Converting The Mentally Ill

Orthodox Jews don’t look for converts among non-Jews. They typically turn away three times Gentiles seeking conversion and then only convert them after they have proved themselves.

Now what happens if the convert is sincere but mentally ill?

Different Batei Din (Jewish law courts) and different rabbis have different approaches.

The typical rabbi and the typical Jewish law court are going to be asking themselves if a prospective convert will be more of an asset or a liability to the Jewish people.

In May 2001, when I revealed to the Rabbinical Council of California (RCC) Beit Din that I’d had Chronic Fatigue Syndrome since 1988, Rabbi Avrohom Union raised his hand and said, “That’s a yellow light. It’s not a red light automatically stopping your conversion, it is a caution. Leading a Jewish life is very expensive.”

(Also on my RCC Beit Din that day were Rabbi Daniel Korobkin and, I think, Rabbi Gershon Bess.)

Oh man, did I hate Rabbi Union for that. I started feeling very sorry for myself and sent off an email to my family about this mean rabbi and his insensitivity to my health struggles.

A Jewish conversion court typically asks you in the application if you are in therapy and if you are on any medication.

(I answered honestly in my applications. Some people do and some people don’t answer honestly. Some people are too honest in their applications, listing psycho-tropic medications that Rabbi Union and other rabbis may find disturbing and automatic grounds for expulsion.)

The RCC is about the strictest Beit Din about not allowing people with mental illness convert but even the head of the Los Angeles Beit Din told the Jewish Journal that many of the people who come to him to convert have mental illness.

“My real feeling is if the proper job has been in the conversion process, then [Jews-by-choice] are inherently going to be the most active members of the Jewish community,” said Rabbi David Rue, the head rabbi of the Bet Din of Los Angeles, an Orthodox religious court. “Most members of the Jewish community are not particularly active. But people who go through the conversion process — the men end up going to shul every day, the women go every Shabbos, and they are more active than then vast majority of the people in their communities. If the person doesn’t have a Jewish identity, then why are you converting them?”

Rue said that his court receives 1,500 conversion applications every year. Of those, he said, one-third of the applications come from Christians trying to infiltrate the Jewish community to convert other Jews, and another third come from people “that are crazy.” Of the remaining third, half drop out after an initial interview, where Rue explains the kind of commitment required to lead an Orthodox life.

“That cuts it down to 200 people, and then you get all sorts of reasons why things don’t work out,” Rue said. “So we [ended up with] 64 conversions out of 1,500 applicants [a year]. But I can say that after five years, at least 95 percent [of the people his court converted] are still observant.”

When Rabbi Abner Weiss ran the Los Angeles Beit Din conversion program, he converted several people with mental health issues. To the best of my knowledge, these people went on to lead observant lives and to integrate themselves to the best of their ability into the Orthodox Jewish community.

A few years ago, Rabbi Avrohom Union got burned. He converted a woman who was bipolar and she went on, five years later, to live with a shvartze (non-Jewish black guy).

So these days, Rabbi Union has little compunction about declaring somebody mentally ill and using that as reason to eject him from his conversion program.

Rabbi Union has a masters degree in Psychology from Pepperdine and he seems to have confidence in his ability weed out the mentally ill from his program.

Other Batei Din are more lenient. They understand that someone might need to be on medication or in therapy to lead a normal life and this is not grounds for dismissal.

Email makes it easier for rabbis to spot the mentally ill, because many folks with mania (such as myself) send off long crazy emails at times.

The Orthodox Jewish law courts in Los Angeles are generally careful in who they convert. According to what I hear, more than 90% of converts in each of the Orthodox conversion programs remain Sabbath-observant.

The rabbis who run these conversion programs can seem to the prospective convert like they have a lot of power. It is easy to hate the Rabbi Unions of the world, they’ve certainly devastated the lives of many of my friends, but these guys are just gatekeepers. They are there to test your mettle.

I’ve often made the mistake in my life of hating gatekeepers. That was stupid. I think I became wiser when I learned to recognize and respect their role and to use them as spurs for my own self-improvement.

I learned about gatekeepers in a book called “The Writer’s Journey” and it helped me to come to peace with what happened to me at the RCC.

I read it in 2003, a couple of years after Rabbi Union expelled me from the RCC’s conversion program.

Here’s a good link on the hero’s journey: “A portal or threshold represents the transition into the world of adventure, the step of �Crossing the First Threshold.� A sense of danger as well as opportunity is conveyed. The threshold guardian or “gatekeeper” must test the hero�s mettle for competency before he may enter the realm. Gatekeepers are terrifying creatures such as Cerberus (the three-headed dog of the Underworld), Pan, ogres, and shape-shifters of classical mythology.”

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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