May 19, 2024
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Conversion Guidelines, Transparency and Accountability

The Orthodox Jewish community is currently experiencing a devastating lack of confidence in its leadership. The seemingly ceaseless scandal after scandal, headline after headline, have taken their toll. If we can’t trust the leadership, how can we continue as a community? There are three things we need to consider.

First, look beyond the four cubits of our community. The distrust in leadership is a global phenomenon. This should make us think, ask questions to which I do not claim to have the answers. Is there some poisonous leadership attitude in the general culture that has infected all segments? Maybe our culture gives leaders a sense of invincibility that allows them to take advantage of their situations. Or maybe the culture of celebrity and corporate superstar provides those in possession of leadership skills an attitude of entitlement.

The media culture certainly contributes to our distrust of leadership. The emphasis on scandals, even the creation of misdeeds out of what may otherwise be called misjudgment, affects all of us. Additionally, the partisanship of a lot of our communal conversation pits one group against another, creating enemies who seek to knock each other down rather than discuss the issues.

Second, what would we do without leaders? How would we be able to function? We can certainly muddle through for a while but at some point, we would flounder and cease functioning. Shuls need rabbis. Communities need institutions which need senior management. We can limit the roles of these leaders; we can turn rabbis into sermonizers and teachers rather than role models and communal guides, which has already happened in some places; we can turn the heads of communal institutions into middle management, rather than senior leadership. We can do all that but, in turn, we will deprive our community of strong leadership. Maybe that is worth the price but the decision and its repercussions are part of a discussion we need to have before going down that path.

Third, what can we learn from the general culture? What techniques have been developed in corporate America, for example, to maintain leadership while curbing abuses? There are management consultants who specialize in governance, the careful balance between leadership and responsibility. Yet, as we consider applying any of these techniques, we also have to wonder how successful they have been in curbing abuse of power. From what I can tell, powerful people still abuse their roles, well beyond the confines of the Jewish community.

We, as a community, must be able to tolerate leadership mistakes made in good faith. We can live with good people who cannot see and know everything and therefore make decisions that, in retrospect, were wrong. We can even live with people who sometimes make bad decisions. But we dare not tolerate evil. We cannot allow into leadership positions people who lie, steal or abuse.

We, laypeople and leaders of the Jewish community, need to enable good leaders while curbing their power to prevent abuse. There are two keys to this task: transparency and accountability. If we are ever to regain faith in our leaders, these two words need to be the motto of the Jewish community.

Transparency is about clarifying expectations and allowing others to review progress. “And you shall be clear before the Lord and before Israel” (Num. 32:22) is an important principle in halachah that demands extra measures of communication to avoid misunderstanding. When there is greater mistrust, there is greater need for transparency to regain that trust. Sometimes real-life situations are ambiguous. Transparency offers clarity on what is allowed and what is not; it prevents abuse. Leaders need to prove to the community with action, not just words, that they deserve trust. And with greater transparency comes greater accountability—we will be able to see mishandling and stop it.

The Torah administers punishment for multiple reasons. One is recompense, payback for the damage. Another is removal of evil from the community (“and you shall remove the evil from Israel”). Another is to serve as a deterrent for future misbehavior (“and all the people shall hear and fear and no longer act presumptuously”-Deut. 17:12-13). Accountability not only punishes people who do wrong, it prevents people from taking the fateful step over the sometimes gray line into abuse of power. Fear is an important motivator, especially in ambiguous situations.

The Rabbinical Council of America (RCA), of which I am a member, recently released recommended changes to its conversion protocols after a scandal and a lengthy evaluation process. These changes, and the process underlying them, are groundbreaking and show us the direction Jewish communal organizations need to take. It’s time for change; the RCA is leading the way.

I moved to Brooklyn in 1994. At the time, the Orthodox Union had recently announced that it would no longer accept the kosher supervision of the Va’ad HaRabbanim of Flatbush. This local rabbinic organization had no official standards and instead allowed individual rabbis to set their own standards. In other words, customers had to ask a lot of questions in order to find out what they were getting. Effectively, this type of kosher supervision was a Wild West situation, with every sheriff making his own law, or at least his own legal decisions.

This system was a remnant of the chaos that was kosher supervision in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It allowed for rabbinic independence—certainly an important value—but also rampant fraud and corruption. When the kosher supervision agencies began setting standards, they offered transparency and consistency while dramatically decreasing fraud and corruption (completely eliminating fraud and corruption is a nice goal but let’s not hold anyone to an impossible standard). It is still common to hear complaints about the kosher supervision agencies and some of these complaints are valid. But they pale in comparison to the fraud and corruption of the Wild West system of kosher supervision. The Va’ad HaRabbanim of Flatbush has since changed its kosher supervision policies and restructured and rebranded the kosher organization as Va’ad HaKashrus of Flatbush, which is widely respected locally.

Prior to 2007, the Wild West system reigned in Orthodox conversions to Judaism. Back then, the RCA and its affiliated beis din, the Beth Din of America (BDA), would certify specific conversions if asked, only after investigating the details of the conversion after the fact. Beginning in 2007, the RCA established a system by which conversions would be systematically approved by following the Geirus Policies and Standards (GPS). GPS was intended to standardize the process, to allow for an alternative to the Wild West model.

After one of the GPS leaders was convicted of grossly abusing his power, the RCA poured resources into reevaluating its GPS guidelines. The results, unveiled last week, show marked progress toward transparency and accountability. Rabbis are required to provide details of the process in advance; prospective converts are provided guidance beyond their rabbi’s control; complaints are taken seriously and investigated.

In the end, though, the proof will be in the implementation. Will the guidelines be enforced? Will rabbis be held accountable for failing to follow the rules? Slavish adherence to rules creates an unwieldy bureaucracy. Abandonment of the rules creates a Wild West situation. The new guidelines have not yet been formally adopted and the details of accountability have yet to be determined. Additionally, details of past failures are being suppressed due to pending lawsuits. Will anyone be held accountable for the past scandal, if it is determined that it was mishandled?

Our communal institutions need to learn from the RCA’s current efforts. Transparency and accountability are difficult to implement because they require relinquishing managerial freedom. But if our community is to have the leadership it deserves, it needs to demand transparency and accountability.

By Rabbi Gil Student

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