Help wanted: Men to serve on the rabbinic court to supervise immersion of conversion candidates.
Producer Nirit Yaakovs-Yinon, a religious Jewish woman, got interested in the concerns of female conversion candidates after hearing about the job description above from a friend who worked in the Israeli government.
Both male and female converts to Judaism are required to immerse in a mikveh, or ritual bath, as the final step toward becoming a Jew. When women immerse before their weddings and monthly thereafter, another woman supervises to ensure that the woman immersing is completely under the water.
But according to Jewish law, the three members of the male-only court must witness the immersion performed for conversion. It’s not enough for the woman accompanying the candidate to tell the rabbis that the woman has immersed.
Members of a rabbinic court ask the candidate about his or her sincerity regarding Jewish law, just before the immersion.
Yaakovs-Yinon spoke with conversion candidates adopted by her learned that female candidates for conversion enter the water in a flimsy robe. She spoke to converts about their experiences. This eventually led to an exhibit called “Story of a Woman and a Robe, which Ynet reviewed recently. (Hebrew).
Sharon Shapiro, the blogger formerly known as Frumhouse explains in her new blog Kol b’Isha Erva that a similar problem exists for conversion candidates in the United States.
At the same time, the Israeli robe is much more tznius [modest] than the garment that appears to be standard in most orthodox American conversions, which literally is a sheet with a hole in it. The sheet is a large and unwieldy piece of fabric whose purpose is to fan out above the water once the convert dunks under. However, often the sheet sticks to some part of the body or fans out in a lopsided way, thus exposing a view of naked flesh to the rabbis above.
Sharon asked me if I had ever heard of this issue, and indeed I recall a radio talk show on the topic a couple of years ago. It may have been the forerunner to this exhibit. Because Israel encourages immigrants of non-Jewish or questionable Jewish status to convert, with 14 conversion institutes, the difficulties faced by potential converts often make the news.
Sharon’s own conversion was unusual because her birth mother, as well as her adoptive parents, were Jewish. But her birth father wasn’t, and the rabbi she consulted quoted an outlying opinion requiring conversion for the children of a non-Jewish father. He said a conversion would prevent problems in the future.