Jewfem Blog

What the Freundel story says about Orthodox conversion

Last year, I participated in the AJC Conversion Colloquium, a meeting of some 75 Jewish leaders on the Israel conversion crisis (that is, stories of conversions being reversed and not accepted, etc), in which Freundel was one of the "star" speakers, given a large cushy time slot to share his approach to conversion. He promoted himself as the key person to resolve the whole crisis btwn Israel and the US, made himself out to be the one "rescuing" converts by brokering secret deals with the Israeli rabbinate. (Seth Farber was infuriated at the whole thing, as his entire life work was trampled on, and he and Freundel had a very memorable shouting match, but Farber did not formally get the floor, so he lost. Anyway, that's a whole other thing.) So Freundel, who headed the RCA's conversion committee, said something that still sticks with me -- about how "There are people walking around the streets of Israel who think that they're Jewish and probably aren't". And to me - i was like, why should you care that way? What does that even mean that we are thinking about a Jew walking on the streets of Israel who you have determined may not be Jewish? I couldn't get past this imagery. It all smacked of a kind of megalomania, a need to stand at the gates and determine who goes in and who does not. I remember listening to that and thinking, this entire conversion thing is all wrong. Too much obsessive rabbinic control over the people -- especially women, who constitute 80% of converts.

But at the time, that's not what I said. When it was my turn on the panel (I was one of three women speakers in the whole day), I pointed out that gender was the "elephant in the room" at the heart of the entire discussion. How the overwhelming majority of speakers were men, how decisions were made exclusively by men, how the ones disproportionately affected by these decisions were powerless women, and how disturbing it was that a roomful of men could sit in this sterile place making determinations about women's lives without having women in positions of power. My comments went nowhere (except to Gary Rosenblatt's story about the event), and the day continued as it was, ignoring gender and allowing men with power to engage with one another and forget about their gender privilege and those whose lives they were controlling.

I keep thinking about this, about the layers and layers of rabbinic male control over women, over our bodies and our status and our "permissibility" and our inclusion and our identity. And i'm thinking, really enough. The whole system is wrong. It's all wrong. We are allowing men to be gatekeepers over women's lives and identities and enough is enough. Enough is enough. This story validates our worst fears coming true. The entire conversion system is quite possibly one big male sexual fantasy. It's time to uproot the whole system from its core.


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