Conversion to Judaism is a tricky subject. To begin with, we Jews are never quite sure if we should be defined as a religion or a race – or both. If we’re a religion, conversion seems like a plausible concept, much like gaining membership to a private club with sets of rules and regulations to adopt. If we’re defined as a race – a peoplehood – then admission would seem only possible through birthright. The topic is also tricky because there are those who believe that conversion to Judaism should be a challenging endeavor and highly discouraged at the outset (hence the myth that potential converts should be rejected thrice before being accepted). Others, however, take a more welcoming stance, encouraging potential converts along their journey – without outright proselytizing.
Back in the summer of 2003, millions of Sex and the City fans watched as character Charlotte York – a prototypical WASP – explored conversion to the Jewish faith before marrying Harry Goldenblatt. The HBO series did a fairly accurate portrayal of conversion, even if it was lampooned in some areas for the sake of humor. Charlotte’s conversion process began with rabbis rudely rejecting her, but she ultimately found a rabbi who welcomed her into a course of learning that concluded with a ceremony at the mikvah – immersing herself in the ritual bath to complete the conversion.
That Sex and the City episode from over a decade ago was the most descriptive example of the Jewish conversion journey that most Americans ever had. Now, Jewish conversion is back in the headlines. A few weeks ago, as the Jewish people were concluding the festival of Sukkot, a prominent Orthodox rabbi in Washington, D.C., was arrested for vouyerism. Rabbi Barry Freundel is accused of concealing a video camera in the mikvah, as well as several other acts of grossly inappropriate behavior with female conversion candidates. Though police did not confirm it, reports say that Freundel allegedy taped women showering in his synagogue’s mikvah, as a step on the way to finalizing their conversion to Judaism.
As news of this rabbi’s alleged abuse of power and other improprieties spreads throughout the national and international media, the general public’s impression of the conversion process to Judaism sadly shifts to a negative. Other mikvahs around the country have had to issue assurances that they have security protocols in place to ensure such violations don’t occur there. Male rabbis have had to verify their procedures with female conversion candidates to reassure that decorum is always maintained. And women are recommending new guidelines in the way conversions are handled so as to avoid situations where candidates are taken advantage of or emotionally abused by their sponsoring rabbi.
The irony in this case of a single rabbi abusing his power and acting completely improperly is that the rabbi in question was one of several Orthodox rabbis who maintained that the conversions carried out by non-Orthodox (Reform and Conservative) rabbis are invalid. Furthermore, he took the position that only a select number of Orthodox rabbis outside of Israel should be permitted to perform valid conversions. (Of course, he maintained that he was one of these recognized rabbis and therefore officiated at a large number of conversions in his career.)
In my own experience as a rabbi guiding men and women through the process of conversion to Judaism, I have witnessed only healthy experiences of this journey and the completion has been a meaningful milestone. When a conversion candidate is female, my male colleagues and I have gone out of our way to ensure that modesty and decorum take precedence. The path of conversion to a Jewish life must be a positive experience for the individual, and that can only occur if the rabbi creates an appropriate, nurturing relationship with the candidate.
The dreadful example set by this Orthodox rabbi in Washington should leave us sickened because of the negative portrayal of Jewish conversion it has created. It should also serve as motivation for the Jewish world to reconsider the authority it has handed over to select Orthodox rabbis to conduct valid conversions. The emphasis should be placed not on which rabbis claim to hold the most punctilious standards, but on those rabbis who help guide interested men and women through the journey of conversion to Judaism in a way that encourages learning while maintaining a healthy, appropriate experience with dignity and devotion. From such a horrible case, perhaps some positive change will emerge and the idea of conversion to the Jewish faith will be embraced in the positive way that it deserves. After all, one rabbi’s egregious abuse of power shouldn’t tarnish the millennia-old Jewish ritual of conversion.
Rabbi Jason Miller is an entrepreneur, educator and writer. A social media expert, Rabbi Miller is a popular speaker and writer on technology and its effect on the Jewish world. He also writes for the Huffington Post, for the Jewish Techs blog and the monthly “Jews in the Digital Age” column for the Detroit Jewish News. Rabbi Miller is the president of Access Computer Technology, a computer tech support, web design and social media marketing company in Michigan. He won the 2012 Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award from the West Bloomfield Chamber of Commerce and is a winner of the Jewish Influencer Award from the National Jewish Outreach Program.