Shavuos 2012: Interview with Rabbi Hoffman Regarding Conversion to Judaism

1) Before we begin, Rabbi, could you please tell us a little about yourself?

My name is Evan Hoffman.  I have been a congregational rabbi for the past seven years.  I have Semicha from RIETS, where I studied under Rabbi Mordechai Willig and Rabbi Yosef Weiss.  I have served congregations in Great Neck and Manhattan.  For five years I served as Assistant Rabbi at a prestigious synagogue on the Upper East Side.

2) I hear you’ve converted about 15 people, yet you’ve only been a rabbi for about 7 years – is that normal, or are you trying to win a competition?

I have participated in 16 conversions.  Nine of them were adults and seven were children under the age of Bar Mitzvah.  I can assure you that I am not trying to win any competition.  I did not seek out of any of my conversion candidates.  They all came to me.  Some of them had connections to my synagogue.  Others were directed to me by rabbinic colleagues because of my reputation for a rigorous conversion curriculum.

3) When you meet someone who expresses a desire to convert, what’s the main questions you ask them before you really consider them as a candidate?

The main question I ask them is why they want to be Jewish.  This is not the same question as why they want to convert to Judaism.  More often than not, the prospective convert is in a romantic relationship with a Jew and they are on the verge of matrimony.  Conversion of the gentile partner is necessary to allow the wedding plans to proceed.  It would be a grotesque lie for most candidates to claim, at the beginning of the process, that their motivation to undergo the ritual is a pure one.  So I don’t give them a hard time with respect to initial motivation.  The real question is, why does he or she want to be Jewish one year or ten years after the wedding.  If the answer is a desire to have their children recognized as Jews, I am immediately turned off.  I have no interest in proselytizing for the sake of some unborn child’s religious legitimacy.  It shows an indifference on the part of the candidate towards religion.  They are simply trying to game the system and achieve results which are unattainable in a heterodox rabbi’s office.

The correct answer, which allows the process to develop further, is an appreciation for the beauty of Judaism and a personal desire to cleave to it.  Wholesale acceptance of Judaic theological principles and alienation from their inherited faith would be an even better answer, but let’s be realistic about the matter.  Most people develop their attitudes toward religion on the basis of its practical substance, not abstract theological principles.

I am also interested in the candidate’s broader personal history.  Are they mentally stable?  Do they have a criminal record?  What is their ethnic/racial background?  What faith were they born into and was it a significant component of their life?  What is their attitude toward Jews?  Are they pro-Israel or pro-Palestinian?  All these questions help me form an opinion of the candidate.

Certain things are predictable.  Of the nine adults I have converted, all are women.  Of the 28 adults who have expressed interest in converting, only 2 were men.  Circumcision plays a role in the gender gap.  There is also a disparity in intermarriage rates between men and women.  Seinfeld was right when he spoke of “shiksappeal.”  There is also the “fact” that religion follows the wealthier spouse, and men tend to have more financial assets than women.  Of the 9 women 6 were looking to get married.  Five of them had some Jewish blood, ranging from a Jewish father and Reform Jewish upbringing, to someone who was 1/8 Jewish.  Despite the similarities and trends, each case is unique and judged on the merits.

Converting children is a separate matter entirely.  The main concern is whether or not the parents will raise the child in a manner conducive for Torah observance.  Kashruth and Shabbat in the home as well as yeshiva education are essentials.  But there are a wide variety of child-conversion scenarios.  I have dealt with: regular adoption, the children of a non-Jewish mother and Jewish father (mother is also converting), child of a deceased Jewish father and non-Jewish household help, child born through non-Jewish surrogate.  These cases are much more delicate than prospective adult converts.  If I turn down an adult, they simply continue living as a gentile (possibly married to an irreligious Jew).  If I turn down the request for a child’s conversion, that halachically non-Jewish child is still growing up in a Jewish family and participating in communal life.  The stakes are very high.  It is not easy telling non-Shomer Shabbos synagogue members that their child will remain a gentile unless the family substantially increases its level of observance.  Some react with disappointment, while others see it as an opportunity for spiritual growth.  Others see it as an opportunity to lie to the rabbi.

4) Could you explain a little about the conversion process in terms of the centralized nature of the conversion process as endorsed by the Rabbinical Council of America?  What’s the purpose of that?  What are the advantages and disadvantages?

Conversion to Judaism under Orthodox auspices in the United States used to be done at the local level.  The individual orthodox congregational rabbi was free to determine which candidates pass muster.  They would assemble an ad hoc Bet-Din of three rabbis and perform the necessary rituals.  This system came to an end approximately five years ago because of political controversy with the Israeli chief rabbinate.  The Israelis were only willing to accept as legitimate the conversions performed by a short list of 50 leading rabbis.  All other converts would not be accepted if they wanted to make aliyah or be recognized as Jews by Israeli authorities.  The RCA worked out an arrangement with the Israelis under which regional Batei-Din would perform conversions.  The individual rabbi is able to sponsor candidates, but has no say in their ultimate acceptance or the performance of the ritual.  Some rabbis were angered by this system and others feared consistent rejection of candidates by overly strict Batei-Din.  In fact, the opposite has happened.  Rabbis on the Batei-Din are reluctant to snub their congregational colleagues by rejecting applicants.  As a result, the new system has not made conversion any more rigorous.  At worst, it can be a nuisance to navigate the bureaucracy.  Basically, the system works fine.  There are some rabbis who flout the system and continue to do private conversions.  Assuming the proselyte doesn’t move out of the neighborhood (or at least not to Israel), then nobody is affected by the breach of protocol.  Some rabbis don’t care to follow RCA protocol because their personal renown and connections with the official rabbinates around the world allows them to smooth over any difficult case.

5) When someone wants to convert, I’ve heard since like 4th grade that we try to dissuade them.  Doesn’t it speak poorly of your debate skills that 15 people got through your impenetrable fortress of resistance?

Halacha requires that we initially discourage converts.  Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh Deah 268:2) instructs us to tell the candidate, “Don’t you know that the Jews are a persecuted people and it isn’t worth it for you become one of us…. Until now had you worked on the Sabbath there is no punishment, but once becoming a Jew you liable for the death penalty, etc….”  I go through the motions in compliance with this halacha… but the reality is that in America we don’t suffer from anti-Semitism and nobody stones you for violating Shabbos.  Instead, I focus on the gravity of changing one’s religion.  I ask them if they really want to turn their backs on the religion of their parents and sever ties with their culture.  I try to explain to them that once becoming a Jew there is no turning back.  Once a Jew always a Jew.  The problem with that line is obvious.  In the eyes of God (so we believe) once a Jew always a Jew.  In reality, they can walk away after five years and rejoin the church and I can’t stop them.  This happened to a congregant of mine, though in my defense she was converted prior to my arrival at the shul.  The most successful way in which rabbis deter prospective converts, is by making the religious standards very high.  No mikveh for you unless you wear a sheitel, ankle-length skirt, drink only cholov yisrael, eat only yoshon, and fast on Yom Kippur Katan.  That last one was a joke.  But you get the picture.  By making religion so onerous, the candidate voluntarily drops out.  I don’t subscribe to that approach.  I don’t demand from the candidate any more than is necessary in the realm of observance.  Where I am very strict is Torah study.  My curriculum is very demanding.  Typically a student will spend 50 one-hour sessions listening to me and feverishly taking notes and asking questions.  We cover all of the essential Jewish topics including theology, Shabbos, tefillah (prayer/Hebrew reading), kashrus, yomim tovim (Jewish holidays), lifecycle, taharas hamishpachah (laws of family purity), bein adam lachaveiro (laws between man and his fellow man), Jewish history and modern Israel.  My final exam is quite challenging and some k-12 Day School graduates would not pass.

6) Why convert people who are not required to do all of this stuff if so many people who are required don’t even want to do it anymore?

I don’t see how the indifference of many born-Jews should affect my attitude toward potential converts.  Certainly I would rather see a higher retention rate of Jews at the expense of fewer converts, but one has nothing to do with the other.    The last thing I want to do is create more irreligious Jews (assuming the ex post facto validity of the ritual).  [Some rabbis are irresponsible and act recklessly.  They do the Jewish people a disservice by converting unworthy candidates, sometimes in exchange for large sums of money or other unmentionable favors.]  We have enough people “off the derech” as it is.  But good converts are a tremendous asset to Judaism and the Jewish People.  Some people out there are sincerely looking for God and God’s Word.  We shouldn’t be obstacles in that admirable journey.

7) Have you ever come to serious disagreement with fellow rabbis over the legitimacy of a conversion candidate?

I have strenuously objected with a certain colleague (who will remain nameless) over continuing with candidates whose sincerity and commitment were dubious at best.  Being the younger of the two rabbis it was not easy for me to assert myself and prevent an outrage.  Sometimes the only thing left to do was absent myself from the Beth-Din, or if I was the candidate’s tutor, to refuse further lessons.  On another occasion, I was the liberal who faced off against a obstinate hardliner.  The candidate was admittedly deficient in the area of Shabbos observance, but I felt she would make rapid strides if we consented to put her in the mikveh.  I was convinced that foot dragging by the rabbis was adversely affecting her rise up the ladder of observance.

8) What happens to the people you reject?

Most of the people I rejected never converted to Judaism (to my knowledge).  Usually, it was a woman with a matrimonial issue.  Failing to get any satisfaction in their encounter with an Orthodox rabbi, they drop the issue.  Practically this means that they continue living in an unmarried state with their Jewish partner or the relationship fizzles out.  On one occasion, such a person turned to the local Reform rabbi and was converted.  In the minority of cases which did not involve an upcoming nuptial, rejection was usually because of the mental instability of the applicant.  They wanted to change religions for the sake of change, not to become a pious and God-fearing Jew.  While I can’t be certain what happened to them, none ever reemerged in my community as a converted Jew under someone else’s auspices.

9) Do all of your converts maintain their religiosity after dipping in the mikveh?

Sadly, many of my converts are not nearly as religious as I would want them to be.  During the process of study, people develop an enthusiasm for the subject matter.  They like it intellectually (or at least the way I present it) and maybe even practically.  The moment of immersion in the mikveh is very holy.  When the convert is asked one final time (while naked and wet) if they believe and if they will observe, I tend to think that even some of the more cynical candidates have momentary sincerity.  But the euphoria wares off.  As the months and years go by, observance can decline if not given strong support from a community or a Jewish spouse.  When the Jewish-born spouse is a bad influence, all can be lost.  Precisely for this reason, I recently added the requirement that the Jewish partner attend classes together with the applicant.  For many, this is their first Torah study since dropping out of Day School in 9th grade.  It also allows me to pierce through their exterior and get to know their true feelings about Judaism.

10) How do you deal with non-Orthodox converts who want orthodox certification?

Non-orthodox converts who want Orthodox certification have to be dealt with very carefully.  First one must find out why they want to upgrade.  Often it is because they want to be married in Israel.  Alternatively, they want their kids to go to Orthodox day school and the school won’t admit kids with halachically non-Jewish parents.  Sometimes, it is the child (or even grandchild) of someone who was a Reform or Conservative convert from many years ago.  If the applicant has lived an intensively Jewish life and is quite knowledgeable, then the period of study can be done away with almost entirely.  I was called on a case in which the applicant had been Judaic Studies valedictorian of a very prominent New Jersey Yeshiva High School!  But it must be clear that the candidate will lead an observant way of life.  They can’t be satisfied with the Conservative Judaism of their youth.  Also, they have to accept Orthodox theology.  Heterodox converts who have been taught the heresies of Liberal Judaism must abandon certain noxious beliefs.  Sometimes, we can’t accommodate these people.  Understandably, they want universal recognition of their status as Jews, but there are standards which cannot be compromised.

11) Has anyone ever offered you a bribe to expedite the process?

I was once offered $10,000 cash on the spot.  Needless to say that I refused (or else I wouldn’t be repeating the story).  But the line between bribery and legitimate concern for the material needs of the rabbi can be hazy.  I charge an hourly fee for lessons.  There is nothing wrong with that.  I develop friendships with my students, who might give me a gift before Yom Tov or at the conclusion of the process.  The rabbi has to be very discerning to know what is shochad (bribery) and what is innocent.  Often it is the future-father-in-law of the applicant who has deep pockets.  If he sponsors the kiddush a few too many times in memory of deceased phantom relatives, you know something is not kosher.  If the rabbi has a pet charity which receives a sudden infusion of major-league cash, something is fishy.  Yellow-journalists have reported on rabbis who either solicited or were offered sexual favors in exchange for expediting the conversion process.  I am sure that it has happened, though none of my friends in the rabbinate have ever admitted this happening to them.

12) Other than for marriage, what illegitimate motivations have you discovered among prospective converts?

Aside from marriage there are many non-theological reasons to become a Jew.  Most importantly, people from the third world want to move to Israel.  American rabbis don’t experience this so much, because if a person is already in America (unless about to be deported), why would they want to move to Israel.  Another reason is money and inheritance.  Some old-timers have clauses in their “Last Will and Testament” which disinherit their intermarried or non-Jewish descendants.

There is another group of applicants that nobody else has talked about in the Jewish blogosphere and I would like to blow the cover off of this scandal right now.  In Manhattan, on both the Upper East and Upper West Side, but especially the Upper West, there is a significant number of Hispanic girls in their 20’s who have infiltrated the Jewish singles scene.  They come from the Bronx, Washington Heights and other socio-economically depressed areas.  They attend events sponsored the various Manhattan kiruv organizations.  What are they doing there?  Admittedly, some are sincere in their quest for true religion.  I know of two such women who actually converted and became very frum, sheitel-wearing types.  However, most of them have no beliefs and are not there for the sake of religion.  They simply want to live a better life.  While this most sound bigoted, let’s be honest for a minute.  Would a young woman in her 20’s rather hang out with uneducated and poverty stricken guys in dangerous parts of the outer boroughs, or would she prefer to socialize with upper-middle-class and outright rich kids in the heart of Manhattan.  To have the latter they go along with some religious trappings.  Some of them claim to be Jewish, either converts or some mysterious ethnic group of Sephardim.  Others claim to be in the process of converting.  Usually they lie.  I had one such girl as a student of mine, but eventually I stopped teaching her because (aside from being a prutzah [promiscuous individual]) I realized her intentions were no good.  Do these girls want to land a Jewish husband?  They probably would settle down with one if conditions were right, and then they really would need to convert.  But most of them aren’t looking for marriage prospects.  They simply want to spend some partying years with their social betters (horribly chauvinistic, but it gets the point across).