A Look into the Contemporary Conversion Process in America

Rabbi Mark Dratch visited Dr. Stuart Halpern’s course on “New Approaches to the Book of Ruth” on Monday February 13 to deliver a lecture about the conversion process in the Book of Ruth, and the state of conversion in American Orthodox Judaism today. Dratch, who serves as the Executive Vice President of the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) and founded The Jewish Institute Supporting an Abuse Free Environment (JSafe), emphasized that the central element of the conversion process, ancient and modern, is acceptance of the commandments.

Dratch explained that in the case of Ruth, the Talmudic sages seem to have believed that she converted before her marriage to Naomi’s son Mahlon, but that something was lacking in that original conversion. Before Ruth accompanies Naomi back to Bethlehem, Naomi urges her daughter-in-law, for the young woman’s own sake, to turn back. According to the midrash, the formulation of Ruth’s pledge of loyalty to Naomi and her people indicated acceptance of specific mitzvot, in spite of Naomi’s warnings. For example, when Ruth promised to Naomi “where you go I will go,” she was accepting the prohibition against traveling on Shabbat; when she told Naomi “and there [with you] I shall I buried,” she was accepting the fact that the Israelites’ burial practices differed from those of her own people.

Dratch explained that today’s American batei din (rabbinical courts) generally do not turn away interested converts three times, though England’s continue to do so. “However,” said Dratch, “we do say, ‘What do you want this for? Life is difficult, there is antisemitism, and there are many mitzvot.’ If they say, ‘Nevertheless, I accept,’ then they are accepted for conversion.”  The American assumption assumes that the rigorous educational program is a sufficient test of a candidate’s sincerity.

According to Dratch, today’s batei din are also more accepting of individuals wishing to convert for the purpose of marriage, due to the possibility of civil marriage. “The implication for that is that conversion is no longer an impediment for marriage,” explained Dratch. Since nobody is forced to convert for the purpose of marriage, a person who expresses interest in converting to Judaism is assumed to be doing so out of sincerity. The person goes through a learning process, and the rabbi gets to know the person well enough to know when the candidate is ready to convert. Dratch explained that the converting rabbi has considerable discretion in this regard.

Three elements are associated with the conversion process: immersion, acceptance of the commandments, and - for males only - circumcision. “The act of tevilah [immersion] is the liminal act that creates the transformation,” said Dratch. “The convert enters the mikvah [immersion waters] as a non-Jew, and emerges as a Jew.” According to halakhah [Jewish law], three male dayanim [religious judges] must witness the moment of immersion. In the case of female converts, the woman wears loose robes that don’t cling to the body in the mikvah, the dayanim enter the room immediately before she fully immerses, and they leave immediately afterwards. Minors may be converted as children, but can choose to renounce their conversion at bar/bat mitzvah age.

Since a high-profile criminal case of voyeurism in 2014 that “rocked the Jewish world,” the RCA has taken steps to learn more about the experiences of converts, and to implement changes that protect the rights of converts and prevent abuse within the system. “There’s a lot of power, and although we thought we were sensitive, there were issues for conversion candidates to which we learned to be more sensitive,” said Dratch. 

Dratch also noted that individuals too often face social prejudice after conversion. For example, converts are often set up on dates with unsuitable people. “Converts say they’re always being questioned,” said Dratch. “We haven’t really internalized the commandment ‘ve’ahavta et ha-ger [‘and you shall love the convert/stranger].”

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