by Amy Newman Smith
“And then the rabbis come in,” my friend explained.
“WHAT?!?” I shrieked. I had asked her, a recent convert with the same beis din (rabbinic court) that was handling my conversion, to walk me step by step through the process.
The rabbis come in? To the mikveh? My thoughts were rapid and panicked. I had met and married a fellow Conservative movement convert. Together we had grown in a different direction and were on the threshold of finalizing our Orthodox conversions after 18 months of learning and living Orthodox Judaism. We had upended our lives in more ways than I can count, lost friends who thought we had lost our minds, moved from an apartment we loved to one we hated in order to be within walking distance of the synagogue. And now, my panicked brain thought, I’m going to have to call it all off. I had learned the laws of mikveh, the ritual bath, and knew nothing could be between my body and the water. I had gotten rid of my pants, raised my necklines, started covering my hair. And now I was supposed to be naked in front of three rabbis? Oh no. That was not going to happen.
My friend, seeing the horror on my face, rushed to clarify. What I had imagined wasn’t real. It was all going to be okay. And so, on the day of my conversion, I met with the three rabbis who made up my beis din. According to the rules of the Rabbinical Council of California, our sponsoring rabbi – the rabbi who for the last year and a half had mentored us, tutored us, and inspired us through the process of becoming Jews – could not be one of the rabbis, but I had met the head rabbi as part of being accepted as a candidate for conversion, and again when we met halfway through our learning to assess our progress. After some probing questions to gauge whether I had the knowledge to keep core commandments and establish that I had no ties to other religions, no ulterior motives, and had not asked to be converted under the promise of reward or any threat, we separated to meet again at the mikveh.
In the past weeks, since the revelations that Rabbi Barry Freundel allegedly watched women in the mikveh preparation rooms via hidden video cameras – not conversion candidates, but married Jewish women preparing to use the mikveh as part of a monthly ritual – the cries have come that men have to get out of the mikveh business. Blogs, public letters, op-ed pieces. One man’s alleged criminal acts opened a floodgate of criticism. It only got louder when it was revealed that Freundel had been reported for requiring conversion candidates to work for him for free and to make donations to organizations he headed.
“There are some places and situations where males, including rabbis, should never be present. One of them is a women’s mikveh. Period,” wrote Jennie Rosenfeld on The Jerusalem Post website. In a recent Times of Israel blog post, Shoshanna Jaskoll insisted that the same rabbis who required modesty of dress and behavior in Orthodox women could not take part in female conversions without being hypocrites and were likely having “indecent thoughts” about the conversion candidate. Jaskoll quoted unnamed rabbis, and took snippets from an open letter from the one rabbi she named – Rabbi Steven Pruzansky – that served her ends. The entire letter, if one takes the time to read it, tells a vastly different story.
At the mikveh, a gentle and genteel mikveh lady kindly went over step by step what would take place. Then she gave me a full-length robe, so thick that it would not be see through even when fully wet, to put on and left me alone to change. When I indicated I was ready, she walked me into the mikveh room and waited until I was in the mikveh, giving me time to make sure I had the robe adjusted so that I was comfortable and covered. The three rabbis summoned from the room where they were waiting stepped only close enough to the mikveh to see my face, to ensure I was the same Amy Newman Smith who had sat in their office earlier that day. No Leah for Rachel, as it were.
Then they stepped back, able only to see the top of my head. They were close enough only to see my head go under, to hear the blessings a convert says, and hear the mikveh lady say “kosher” as I immersed each time, ensuring that every part of my body was covered by the waters of the mikveh. Then they left the room, closing the door before I emerged to dress in private, a newly minted Jew. The only other moment I have ever felt so much holiness surround me was the day my son was circumcised, entering the covenant of Abraham. At both of those moments, I felt a cord that tied me back to Sarah and forward into eternity. I did not feel abused, violated, mistreated, or vulnerable. To the contrary, everything had been handled in a way that was designed to make the process both b’tznius (modest) and b’simcha (joyful).
Unfortunately, Rabbi Freundel’s circle of victims only continues to widen with the calls of those who say his individual misdeeds demand an overhaul of the entire conversion system. (Why is it only the rabbis who need overhauling? What about male doctors? What about auto mechanics – mostly male? Where is the outrage when they mistreat, defraud or abuse female clients/customers, demanding only women fix women’s cars and heal women’s bodies?) More importantly, do the shouters for change realize the grave injustice they do when they say “no man belongs in a women’s mikveh”? On the basis of one man’s bad actions of misusing his power over converts and breaking the law by covertly observing them – for which he has been arrested and will go through a trial and sentencing unless he decides to accept a plea deal – every rabbi is being painted as a potential villain.
Rabbi Pruzanksy said it best in his explanation of why he was resigning from his position as the head of the Orthodox conversion court for Bergen County: “Now, the recent, voluminous and tendentious writings on conversion, the media testimonies of converts and the agenda of feminists would have us believe that conversion is all about sex, power and money. It is about evil men looking to dominate women and lusting after lucre. That is a vulgar distortion of reality. They have taken a sublime and pure moment and made it prurient and ugly. For sure, I blame my DC colleague [Freundel] for this situation, but also those who have exaggerated the problem and impute guilt and suspicion to every rabbi and Bet Din . . . I have no interest in living as a suspect. I refuse to have my integrity and character impugned, nor to be defined in the public eye because of one miscreant.”
Is Rabbi Freundel one of a kind? Almost certainly not. But is he the norm? The majority? Anything even close to being something other than an outlier? For this, the accusers bring no evidence. They besmirch the names of righteous, modest, caring men without evidence for their own ends. And that is an outrage. The hoped-for ends do not justify the means being used.
Let us think critically about what the hoped-for ends of these writers are. All the hoped-for ends. Only the deeply naive would believe that Jennie Rosenfeld, who is studying in a program for dayanot (female religious judges) and who calls for a system in which women would be able to oversee conversions, divorces, and other matters of Jewish law pertaining to women doesn’t have a personal stake in the outcome of this debate. If the status quo remains in place, her investment of time and money will have been for naught. Other writers have also previously laid out their objections to the current system of Orthodox conversions long before Rabbi Freundel’s arrest, and the disclosures that followed merely provided them with an all-too-convenient cudgel with which to attack a system they had already rejected.
Finally and perhaps most importantly, Rosenfeld and her ilk seem not to understand that by saying the entire conversion system must be overhauled, she also implies that my conversion, that my friend’s conversion, that indeed the conversions of all women that have taken place under the current system are flawed. My conversion, the bloggers and pontificators say, is tainted. It is broken. It is in need of fixing. And to that I say, “How dare you?”
Fight for what you think is good and true. Write, write, and write some more. That is certainly your right. I am not asking for these voices to be silenced, nor am I debating that having men present in the conversion mikveh process makes some women uncomfortable, no matter how discreetly it is handled. (Mikveh with a female attendant is often uncomfortable, as well.) But I hope they remember that their stated goal is helping converts. And as a convert, I tell you honestly that their words – and the false suspicions they have put in the minds of many of those who have read them – imply that I, and women like me, entered the Jewish people within an abusive and immodest context. It is hard enough to be a convert without people who claim to be acting on converts’ behalf spreading the idea that converts have undergone something shameful or perverted.
These articles (and this article you are reading now) are unlikely to change how Orthodox batei dinim (Jewish courts) handle conversions going forward. But they do stigmatize converts and future converts by spreading the mistaken belief that female converts have been party to something terrible rather than something transcendent.
Writer’s Note: I have chosen to use my name on this piece because I feel it is unfair to criticize others by name without naming myself and also because I have done nothing that needs hiding. Please remember that the Torah is very clear on the prohibition of mentioning a convert’s former status, of reminding them of it, and certainly of asking intrusive questions about their past of their journey to Judaism.
Links:Rabbi Pruzansky piece: http://rabbipruzansky.com/2014/10/30/stepping-down/Jennie Rosenfeld piece: http://www.jpost.com/Opinion/Listening-to-Sarahs-voice-381190
Shoshanna Jaskoll piece: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/make-up-your-minds-on-modesty/
Beautifully written and so true. So happy to see a positive voice of holiness added to this discussion. Was sorely missing.
My 2 cents. Like the overall perspective of article but disagree with some things. IMHO Examples of auto body and doctor are a not good. Auto body has no issues of tzniut. Doctor, to each her own. Women can choose a female doctor if they want.
With conversion you don't have a choice. I believe female converts should have a choice. Regardless of how appropriate the procedure is. It should be done in a way that ALL women feel comfortable and nobody should judge any women.
I agree 100% that all the conversions until now are kosher and to be respected and accepted. Even if a sicko was involved. But. If we judge those who are uncomfortable with man in the mikvah, how are we better than those who judge if women should become responsible for conversions?
Rambam taught us about Shvil Hazaav. Why not create a system that both ways are acceptable and each women can choose what is best for her? Why one way or the other? To all coverts (and I know quite a few) You are what we all should be. We should all choose each day to be part of Am Yisrael. But if I would be converting and had to be in the mikvah naked in front of men I may have not done it. Maybe my commitment is not as strong as those who converted but is that a good reason to be excluded from Am Yisrael? We could use all of those who commit themselves fully to Torah and mitzvot (on their own obviously). BTW I am by no means a feminist.
Miriam Grunhaus, please understand that even those who totally oppose the current system acknowledge that the rabbis do not see the women's bodies naked. There are a variety of solutions (screens, loose robes, tarps over the water etc. that are used) but becoming a convert does not a female convert to be "in the mikvah naked in front of men." The rabbi who is being accused used hidden cameras to view women in mikveh prep rooms. He broke the law of the United States and the law of the Torah with what he did. He was not acting as a conversionary rabbi in this regard.
Amy, I understand that they don't see them naked. I also understand about the cameras. But I do understand man and just the knowledge that there is a naked woman in their presence even if they can't actually see could arouse them. Not that it does to all but it could be embarrassing to some women. Malbin chavero is a serious thing and perceptions are ones realities. If this can be a source or embarrassement there is no reason why these ladies couldn't be accommodated.
Everybody speaks their truth. It could not be THE truth but it is theirs and there are ways around it that still maintains the integrity of the religion. That's all I am saying. Again just to add an option could satisfy all opinions.
This is so brave! Thanks to Amy Newman Smith for writing it and to Ruchi for publishing it.
I find the controversy and various reasons given for various positions fascinating, but from a way-outsider position. I can imagine easy arguments on both sides of the question of whether women should supervise mikvah instead of men–but mostly from my own vantage point that doesn't take into account the sensibilities–and definitely without having a horse in the race, so to speak.
Against women taking over mikvah: "Who cares if some men see you underwater in a robe?" and more extreme, "Who cares even if someone accidentally glimpses some non-modest flesh, everyone's a grownup!" But these obviously don't take into account O sensibilities. And to be clear, I am NOT including intentional violations of privacy with the "who cares if…" questions here.
Against women taking over the mikvah: "There are awful incidents of teachers abusing students, foster parents abusing foster kids, and so on. We don't propose that all teachers or foster parents be women." This is an easy, "secular" approach in my view, but I can imagine Os making use of this argumentative strategy anyway.
For women taking over mikvah: "It's a women's sphere, let women be in charge." I find this a really interesting approach, because it makes use of O ideas about women's spheres BUT uses them to argue for a change in procedure. It's an interesting hybrid.
For women taking over the mikvah: "Converts are in such a position of dependence, and they are easily exploited, especially women." Sounds right to me. But if you are buying into OJ then I guess you are buying into a dependence on rabbis and so it's a hard argument to make while remaining consistent.
The citation of Pruzansky in this post, and the letter in general now that I've read it, is the weak spot in all this for me. That letter is self-serving, rambling and underhanded, and I mean all that apart from the way he talks about feminists. In my view Amy's post is more eloquent and definitely more humble than Pruzansky and would be stronger without it.
I was raised Jewish but my mother never formally converted before I was born. Years later, when I was a teenager, we both received Orthodox conversions. The rabbis for the beit din were in an adjoining room and never entered the mikvah. They relied on the balanit (mikvah lady) to ensure that the immersion was kosher. They rely on this same woman to ensure that all of the Jews of the community keep hilchot niddah, obviously they felt that she was able to tell if an immersion was kosher. I'm not sure why being in the room is needed, but if some feel that it's needed, I cannot see anything wrong with the process as described above.
There seems to be incredible anxiety about conversions in the Orthodox community, mostly coming (I believe) from the Israeli Rabbinate and its shifting standards, which are in turn based on political issues, money and power. This is just another argument (to my mind) for the wisdom of separating religion and state. Where there is no money and no political power there is also no motivation to lie or bend the rules for the sake of gain. Those who convert to Orthodox Judaism, at least in the States, gain nothing except the joy of being Jewish. They do not gain citizenship rights or the ability to marry or even the approval of their families.
The standards and process for conversion outlined in the shulchan aruch are extremely basic and straightforward. It takes a particular kind of mindset to make them difficult, oppressive and stringent.
It because different rabbinic groups fight to undercut each other's authority that this has become an issue. It has nothing to do with conversion. These days, some haredi rabbis have declared marriages or conversions invalid because someone had internet access on their phone. nNot accepting another rabbi's conversion is simply a convenient shorthand for insulting him. The fact that this violates a negative commandment ("do not oppress the ger") is apparently less important that who has the blacker hat.
Why are there so many mitzvot about treating converts kindly? It is just because they don't have extended family for chagim? No, it's because how you treat the most vulnerable members of your community says a lot about how you will treat each other generally.
As for Freundel (et al), anyone in any community can abuse his or her authority. Anyone can fall victim to believing that they are above the rules. Anyone can have mental health issues. These things happen in the secular world, they happen in the religious world. There is no place on earth that is safe from the abuse of power. The first person to notice the clock in the mikvah is the hero of this story because she was trusting enough to be there but suspicious enough to say something. That is the kind of quality you want in a community leader, male or female.
SDK, I can't say anything about how conversions should be done because I don't have the halachic knowledge. But the controversy over conversions isn't just a matter of the Israeli Rabbinate, politics, money and power. There's a real concern that some conversions might be invalid, which would then result in inadvertent intermarriage and in people thinking they're Jewish even if they aren't. Being really Jewish clearly mattered to you, so you can understand why it would matter to the people involved in these controversies. And I wouldn't say that those who convert gain "nothing except the joy of being Jewish" when plenty of people (though presumably fewer than in the past) convert in order to marry Jews. As for citizenship rights, Israel is the state of the Jewish people so you have to have some sort of definition of a Jew. Jews are a nation. It's not just a matter of religion.
I totally agree with you, though, that some people take these things too far. It must be terrifying for converts to wonder whether someone, someday, will suddenly declare them not Jewish after they've put so much into becoming Jewish. It can wreak havoc with people's lives. On the other hand, there may be cases where a rabbi's conversions really aren't valid. Again, I don't know.
I really like your last paragraph where you say these abuses can happen anywhere. They really can, and it's important to keep in mind. As SBW said, "We don't propose that all teachers or foster parents be women."
It is a shame that you got my article completely wrong- from intent to fact. I feel no need to defend myself other than to say that I never intended to imply nor do I feel in any way, that the conversations are anything less than 100% kosher.