Rabbi Freundel in Washington D.C. has been arrested for putting cameras in mikvah and re-enacting the creepiest scene from Revenge of the Nerds. Amidst the allegations against Freundel is the revelations that he used his position as a rabbi to manipulate and harass converts. Surprisingly, this time the allegations that converts are being treated like crap in order to please the egos of a few sociopath rabbis seems to have gained some traction. I suppose I have to thank the fact that Rabbi Freundel is such a horrible fucking creep that he has become a catalyst for a great deal of frustration and anger when it comes to the conversion process. Even more important, Bethany Mandel wrote The Convert Bill of Rights
as a way of bringing light to the system of exploitation that the Jewish community propagates under the rubrics of "it takes a long time to convert" and "no one has a right to become Jewish."
Rabbi Freundel is not an isolated rabbi who just used his power to exploit potential converts. The RCA has taken to trying to revise its conversion policy to include female advocates for the female converts (as if sexual harassment is the only manipulation available) and a convocation of mental health workers and rabbis to examine the process. Of course, the fact that Freundel had gotten so powerful that he wanted all converts to go through him and he was censured back in 2012 concerning female converts already shows that this is not isolated. There are plenty of Rabbi Freundels in America and not all of them are members of the RCA.
However, there is no guarantee that the conversion process will improve. In fact, there is plenty of pushback from converts who did not have terrible experiences and want to show their loyalty to their community. There are also the standard statements about "isolated incident" that come with every child molestation case and the rounding of the wagons against reform.
If you are thinking seriously about converting to Judaism, please note that there are plenty of problems with the conversion process. Obviously you should know all the usual steps like finding a community, finding a rabbi, reading all the introductory books, taking your time, etc.
So in no particular order (although the more important ones might be at the end) here is my advice for potential converts (or the advice that I wish that I had when I was trying to convert)
1. Be prepared to move
- Not all Jewish communities are the same. Some are more like small towns out of 80s movies where no one is allowed to dance. I had to move to New York to convert because I was stuck in a "not Jewish yet" place in Saint Louis Park, MN (more information below). I put it off as much as I could but eventually it became obvious that I was not going to convert in Minnesota. I had friend who were there longer than I had been who weren't converting and friends who managed to convert by managing to play the games of the rabbis in charge. One friend found her conversion delayed every time she was seen talking to a male in shul. Other friends just went through conservative conversions. So I moved to New York, found a decent rabbi and a conversion program which took less than two years and had a refreshing lack of head games. Just go to class and when you think you're ready get ahold of the rabbi and he interviews you and when he thinks that you're ready, you make a mikvah appointment. There were delays. I forgot the bracha after snacks and had to keep studying. I was supposed to find my third rabbi and my first choice ended up in the hospital with an infection. Someone died on the day I was supposed to convert. But these are normal delays and they were nothing compared to the Kafka-esque nightmare that was the Saint Louis Park approach to converts.
2. Don't be the Shabbos Goy
- Sure, your conversion is taking some time. You feel like an outsider in the community. Suddenly, you can be a unique member of the community. You're the one who is turning on the lights and adjusting the air conditioner. Only as the months turn into years, you are still not Jewish yet and you're still turning on the lights. There was one Sukkot where I was shown the Kenesseth Israel air conditioning in the attic. I turned that on (or off) and then as I was passing the bathroom, another member of the community noting that I should go in there (because the light was off). And then as I was trying to find a host for the meal, another friend grabbed me to show me that the bathroom light was off (it wasn't by this point, but I didn't find a place to eat regardless). After this point, I would respond to hints about the lights or the heating with obliviousness. Example "Tim, it's hot in here" (meaning - go up and turn the air conditioning on) Response - "No. It feels fine" (Meaning - yeah fuck off).
Shuls hire people to be shabbos goys (or caretakers). They don't need you in that capacity.
3. Save your guilt for what matters
- Conversion candidates are the most vulnerable members of the Jewish community because they are under constant scrutiny and anyone in the community can possibly delay the conversion due to personality conflicts, unfortunate gaffes or just plain nastiness. Of course, there are some people who think that they can reverse the conversion if only they talk to the right people after mikvah (Keren Simon comes to mind - a horrible woman who has infested Washington Heights for years - but may be moving soon - who sent an email to all my friends asking them to "talk to me" because she "knew people" and could reverse my conversion - she couldn't. She's just stupid - and people on the Mt Sinai board still hate her for her shenanigans). This kind of precarious situation is ripe with possibilities of internalizing the community's dysfunctional nature. As a convert, you are coming into a community with your own history and your own issues. You are already feeling like an outsider because you didn't spend a year in Israel or go to camp or like Carlbach music. But when you learn about some of the more non-western halachot like shomer negia, yichud, not hearing a woman sing solo, it's easy to think that there is a great idealized version of Judaism that you can't even come close to meeting. So you start to feel guilty about your past - about the fact that you hung out with pot smoking polyamory enthusiasts (many that you still call friends) or that you had a girlfriend for four years and you actually had sex. Hell, you could even start feeling guilty about your high school years where you masturbated five times a day.
And it is even more exacerbated if you are around people who are baal tshuva zealots who just came back from Israel and are going through similar versions of self-recrimination. But really, you are trying to become Jewish. You are not trying to become a saint. Nor are you trying to turn into some model of self-control. If you are going to feel guilty for things, feel guilty of the things that you can help like being mean to your friends and acting like a selfish bastard or playing shitty little power games. Feel guilty about how much you fail to understand the problems of others and go into rants or smug dismissals. Don't feel guilty because you used to love pork. Don't feel guilty because some rabbi yelled at you for something that wasn't your fault. Definitely don't feel guilty because you like to watch television.
4. Recognize and avoid the assholes
- I wanted to write this up as "don't idealize the community" to the point that you buy everything everyone says to you about what constitutes Judaism. But really, the main problem you get into is when you are stuck with people who tell you that Judaism forbids pets (bullshit) or that only apostates believe in evolution (total crap). There are bullies and there are people who are going to grill you. There was Dr. Laura at one point and her terrible fans. There are people who tell that story about how Jews are better to their parents because they believe in the Torah instead of evolution. And then there are racist assholes. In SLP, the racist asshole was a Chabad rabbi who would frequently say the N---- word without shame and always acted like he was the arbiter of ritual in Kenesseth Israel (sitting in the far corner near the front, yelling at people to stop talking when they weren't even davening). And when he invited people over, he told the same stupid stories and made the same tired dodges to questions while serving bland vegetarian food. His name was Baruch Cline. I took him seriously for a time.
The Chofetz Chaim provides a wonderful amount of meshuggas in the form of lashon hara rules that go well beyond halacha. These seem like great ideas (after all talking shit about other people is counterproductive and unhealthy) but they only serve to produce places where all of your complaints and concerns are dismissed by a strangely selective adherence to the principles. If what you are saying is a legitimate complaint about a dysfunctional and terrible practice as well as the work of manipulative fucks - then it's shut down as LASHON HARA. However, if you want to talk shit about some guy's cheap looking bar mitzvah for his kid - knock yourself out.
5. Own your personal issues and don't let others determine your worth based on them
- Ok, here is the part of the conversion process that trips up most people because they see these things as legitimate reasons for delaying a conversion. The guilt that was mentioned above is something that helps to make you miserable but there are other places where trying to become Jewish gets even more fretful and that is your personal pain and angst. When I got serious about converting to Orthodox Judaism, I was on the tail end of a four year relationship that was breaking up. When that ended, I was broken and emotionally fragile. I went back to my high school behavior which was to get hung up on one woman that I thought was the answer to all my problems - bonus points as she didn't care and she wasn't interested. And of course, the mild flirting was not something that was approved by anyone else. Anyhow I emailed her for awhile, but then I decided to tell all those stories from my college years - the ones with even more messed up friends having orgies - because I was trying to put myself in a super-frum box for someone who wasn't even interested and I finally just had to do that full confession - you know - totally overcome my fears that I would horrify her if she knew about all these things.
Yeah, she was not happy with that email. Makes sense. But I should also note that she was a 19 year old woman who was going to school to be a lawyer. She may have been sheltered but she was an adult. Still, not a great moment for me. Then again, I didn't think that I deserved to be happy so of course I would get obsessive over a woman who had nothing in common with me and then do all I could to drive her away.
So in other words, I was an emotional mess. But here's the problem with that - I got better. Yet, I was still being told by rabbis that I should watch "what I say around women" (or more importantly that woman) years later. It wasn't like I was going up to random females and talking about dog-fucking in graphic detail. And since Rabbi Goldberger loved his mussar bullshit, he decided that I should get married before I converted and he even tried setting me up with a horrible hippie who was much years older than me and much more easily manipulated. I suppose that would prove that I wasn't going to be the kind of disgusting sexual harassment guy that you find among - well - Washington D.C. Rabbis named Freundel (yeah sometimes the easy jabs are fun).
The more I tried to hide my pain, my brokenness, the more it came out. And the ironic part was that I was only moderately neurotic. Oh sure - 18 years being raised by a bipolar mom making me want to chase after drama, no self-esteem to speak of and an obsessive nature at the time - these are not the kinds of things that say "Yeah, this guy is in an awesome place" but they are also not the kinds of things that should derail a conversion indefinitely. I was trying to become Jewish. If only the most emotionally healthy and stable individuals were allowed to convert to Judaism then there wouldn't be any converts.
Of course, this particular set of circumstances made me an accomplice in my own manipulation. On some level, I BELIEVED that I wasn't worthy of becoming Jewish because I had too many self-defeating behaviors and I pissed too many people off. When I started noticing cracks in the facade (such as in my trip to Crown Heights for a friend's wedding where all his religious-from-birth friends were paying for strippers and getting their money back when the strippers weren't doing lesbian shows) I did not see that as a sign that I wasn't all that bad. I took that as a betrayal of this idealized image I had of the Jewish community.
But the problem here is that there were people I knew that were legitimately worse than I was - with more profound mental issues and weird behavior - converting while others who were much more sane and together were going through similar bullshit and being delayed indefinitely.
There are plenty of crazy Jews in the world. Just because you weren't born Jewish, doesn't mean that you can't join them. Sure, there are some behaviors and actions that are beyond the pale, but telling some easily shocked woman about how your friends used to have orgies in college is not one of them.
6.You have the right to be treated like a human being
- A lot of the pushback to the articles about converts being exploited is in the form of "no one needs to be Jewish" and "well you know it's supposed to be hard" but there is the difficulty of learning halacha, learning Torah and learning Hebrew and then there is the difficulty of being manipulated by rabbis and members of the community who are treating you like a toy. I was lucky relatively speaking. My conversion was delayed by a manipulative rabbi and I took bad advice from members of the community who told me to follow this terrible rabbi's directives. There are other people who have been abused and sexually harassed by rabbis. The RCA is implementing a woman ombudsman in future conversions in order for female conversion candidates to have an advocate. The fact that anyone needs an advocate is a fucking tragedy.
7. Make sure that there IS a formal conversion program in place
- if you ask the congregational rabbi to be your rabbi for your conversion and he states that he is going to guide you to whatever classes you need, then you might as well just plan to waste at least years of your life as you never get anywhere and you discover that the rabbi has decided to pull some bullshit on you to further delay your conversion (seriously, fuck Rabbi Goldberger).
If there is no formal conversion program in place, then start asking why there isn't one and ask this of everyone in the community. Be a pain in the ass if you have to be. As long as you are the happy shabbos goy who will convert one of these days, that's what you are going to be.
When I got to New York, I found a rabbi in a couple of phone calls. And then there was a conversion program. I went to classes for about 8 months. I learned what I needed to learn about Judaism. I interviewed with the main rabbi. He decided I was ready. There was some trouble finding a third rabbi to sit on the beis din but I found him. And then poke poke, off to the mikvah, questions, dunk - Jew now (sent as a text message to my friend Steg).
It was like night and day. In Minnesota, there was a dysfunctional congregation, a manipulative rabbi and no formal conversion program. Everything was done through the Chicago Rabbinical Council which took its marching orders from the manipulative rabbi who thought that he could mussar my conversion into some horrible shape that he thought ideal. There were plenty of other potential converts but the only ones who actually made it to the mikvah via Minnesota were the ones who were better at sucking up to Goldberger (and at least two of them were way more mentally unstable than I ever could be - including creepy staring guy) with everyone else just giving up and going with conservative conversions - even though they wanted Orthodox ones.
In New York, there was a simple program, a comprehensive class and a goal in mind. There was also emotional and social support.
So actually #7 may be the most important one because if you are trying to convert in a community and there is no actual formal process in place, then you most likely won't convert. The community should have one, but I will write a second blog post tomorrow concerning what communities of Jews should do in order to keep themselves from being known as the shitty communities that fuck over potential converts.