Oct 31, 2011

A Response: Conversion's a Racket

Okay. Let's try this again.

My last post created a huge ruckus in my community -- such is the drama of being a very public blogger in a new community. I don't blog anonymously, and I don't have any misconceptions about my Twitter feed and blog being accessible by anyone, anywhere. That's part of what I love about what I write, it's open access. So the blog post was commented on by a community member, then it made it to one rabbi, then another, then community members and so on. The offense taken, I think, regarded the tone of the blog post as well as the misunderstanding that I was calling out or bashing the Denver community in particular, which I wasn't.

I had wanted to wait to post on the topic until I felt like I was in a calm, even place where I would be eloquent (as I'm known) but also pointed and direct, saying "this is what's going on, and this is what needs to change." However, it didn't come out that way. Why? After speaking with a rabbi friend on Twitter very briefly about the problems in the community with conversion and what I consider (after all, this is my blog and it is full of my opinions) extortion, he said the following:

Well, you don't have to go through it!
That simple quote, which horrified me -- should I not care about those who do have to suffer financial loss or a lost neshama? -- paired with the constantly echoing in my mind words of Rav Tarfon

"It is not your responsibility to finish the work [of perfecting the world], but you are not free to desist from it either" (Pirkei Avot 2:16).
said one thing to me: you must speak now, it is your duty, it is your mission, it is your work. I get emails daily from people in-process, done with the process, leaving the process, and so on who have stories about acceptance, the process, and more that would make most people's skin crawl. An oft-said thing to me by born Jews is, "If I hadn't been born Jewish, I don't know if I would choose it." 

Because of the hoops you must jump through? The pressure? The issues of acceptance? The costs? The oppression? The bullying by other converts? 

My passion and fervor for this issue of extortion in conversion -- no matter what branch, no matter where you are geographically -- is my work. It's my responsibility when it comes to repairing the Jewish world. Someone has to stand up, someone has to say something, to do something. 

My biggest beef with the Denver process is the cost. Plain and simple. Why fly in a rabbi from Queens and make the candidates foot that bill? Why not use a more local rabbi? Classes are necessary for studying and conversion to Orthodox Judaism, and I'll be honest -- I'm more than happy to devote two to three hours a week to teaching and training converts in the basics of Judaism and conversion; after all, I've been there, I've done that, and I can lay things out from a perspective of the convert and what you need to know before the formal process. I also think I can give something a book-learning class can't -- personal perspective, stories, passion, fervor, dedication, devotion. The heart of Judaism, not just the facts and the "you must be able to say and do this when you convert." But I'm not a rabbi. Does that change things? Can an Orthodox convert to Judaism properly train converts? I think so, yes. But when one system has a monopoly on the process, saying "you must do x, y, z, and you must do it with this person," that does not provide options, it provides a monopoly. 

Because I know, at the very depths of my soul, what Orthodox converts go through before, during, and after their conversions, I know that this is my place. I counsel, I help, I calm the fears of those who have no one else to turn to, and for that, I feel like HaShem has granted me great patience, understanding, and love. 

Converts are coming home. They're bringing their neshamot home, finally. They should be overwhelmed by the weight of the mitzvot, not the costs to let their neshamot onto the front stoop of Judaism. 

26 comments:

Chana said...

Chaviva,

The point still stands: an observant Jewish life is an expensive one.

In response to your poignant ending line,

"They should be overwhelmed by the weight of the mitzvot, not the costs to let their neshamot onto the front stoop of Judaism,"

the same could be said of a wedding-- why shouldn't a young couple focus on the beginning and foundation of their spiritual union? Why must they be bogged down with the costs of a wedding, a hall, a gown, a sheitel, etc.? Such is life.

On Twitter, @ChicagoLeah said that it's screwed up for a religious lifestyle to be expensive.

Well, you know what-- it's not fair that houses & food - the basic necessities of life, religious or not, should be expensive.

In this post, you seem to have made peace with the expenses besides for flying out the B"DTz, so let me respond to that one: of course, it would be idea and wonderful if expert rabbis qualified in every issue resided everywhere and anywhere that Jews (or those in the conversation process) needed them. The fact is that this just isn't the case.

Chabad shluchim all over the world have built mikvaos. And though these rabbis (like my husband) are bonafide rabbis, they aren't world-renowned experts in the specific halachos of mikvaos. So you know what? They fly out the expert rabbis to review their blueprints, examine their excavations and monitor the building of their mikvaos. They fly out the rabbi(s) several times throughout the process-- obviously all expenses on them.

Similarly, it seems that the necessary rabbi isn't in Denver, so someone's got to travel. Yet again, I see this as less of an injustice and more of a fact of life.

I hope this response hasn't come off as insensitive, and I admire your devotion to this cause. Chavi, why not start a fund? There are funds for sheitelach for kallahs that can't afford them, for example. I'm sure that this could be a real niche, and you're the perfect person to develop it. I'm sure you could get many converts (and others) to pledge monthly to the cause, and thus - though some fees are not negotiable - you'd be able to help those of lesser means focus, as you say, "on the weight of the mitzvot." Interested?

Chana said...

*ideal, not idea

Chaviva said...

@Chana I haven't come to terms with the costs -- the learning costs are my biggest complaint. That still stands as a huge issue to me. Period.

It isn't the same thing. You're talking apples and oranges. When you get married, you don't have to have a hall and a photographer and a caterer and all of that hoopla -- those are choices. Learning to convert is not a choice, if you want to convert here in Denver, there's one way to do it. There aren't choices. In a marriage, you can go simple -- rabbi, witnesses, a small meal -- or you can go extravagant. No one is making you have an expensive wedding.

As for a fund, it's impossible. Why? Because in the Orthodox world, funds can't go toward a non-Jew. That's why organizations like Partners in Torah can't partner up with Jews-in-training. Money has to go to Jewish causes, not potential Jews-in-training.

SusQHB said...

Could it be that the Denver community is purposely trying to set themselves up as not one interested or willin working with converts? From what I know about the process in Dallas, the folks who recently converted weren't responsible for footing the bill to import the beis din. I don't know who paid but I don't think it was them. And from what I gather, there is a rabbi here that is loving and kind to those wanting to learn more about yiddishkeit. I thought those costs on your last post Chaviva were ridiculous. Its one thing to try to not encourage conversion, but to make it impossible (financially) for an interested person is not okay in my book. I don't think they should post high costs as a way of saying, well if you can't afford this you can't play for our team, but that's sure how it looks from this angle.

Chana said...

You're right regarding size of wedding-- however a sheitel etc. is not a choice.

You didn't respond to the point of Chabad rabbis flying in the mikva experts-- it isn't a choice.

Regarding classes-- learning taharas hamishpocha before marriage also ins't a choice. I think I paid $450. That's serious money. But that's a religious Jewish life.

Why can't you create your own fund and do what you want with it? OK, I understand Partners in Torah can't contribute-- but why not work your own networks?!

Chaviva said...

Our chatan/kallah classes didn't cost us a penny.

Sheitels come in all shapes and prices -- you don't have to buy a $2,000 sheitel.

As for Chabad, it's a choice to live where one lives. Yes, the rebbe insisted that outreach to all points of the earth was part of the Chabad mission, but it seems like nowadays, everything could be done online through skype or other avenues.

I don't want to start my own fund -- I want policies to change so that people can afford it. Then? Then I'll start a fund.

Nora said...

SusQHB is exactly correct. There are plenty of things to deter a person from converting, exorbitant "up-front" costs shouldn't be one of them. There has to be a closer Orthodox community to fly someone in from, too, if that's really necessary.

Chana- you're comparing apples and oranges. I chose to have a small wedding. Living in Denver wouldn't give me any choice in conversion costs. And there it would've been a choice between rent/food and conversion. Which is ridiculous. Yes, the trappings of an observant life are expensive but they're also things that can be bought piecemeal and saved for overtime..

Nora said...

Also, sheitels are optional. I function just fine without one.

Leah in Chicago said...

To clarify, I said, "Religion shouldn't send people into poverty for the cost of being observant."

Chana said...

Chaviva,

Of course everyone has a choice of where to live-- and if a Chabad emissary is sent to live in Yehupitz, this is with the understanding that some aspects of Jewish life can be far less convenient-- having to fly to the nearest community to use the mikva, for example. I brought this example, not as a complaint, merely as a comparison.

So, since everyone has a choice of where to live, perhaps a convert might choose to live somewhere more centrally located than Denver?

And Nora, I don't know you or your community, but in my community, a sheitel is NOT optional. Period.

Cheapskate said...

Chaviva, I'm so happy you moved to our dynamic little kehillah. I really mean that. The Denver Jewish community can really use your smarts and volunteerism. And on a personal level, I'm so glad I made a new and wonderful friend.

The thing is, you are very new to our community. I think it's fantastic that you want to help and improve the conversion program, and your empathy for fellow converts is truly heartfelt. As I've told you before, we non-converts will never really have the capacity to understand what an Orthodox convert has to go through.

But, if you really want to affect change in our community, blogging and tweeting about it was probably not the best first step to take. It was probably not even the best second step to take. What you did was get people talking about Denver in a very uninformed way. As I'm reading some of the comments and tweets, I'm growing more and more horrified. There is a history here, and there are some very good people involved, and though I'm sure you didn't mean to, these people are now being spoken about pretty negatively. You can't expect to come into a community and make instant changes to a long-standing program overnight. If you want to be taken seriously, you need to meet with the people, get more history, and get involved on a personal level. You didn't even give the people involved a chance before you challenged them in a very public forum. An angry blog post was, perhaps, not the way to go. Just my $0.02.

That said, I hope some good comes out of all this. Now that the horse is out of the barn, maybe you can work together with the leadership here to make some really positive changes. But please keep in mind that if you want them to trust you, you might want to go offline with this for a while.

-Susie

Chaviva said...

@Susie I was writing a blog post, not a news article. I spoke with many people in the community and a rabbi who knew the community background. I didn't just pull all of this out of the ether. I respect how you approach things, but you and I aren't the same person and this is my mode of talking things out and discussing the issues. People can take it or leave it, but I've gotten some positive responses from rabbis elsewhere in Colorado, not to mention one of the rabbis involved in the process before the current process was in place.

I apologize if you took offense to my approach or to anything I said. I know Denverites are very protective of their community.

SusQHB said...

Sheitels don't have to cost $2000 either, but somehow that's a justified cost to many women who wear them when a less expensive one will fit the bill. Yes, Orthodoxy is expensive, but there is always high and low ends of the price spectrum to many of the expenses we have. You don't need a roast every Shabbos when chicken is perfectly acceptable. Shul membership is expensive...but every shul I've ever been affiliated with has been willing to work with members who can't afford the price. Day school is expensive. But many of the mid to large Jewish communities have more than one to choose from. You don't need to attend the one that has the highest tuition. From what I have learned from my friends who have converted, its hard enough. If they also need to move to a brand new place where they have no friends or support system and have to leave a good job behind to get there (especially in this market), how much harder are we forcing it to become?

Bethany said...

The man who said "you don't have to go through it" made a lot of other very valid points, along with the commenters on the last post, about why the cost is understandable.

Time is money. Rabbi's time isn't free, nor is anyone else's. Chana's point about flying in experts is exactly right. Chabad rabbis have to pay for their own expenses, and the cost of flying out mikvah rabbis is on their shoulders.

Nobody said life was fair. I don't want to pay $2K either, but this is a decision people make. And if they're not able to pay the cost of conversion, how are they going to pay the cost of Jewish life? If they're not willing to pay the cost of conversion, Orthodox Judaism isn't right for them.

Batya said...

Chavi, the price of a sheitel has nothing to do with your expose` about the cost of conversion. Jews are supposed to discourage those who want to convert, not rip them off.

I'm with you on this. There must be a better way. Unfortunately, many potential or wannabe converts find themselves blocked by reasons that have nothing to do with faith and theology.

Redacted said...

I think my perspective here is very different.

I'm a convert-in-process in another, even smaller community. After reading the original article on the program in Denver, I found myself envious. I think the experience of those converting in less Jewishly populated areas of the country is a lot different than those converting in NY or LA. What I saw was what sounded like a well-organized program that was overseen by a respected Rabbi from outside to lend the conversions a greater legitimacy than they otherwise might have had. $20 a week seemed pretty fair for weekly tutoring. For me, the costs listed barely made a dent in the yeshiva tuition I'm preparing to one day pay.

Would conversion be cheaper somewhere else? Perhaps, but any savings there would likely be eaten up by the cost of relocating and a higher cost of living. Granted, I can't really judge the process from so far away, but from where I'm sitting and the costs in this area, it looks reasonable.

As someone else has already said, if they can't afford the costs of conversion, how will they afford yeshiva tuition and synagogue memberships? Sadly, for many different reasons, not everyone who wants to convert can, but it's like that throughout life.

Bethany said...

@Redacted - LA conversion costs are actually a lot more, and a lot less transparent. There's another conversion blogger, Skylar, who has written a lot about it.

onbecomingdevoted said...

So to me this is the result of two basic issues that are not completely agreed on within Judaism at large:

1.Does the convert-in-the-process have a Jewish neshamah before they convert?

2.Do born Jews get first dibs on the freedom to practice their beliefs... for free?

I don't think this is an issue you alone can solve. It bridges many gaps as well as one huge divide--that some people consider going out of their way to help those converting to be much more like proselytizing than like kiruv. Which of course it is neither.

Plainly speaking this is an issue with so many unknowns that most people wont touch it with a tenfoot pole. Those willing to aren't given the freedom to do so for free, and often charge for it to make a living. This isn't the fault of the Rabbi you cited, it's the fault of the belief system behind it that you don't matter unless you are a born-Jew. Or that you only matter after you convert.

More power to you! Make a change! Start a revolution! I'm behind ya in spirit all the way :)

all about me said...

I like the mikvah analogy. It seems that in conversion, you get what you pay for. What do I mean? Most people are aware of the "Who's a Jew" debate. Converts want to make sure they are learning with a top tier rabbi. Community rabbis want to make sure that their community converts are getting the "platinum package" so there is no second guessing people in the long run. I think it is wonderful that local rabbis are being medakdek about this. Just as Chabad shluchim rely on experts to advise on the construction of a mikvah, so too these local rabbis are admitting they might not be experts in what needs to be accomplished for a conversion. I think the students will benefit in the long run.

Aliza "La Jewminicana" Hausman said...

I've written this before but I turned off the comments section on my blog a long time ago. I am glad that you are still fighting the good fight!

In our line of work, working with converts, we both know that people are going broke to convert. Really broke. Living on people's couches. Almost on the street. They love Judaism but should they be pushed to make decisions that are not at all financially ethical to become Jewish? I know of converts in Latin America who are being charged large sums of money to learn with rabbis and they still must go to Israel or the US to convert and must also fund the various trips they must make to the beis din AND must hope to be able to move to Israel or the US because the commuities in Latina America won't accept them.

Women in Canada come to me in tears about the upfront costs of conversion. When they ask for a breakdown, they are given nothing. When I, as a rabbi's wife ask, I am given fuzzy numbers that don't add up.

It is hard to work with a convert. It used to be that community rabbis did most of the work and they expected and took very little on top of their salary for working with converts. They understand the cost of moving and perhaps even selling your home, the cost of converting your home as well as your heart and religion. They knew the people they were working with and they knew who needed to be charged more and who needed to be charged less. They knew who would make an extravagant donation to the shul afterwards and who would go broke to fork over $150-$300 for the mikvah when married women who come at night are charged anywhere from $30 to much, much lower.

I was a teacher when I was converting and I couldn't afford it. I had to borrow money to move from my atheist pseudo-father and my Wiccan sister. Borrow money for the mikvah. Borrow...you get it? I did it but I've never had the money to pay anyone but the girl friend who helped me with the mikvah and came with me to hold my hand and hug me.

And hey, I was SINGLE. I was not someone converting with five kids and unable to sell the house I had lived in forever near no Jewish community.

There are plenty of converts who teach other converts. But like you said, the rabbis are picking who you learn with. I was asked by a born Jew who teaches converts and has done it for years to help on a case. She felt that while she could handle teaching the basics--and forget it, now they expect much, much more than the basics since one girl from California sent me her study guide and after reading it, I told her it seemed like she was getting a Phd in Judaism over 3 years before they would allow her to convert. I told her it was ridiculous. But she was too scared to go anywhere else, especially since they had told her everywhere else wasn't kosher enough!

Aliza "La Jewminicana" Hausman said...

Observant Jewish life doesn't have to be an expensive one. It is very different outside of wealthy American communities where even there, people are going into debt to keep up with the Rosenbergs. And when people use restraint, all we hear is people talking about how they expected better food at the wedding and how everything was badly decorated and etc.

Aliza "La Jewminicana" Hausman said...

My chatan/kallah classes didn't cost me nowhere near $450. If I remember correctly, I was charged nothing for being part of the shul community.

There are organizations that can help you pay for a sheitel and if you can't afford a sheitel, maybe you can't afford to live in a neighborhood that demands that. Obviously, hats and tichels are less prohibitive. Of course, we have made them into a sign of where people stand in the community.

"I don't want to start my own fund -- I want policies to change so that people can afford it. Then? Then I'll start a fund."

I wholeheartedly agree with that. The prices could be more reasonable overall. I didn't have to pay my rabbi. I am sure there are people who could and did. He deserved every penny, too. But I could never see him asking people to put out thousands of dollars to become Jewish. BUT my rabbi is one of the lucky few who is still allowed to act on a conversion beis din unlike countless community rabbis across America that were robbed of this ability to convert and create their own baatei din because of a few rabbis who took advantage of the system.

Instead of investigating and dealing with the few rabbis who were taking advantage, the system was overhauled to be more "streamlined" and similar across the board? But who's paying for that? Not the RCA. Not the system. CONVERTS. Isn't that interesting?

Also, if it has become so streamlined, why are converts even in large Jewish areas paying different prices? We STILL attack wealthy singles who convert to Judaism who people STILL believe had those "quickie paid-for conversions" to get married but I thought we created a perfect system to stop that from happening....

The convert can't win.

Aliza "La Jewminicana" Hausman said...

Converts don't have much of a choice on where to live. They must now live in a place that has an ACCEPTABLE K-12 Orthodox day school if they are converting with children and others are forced to sign contracts if that the will do the same when they have children or face unknown consequences.

Small, inexpensive communities usually do not often fit this mold where even Orthodox Jews still go to public school or go to community Jewish schools. Or even Chabad schools if they are not Chabad as it is the only available Orthodox option.

This is spreading so now Jews who want to adopt are also taking on similar costs to convert CHILDREN. In some cases, children who can't yet walk and talk!!! Adoption itself is inexpensive but infertile couples now have to pay a premium to convert their children. It's not so easy to find a Jewish child to adopt, after all.

I hear, move to Israel! I could barely afford to move to Los Angeles. Actually, I couldn't. I just couldn't afford New York anymore.

Aliza "La Jewminicana" Hausman said...

@Bethany

I have been told by many people in Los Angeles that if you ain't rich, forget converting here.

@Redacted

What if I told you many of the things you listed were FREE in some communities to converts?

Aliza "La Jewminicana" Hausman said...

@allaboutme

There is no such thing as a platinum package. No rabbi can promise that your conversion will be accepted everywhere or even be accepted in Israel. All you are paying for to the thousands is the high probability that somewhere down the line, your conversion and your children's yichus might be questioned or even taken away. This isn't fear-mongering. This is now reality even in the Orthodox community. Given that, charging exorbitant funds is outrageous.

Yes, a rabbi needs to get paid. My husband is a rabbi. He works with many people for free even though we cannot afford it. But community rabbis who are receiving a salary, higher than others in different communities, are usually being compensated for the work they do with converts as they are for the work they do with any Jew in their congregation.

Unfortunately, community rabbis unless they are on a short list now can no longer perform conversions. Even ones who are on the list are still questioned. Even ones who had years of knowledge are not on the list. Converts shouldn't be suffering from a bureaucratic mess created by the Israeli rabbinate or the RCA or any Jewish organization.

Aliza "La Jewminicana" Hausman said...

Correction: I made the mistake of writing that adoption was inexpensive. Clearly, that is not the case and I meant to write expensive.

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