JTA / April 10, 2006
By Larry Luxner
HOLLYWOOD, Fla. — When is an Orthodox conversion really kosher? How long should a prospective Jew have to study before being universally accepted as a convert? And how much should a rabbi charge to supervise the process?
No one has easy answers to these questions. In fact, until recently few Orthodox rabbis even were asking them, at least not in a public forum. And most, if not all, did not accept applicants with Jewish spouses.
Now the Orthodox community gradually is encouraging non-Jewish spouses to convert in accordance with halacha, or Jewish law.
"We're reaching out to intermarrieds to encourage them to apply for conversions if they are truly and sincerely dedicated" to being religious Jews, said Rabbi Leib Tropper, co-founder of the group Eternal Jewish Family, or EJF, based in Monsey, N.Y.
Demographics may have a lot to do with the change of heart. According to Tropper, 50% of non-Orthodox Jews in the United States are married to non-Jews, and another 20% are married to spouses who have undergone Reform or Conservative conversions — which Orthodox Jews often don't consider "kosher."
Last month, EJF hosted a conference in Florida called "Universally Accepted Conversions in Intermarriage. The event attracted 170 leading rabbis ranging from modern Orthodox to Lubavitch, including the chief rabbis of Israel and Poland.
"The notion circulating in the Jewish community that intermarried couples are unwelcome and that Orthodox rabbinical courts will not entertain their conversions is being quickly dispelled by the activities of this organization," conference chairman Marvin Jacob told JTA.
The group has established seven rabbinical courts in the United States and is in the process of creating more. As rabbis join the EJF, they become part of the network of courts, or batei din, that perform conversions, Jacob said.
Tropper said the group doesn't seek to proselytize, but rather "to create universally accepted standards for becoming Jewish."
Rabbi Moshe Krupka, the Orthodox Union's national executive director, agreed that standardizing conversions is a good idea.
"Our hope is that we're not going to utilize mediocre standards. When we as a faith community welcome a convert into our midst, our standard should be acceptance of the Torah and a Torah way of life, so that it elevates the community as a whole," Krupka said. "The last thing you want is for people to go through a life-altering conversion," then find out later that the process was faulty.
Another rabbi said the conference, and EJF itself, represent a sea change in thinking on the part of the U.S. Orthodox establishment.
"The trend here is to accept reality. There are about a million intermarried Jews out of 5.2 million Jews in America. What do you do with them?" said the rabbi, who asked that neither he nor his congregation be identified. "Many of these Jews would convert halachically, but until now, the Orthodox world has written them off."
By standardizing the conversion process, EJF hopes to lure in mixed couples that vow to practice Orthodox Judaism and keep kosher.
"Sometimes, even if people are ready we push them off for months, if not years, to test their sincerity. People lose interest and go away," Jacob said. But if the judges are persuaded that the applicant is sincere about observing the commandments, "we urge that the conversion should take place immediately, because that's halacha."
"The three judges have to be absolutely convinced that the couple has agreed to observe mitzvot," he added. "Once you're declared Jewish in a kosher conversion, you're a Jew, whether you keep it or not."
In the past, Tropper said, "the reputation regarding conversion was that if you're intermarried, it' would be very difficult to persuade an Orthodox rabbi to convert you. You'd better off going the Conservative route."
How long a prospective convert should study is also a matter of debate.
"What's more important is the conviction and determination of the candidate," Tropper said. "If someone's very determined, it can be done in five months. In other cases, it can take up to two years — all that matters is that the [candidate] knows what he's required to know, and agrees to practice and observe it."
In the eight months since EJF's establishment, he says, "we've done 70 conversions divided among various rabbinical courts, and we have another 130 candidates in the process of studying for conversion. We get an average of six applications per week on our website."
Tropper said batei din are currently functioning in Los Angeles, Lakewood, N.J., Monsey, N.Y., Philadelphia, Chicago, Cleveland and Jerusalem.
"We're also looking at Milwaukee, Miami and Boston, but making the beit din is secondary to inspiring mixed-marriage couples to come to us," he said. "The meat and potatoes of our program is getting intermarried couples to share the same passions. I travel all over the country to do that."
The EJF, which is sponsored by the Lillian Jean Kaplan Jewish Pride Through Education Project, has set up regional branches in Salt Lake City, South Fallsburg, N.Y., Westchester County, N.Y., Cleveland and Charlotte, N.C.,
Jacob, a retired New York attorney and Orthodox rabbi, said the Kaplan family started EJF with a budget of $18,000, which has grown to "hundreds of thousands of dollars."
The Florida event, underwritten by philanthropist Thomas Kaplan, was a followup to EJF's first conference in Newark last September, which drew 103 rabbis. A third conference is planned this July in Jerusalem, to be followed by a fourth one in Boston sometime this fall.
Jacob said his organization also is involved in training beit din judges. Rabbis who enroll in the program study for two hours a day, four days a week, and are paid a monthly stipend of $700.
The group also is promoting a uniform fee for conversions so that applicants can avoid what Jacob called "shysters," adding that a fair fee is about $300 per dayan.
"I've heard of one Orthodox rabbi who charges $7,500," he added.
Said Krupka: "It pains me greatly that there are Jews who don't live up to their Jewish potential. But that should in no way lower the bar for what it takes to become a Jew, especially if we believe that Judaism is divinely ordained."