Vaad Giyyur – Policy Statement

The International Rabbinic Fellowship respects and strongly adheres to the notion that local rabbis should be empowered to do their own giyyur without the need to go through a centralized body. It is understood that each rabbi will make his decisions in full accordance with the demands of halakha and in due consideration of what is best for the convert and for the Jewish people.

PREFACE

The International Rabbinic Fellowship respects and strongly adheres to the notion that local rabbis should be empowered to do their own giyyur without the need to go through a centralized body. It is understood that each rabbi will make his decisions in full accordance with the demands of halakha and in due consideration of what is best for the convert and for the Jewish people.


It is expected that the members of the IRF will do their very best to recognize the converts of other Orthodox rabbis, and will treat all converts with the dignity and respect they deserve. The IRF will strive to create a culture of trust among our various members and constituencies to the greatest degree possible.


VAAD GIYYUR – SUMMARY OF GUIDELINES [1]

As a service to our members, the IRF has appointed a Vaad Giyyur comprised of accomplished halakhic scholars as well as seasoned pulpit rabbis. The Vaad includes two chairpersons, a coordinator (menahel) and a number of general members and will serve in a number of capacities:


1. The Vaad will serve in a consultative fashion to help local rabbis think through complicated cases. The service is offered on a need/request basis. No member is required to consult the Vaad.


2. The Vaad will have its own teudat giyyur (conversion certificate). [2] It is our hope that the certificate will facilitate an easy reception of the convert in the various communities of which he or she may want to be a part, especially if there is a possible interest in aliyah to Israel.


To receive this certificate, the conversion must follow the Vaad Giyyur’s “Conversion Standards” policy. Additionally, in exceptional cases where the rabbi feels that a particular leniency is warranted, the rabbi may ask for the case to be reviewed by the Vaad or its designees. If the Vaad approves of the conversion going ahead, an explanation for the exception will be written up by a member of the Vaad and included as part of the file.


There is no requirement for an IRF member to request Vaad approval or use a Vaad certificate. The certificate is a service the Vaad will provide to IRF members if so requested for conversions which follow its guidelines.


3. The Vaad will not comment on the halakhic decisions of any of its members not using the Vaad’s certificate. Nevertheless, the Vaad can be called upon to investigate charges of fraud, abuse, improper financial handling, or halakhic malfeasance. In such cases, the Vaad may recommend censure or even dismissal from the IRF of a rabbi who has demonstrated this type of improper conduct.


CONVERSION STANDARDS

The Vaad Giyyur offers the following guidelines for standard (לכתחילה) cases:


1. PROCESS

a. It is expected that the candidate be actively involved in the conversion process for approximately one year in order to experience the full Jewish yearly cycle. Depending upon background, observance and previous education the length of the process will vary.


b. The education of the convert begins with a מצוות הודעת. The requirement is for a convert to be informed of a number of mitzvot, some “light” and some “heavy”, and in particular those that are most relevant on a day-to-day basis. Naturally, this is only the beginning of the convert’s mitzvah education. It is expected that over the course of his or her instruction the convert will develop a reasonably comprehensive sense of what an observant Jewish life entails.


c. Although the instruction of a convert often needs to be tailor-made, it is important that the education be more than just a study of halakhot. The convert should learn Tanakh and Jewish philosophy as well as become familiar with the siddur. The ability to reasonably parse a Hebrew text is a desideratum. Finally, it is important for the convert to develop a good sense of Jewish history, since understanding and accepting the position of the Jewish people in this world is an important element of conversion.


d. The ethical imperatives of Judaism, both those that are universal in character and those that are distinctively Jewish, should be given significant weight during the process of the candidate’s Jewish education. It is important that the convert internalize that the praxis of an observant Jew consists of both ritual and ethical norms.


2. SUITABILITY

a. Although there is no formal psychological fitness requirement, the rabbi should make sure that the convert fully understands the implications of what he or she is undertaking and that he or she is capable of making a lifetime commitment to Judaism. Furthermore, the rabbi should determine to the best of his ability that the conversion is not an attempt at escapism or due to some neurotic impulse.


b. Although everyone deserves a second chance, conversion to Judaism is not an entitlement, and candidates who have been involved in previous unethical or illegal behavior should only be converted if the rabbi feels that he or she is truly repentant, has made his or her amends to society and that conversion of such an individual will be a merit for the Jewish people and not an embarrassment.


3. OBSERVANCE LEVEL

a. The candidate must accept upon him- or herself the yoke of the commandments (מצוות קבלת). This means that the convert accepts the obligation to perform all the mitzvot, even ones he or she may not yet have learned. Nevertheless, it is the rabbi’s duty to make sure that the convert’s overall perception of an observant Jewish life is reasonably accurate.


b. The candidate must actively observe the mitzvot (מצוות קיום). The Vaad understands that observance is a growth process, and that it is not the place of the beit din to overly tax a newly religious person with the countless details of halakhic observance that are learned over time or toquiz them excessively regarding fine details and subtle nuances. Nevertheless, the candidate must already be observant at the time of conversion, as per paragraph 3c.


c. Specifically, the sine qua nons of Orthodox observance must be maintained at a reasonable level. They are: Shabbat and Jewish holidays, kashrut, ṭaharat ha-mishpaḥa, daily prayer, and tefillin (for men). The standards of the community into which the person is converting should play some role in determining exactly what this would look like in any individual case.


d. It is expected that the candidate be a part of an Orthodox community. Ideally this means regular attendance in an Orthodox synagogue, and at a minimum on Shabbat and holidays.


e. Although faith is a complicated and personal matter, the candidate must affirm his/her belief in one God, in the divine nature of the Torah (both written and oral), in ועונש שכר, and in the obligation of Jews to keep halakha as set forth by the Rabbis.


4. JEWISH PARTNER

Frequently, a candidate is already in a serious relationship with or married to a Jew. This relationship is often an encouraging sign that the ger or giyoret will acclimate well and have a place in the larger Jewish family. Nevertheless, there are a number of complications in these cases that need to be addressed.


a. It is the rabbi’s responsibility to ascertain, to the best of his ability, that the candidate’s commitment to Judaism and the Jewish people is more than a commitment to his or her Jewish partner or an attempt to please the partner or his or her parents. The desire to convert to Judaism should represent a genuine commitment to Torah and the Jewish people. The conversion should be one that can outlast the relationship.


Consequently, the Vaad recommends that the rabbi specifically bring up this concern to the potential convert, directly posing the question of whether the candidate’s commitment to Torah, God and Judaism will abide irrespective of the relationship.


b. It is critical that the ger or giyoret converting to Judaism receive the proper support from his or her partner. It is the rabbi’s responsibility to ensure that the framework and structure of the new household be conducive to observance and the deepening of the convert’s Jewish identity and commitment to Torah and mitzvot.


Therefore, it is recommended that the rabbi directly involve the spouse or future spouse in the process of conversion. The rabbi should meet with them both throughout the process to ensure that the couple is in harmony about this momentous decision. The Jewish partner need not receive a Jewish education that he or she may already have. However, if the Jewish partner does not have a solid background in Torah study, he or she should arrange to study with his or her partner or to organize some equivalent learning situation.


c. In cases where the candidate (female) is already civilly married, and her husband is a kohen, the proper procedure is highly contested as it involves weighing a number of factors. The IRF takes no official position on whether to perform the conversion in such cases but leaves this in the hands of the rabbi overseeing the conversion, albeit in consultation with the Vaad Giyyur.


d. Finally, if the Jewish partner is not currently observant, he or she must accept upon him- or herself a level of observance compatible with that for which the candidate is striving.


5. PEOPLE WITH PREVIOUS (NON-HALAKHIC) JEWISH IDENTITY

People who come to convert who previously believed themselves to be Jewish or people who have been active participants in the Jewish people need to be treated with exceptional love and respect. The giyyur should be framed as an affirmation of their core Jewish identity. A similar approach should be taken with zeraʿ Yisrael cases.


It is recommended that the rabbi consult the Vaad in such cases.


6. GIYYUR MI-SAFEQ AND GIYYUR LE-ḤUMRAH

In cases where there is some question about whether the candidate approaching the rabbi may already be Jewish, it is important to distinguish between a giyyur mi-safeq and a giyyur le-ḥumrah. A giyyur mi-safeq is performed when the rabbi is in doubt about whether this person is halakhically Jewish or not. In contrast, a giyyur le-ḥumrah is performed when, הדין מעיקר, the rabbi is comfortable with the person’s halakhic status as a Jew, but that either he or the person approaching him has reason to want to comply with an alternative halakhic position in a given case.


With this in mind, the Vaad makes the following recommendations:


a. When the rabbi is in doubt whether a particular person is halakhically Jewish or not, a giyyur mi- safeq should be performed. The issues should be explained to the candidate as clearly as possible, and every effort should be made to make the ger or giyoret feel like he or she has been a part of the Jewish people from the beginning of the process until the end.


b. Since having a quasi-Jewish status is a complicated matter halakhically, socially, and emotionally, the standards for performing a giyyur mi-safeq may be more lenient than normal. It is recommended that the rabbi consult the Vaad in such cases.


c. A giyyur le-ḥumrah is a serious matter and should not be suggested or done lightly. Suggesting a giyyur to someone who is הדין מעיקר halakhically Jewish involves pastoral questions as well as possible violation of הגר את תונו לא. It should only be considered in cases where the benefits of such an action outweigh the costs. The rabbi should not coax the person into this, but should follow his or her lead when it seems that the ger or giyoret genuinely wants this, despite having been informed that it is not necessary.


d. A giyyur le-ḥumrah in a case where the person would not have the status of ger or giyoret otherwise is particularly discouraged, since this can cause unwanted halakhic status issues in the future, especially for women and kohanim. It is permissible, however, if the person specifically wants it and understands the possible consequences. Finally, a giyyur le-ḥumrah for a woman married to a kohen should not be done.


7. THE BEIT DIN

a. The beit din should consist of the overseeing rabbi and two other rabbis. All three must be fully observant Orthodox rabbis.


b. The other rabbis, although not leading the process, are free to pose questions to the candidate and must be comfortable with the decision to convert the candidate. For this reason, it would be best if the other two rabbis meet with the candidate at least once before the conversion.


c. If the overseeing rabbi has not taken part in at least five conversions during his career, he must request a mentor from the Vaad. A seasoned rabbi with ample experience in conversion will be appointed as mentor and guide.


d. Halakha would seem to allow a rabbi who is himself a ger to sit on a beit din for giyyur. Nevertheless, as there has been much controversy of late about the acceptability of this, it should be avoided for the sake of the convert.


e. The rabbi’s responsibility with giyyur does not end with the moment of conversion. Rather, the overseeing rabbi should commit to both maintain regular contact with the ger or giyoret as well as to facilitate his or her growth in Torah in the future.


f. Rabbis should not charge or otherwise solicit funds for performing conversions.


If the rabbi is the only one available to do the tutoring, and the time he takes is not part of his “salaried time” as a synagogue employee, he may take the same fee that a tutor would take, but no more.


g. The rabbi may require membership in his synagogue, with the appropriate fees paid to said synagogue.


8. MILAH

a. If the man converting is uncircumcised, he will need to undergo a brit milah. The milah should be performed before a kosher beit din with, at least, one rabbi.


b. If there is an observant physician who can also function as the mohel, the circumcision should be done as a milah le-shem giyyur. [3]


c. If there is no observant physician who can do the milah, the man may undergo a medical circumcision, with this being followed up by haṭafat dam brit at a later date.


d. It is possible to have a brit milah done on an adult even without an observant physician. Generally, this is done by a mohel together with a doctor under medically supervised conditions. It should only be done if all parties (the candidate, the mohel and the surgeon) are comfortable with the procedure, and when doing so violates no legal statutes.


e. Although there are mohalim who perform circumcisions on adults on their own (i.e. without an accompanying physician), the Vaad is not in a position to comment on either the safety or legality of this procedure.


f. The Vaad strongly cautions all IRF members to participate only in processes that they are confident are both safe and legal.


9. HAṬAFAT DAM BRIT

a. If the man had a medical circumcision, [4] i.e. not by a mohel and not done מצוה לשם or גרות לשם, haṭafat dam brit is required. The haṭafat dam brit should be performed before a kosher beit din with, at least, one rabbi.


b. Haṭafat dam brit should be performed by a competent mohel.


Nonetheless, haṭafat dam brit may be performed by someone else [5] if necessary, assuming this person knows how to do it properly (including proper sterilization of the cutting instrument) and both the candidate and the rabbi are comfortable with this procedure.


The candidate may not perform the haṭafat dam brit on himself (a common practice for Jews who had medical circumcisions), since he is not yet Jewish.


c. As the process of haṭafat dam brit is both physically and emotionally uncomfortable, it should be done as expeditiously as possible. The requirement is to draw one drop of blood from the remaining mucocutaneous tissue below the glans. The glans itself should not be cut.


d. If the man was circumcised by a mohel as a child, whether גרות לשם or even מצוה לשם, he does not require haṭafat dam brit. (Ideally, however, the rabbi overseeing such a brit should ensure that the mohel performs it גרות לשם.)


10. MIQVAH

a. The ger may immerse nude or with a loose-fitting garment [6] or sheet. Although both of these options are halakhically valid for the giyoret as well, the Vaad urges that a loose-fitting garment or sheet be used for the giyoret, since concern for the woman’s modesty and dignity should outweigh any unease one may have about the use of a covering during ṭevilah.


b. There should be a female attendant for a giyoret, and she should be there for the entire time the giyoret is preparing for immersion or inside the actual miqvah. In addition to the reassurance she brings by just being there, the attendant’s job is to help preserve the giyoret’s modesty throughout the process, especially during the ṭevilah itself.


c. Before immersing, the rabbi should perform a מצוות הודעת ceremony, where he reminds the ger or giyoret of certain mitzvot and the reality of what it means to join the Jewish people.


d. Following this, a pro forma מצוות קבלת ceremony should be done. The questions should be very general as well as meaningful. This is not the time to test the candidate’s knowledge. Examples of appropriate questions are: Are you converting to Judaism of your own free will? Do you accept belief in one God? Do you accept the Torah as divine and binding? Do you accept Judaism to the exclusion of other religions? Do you agree to fulfill the mitzvot to the best of your ability?


11. HAFRADA (SEPARATION)

a. If the convert is civilly married, the couple should be remarried Jewishly as soon as possible. If the Jewish wedding will not take place on the same day as the conversion, the rabbi should instruct the couple with regard to the requirement to separate until their marriage.


b. If there is a possibility that the woman may be pregnant, a pregnancy test is required prior to the conversion.


c. If the pregnancy test reveals that the woman is pregnant, the beit din needs to know this and intend her conversion to apply to the fetus as well.


12. GER QATAN

It is first important to recognize that there are three major groups of posqim with regard to converting a minor. 


The first group believes that any minor can be converted, regardless of the level of observance in the house, since it is always a zekhut to be a Jew. The second group believes that full observance is not required in the household, but that the household must be an environment conducive or at least not adverse to a path towards observance. The third group believes that one may only convert a minor if the household is fully observant.


Whether one is dealing with an intermarried couple working to make the family wholly Jewish or with a Jewish couple suffering from infertility that has decided to adopt, considering the sensitive nature of this matter, and coupled with the critical importance of providing for the continuity of Jewish families, the rabbi should make every effort to convert the children. In all cases that the rabbi deems it appropriate to convert a minor, the Vaad recommends adopting the middle standard referenced above, assuming a number of criteria are met.


The minimal requirements for an adopting family are the following:


a. The parent(s) must be supportive of the child growing in his or her Judaism.


b. The parent(s) must strongly affirm their own Jewish identities, irrespective of their technical halakhic status.


In cases where the mother is not Jewish and wishes to convert but might not receive a conversion for technical reasons (e.g., her husband is a kohen), assuming she is fully on board with having a Jewish home (see below) and sees herself as part of the Jewish people broadly defined, the children should be converted irrespective of what is decided about her conversion, as they are zeraʿ Yisrael.


c. Minimally, the family must observe some Shabbat and holiday rituals and have a kosher home.


d. It is expected that the family be affiliated with and active participants in an Orthodox synagogue; ideally, one within walking distance.


e. It is also expected that the child will attend a Jewish day school or some equivalent arrangement from kindergarten through twelfth grade. In cases where an Orthodox day school is not a feasible option or not suitable for said child or family, a good faith effort must be made to provide the child with the appropriate tools and environment that will allow for that child’s development along a path of greater observance.


f. Meḥa’ah (מחאה) / Negation – Upon reaching the age of responsibility/mitzvot—13 for males and 12 for females—the child’s Jewish status becomes irreversible unless the child, at this moment, rejects his or her Jewish identity. Any continued voluntary engagement in Jewish ritual at that point will be considered an active affirmation of his or her Jewish identity and close the door on any possible rejection. It is important to inform the child immediately prior to bar or bat mitzvah of the significance of their continued observance, and to do so in a way that underscores the assumption of their Jewishness and that does not give undue weight to the option of negation. We recommend something along the lines of the following language: “Tomorrow you begin to actually be responsible for your Judaism. Are you ready to accept that responsibility?”


SUMMARY

To reiterate:

  • The above standards are the general (לכתחילה) standards of the Vaad. Any conversion done within these guidelines will receive a Vaad certificate if requested.

  • There is no requirement for an IRF member to consult with the Vaad or request a Vaad certificate. The certificate is a service the Vaad will provide if so requested.

  • To receive the certificate, the converting rabbi needs to contact the coordinator and describe the case. Assuming there is agreement that the case is in line with the Vaad’s standards, the IRF office will send the rabbi papers to fill out and submit to the coordinator. The coordinator will ensure that the certificate is filled out properly and signed by the appropriate members of the Vaad.

  • As all members of the IRF have a ḥezqat kashrut, there will be no regular investigation of the Vaad into the case other than by speaking with the overseeing rabbi. However, the Vaad reserves the right to investigate more deeply in a situation where there seems to be a compelling reason to do so.

  • The IRF office will mail an official copy of the teudah to the rabbi as well as creating an electronic copy (PDF) which will be emailed to the rabbi as well as stored by the office and by the vaad coordinator.

  • Cases that do not follow these guidelines will be considered for a certificate on a case by case basis, if the Vaad feels that an exception is warranted (הדחק בשעת או בדיעבד).

  • The existence of a Vaad certificate should not be taken to imply that the Vaad or the IRF denies the legitimacy of conversions done outside of the Vaad framework. There are not two kinds of giyyur or two kinds of converts.

  • All gerim, with or without a Vaad certificate, should be treated with dignity, and members should strive to accept each other’s conversions, as well as those of other Orthodox rabbis.

  • The IRF endorses a culture of mutual respect and trust among its membership as well as the principle that a ma’aseh beit din is binding.

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FOOTNOTES:

[1] This section has been included to establish context. For fuller details, consult the “IRF – Vaad Giyyur Guidelines” established by vote in June 2010.

[2] In the previous giyyur document, “IRF – Vaad Giyyur Guidelines”, this was referred to as an ishur.

[3] This is assuming that no general anesthesia is used and the man is awake for the process. If the man must be—or wishes to be—knocked out for the surgery, the procedure described in 8c should be followed.

[4] or otherwise has no foreskin, as determined by a competent mohel

[5] a rabbi, an observant doctor, etc.

[6] robe, loose t-shirt, etc.



Vaad Hagiyur Members (listed alphabetically)

  • Rabbi Dov Linzer, Co­-Chair

  • Rabbi Joel Tessler, Co­-Chair

  • Rabbi Yair Silverman, Coordinator and Editor

  • Rabbi Marc Angel

  • Rabbi David Bigman

  • Rabbi Yuval Cherlow

  • Rabbi Yehuda Gilad

  • Rabbi Alfredo Goldschmidt

  • Rabbi Asher Lopatin

  • Rabbi Yaakov Love

  • Rabbi Daniel Sperber

  • Rabbi Avi Weiss