Introduction to Bet Din

Choosing a Bet Din (Rabbinic Court)

    According to Halakha, to become Jewish by way of conversion requires a court of 3 who are fit to judge. In principle, three observant Jewish laymen with basic knowledge of the laws of conversion could form such a court and convert someone to Judaism. In contemporary practice, however, halakhic conversions within Orthodoxy are performed in one of two rabbinic court formats: 1) Rabbinic courts comprised of rabbinical judges who serve as such on a regular basis for matters of conversion and/or other areas of Torah law 2) by a synagogue or outreach rabbi who joins with two rabbinic colleagues or observant laymen to form a rabbinic court on an ad hoc basis to perform the conversion. In choosing a rabbinic court to undergo conversion you need to consider a variety of issues such as, costs, accessibility, halakhic standards, religious outlook and culture, and perhaps most significantly, acceptance of the rabbinic court in the Orthodox community and the State of Israel.

Acceptance of Rabbinic Court

It is wise to consider to what extent it is important to you and your family that your Orthodox halakhic conversion be recognized within the broader Orthodox community. The Orthodox community has a variety of sub-communities: Yeshivish, Chassidic, Chabad, and Modern Orthodox (Right-Wing, Centrist and Left- Wing versions). Not all conversions by rabbis in one group are necessarily acceptable to rabbis in another group. For example, a conversion by a Left-Wing Modern Orthodox rabbi will not necessarily be accepted by his Modern Orthodox Right-Wing counterpart or by a rabbi in the Chassidic or Yeshiva-based community. Likewise, you could have a rabbi in the Chassidic or Yeshiva-based community who is ultra-liberal in matters of conversion law, and his conversions will not be accepted by those in the Right-Wing and Centrist Modern Orthodox community or even colleagues in his own Yeshivish or Chassidic community, regardless of how long his beard is, how black his clothes are, or how learned and holy he appears.

    There is also the factor of the State of Israel.  If recognition of your conversion by the Israeli Chief Rabbinate is important in your plans, you need to work with a rabbinic court that is officially recognized by them. You could have a very Ultra- Orthodox rabbi who is not recognized by the Israeli Chief Rabbinate in matters of conversion, and the conversion will not be recognized, at least not without a significant headache, if at all.

    The current and foreseeable trend in halakhic conversion is that there is a relationship between recognition of a rabbinic court and the acceptability within the broader Orthodox community of the courts standards. Rabbinic courts that adhere to more accepted, and often stricter standards, will tend to be more widely recognized, while those rabbi’s or rabbinic courts that have a reputation for leniency, especially what is perceived by other Orthodox rabbis as excessive leniency, or by not abiding in practice by the halakhic standards they claim to keep,  will be less recognized. Sometimes, a rabbi or rabbinic court will have fine standards and keep them, but develop other difficulties within the rabbinic world. As a result,  as collateral damage of these difficulties, the conversions will not be accepted.

    In principle, it would be wisest to obtain a conversion from a rabbinic court that is widely recognized. In order to successfully accomplish this, you will need to identify such a rabbinic court in your city, state, or region, and more importantly, conform to their procedures, expectations and standards. At times, there are prospective converts who for a variety of reasons are not able to do this, and this leads them to work with rabbinic courts that are significantly more lenient and often proportionally less recognized. This picture of Orthodoxy is more complicated than one might have imagined and is all too realistic. You should pick your conversion court with much thoughtfulness as to the consequences.

   As a general rule, if you want to obtain a widely recognized conversion through the Modern Orthodox community, you can contact the Rabbinical Council of America and ask for a referral to a rabbinic court in your area that is with “absolute certainty” accepted by the Israeli Chief Rabbinate. If you want to obtain such a conversion from within the Yeshiva or Chassidic community, you can contact Eternal Jewish Family or a Rabbinic Court in the Bet Din Listings section of this site.

Costs

Fees that Rabbinic Courts charge for their services can vary. There is a minority of rabbinic courts that on principle will not charge for their services. Most rabbinic courts do charge, as they need to make up for the loss of work time that Rabbinic Court work involves. In general, you should not need to pay more then $1200-$1500 for the Rabbinic Court fees. This does not include the cost of travel to the Rabbinic Court, the cost for the Mikvah (Ritual Immersion), where applicable the Mohel (Ritual Circumciser), and all books and private or public classes. Although there often is a per-person charge, when a family is involved you should assume that if a reduced fee for the other family members is needed, it will be provided. Rabbinic courts that charge over $2000 for a single conversion separate and aside from other costs, are beyond the norm.  This is an unnecessary expense and should be avoided, as one of the Torah’s values is being frugal with money where feasible. Here is an example of what a Rabbinic Court fee structure in a metropolitan city with a high cost of living would look like. You will see that it is entirely reasonable.

The charge for the conversion is $1,550.00. Payment schedule for the conversion process is as follows:

A $50.00  application fee (per family)                         $50.00
B $300.00 due at initial intake meeting $300.00
C $300.00 due at each of the three subsequent meetings. $900.00
D $300.00 due when candidate appears before the Beth Din for the actual conversion $300.00
      TOTAL CHARGE $1,550.00

If you assume that: 
A) A rabbi could reasonable bill $100 an hour

B) There are 3 rabbis present for each Bet Din meeting

C) There are 4 such meetings + the actual conversion

Then the fee structure above is perfectly reasonable. You should also consider the extra time the rabbis will spend in discussing the case with each other, researching halakhic issues, consulting with the sponsoring rabbi which often involves long-distance phone bills, and the time involved in writing the Conversion certificate. There is also follow up time checking in with the convert and the sponsoring rabbi to make sure all is well. So, you can see there is a certain level of fee that is entirely reasonable given that we live in a world where the government does not pay the bills of rabbinic courts like in Israel, and even there –there are fees. There are some organizations like Eternal Jewish Family that will provide a scholarship to cover the conversion costs for a sincere prospective convert in an intermarriage, if there is an economic need. 

Religious Outlook and Culture

In general, the Rabbinic Courts that you will find through this website all have very similar standards and procedures for conversion. The religious outlooks of these rabbinic courts can be different and this can have a very real effect on the prospective convert’s conversion process and experience. These effects are felt in terms of what nuances of Halakhic behavior are required by the Rabbinic Court and what ideas about Torah thought are considered acceptable. In general, most rabbinic courts that deal with conversion, especially those that are widely recognized, tend to be staffed by Rabbis from the Yeshiva or Hassidic community. Thus, it is helpful for a person to understand what the halakhic and theological sensitivities such rabbis have, and to work with them to the best of your ability.