Back in 2008, the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) announced a new system of conversion, GPS (Geirus Policies and Standards). Ostensibly, their goal was to create a universal and centralized standard for all conversions. We warned then that the GPS system would result in invalidating conversions that had been done in the past in accordance with Orthodox law and approved by the RCA. (JTA, March 10, 2008, “RCA deal hurts rabbi, converts.”)
Unfortunately, we have been proven correct. In a letter sent by the Beth Din of America (BDA, which is under the auspices of the RCA) to the chief rabbinate’s office, it was stated that “we cannot accept the conversion of any rabbi who served in a synagogue without a mehitza.” The RCA should clarify if this refers to any rabbi who ever served in a synagogue without a mehitza, or if it refers to a rabbi who performed that specific conversion while serving in a non-mehitza synagogue. Either way, this pronouncement should alarm countless converts.
Back in the ’60s and ’70s, many Orthodox rabbis ordained at Yeshivah University served in mixed seated shuls. The rav, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, felt that in certain communities, YU rabbis should serve because the shuls may one day construct a mehitza. The BDA letter now places the conversions of all of those rabbis in jeopardy. This means that the children and grandchildren of these converts, some living in Israel, could be declared to not be Jewish. This is a terrible violation of the law, which prohibits the oppression of converts.
It is also a violation of the RCA’s own promise when it declared, “… any conversions performed previously [before GPS] that met its standards then, would continue to be recognized.” (“RCA response to public attack on GPS geirus policies,” March 19, 2009) Prior to the GPS system, when conversions were questioned, the RCA would vouch for its members who were in good standing. The RCA didn’t think twice about Orthodox rabbis who served in mixed seated shuls in the ’50s or ’60s, as this was common practice. This has now changed.
When we wrote that the RCA would question conversions done prior to the 2008 GPS standards, we never asserted that the RCA would conduct a witch-hunt to actively search out converts, find them and declare them invalid. What we said was that those converts who now needed to have their conversions validated by the RCA would be in jeopardy as the RCA would cast aspersions on pre-GPS conversions by imposing post-GPS standards.
This is precisely what is happening. When a convert or their children or grandchildren make aliyah, he or she needs his/her Jewish status validated. Because of the centralization of the GPS standards, the chief rabbinate’s office now turns to the Beth Din of America for guidance. The upshot of this is that conversions performed by RCA rabbis who served in non-mehitza shuls for years – some who even went on to become presidents of the RCA – are now in question.
RCA validation of conversions may not be limited to converts who emigrate to Israel. It can also encompass those applying to Orthodox day schools in the United States or applying for membership in an Orthodox synagogue, as these schools and synagogues will be looking to the RCA for guidance.
In fact, the matter is even worse. As a result of the GPS system, the RCA now has a practice of not only evaluating converts at the time of conversion, but for years after. Most recently, a convert who converted through the GPS system informed us of a call received from an RCA official. Having heard that the convert was struggling with Orthodox communal norms, the official threatened to retroactively invalidate the conversion.
The RCA practices should be of great concern to every convert who converts today. Now, the RCA is not only invalidating conversions done prior to the GPS system but threatening to undo conversions done through the GPS system itself.
It is these issues that require immediate detailed clarification from the RCA. In the meantime, we should all be concerned about what seems to be both a retroactive application of current GPS principles and also a creeping reduction of the convert’s status in the Orthodox community.
Rabbi Marc Angel is founder and director of the Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals (jewishideas.org) and a former president of the RCA. Rabbi Avi Weiss is senior rabbi of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale and founder of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School and Yeshivat Maharat. They are co-founders of the International Rabbinic Fellowship (IRF).