Rabbinical group details need for improvements in working with converts

Rabbinical group details need for improvements in working with converts

The conversion committee was established after Rabbi Barry Freundel’s arrest. (Photo by David Stuck)
The conversion committee was established after Rabbi Barry Freundel’s arrest. (Photo by David Stuck)

The Rabbinical Council of America’s conversion review committee, established following the arrest of Georgetown Rabbi Barry Freundel on 52 misdemeanor counts of voyeurism, is recommending that the organization hire a full-time director to ensure that conversions are conducted properly.

The 22-page report released Monday specifically called for greater professionalism, transparency of expectations and sensitivity to conversion candidates. It also detailed the need for a better system to receive concerns and complaints, and a definitive way to address those complaints.

The report also called for improving the RCA website to provide detailed information on the conversion process, including what is expected of the participant and a general timeline.

Providing “support for converts, during and after the process,” is among the report’s 11 recommendations.

The 11-member committee, chaired by Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, honorary president of the RCA, consisted of two female converts, several rabbis and a psychotherapist. There were six men and five women. The organization serves Orthodox rabbis in the United States and other countries.

The committee surveyed 439 conversion participants and 107 sponsoring rabbis during its eight-month review. One-fourth of the conversion participants who responded to the survey “carry with them a view that the Beit Din is ‘lacking professionalism’” and that they were “judged critically.” They also felt a sense of “powerlessness.”

Committee member Bethany Mandel, a Freundel victim, spoke at the RCA convention held June 29 to July 1 in New York. Her remarks covered not only her conversion but also experiences of the 200 people in her Facebook group who either have converted or are in the process of converting.

Mandel spoke of how “converts are often made to feel like third-class citizens during the conversion process and second-class citizens after the mikvah.”

In her presentation, obtained by Washington Jewish Week, Mandel said that converts who are not fully accepted as Jews by rabbis, community members, school administrators and matchmakers “feel pushed and rejected from Jewish life.”

Mandel referred to herself as “a cautionary tale.” She said she was “made to feel unwelcome and an outsider,” adding, “It has made me feel disillusioned with the community I’ve joined, the community I’m raising my children in.”

She also told convention participants: “I am what happens when a rabbi not only makes serious transgressions, but also when other rabbis don’t check the power of one of their own.”

Now that the committee’s recommendations have been made public, Mandel said she is “cautiously optimistic” that things will improve.

Goldin, the committee chairman, called the report’s release “a historic moment in which the RCA rose to the challenge with complete transparency.”

But Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld of Ohev Sholom – The National Synagogue, who quit the RCA about two weeks ago, questioned whether anything will change. He pointed out that Goldin “was in charge of the RCA when it empowered and emboldened Rabbi Freundel” and then was chosen by the RCA to head the committee.

On his Facebook page, Herzfeld wrote, “What the RCA never did is investigate (even internally, let alone independently)” why so many complaints against Freundel were ignored.

Suzanne Pollak is a senior writer for Washington Jewish Week. She can be reached at spollak@midatlanticmedia.com.