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/