The Changing Face of Orthodox Conversion in LA

By

Rachel Wizenfeld

With more people converting than ever before and now with a more professional, standardized process, Orthodox conversion has a much different face than it did 20 years ago. Here rabbis, administrators and converts talk about what draws people to Judaism and what the conversion program has become.

Some are looking for deeper meaning. Some want to marry a Jewish spouse. Some grew up Jewish, were stalwarts in their Jewish day camps and religious schools, and are stunned years later to realize that according to many, their Jewish status is highly questionable. Others are inexplicably drawn to religious Judaism for reasons they can’t quite put their finger on.

But whatever the reason, rabbis agree that the numbers of those looking to convert through Orthodox Judaism is significantly more than in past years.

In Israel, the increase is driven by the influx of Russians and those from the former Soviet Union, while in America, it’s the result of being part of a very non-Jewish society – many converts have had their interest in Judaism sparked by meeting and becoming inspired by someone Jewish, says Rabbi Avrohom Union, the rabbinic administrator for the Rabbinical Council of California (RCC), who is in charge of the council’s conversions. And the increasing size of the Orthodox Jewish community, which appears to be growing steadily according to many studies, means that more Americans have exposure to Orthodox Jews.

Rabbi Union spoke of a case where a convert had encountered a yeshiva student at a bus stop and noticed him averting his eyes from her casual, summertime outfit. Intrigued (and slightly offended) by his looking away, she began exploring Judaism.

Rav Gavriel Cohen, who heads a beis din near Hancock Park, says that in addition to the increase in conversion applicants, their quality and seriousness has increased. “The ones who come in these days, they’re very strong. They really want to go through it at all costs, even if they are going to lose connection with their family members, or they have to work hard. It’s a different feel,” he says.

And while those who convert to marry a Jewish spouse were always a consistent percentage, today there are many candidates who simply have a yearning for something higher, says Rabbi Shmuel Ohana, who runs a beis din in the valley. “Some of them, without any Jewish partner, have been exposed to Judaism one way or another that encourages them to investigate it further, and we find they respond to their yearning,” he says.

There are four primary motivations of those who wish to convert, according to the RCC, which has been collecting statistical data on Orthodox conversion for over twenty years. While many assume that the primary reason people convert is for marriage, only 30% of RCC conversions are by those who are currently married or seeing someone. “It’s significant, but by no means a majority,” Rabbi Union says.

One major group is made up of spiritual seekers who are simply driven by a search for G-d in a secular society. Others don’t necessarily have a clear sense of what it is that’s pulling them to Judaism, but feel an uncompromising urge to join the tribe. Sometimes these individuals find out later that they have Jewish ancestry, like one brilliant fellow from Brazil who was in LA getting his PhD in computer sciences on a full scholarship from the Brazilian government. He came to the RCC for his conversion, professing a sincere dedication to Judaism, married another convert, and much later, after investigating his family tree, discovered that he descended from Marranos that had moved to Brazil from Portugal several centuries prior.

Another convert interviewed for this article, Chloe Traicos, had always felt drawn to Judaism and at home in Jewish life, as she puts it. Born and raised first in Zimbabwe and then in Australia, Traicos initially converted Reform, but found that keeping Shabbos and kosher meant she was more religious than all the Reform Jews she knew. Upon discovering that not everyone would consider her children Jewish, she began studying for Orthodox conversion, which she successfully completed this past summer under the supervision of Rabbi Zvi Block, who runs a beis din in North Hollywood. Traicos had long suspected that her maternal great-grandmother, who lived in Odessa, Ukraine, was Jewish, and was exhilarated to learn that a recent DNA test found her to be 43% genetically Jewish.

While both of these individuals still required conversions to become halachically Jewish, these findings were powerful affirmations of their choice to convert.

The final motivation to convert comes from being raised Jewish or having Jewish family origins, according to Rabbi Union. Often such an individual will be an unaffiliated or non-observant Jew who starts becoming interested in religious Judaism and becoming a baal teshuva, and suddenly finds out that he is the product of a less-than-Orthodox conversion.

These situations crop up all the time: one man who was learning Daf Yomi daily was suddenly informed by his father that his mother didn’t have an Orthodox conversion. A young woman, who fell in love with an Israeli on a Birthright-style trip to Israel, was shocked to learn that she would have to convert in order to marry the man in Israel. Many of these converts have a Jewish father or grandparent, or grew up with a strong Jewish identity, whether through USY or NFTY, Conservative and Reform Jewish youth programs. This last group of conversion candidates is growing steadily and is expected to rise even more as high intermarriage rates (as documented by the recent Pew study on American Jewry) lead to more blurry Jewish identities.

Because it is often traumatic for these individuals to learn they are not considered Jewish, Rabbi Union likes to tell them, “consider yourself an associate member of the Jewish community, even though right now you’re not halachically Jewish.”

Often, these stories conclude with positive endings.

Rabbi Ohana recalls one man who became a baal teshuva and began learning and observing Jewish practice, and then suddenly discovered he wasn’t halachically Jewish (his father was Jewish, his mother was not). He approached a local beis din to be converted, but despite his sincerity, after his initial interview he was sent a letter encouraging him to become a “ben noach” –a righteous gentile. This man came to Rabbi Ohana’s shul to show him the letter and plead his case, and Rabbi Ohana proceeded to learn with him and presided over his conversion, after which he married and started a family.

“The last time I called the rabbi of the shul where he belongs to check up on him, the rabbi said, ‘that guy? He just came – he’s waiting for us now for mincha.’”

Rabbi Union wouldn’t say which of the primary motivations lead to more successful converts, under the concern that releasing too much proprietary information can assist people in “gaming the system.” (Apparently in Israel there are “cheat sheets” circulating with information on how to convince rabbis of one’s sincerity to convert.) But there are certainly predictors of success for converts.

The biggest one is integration into the community, which is why the RCC makes such a push for people to relocate, even if they already live within two or two and a half miles from a shul.

“We insisted that they have to relocate, and in the early years people were really upset with us. But all the people that we did push, after their conversion, they said ‘we get it,’ after having moved into the community and seeing the difference,” he says.

Having a balanced, realistic approach is also critical. If someone comes into the initial interview and says, “My mind is made up. I’m doing this 100%,” the warning bells start to go off, Rabbi Union says.

“This isn’t being born again, where you stand up and wave the flag. We want them to understand the issues and the challenges. It’s not like this is going to solve all of their problems. Is it a beautiful way to live? Sure it is, but they have to appreciate the challenges and be willing to confront those challenges.”

That was one thing that Elsa Monterroso, a woman currently in the process of conversion, had to discover for herself. “It’s not like you wear the head covering and boom – no problems will happen to you,” she says. “Religious people are just like everybody else – it’s real. And it’s so beautiful.”

How many people complete the program and actually convert each year? At the RCC, generally accepted to be the “gold standard” of geirus in Los Angeles, it’s about 1 in 3 candidates, or about 20-30 each year. Most of those who drop out do so within the first 6-8 months, once they realize the demands of living a fully Orthodox lifestyle. Some were experiencing what turned out to be a passing interest, others were lacking in commitment, having been pushed into conversion for family reasons or other pressures. Sometimes applicants will be rejected – about one to two each year – usually due to hiding information, such as a girlfriend or boyfriend in the background, says Rabbi Union.

“It’s very simple: if there’s a Jewish man in a women’s life, he needs to be involved in the process; it can’t be that she’s the Orthodox one and he’ll turn on the TV on Shabbos.”

Is there more of a pressure to do a conversion for a couple that’s already married, to remove the stigma and halachic problem of an intermarried Jew? Obviously the pressure is there, but the standard doesn’t change, says Rabbi Union. “You don’t want to do that conversion if the end result is a non-observant Jew.”

At the smaller batei din, people drop out for many of the same reasons – primarily from a realization that the commitments of Orthodoxy are too much – but the rabbis attest there is more handholding throughout the process.

“We concentrate on the students ourselves – we know exactly what they’re learning, what they feel, and we stick with them all the way through the end; we don’t let go,” says Rav Cohen. “We make sure that we hold the hands of the person until they get the certificate. We’re very close to them.”

“They need chizuk,” agrees Rabbi Ohana, and he says that’s primarily why he initiated his own beis din – because he saw a need for a more sensitive, compassionate approach. “I feel I have more understanding; I stay in touch with them and find out how they are doing, especially before Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Because they need chizuk. To have someone convert and then you forget about them, that’s not fair to the convert.”

There has been a major – and recent – shift in the way conversions are processed in America. Historically, local rabbis were responsible for administering conversions, convening their own batei din and vouching for the validity of their converts, were they to relocate or marry. But over the past decade, largely spurred on by the Israeli rabbinate, many conversions in America have become more standardized and handled by centralized rabbinic courts. The Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) was largely responsible for initiating this change through its program called GPS (Geirus Policies and Standards), which instituted national standards and created a network of regional batei din to oversee conversions. GPS was intended to provide converts with a safer conversion that wouldn’t be called into question by the Israeli rabbinate. In years past and current, the rabbinate has refused to recognize some conversions from diaspora rabbis it is unfamiliar with or uncomfortable with, leading to fraught and messy situations for converts and their offspring. Yet critics of GPS say that the new standards are too strict and uniform-like, and that the standardized, professional process means conversion candidates are handled with less compassion and sensitivity.

Rabbi Union believes that in today’s fragmented Jewish community, a central body that handles conversions and creates and enforces recognized standards can only be a good thing. To counteract the humanistic concerns, he encourages the close involvement of a sponsoring rabbi who lives in the convert’s community and offers support and guidance, even while the actual conversion goes through the regional beis din.

“At the end of the day, what is it we want to accomplish?” Rabbi Union asks. “We want people who will become observant members of the Orthodox community, and who are fully participating in Orthodox life. They can be Chassidish or Modern Orthodox, Yeshivish or Mizrachi, but they have to be members of an Orthodox Jewish community, and we’re helping people to do that.”

Conversion stats:

Primary motivations of converts:

· Jewish spouse or boyfriend/girlfriend

· Inexplicable pull to Judaism

· Jewish parent or grandparent, or raised as Jewish

· Spiritual seeker, looking for G-d

Average cost of conversion: $1,500-$2,000, includes tutoring, administrative fees and mikvah fees

Average timeframe: 1-2 years

Number of Orthodox conversions done in LA annually: approximately 50-80 (based on anecdotal data)