Orthodox group liberalizes conversion process

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 halachah, 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 percent of non-Orthodox Jews in the United States are married to non-Jews, and another 20 percent 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,” said conference chairman Marvin Jacob.

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.

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 halachah.”

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.” What matters, he said, 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 said, “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 Web site.”

The group also is promoting a uniform fee for conversions so that applicants can avoid what Jacob called “shysters.” He said that a fair fee is about $300 per judge, up to a maximum $1,000 fee for all three together.

“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.”