Sunday, June 3, 2012

Lessons in Jewish Conversion:
The Denver and Ne'eman Plans

When I first moved to Denver, I was contacted by all varieties of people detailing the unfortunate (emotionally and financially) situation of conversion in Denver. I wrote about it, and there was a huge outcry in the community that I was both uninformed and out of line. Like any good student, I've spent the past many months educating myself on the Denver situation, and now that I'm not dating a non-Jew and I don't have the intention of dating another non-Jew, I feel like I can put myself back in a place of being a voice. And if not a voice for action, then a voice for education. So I give you a brief history of the infamous Denver Plan.

In 1977, two Orthodox rabbis -- Eliezer Berkovitz z"l and Steven Riskin -- came to Denver as speakers in adult education programs. Berkovits, a  professor emeritus of Hebrew Theological College in Chicago, warned the Denver community that the "Who is a Jew?" issue was destroying Jewish unity. Riskin, who later became Shlomo Riskin and served as chief rabbi of Efrat, related passates from the Talmud and Rambam that dealt with conversion's lenient attitude concerning the applicant's commitment to observance of the mitzvoth or commandments. Both considered "mavericks" in the community, they had a great impact on Denver Orthodox Rabbi Stanley Wagner.

Within a few weeks of their talks, Rabbi Wagner called together seven Denver rabbis of all denominations determined to find a way to provide for a single, citywide conversion apparatus. A noble cause, even after the failure of the Denver Plan, Orthodox Rabbi Jerome Lipsitz commented, "Why have two separate types of Jews? ... We want to create a Jew all of us can recognize as a Jew." Clearly the effort was called for, but its basic concepts were set for failure.

The meeting with the rabbis resulted in the Denver Plan comprising the following process:
  • potential converts would take a class over several months on the fundamentals of Judaism
  • the classes would be taught by rabbis across the denominational spectrum of the Jewish community (let's call this holistic Jewish education)
  • after the class, a panel of rabbis representing different movements examined the candidate
  • participants would agree to basic Jewish observances (fasting on Yom Kippur, joining a synagogue, lighting candles on Shabbat and holidays) 
  • note: dietary laws and "keeping a Jewish household" were mentioned, but not a necessary commitment for conversion -- both practices were left "vague"
  • if the panel found the candidate "fit for conversion," a beit din of Traditional rabbis would perform the conversion
A note on the Traditional rabbis. In Pledges of Jewish Allegiance: Conversion, Law, and Policymaking in Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century Orthodox Responsa, the authors (neither of them Orthodox mind you) emphasize that these were not mainstream Orthodox rabbis. You see, in every version of the Denver Plan that was explained to me, it was Orthodox rabbis performing the conversion in the end. According to the authors, these Traditional rabbis were "Orthodox rabbis whose congregations had adopted more liberal practices, such as the use of microphones on Shabbat, mixed seating, and the like; no mainstream Orthodox rabbi was willing to participate" (117). 

Whoa! Shocker! Okay, I had to regroup after reading this, because my understanding of this groundbreaking plan was that these were mainstream Orthodox rabbis who had agreed to creating a situation of highest-common-denominator conversion practices. Wrong. 

The ultimate failure (which we'll get to) of this program relates to the compromises made by the Traditional rabbis and community regarding the converts' commitments to the mitzvoth. Because of the vagueness of the commitment to the mitzvoth of kashrut and what I understand as taharat ha'mishpacha (such as mikvah), this allowed the Traditional rabbis to approve the conversion. 

By 1982, the Denver Plan was falling apart. Traditional rabbis felt they'd compromised too much, and when, in March of that year the Reform movement recognized patrilineal descent, serious questions were raised as to the viability and sustainability of the program. On June 17, 1983, six years after the initial agreement, the Traditional rabbis withdrew and the Denver Plan was done. 

In its six years, the Denver Plan converted a shocking 750 people. Good. Lord. That's 125 people a year. That makes me wonder -- where are those 750 people today? Are they living Jewishly? Do they still identify as Jews? Has there been any kind of followup with them? And, perhaps most interestingly, how many of the converted to be and remained Orthodox (whatever that means)?

An article in the Intermountain Jewish News brought the largely secretive plan to light, resulting in comments from Harold Jacobs, president of Orthodoxy's American Council of Young Israel, to say, 
We have no choice bu to draw the line, clearly, as to who is a Jew and who is not, as to what limits tand basic standards of elementary Jewish identity and personal conduct we must insist upon. ... It is time that Orthodoxy put the rest of the Jewish community on notice: no longer will 'Jewish unity' be bought at the expense of Jewish identity. For Klal Yisrael today, that is too high a price.
Ouch. Comments from the Jewish Observer were even more blunt.
While compromise for the sake of unity can often make good sense, when dealing with basic principles of faith, 'compromise' is actually a sell-out. ... It is time that all Orthodox rabbis recognize that Reform and Conservative Judaism are far, far removed from Torah, and Klal Yisroel is betrayed -- not served -- when Orthodoxy enters in religious assocaition with them.
What a zinger. The Observer went so far as to warn other communities against this type of "interdenominational cooperation," urging such communities to "step back from the abyss." 

This didn't, of course, stop Bibi Netanyahu from appointing what became known as the Ne'eman Commission in 1997 to develop ideas and proposals regarding religious conversion in Israel in response to the influx of some 700,000 immigrants from Russia and other parts of the Former Soviet Union between 1987 and 1997. Yaakov Ne'eman, an observant Orthodox Jew, was appointed to the head of the commission. After some 70 sessions and 150 hours of deliberations, the committee recommended the
creation of panels of rabbis representing all three movements to prepare the candidates for conversion. The ritual conversion itself would remain within the province of the Orthodox rabbinate alone.
Sound familiar? No surprise here, but the commission's proposal was rejected by the Chief Rabbinate in 1998. 

As far as I know, there were no other attempts either before or after either of these situations to create an interdenominational cooperation for highest-common-denominator (or lowest if you prefer) conversions. The question will always be "is it good for the Jews?" for some and "is it real Judaism?" for others. Asking converts to commit to the mitzvoth before dipping in the mikvah is the crux point of conversion, and an agreement is an agreement. However, if you follow the opinion of some rabbis, what happens after the dip is all on the new Jew. If a convert makes the commitment and decides to live a Reform or Secular Jewish life, then those sins of incomplete commitment are on them -- but they're still Jews.

Note: There have been talks of doing a mass conversion of Russian immigrants in the vein of what it looks like when people take their U.S. citizen oath. I imagine the scene itself would be pretty powerful -- thousands of immigrants who have been living in the Jewish state taking an oath of Jewish citizenship and nationhood. But I'll talk about this some other time.