1. CONSIDERING JUDAISM
The conversion process begins when a person considers the possibility of becoming Jewish. The reasons why people become Jewish are varied. Many are involved in a romantic relationship with someone Jewish and wish to unite the family religiously. Others are on a spiritual search and learn about Judaism through such means as reading, hearing a lecture, attending a Jewish religious ceremony, and so on. Whatever the motivation, the first step in considering conversion is to explore Judaism. This early exploration might include discussing the subject with friends and family, taking out books and videos on Judaism, or just thinking about whether conversion is the right choice.
2. FINDING A RABBI
If, after the initial consideration, a person wishes to explore conversion more fully, the next step is to find a rabbi. This part of the process can be difficult for several reasons. Obviously, individual rabbis differ. Some devote more time than others to conversion candidates. Some adhere to an ancient tradition of turning away a candidate three times to test the candidate’s sincerity. In general, though, rabbis are extremely dedicated people who are both intelligent and religiously sensitive. They are Judaism’s gatekeepers. They decide who can enter into Judaism. Given their central importance to a potential convert, it makes sense to visit several rabbis and several synagogues to look for a compatible match.
If you are looking for a rabbi, check with friends and family for advice. Contact a local board of rabbis or other Jewish group, or check a local telephone directory. You can also contact the movements directly. For contact information for the movements, click here.
A second problem is that rabbis belong to different groupings or movements. The four major movements are Conservative, Orthodox, Reconstructionist, and Reform Judaism. It is important for potential candidates to understand the differences among these movements and choose which movement is right for them.
When a person does see a rabbi, the rabbi can authoritatively answer questions about conversion. If the person has already decided to convert, the rabbi will probably ask a series of questions about that decision. Such questions might include some of these:
- Why do you want to convert?
- What is your religious background?
- What do you know about Judaism?
- Do you know the differences between Judaism and your birth religion?
- Were you pressured to convert?
- Are you willing to spend the necessary time studying to become Jewish?
- Are you willing to raise any children you might have as Jewish?
- Have you discussed this decision with your family?
- Do you have any questions about Judaism or conversion?
3. LEARNING JUDAISM
A decision has been made to study Judaism, and a rabbi has agreed to oversee that studying. A person might not yet be fully sure that a conversion is right, but the initial steps of exploration will continue. Even those who don’t ultimately convert generally find that studying Judaism is both interesting and helpful in their making a final decision about conversion.
Converts study Judaism in a variety of ways. Some work directly with a rabbi, meeting regularly and fulfilling specific study assignments. Others attend formal Introduction to Judaism or conversion classes, often with their Jewish romantic partner. A typical course of study will include basic Jewish beliefs and religious practices, such as prayer services, the history of the Jewish people, the Jewish home, the Jewish holidays and life cycle, the Holocaust, and Israel, as well as other topics. The study of Hebrew is also included.
The period of study varies greatly. In general, the range is from six months to a year, although there are variations. Many Gentiles preparing to marry someone Jewish go through this process early so as to get married in a Jewish ceremony. A marriage between someone born Jewish and someone who becomes Jewish is a Jewish marriage, not an intermarriage. If this is a crucial issue, plan to begin study well before a wedding.
Usually during this study period, a rabbi will ask that the person begin practicing Judaism according to the understanding of the movement. This can be a worthwhile time to explore Judaism. For example, even if a person does not ultimately plan to keep kosher (observe Jewish ritual rules about food), it is valuable to explore the rules for keeping kosher during this period of study.
4. THE RELIGIOUS COURT
The Religious Court, or Bet Din, most often consists of three people, at least one of whom must be a rabbi. Often it consists of three rabbis. The Bet Din officially oversees the formal conversion. Individual rabbis will provide guidance about how the Bet Din works. Because it takes place after learning, one part of the appearance will be to determine the Jewish knowledge of the conversion candidate. There might, for example be a question about the meaning of the Jewish Sabbath or about the Jewish belief in one God. These questions are not meant to trap candidates. Obviously, candidates are nervous during such questioning, but in almost all cases the questions are simply meant to assess the sincerity of the candidate and to make sure the conversion was entered into freely. Often an oath of allegiance to the Jewish people is made.
The specific requirements for conversion and their order need to be discussed with a rabbi. One requirement for males who wish to be converted by an Orthodox or Conservative rabbi is circumcision, or brit milah. If a circumcision has already been performed, the Orthodox and Conservative movements require that a drop of blood be drawn as a symbolic circumcision. This ceremony is called Hatafat Dam Brit. The Reform and Reconstructionist movements generally do not require a circumcision as part of the conversion process.
Orthodox and Conservative rabbis require both male and female conversion candidates to immerse themselves in a ritual bath called a mikveh. This ceremony is called tevillah. Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis do not require the use of a mikveh, but some highly recommend it. The mikveh can be any body of natural water, though the term usually refers to a specific pool that is built for the purposes of ritual purification. The equipment used varies according to the mikveh. The immersion ceremony usually starts with cleaning the body as by a shower. The person is covered and the covering removed as the person enters the warm mikveh waters, which are usually about four feet deep. (When the ceremony is done in a public place such as a lake the candidate wears a loose-fitting garment). Blessings are recited and the person goes bends into the water. According to traditional Jewish law, three male witnesses must be present, although this rule has been reinterpreted so that, in some movements, Jewish females can be witnesses. When there are male witnesses and the candidate is female, the witnesses wait outside the mikveh room and are told by a female attendant that the immersion has been completed and the blessings recited.
7. THE OFFERING
In ancient times, conversion candidates brought sacrifices or offerings to the Temple in Jerusalem. After the Temple was destroyed, this ceremony disappeared. Jewish law therefore does not require such an offering. However, some rabbis, especially among the Orthodox, mention it as an opportunity to engage in an act of donating money to the poor or another act of charity to make a symbolic offering. This step can voluntarily be added to the conversion process.
8. CHOOSING A NAME
Again, particular conversion processes will vary. Frequently, after a Bet Din and the signing of an oath, a Hebrew name is chosen. This is then followed by a visit to a mikveh. At any rate, at some point, you will be asked to pick a Hebrew name. Some male converts choose the Hebrew name Avraham as their new Hebrew first name and some female candidates choose Sarah or Ruth. Since the use of Hebrew names includes mention of the parents’ Hebrew names, and the convert has no Jewish parents, it is common to add “ben Avraham Avinu,” or son of Abraham, our Father. Therefore if a male chooses the Hebrew name Avraham, that male’s full Hebrew name would be Avraham ben Avraham Avinu. For women, the addition is “bat Sarah Imenu,” daughter of Sarah, our Mother. The naming ceremony includes a blessing.
9. THE PUBLIC CEREMONY
A public ceremony announcing the conversion is becoming more popular, especially among Reform Jews. This ceremony usually involves the convert standing in front of the congregation and giving a speech, most typically about the reasons for converting or the lessons learned through the conversion experience.
10. A SPECIAL CASE: THE CONVERSION OF MINORS
Minors can be converted. In families with a non-Jewish mother and a Jewish father, the child is considered Jewish by the Reform movement if the child is brought up engaging in public acts of identification with Judaism. Orthodox and Conservative Judaism, however, do not regard such a child as legally Jewish. Parents of such children can if they wish have their children converted in infancy because the process is quite simple. While some would consider this a surrender to pressure especially from the Orthodox and refuse to do it, others see it as a way to get recognition of the child’s Jewishness by additional segments of the Jewish people. Reform rabbis often simply have a naming ceremony. Orthodox and Conservative rabbis require the mikveh for a female minor and a circumcision and mikveh for a male minor.