Conversion popular — but not always easy

Americans love to switch faiths.

The new Pew Forum study shows that 28% have left the faith of their childhood (and if you count switching brands of Protestantism, the percentage soars to 44).

But for the small numbers who convert to Judaism, well, things sure get complicated.

The different branches of Judaism — Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist — have their own standards for conversion. Who acknowledges whose conversions has long been a tricky question.

The question periodically becomes quite serious because of the reluctance of the Jewish establishment in Israel — which is uniformly Orthodox — to recognize non-Orthodox conversions to Judaism.

But even within the world of Orthodoxy, where there are multiple religious gradations between “ultra Orthodox” and “modern Orthodox,” there are disagreements over the standards for conversion (and who can oversee conversions).

In recent years, the Israeli rabbinic establishment has sometimes looked askew at conversions overseen by Orthodox rabbis in the U.S.

A few days ago, the Rabbinical Council of America, the largest Orthodox rabbis group in the U.S., announced that it was establishing a network of rabbinical courts to oversee conversions. The statement said:

The network, established with the enthusiastic agreement of the RCA membership at large, creates uniform standards of Orthodox conversion. The network will benefit genuine converts and their offspring, by facilitating their acceptance in Jewish communities around the world.

In other words, in Israel.

The new Jewish Week reports that there is a bit of discord of whether the RCA capitulated to the ultra-Orthodox rabbinate in Israel by adopting conversion standards that require ultra-Orthodox observance on the part of would-be converts.

The report says:

basil-herring-pic_medium.jpgThe newly unified conversion standards may be most demanding for those who are adopting a child and want him or her converted under Orthodox auspices. They will be required to have their family be completely observant of the commandments — for example, living within walking distance of an Orthodox synagogue so that they can attend on the Sabbath without driving, and must commit to having their child educated for 12 years in an Orthodox Jewish day school.

But what if the child needs to leave the day school because it is not meeting his educational needs or because the family can no longer afford tuition?

“If there was clear indication that the commitment was a real one, not just posturing to fool the court, but that subsequently they were unable to follow through for whatever reason, that does not undo the conversion,� said (RCA Executive Vice President) Rabbi (Basil) Herring. “Everything here is in the details.�

The overall goal, said Rabbi Herring (pictured), “is to give converts a measure of assurance that when they go beyond the system they will not be doubted, alienated and hurt� by questions about their legitimacy as Jews.

(Picture: RCA)