Recent allegations of impropriety on the part of the founder and head of Eternal Jewish Family, an organization involved with potential converts to Judaism, have again focused the attention of the Jewish community on the conversion process. Rather than dwell on the failures of other organizations, the Rabbinical Council of America prefers to use this opportunity to highlight those aspects of the RCA’s GPS (Geirus Policies and Standards) conversion system established in February 2008 that prevent the kinds of problems associated with EJF and other conversion programs in the Orthodox community. We would also like to discuss some of the positive aspects of the GPS structure that serve the community beyond any concerns about inappropriate activities.
GPS was established to aid potential converts to Judaism, while at the same time diminishing thorny questions of personal status. For years, conversion had been performed in an ad hoc fashion by local rabbis, but without detailed mutually agreed-upon standards and procedures. While the vast majority of conversions were handled appropriately, some were not. As a result, in recent years even those who had fulfilled the halachic requirements were finding their conversions unfairly questioned and scrutinized — not just in Israel but in many Orthodox communities to which they or their children had moved. It is significant that because of such inconsistencies, in the early 1990s the RCA established regional conversion courts that were not organized into a formal network. That action alone, however, did not sufficiently address the problems.
To help solve this growing crisis, therefore, the RCA, in partnership with the Bet Din of America, took the next step and established the GPS network based on the following principles.
Courts and Judges
Qualifying regional courts are established, or if they already exist, are included. To ensure equal treatment, the courts follow transparent and published rules and procedures, fully disclosed to every candidate.
These procedures were formulated by the RCA, without being imposed by any outside rabbinate. Indeed in almost every respect the standards of GPS are consistent with the voluntary conversion guidelines adopted by the RCA in 1989, even as they allow for greater flexibility.
The courts function under the direction and leadership of local rabbis from across the Orthodox ideological spectrum. The judges are approved by GPS leadership. They do not have to be members of the RCA, but to avoid confusion a rabbi who serves as a GPS judge cannot do “outside” conversions. The courts meet candidates several times during the process to monitor progress and suggest additional areas of study.
GPS is a not-for-profit system. There are incidental expenses such as tutoring, mikvah, mohel, and operating costs. None of the judges profit financially from their many hours of dedicated service.
To ensure that each convert is shepherded through the process in a personalized fashion, each candidate is introduced to the court by a sponsoring rabbi. Because he is not a judge on that case, that rabbi avoids the conflict of being an advocate who is also an objective judge. The sponsoring rabbi mentors and guides the candidate, working with the bet din (rabbinical council). To be a sponsoring rabbi one does not have to be a member of the RCA.
Administration of GPS
GPS has a centralized office at the RCA, reporting to a committee representing the various regional courts. Complaints are handled jointly by the GPS administrator and the GPS committee, in consultation with the bet din.
A GPS Web site facilitates information sharing, education, and communications among the courts, candidates, and others. A confidential database of all GPS converts is maintained, ensuring that future questions will be appropriately answered.
While the RCA encourages its members to use GPS, it recognizes that some may choose not to in their role as the local rabbinic authority. Such rabbis recognize that other rabbis are similarly free to not recognize conversions from outside GPS in their jurisdiction.
In less than two years, approximately 300 fully accepted GPS conversions have taken place under the supervision of scores of approved judges across North America, with hundreds more candidates in process. For a new system, GPS is working astonishingly well. There are, of course, improvements to be made in some areas, and the RCA is committed to a constant review of all aspects of the program.
We believe that GPS will continue to help establish the credentials of those who choose, of their own free will, to join the Jewish people, while avoiding problems that sometimes occur, as sadly becomes evident from time to time.
GPS does not presume to claim, as others have, that its conversions will be “universally recognized,” insofar as we believe that there can be no such thing before the arrival of Mashiach. Yet we do believe that our system goes a long way toward establishing widely accepted outcomes, given that GPS conversions have been accepted across the ideological spectrum of Orthodoxy.
Aside from all of the benefits to the converts themselves, GPS thus contributes to precious Jewish unity and cooperation, among rabbis, laymen, and their communities.