If you don’t know what it stands for, skip the rest of this piece. I am not going to rehash the whole sordid affair.

For what it is worth, I will offer one man’s opinion, written as a bit of an insider in the world of gerus, since I sit from time to time on a respected beis din for gerus. The opinions expressed herein are my own; they were not vetted by my colleagues.

I have come neither to praise EJF, nor to bury it. If I believed that EJF was worthless, I wouldn’t bother writing. It is only because I see the potential for accomplishment that I pen these thoughts, in the hope that others will feel the same way.

The chief problem with EJF is not its recent scandal-ridden past. The problem is that to date, it has not done enough to insure that the past will not be repeated. The way in which it has addressed the past hardly inspires any confidence.

The first thing that EJF should have done is promptly apologized. It should have apologized to any and all victims, and to the Torah public for sullying its reputation. The victims include gerim whose credentials were unfairly questioned, and those who were browbeaten into switching from the programs of perfectly valid batei din to those more to the liking of its past director.

Instead of apologizing, EJF issued a statement days later that tries – poorly at that – to provide itself with cover. There are still people out there whose reaction to every problem discovered within the Torah community is to cover up and deny, and to issue vague assurances that everything they do is under the supervision of unnamed Gedolei Torah. Those people should not be trusted with anything of importance. The rest of us know that Gedolei Torah do not micromanage the running of large institutions other than their own. Believing that anyone but a certain part of the population would be satisfied with such an explanation is an insult to the intelligence of everyone else.

The RCA (which is responsible for a great portion of the conversion in the US, and has been working hard in the last few years to vastly improve its own standards by switching to a regional beis din system) had every reason to demand the dismantling of EJF. Parts of EJF’s leadership were working to cast aspersions on every conversion performed by centrist Orthodox rabbis in the country. (Who can forget the remark made by one of them mocking and delegitimizing rabbis in brown suits, or calling into question the conversion of any candidate who believed that the earth might be older than 5770 years?) To its credit, the RCA avoided triumphalism, and in a timely fashion issued a statement that showed responsibility and understanding of its public. It began with a show of concern for all who were impacted by the scandal, and offered help – including phone numbers – for any candidates who needed assistance. How the EJF did not do the same is beyond me.

Beyond a lack of any apology or offer of assistance, EJF offered nothing concrete to reassure anyone that the problems of the past will not reoccur. EJF, according to rumor, has doled out around 26 million dollars over the last years. This is wonderful for cash-strapped mosdos ha-Torah, but should mean quite a few people whose conflict of interest, or even appearance of conflict of interest, makes them ill-suited to stay on top of the management of the future EJF. I hope that the money will continue to flow to them – but the possibility of error, or even the perception of possibility of error, can only be addressed by a decision-making process that is open, transparent, and in the hands of people who are squeaky-clean and have the public trust.

More importantly, EJF arrogated to itself the right to set standards for all gerus in the US. Whether or not it actually set unusual standards – whether leniencies, stringencies, or both – is disputed. What cannot be disputed is that if EJF continues to covet the position of supreme setter of standards, it should be shunned and dropped by every self-respecting beis din. There is no one in the American Torah world who can claim such authority, and the exigencies of the realities here make it impossible for anyone to set policies from a distance. Gedolei Torah have always emphasized that many, many questions require the knowledge and experience of people closer to the local situation.

This criticism does not mean that EJF should cease to be. Quite to the contrary, it can offer important support and professionalism to existing batei din, similar to what AJOP added to the world of kiruv. EJF needs a credible and well thought out mission statement, and a delineation of its goals. It needs to tell us just what it hopes to accomplish.

Because gerus affects all Jews, EJF needs to be inclusive of all legitimate batei din. It needs to mimic the cooperation of batei din for gittin, where the panels across the Orthodox spectrum do speak to each other and cooperate to insure that the gittin that women receive will be respected all over.

As for the past, the public should not be unnecessarily harsh on those who participated in EJF events in the past. My own experience was that every single person I knew who attended did so with great reservations, and without offering anything. The events were valuable because they allowed batei din to network, and because they provided the presence of some stellar figures. Participants thought that they were giving up nothing by simply attending without modifying their own practices. This turns out to have been an error, but an understandable one. In fact, attendance offered credibility, which is what allowed EJF under its previous director to position itself as the voice of gerus. (It is true that some saw the problems immediately. Rav Aharon Feldman, shlit”a, wanted nothing to do with EJF; Rav Hershel Schachter, shlit”a, attended only once in person long enough to see what was going on, and was turned off enough to want nothing more to do with it.)

Should all these participants now walk away? I don’t think so. The organization, properly run, could be a great chizuk. What is needed is, as one of my friends put it, a separation, not a divorce. Rabbonim and batei din should make it clear that they will be prepared to deal with an EJF that is responsibly run, and organized in a manner that it cannot become a monster. They will stand at the sidelines and watch from a distance to see if EJF can do a better job than it has done in the last few days.

The gemara in Yevamos calls kabolas gerim a mitzvah – so much so that once a beis din had determined the suitability of a candidate, delaying his immersion in the mikveh is called a shihui mitzvah. With the recent formation of a rabbinic group that champions standards of conversion that the vast majority of the Torah world repudiates, it is more important than ever for b’nei Torah of all stripes, persuasions and headcoverings to band together to protect the primacy of halacha from this new assault, and to add hiddur to this mitzvah.

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66 Responses

  1. Michaltastik says:

    “EJF has been a dying organization for years, kept alive artificially by the incredible wealth they had at their disposal.”

    Let’s not forget the OCTJ – Orthodox Conversion To Judaism, the largest Yahoo discussion group on the subject of conversion – has been sending people, lots of them to EJF spouting that this is a “Universally recognized conversion.”

  2. Bob Miller says:

    An online article in the Five Towns Jewish Times by Rabbi Aba Dunner has the complete EJF story including a much more accurate description of its funding and operation that what I proposed in comments above.

  3. Malka Esther says:

    My latest post to cross-currents – don’t know if it will be approved but my comments did trigger discussion:

    Shira the group is (http://groups.yahoo.com/group/orthodoxconversiontojudaism/) .

    Bob, I think funds were more likely poorly used rather than diverted.

    Tal, the issue is NOT the converts sincerity that I have issue with. It is unrealistic to think that in 3 meetings lasting at most a total of 6 hours that a beit din can know how a convert is actually living and what knowledge they have and to not give the beit din the progress reports and access to the mentors they are handicapped. It is unrealistic to think that a convert can learn all they need to know in 50-100 hours of over the phone, long distance learning. To not make sure that they have local resources and that the entire family is educated handicaps the converts ability to live an observant life and handicaps their family. And it puts the converts in the position of finding their conversions questioned when they have done nothing wrong.

    And frankly I’m really tired of my conversions being questioned. I wonder how many gerus l’chumrot will I have to go through? How many times will I have to prove I know my stuff & am living an observant life. How many times will all the rabbis that have known me since before I converted have to write references for me? And how many times do I have to assure my students that they are Jewish and have nothing to worry about. The part that really breaks my heart is having to see Jews/converts constantly in a state of worry over whether they’ll be considered Jewish tomorrow or when their kids want to marry or make aliyah.

  4. Joe Hill says:

    Re: Mrs. Lennhoff’s comment. This has precisely been the point raised against the EJF for over two years now by the Badatz in Jerusalem. The Badatz has been crying out against the EJF, long before the current scandal, due to the EJF’s proseltyzing of non-Jews — which predicated the EJF’s lax conversion standards.

    And herein lied the problem with the EJF all along.

  5. Tal S. Benschar says:

    “My biggest issues with EJF during my time working as a mentor and after I left had to do with the lack of standards for converts. Much time was put into what was required of a beit din member. Little was done in regards to the converts.”

    Isn’t the point that it is the responsibility of the beis din to ascertain how sincere the convert is?

  6. tzippi says:

    Malka Esther, you bring up some incredibly important points. I’m not sure if my commenting further will take this too off topic, but just some observations:
    My impression had always been that converts had to undergo such rigorous boot camp as far as halacha goes that other than nuances, i.e. minhag, etc., they would be pretty knowledgeable. (In fact, my experience has been that many baalei teshuva and geirim, due to their systematic learning of halacha, know more than some FFBs, whose schools may have expected the home to pick up the slack.)

    But over the last few years I’ve met two converts (now both single mothers) who converted with their families, and there are huge gaps in their knowledge. In one family, the kids are thriving and growing Jewishly. In the other family, the kids didn’t make it in the local Jewish schools and most of them aren’t Jewishly involved anymore. In the latter case, there’s enough blame to go around, but definitely lack of ongoing mentoring built into the system is a major factor.

  7. Bob Miller says:

    Regarding the comment by Malka Esther Lennhoff — January 4, 2010 @ 10:18 am:

    Isn’t it ironic that EJF, the organization that made such sharp accusations about other people’s preparation of converts, could have been so lax in preparing converts (and spouses and EJF staff)? This is the EJF with virtually unlimited financing!

    Before allowing EJF to continue, Orthodox leaders outside EJF should investigate how funding might have been skimmed for purposes other than EJF’s stated mission. Whoever diverted funds in this manner or allowed it to happen should no longer be associated with EJF or any similar body.

  8. Shira says:

    I feel like even in this current crisis that us converts are being forgotten – that we are not being thought of as people or real Jews.

    Dear Malka Esther,

    Your words bring back memories. Some memories of having been ostracized myself (as a BT), but many more of how wonderful it is when there is an open and appreciative environment for all of Hashem’s children. It’s so stimulating and inspiring to talk to people about their own paths to Torah.

    I call it “out of town” but have since spent way too many years living “in town” where mentioning my own background was taboo, and a few amazing stories of neighbors’ were also suppressed in order to “fit in.”

    You are correct that there is a large body of understanding, including some culture and vocabulary, that baalei teshuva and geirim have ahead of them. I would think that by now someone could be compiling something like that on the internet.

    What’s the name of your group?

  9. Contarian says:

    I am not so sure the Charedim are winning.

    When a charedi father in yeshiva has to ask RSYA if he cam sell a kidney to marry off his daughter, that sounds more a like question that Rav Oshri dealt with than any modern day Rav.

  10. Malka Esther Lennhoff says:

    Charlie Hall asks “30.Twenty six million dollars??? By an organization that coordinates conversions? How much were they charging prospective converts???

    Converts were mentored for free. Mentors were paid out of the grants that EJF recieved. The beit dins they sent converts to generally charged $1,000 although at least 1 beit din on the list refused to accept any renumeration. In addition, some of the mikvaot had fees and of course the mikvah lady needed to be paid (or tipped) in the case of female converts – those fees, in my opinion were reasonable, and fairly normal compared to the similar cost of conversions done outside of EJF beit dins in the US. I was an EJF mentor and familiar with the cost. Additional costs for converts was travel to beit din meetings (typically 3 meetings although in some cases those meetings happened over a single weekend to help the convert with costs). Beit din fees were also allowed to be paid over time in several situations so that the convert was not having to shell out all the money at once which would have been a hardship.

    Other costs to the converts were the normal – books for studying, things needed to go kosher, ritual items, moving to a community, etc. You know all the things one needs to lead a shomer mitvot life.

    My biggest issues with EJF during my time working as a mentor and after I left had to do with the lack of standards for converts. Much time was put into what was required of a beit din member. Little was done in regards to the converts. I recieved a suggested 1 page sylabus to cover with my students, a recommended reading list, worked with them for at most 2 hours a week over the phone (EJF limit to how many hours they would pay me), and was not always consulted before they went ahead and converted my students, no beit din wanted to talk to me even though I was the mentor, beit dins were not given access to the weekly progress reports that mentors were supposed to send in. Mentors were not trained during my time at EJF although I’ve heard that has changed a bit. There is now a much better document to help the mentors in working with converts (many that have never met a convert prior to working as a mentor). The document EJF is using was one that a rabbi I worked with created based on his, my, and other’s work moderating a yahoo group for potential (and post-conversion) conversion students, our experience working with rabbis, our mentoring of converts, but it is simply a guideline.

    It was not permitted to insist that the jewish spouse of the non-jew be required to get mentoring and EJF did not provide that mentoring but instead passed them off to partners-in-torah only if the jewish spouse was interested. No recommended curiculum was suggested. Books were mere recomendations and not permitted to be required reading by either partner. No help/mentoring was offered for the children of converts no matter their age while these children were being expected to go into a jewish school immediately following their conversion.

    I constantly ask – if you don’t set standards for converts, you don’t have a set curriculum, almost all recommended books are at an intro level, students are rarely in the program for more than a 1 year – take the max time possible for them to learn – you have a convert being trained to be shomer mitvot in less than 100 hours, not defining what a community is – can the converts truly be fully trained and ready to be shomer mitzvot (or even fully understand what that means)? And if the jewish spouse decides NOT to read, not to do a partner-in-torah – how do you really expect that these converts are any better than those that came through other biet dins and organizations? Yeah they dress “right”, yes their local rabbi affirms that they attend shul regularly (but has probably never been in their house or studied with either spouse), yes the converts are sincere (although many of their spouses fight becoming observant right up until just before the conversion and by that point if they did not take advantage of partner-in-torah or the local rabbi they have little knowledge), yes they can typically pass the test given by beit dins although in my experience the majority of those test don’t require answering more than a few basic questions and 1-5 “more complex questions”. But I don’t understand how this fixes any of the problems/complaints about converts and their knowledge, commitment, and we are still relying on local rabbis, generally involved in kiruv, that don’t understand the difference in standards for a convert versus a born jew that is BTing.

    Do I think EJF has done some good? Yes. But do I think even in their heyday when I believed in their mission that they were solving the problem? No – if you don’t make sure that the converts standards are set, that there is a real curriculum, if you do not educate the local rabbis about what is required of a convert at the time of conversion, if you do not educate the jewish spouse – the situation will remain as it was and 10-20 years from now all those conversions may be put in doubt just like the RCA ones were because the problem was not solved.

    I don’t speak out much publically on issues, I’m a convert and with the current climate of invalidating conversions one worries that speaking out may cause someone to decide your conversion is invalid because you are disagreeing with gadolim and therefore must not have fully accepted all the mitzvot or understood what you were accepting.. I for a couple years I worked for EJF but have not done so for several years. During that time I tried to get them to take my issues seriously. I’m a convert. I’ve had a gerus l’chumrah. I work with thousands of converts informally through an online group. I’ve met many converts from both the RCA and EJF as well as other beit dins and organizations around the worl. Some are well trained and have great knowledge. Others are not. Many are sincere but not given all the information and mentoring they need to be shomer mitvot.

    I don’t know what the solution is. My fellow moderator on the yahoo group and I would love to start a boarding school for converts and BTs where they’d live in apartments and learn to keep kosher and shabbat with practical experience with rabbis on the premises at all times to answer questions. We’d like to have communal classes open not just to the members in the school but the community where we have the school. We’d like the community rabbis to give shiurim in our school. We want to help teach converts not just halacha and haskafa but how to integrate into a community and how to figure out which is the right community and haskafa for them. Unfortunately, unlike EJF we don’t have friends who can hand over millions of dollars. So in the meantime we’ve developed curriculums, books lists, explanations for mentors/rabbis with no convert mentoring experience, as well as a clear and detailed list of what a convert must know and be able to do at the time of conversion. Our members take these to their rabbis. EJF uses one of those as a basis in training their mentors, we don’t know how many rabbis are out there using our documents although we do hear from individual rabbis who thank us for our documentation. Do I think our documents are perfect? No. But we were addressing what a convert needed to know and be able to do long before RCA developed their standards and EJF did not have anything for us mentors until we approached them.

    I feel like even in this current crisis that us converts are being forgotten – that we are not being thought of as people or real Jews. I pray for the day that changes. I also pray that converts will be brought into the process of creating standards and where converts that have gone of the derach or were improperly trained are consulted so we can do a better job in the future of preventing those problems.

  11. Ori says:

    Miriam: Here in Eretz Yisrael, I find there are two types of Charedi communities. One type is the one breeding the blogosphere frustrations – fundamentalist, intolerant, sanctimoniously advocating one way for everyone. The other type is the way it should be – lots of busy, sincere people, who don’t have time for chit-chat about the latest cherem because their lives are too full of Torah.

    Ori: Two thousand years ago, you could have said the same thing. There were a lot of pharisees and their followers whose lives were full of Torah. Then there were the kana’im (= zealots) whose lives were full of hatred and plotting. They had to kill a lot of sane Jews before they could rebel against Rome.

    The problem is that intolerant are louder. They need to be confronted, lest they wrestle the leadership from saner heads. Is Charedi society confronting them? Lest I offend anybody, this question is not rhetorical. It is a real question from an outsider who truly does not know the answer.

  12. Mark says:

    “Yet Chareidim, and their Emunas Chachomom — call it Daas Torah — are winning the numbers game. Their birth rate is skyrocketing their numbers and the fact is their intake of Baalei Teshiuva is far greater than their loss in off the derech.”

    Great point. Has anyone paused to wonder whether this might just be an indication that things aren’t quite as bad in Chareidi-land as one might guess from reading j-blogs?

    I suspect that if we were to place any segment of the Orthodox world under the same microscope that the Chareidi world is under, we might find all kinds of interesting things but don’t hold your breath waiting for this to happen. Nor should it, in my humble opinion because in every segment of the Orthodox world there is FAR more good than bad [even those with which I disagree.] What is the point then of endlessly focusing on the negative which gives a distorted picture? I fear the answer is not one that anyone would want to hear.

  13. Meir Shinnar says:

    RY Adlerstein
    As for the past, the public should not be unnecessarily harsh on those who participated in EJF events in the past

    Part of the raison d’etre of the EJF was not merely insisting on their standard of conversion of gerim for the future – itself a controversial issue- but passuling the gerut of many sincere gerim because of issues raised retrospectively about either them or their bate din – not substantive issues that raised any issues about their sincerity. This was apparent to anyone as a clear violation of a d’oraita of ona’at hager – and any rav who participated in their affair was aware of it – and therefore clearly participating in violating this issur d’oraita. Why shouldn’t we be harsh on rabbanim who showed that they are not shomer mitzvot?? Those involved in EJF may not be responsible for the behavior of the head that is the current scandal, although, especially for those closely involved, it raises issues about their judgment and ability to judge people – but they were, are and should remain fully liable for being involved with an organization publicly devoted to be mechallel hatorah – and the community, if it is devoted to torah, should hold them fully accountable for their association.

  14. Shades of Gray says:

    “Here in Eretz Yisrael, I find there are two types of Charedi communities. One type is the one breeding the blogosphere frustrations – fundamentalist, intolerant, sanctimoniously advocating one way for everyone. The other type is the way it should be – lots of busy, sincere people, who don’t have time for chit-chat about the latest cherem because their lives are too full of Torah.”

    This reminds me of an article I recently read in the English “Sha’ah Tovah” magazine about a young chasid from Meah Shearim who finished Shas in time for his Bar Mitzvah(!). This was the past summer of the protests/riots, and the writer asked him whether he ever feels like he wants to join his friends outside at the protests on Shabbos. He answered, “I am busy finishing Shas. Who has time to attend protests?!”

  15. rachel w says:

    So, how long do you think a yeshiva or organization should have a secret detective trailing all their would-be donors to be sure that they are on the up and up? What do you want the head of a mosad to do? When the donations were accepted from the head of EJF, was there any reason to assume that there was a reason for a money-strapped yeshiva/mosad to turn them down? DT should not be confused with the Urim Vetumim. Everyone does the best they can do with the facts that they have. Does the money need to be returned? I guess a shaaloh should be asked. (OTOH, I certainly don’t think anyone should be returning the money to EJF. Wherever the money is now, I am sure it is serving a far better purpose than it would over there.)

  16. leiby geffen says:

    Rabbi Adlerstein-
    Why has no one demanded a listing of the recipients of “grants” from EJF? Rumor has it a very prominent figure accepted $100K+ for his yeshiva, and that others involved received significant (tens of thousands of dollars). Even some of the community rabbonim/avos batei din who may not have taken outright contributions were flown to the conventions and put up in luxury hotels on Leib Woods’ cheshbon. Let the “gedolim” come clean and run this organization with the transparency that we deserve.