Non-Orthodox L.A. streams join in conversion court

LOS ANGELES — When Sandra Caplan, a Jew-by-choice, was dying, her husband promised her that he would work toward a unified conversion process for the Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist movements.

George Caplan, a veteran community leader, kept his word: The Sandra Caplan Community Bet Din of Southern California, believed to be the first of its kind, will be formally established in June.

Composed of Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis, this beit din, a court applying the rules of Jewish law, will officiate at conversions accepted by the three streams of Judaism.

With intermarriage running at about 50 percent, encouraging non-Jewish spouses to convert and form Jewish families is among the most important challenges facing the Jewish community, says Caplan, a former president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. He views the new beit din as a substantial move in the right direction.

Across the United States, the most recent available statistics from the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey list 185,000 converts, or 3 percent of American Jewry.

An increasing number of converts are small children from China, Vietnam and Romania who are brought in for conversion by the Jewish parents who have adopted them.

To Rabbi Richard Levy, the unified beit din "is a wonderful step forward for California and klal Yisrael and broadens opportunities for those who wish to become Jews," using a Hebrew term for the Jewish people.

Levy, director of the School of Rabbinic Studies on the Los Angeles campus of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, helped take the initiative for the new beit din five years ago.

His Conservative dialogue partner and fellow initiator was Rabbi Elliot Dorff, rector of the University of Judaism.

Dorff and Levy soon expanded their circle to include two dozen other rabbis, including Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben of the Reconstructionist Kehillat Israel, current president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California.

The discussions and negotiations carried on for some four years were amicable, but there were differences.

"The Reform rabbis were afraid that the conversions would be too halachic [adhering to strict religious law], and the Conservatives were afraid that the Reform would not respect their ritual standards," recalled Rabbi Jerrold Goldstein of the Reform movement's Union of American Hebrew Congregations.

A main sticking point was whether converts would have to undergo circumcision — real or symbolic, depending on whether the male candidate was previously circumcised — and immersion in a mikvah, or ritual bath. These requirements are mandatory in the Conservative movement but left to the individual discretion of the more autonomous Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis.

It was finally agreed to hew to the stricter Conservative standards for the unified Beit Din.

At this point, about two years ago, Dorff temporarily moved to New York, and Levy had to focus on his new HUC position, so the project became more or less dormant.

There was also the matter of finances. All agreed that the potential convert should not pay for the conversion process, which Goldstein termed a community responsibility, akin to naturalization for U.S. citizenship.

The three judges sitting on the rabbinical court are also not paid for their services. The beit din has set a budget of $30,000 for the first year of operations.

About a year ago, after his wife's death, Caplan stepped into the picture, offered financial support and got the process started again.

Establishment of the Sandra Caplan Community Bet Din will be formally announced on Shavuot, which falls this year on June 6, the holiday linked to the story of Ruth, the Moabite woman who threw in her lot with her mother-in-law, Naomi, and became a Jew.

Actual operations will start July 1, according to Conservative Rabbi Daniel Shevitz of Mishkon Tephilo, who has been named by the governing board as chair of the beit din. He will draw from a "bullpen" of about 20 rabbis from the three movements for service on the court.

While Jews-by-choice are playing increasingly prominent roles in synagogues and Jewish organizations, local figures for the actual number of converts are hard to come by.

Although the founders of the beit din say they would welcome the participation of Orthodox rabbis, the chances of this happening are slim.

"The basic issue," said Rabbi Meyer May, president of the Orthodox Rabbinical Council of California, "is that a potential convert must accept the mitzvot," or commandments, "and Torah as being divine and must accept the written and oral law as the absolute truth."

In the absence of such a complete commitment by non-Orthodox rabbis and converts, "we would not accept a conversion as valid," he said.

Furthermore, the Talmud is quite negative about conversions, May added.

"We are told that if you get an inferior convert, he dilutes Judaism, but if you get a superior convert, he'll show up those Jews who are not committed.''

The only known attempt in the United States to form a beit din with all streams of Judaism, including Orthodox, occurred in Denver some 20 years ago, but the project fell apart in a short time.

Tom Tugend

JTA Los Angeles correspondent