ruling on the spot that would have protected Nicole from the entire ordeal. Instead, the case was directed to three temporary judges, who had no knowledge at all of the American Jewish community or the individual case.

If anything, the actions of the Chief Rabbis were wholly irresponsible. For the record, the same week that Nicole was forced to undergo a humiliating hearing, Rabbi Lau himself sat on another case of a convert who had been rejected by a regional court because the “rabbi was not on the list” and in that case, he certified the conversion without any brouhaha.

Finally, some orthodox rabbis in America have used the travesty to try to consolidate power for the GPS system – a set of regional rabbinical courts in the US that was created in 2007 by a faction of the orthodox community – to “protect” converts. According to these rabbis, Nicole’s story proves that the GPS is the only way to guarantee that no one will question the authenticity of one’s conversion.

These rabbis are either unaware of the facts or simply lying. First, their argument suggests that there is a “deal” between the GPS and the rabbinate that allows all converts through this national system to be recognized in Israel. This is patently false. There is no deal.

Though it is true that many of the GPS converts are recognized, they are only recognized because the converts themselves don’t approach the rabbinical courts: they approach the rabbinate who certifies them. The rabbinate has an understanding with many rabbis – including those of the GPS- that conversions will be certified. But this understanding does not apply to the rabbinical courts, where judges are not bound to anything.
Were someone to go through the GPS for conversion, they would appear before the rabbinical court with the exact same documentation that Nicole brought with her. Nicole had a letter from a clerk in the Chief Rabbi’s office – Rabbi Itamar Tubul – and anyone with a letter from the GPS would have the same letter. The rabbinical court in Petach Tikva, and ultimately the Supreme Rabbinical Court, didn’t say they wouldn’t certify Rabbi Lookstein because it wasn’t a GPS conversion. In fact, in the context of the hearing, it became clear that none of the judges had ever heard of the GPS. They spoke derogatorily of American Judaism, and because of that, their tendency was not to trust anyone.

This story was never about Rabbi Lookstein: It is about the American Jewish community in general and the fact that the Israeli government is allowing its rabbinate to dismiss American rabbis. Even if Nicole’s conversion had been done through GPS, it would have been rejected. My sense is that the rabbis who are promulgating the GPS are cynically using a downtrodden convert – something that is prohibited in the Torah – and are simply engaged in Orthodox triumphalism– something that has characterized too many segments of our community recently – rather than acknowledging the real problems facing the Jewish community in America: assimilation , intermarriage and disaffection with Israel. This is not a time to build bigger walls in an attempt to please the rabbinate, but a time to speak out and say, once and for all, that American Jews are part of the fabric of the Jewish people and have rights (and responsibilities) in Israel.
Rabbi Seth Farber is the director of ITIM: The Jewish Advocacy Center . He represented Nicole in the Supreme Rabbiincal Court last week.

Rabbi Sethopinion was orininaly publisht at Jewish Journal

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