Mar 6, 2008
Rabbi Barry Freundel
Rabbi, Kesher Israel Synagogue, Washington DC
Chairman, GPS Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America
Often crisis presents opportunity. There had long been discussion among those performing conversions that there was a need for greater uniformity of standards and a more centralized process. Many rabbis were doing conversions across North America and the standards were often so varied that the potential for abuse was very real. Some conversions were reputedly being done for financial reward and some occurred when rabbis were pressured by important members of their congregations to "take care of" the problem of their child who was dating a non-Jew. Some were being done sincerely, but outside the bounds of normative Orthodox halachah.
Two years ago the Chief Rabbinate of Israel publicly indicated that it would not automatically accept conversions performed by American Orthodox rabbis. This announcement threw many genuine converts into a crisis of confusion and anguish. The RCA, based on the biblical obligation to love genuine converts, concluded that it was time to take the action that had been contemplated for so long by establishing a new and improved structure for conversion practices for North American Orthodoxy.
As a result, the RCA has created a new system for conversion, known as GPS (Gerus Policies and Standards.) It allows a non-Jew to become Jewish in a proper halachic manner, while also dealing sensitively with prospective converts as they navigate their journey into Judaism.
Sadly a few voices within our community have spoken out publicly against GPS. For the most part their criticisms are based on incorrect information and do not reflect the realities of the new system. For that reason, as chairman of the GPS Committee of the RCA, I feel compelled to clarify a number of points for the record, so that the Jewish community, particularly converts and their families, fully understands that GPS is a valuable, necessary, and important development.
GPS puts in place a network of regional conversion courts (or "batei din") throughout North America to supervise the welcoming of new converts. This network consists of pre-existing rabbinical courts for conversion, as well as newly created ones where and as needed.
All of the batei din will operate with uniform yet flexible standards that were first sent to all RCA members for their input. There were very few negative reactions to these procedures and many positive ones. The GPS was then accepted almost unanimously by the RCA members who attended last May's convention. The range in the religious outlook of the rabbis who were involved in this process covers a broad swath of ideologies across the Orthodox spectrum.
The procedures and standards of the network were composed, finalized, and ratified solely by the rabbis of the RCA. The Chief Rabbinate had no input into the standards that were adopted. There simply was no capitulation whatsoever. The new system was implemented, based on the RCA's decision, and moved forward with the wide support of the rank and file of the RCA for the many inherent benefits of the GPS system.
We are pleased that the Israeli Chief Rabbinate ultimately endorsed the procedures of the GPS. We recognize that some may believe that a different halachic standard should apply. However the vast majority of the membership of the RCA simply does not agree.
Rabbis who are not serving on the batei din will have a critical role. Every convert will have a sponsoring rabbi to educate and guide him or her throughout. In addition, the courts will consult with the local rabbi (usually, but not always the sponsoring rabbi) about the progress of the candidate. Finally, after the conversion, the sponsoring rabbi will help the convert integrate fully into the community.
The new structure does not preclude members of the RCA from doing conversions outside the system. Individual rabbis can act autonomously if that is their choice. However, the system will take no responsibility for independent conversions.
Obviously, when we create something new, we must also be concerned about the past. Those involved in creating this network are particularly concerned about the emotions that the events described here have generated within those who have already undergone conversion. Many of us have heard the anguish caused to converts when they found their Jewish status being questioned. Thankfully this concern should be alleviated for future converts if they convert under the GPS system.
It is important to emphasize that nothing in this system is designed to change anyone's previous status as a convert. Those who went through a legitimate process are still Jewish and the regional courts are not charged under this system with reviewing or examining any of these past conversions. Those who are concerned about whether or not they will be accepted in other Jewish communities should consult with their synagogue rabbi as to how they should proceed.
In short, the new network of conversion courts should be welcomed by every Orthodox Jew – and potential convert. There may be some shortcomings in the GPS and we are always open to positive suggestions that will make it better. But these shortcomings are more than outweighed by the many benefits that the new system brings to Jewish life, and to the converts who will join our community.