Jewish conversion is a lifelong commitment
Syrian Jews in Brooklyn
Since 1935, the Syrian Jewish community in Brooklyn has allowed not a single conversion within their community. It’s a well-known fact that the Syrians of Brooklyn are bound by an invisible fence known as “The Edict” – a rabbinical threat of excommunication if they convert.
The Edict was issued by five Syrian rabbis in Brooklyn in 1935 with a simple goal: to preserve the age-old Syrian Jewish community in the New World. The Edict has successfully done this: the rate of assimilation is believed to be less than three per cent, as opposed to an accepted 50 per cent of the general American Jewish population.
“Many applicants come to the Beth Din with a misconception,” says Rabbi Ron Hendler, director of the conversion programme for the Johannesburg Beth Din. “They think the court’s function is chiefly to measure the sincerity of the would-be convert and to assess the worthiness of the applicant to join the Jewish people.
“This leads to much frustration when applicants believe they have amply demonstrated their sincerity, yet the Beth Din still holds back from converting them.”
He explains how the Beth Din in fact plays a very different role: Jewish law, not the Beth Din, determines who can convert.
“Simply put, anyone who can fully accept the demands of a committed, halachic Jewish life is a candidate for conversion.”
But prior to doing so, the Beth Din, over a 24-month period, has to determine, based on many years’ experience, whether the conversion will be in the best interests of the candidate.
“We need to predict that the obligation of full observance is something that the candidate will be able to bear, given his or her unique situation and challenges; after all, conversion means a lifelong commitment from which one can never back out.”
The London Beth Din conversion process is considered a rigorous one. Co-ordinator Rabbi Rashi Simon explains: “We have collegial relationships with many other Batei Din around the world. In general, our conversion process takes a minimum of 18 months and is often complete within three years, but for some, ‘forever and a day’ is not long enough.
“Essentially, it entails studying regularly with a tutor (of our appointment), and gradually integrating Jewish knowledge, observance and values into one’s lifestyle. The main thing, however, is for the candidate to be able to make firm commitment to continue to do so in the future as well. This assessment can be difficult to make.”
Rabbi Hendler says that if the Beth Din fails to make the correct assessment, it has a negative bearing on the candidate. “In order to make this prediction, the Beth Din observes the growth and adjustment of the candidate over an extended period of time: How well does he/she integrate in the community? What problems, if any, need to be addressed in the short run and the long run?
“The conversion process requires more than learning material and finding a comfortable synagogue. It means joining a community and developing a support system. This reassures all responsible that the decision to convert is a positive and healthy one. It also ensures that the conversion is widely respected and accepted around the world for its thoroughness and integrity.”
Rabbi Hendler says: “Candidates are required to live within a reasonable proximity of an Orthodox synagogue, where they can comfortably participate in traditional community life. Walking great distances, or making arrangements to stay with friends on Shabbos, is not an acceptable alternative. There are no exceptions to this requirement because we know it is essential for candidates’ future growth and success.”
The London Beis Din differs in this regard and requires candidates who are single to live with a religious family for a year prior to them being converted.
“Many converts testify that the immersion experience of living with a family is a very effective tool in the habituation and socialisation of the conversion process. It can be likened to the difference between study and practice, learning and experiencing. The latter is much to be preferred. It is true that this requirement is sometimes unpopular, but its effectiveness has been confirmed time and again.”