Thoughts on the RCA’s GPS Committee Report

Following recent high-profile scandals, the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) commissioned a committee to review its centralized conversion system of Geirus Policies and Standards, otherwise known as the GPS. This independent committee, “was comprised of men and women, participants in the conversion process, Dayyanim, mental health professionals, and rabbinic leaders,” whose expertise and experience were especially suited for reviewing the halakhic, social, and psychological components of the conversion process.

At its recent convention, the RCA released the final report of the committee (PDF), which deserves some attention. 1

The first several pages of the Report provide summary results of a survey conducted of converts and rabbis who have participated in the GPS system. 2  Some of this data should prove fascinating to sociologists and demographers, 3 but from a religious or rabbinic perspective, there are a few notable points of consideration.

First, the experiences within the GPS system were on the whole positive for both the convert and the sponsoring rabbis. The summary provided in the Report did not provide a detailed breakdown of responses by region, which means the overall data may be skewed with a New York bias. For example, the regional court of New York City enjoys a far superior reputation compared to others.

There is a strong norm of rabbis’ satisfaction with the performance of the New York City Beit Din. In stark contrast is the assessment of the Other Regional Batei Din, in which fully one-third of Sponsoring Rabbis express dissatisfaction with their functioning.

My sense is that this discrepancy in experience may be attributed to New York’s disproportionate rabbinic resources. For example, thanks to the sheer number of rabbis in the New York area, the distribution of convert-to-rabbi is smaller, thus allowing for more individualized attention for the convert (9). New York also has a much greater pool of rabbis available to serve on batei din, allowing them to be more selective in finding the best candidates for the position. I have known the New York GPS administrator R. Zvi Romm for several years – we were even neighbors during my time on the Lower East Side – and I have seen first hand how he and the assigned dayanim conduct themselves in the conversion process. Unfortunately, they cannot service the entire country.

Finally, the summary continues that most frequent complaint related to “administrative issues.” This too is unsurprising, given that most batei din (more accurately, rabbis in general) are overworked and understaffed, but New York City poses fewer logistical issues when compared to other regions in the US where time and expenses of travel becomes a greater concern.

All that aside, the real importance of the Report can be found on page 11, and worth quoting at length.

At the time of the establishment of the GPS system, attention was paid primarily to the development of Batei Din that would function according to standardized halachic procedures. Primary concerns included the essential requirement of conversion candidates’ full observance of Jewish law at the time of the conversion, as well as with their expectation and commitment to continue to live as observant Jews. The emphasis in establishing this system was to maintain a high quality of the conversions in order to assure that they would be widely recognized.

The emphasis of the RCA in establishing these Batei Din was thus primarily on the halachic practices of the Batei Din and not on the experiences of the converts. It was assumed at the time that the experiences of converts, their training, their spiritual and religious development, their emotional process and comfort would be tended to by their Sponsoring Rabbis who had much experience in these areas.

The collection of data from the surveys, from input of those involved in conversion preparation as teachers and sponsoring rabbis, as well as from the collective experience of the Review Committee members, have made apparent, however, that the RCA must not limit its attention to halachic details, but to the many areas and aspects of the complexity of the total conversion experience for conversion candidates including emotional, spiritual, social issues, power dynamics, and other factors. While many converts felt satisfied with the process of conversion, a significant minority felt vulnerable, unduly stressed, and sometimes even resentful of the process. These recommendations expand the attention that must be given to the quality of the experiences of converts.

The significance of this statement cannot be understated. A general, systemic problem is identified, its root cause is explained, and a new approach is offered to fix said problem, followed by subsequent pages detailing specific recommendations for improving the conversion process at every level, including specific emphasis on improving the regional system outside of New York.

During my tenure as a pulpit rabbi, I met with dozens of prospective converts in various stages of their respective spiritual journeys. For those interested in an Orthodox conversion, I would almost always recommend the GPS system over the alternatives on the grounds that doing so would minimize the conversion being called into question. 4  Regardless of the halakhic ramifications of questioning valid conversions, it has been my opinion that converts should not become pawns in rabbinic political battles, and that for most cases the GPS would be better for the convert in the long run. 5

My objections to centralized conversions and the GPS system still stand, and in some ways are validated by the Report. 6  However, given that the GPS does exist, I can only commend the RCA for commissioning the committee and I hope that its recommendations are successfully implemented.

Ultimately, our primary concern should be for the well-being of the conversion candidate. From this perspectives, the attitudinal shift and practical improvements of the Report can only be considered a Good Thing.

Notes:

  1. I also highly recommend reading committee member Evelyn Fruchter’s speech delivered at the same RCA convention, available here. (PDF)
  2. As a sponsoring rabbi of GPS conversion candidates I participated in the survey.
  3. For example, “78% of conversion participants in the RCA-Beth Din of America network are women.” (7)
  4. I also stressed that even with the GPS, future acceptance is ultimately unpredictable and cannot be guaranteed since it is not implausible for certain Jewish communities or a future Israeli Rabbanut regime to reject even a GPS conversion.
  5. Fortunately, I was able to do so in good conscious because I trusted R. Romm and the other dayanim involved. While I have heard of criticisms regarding the New York court, I have not personally encountered any reason to give cause for concern.
  6. Recall that the formation of the GPS challenged to the competency of pulpit rabbinate, the very people most likely to identify and address those very “emotional, spiritual, social issues, power dynamics, and other factors” ignored and disregarded by the GPS establishment.  Furthermore, the validity of the Report’s claim that, “a conversion completed through this system grants the convert the assurance that the conversion will be the most widely accepted both in North America and by the Chief Rabbinate of Israel” (5) is in part due to the delegimization campaigns conducted by the Chief Rabbinate and the RCA itself. Finally, the Report frequently appeals to “the poskim” without qualification, a curious invocation for a document dedicated towards improving accountability.
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