The laws and rituals of conversion are among the most vehemently disputed issues in the Jewish community today. In the following article, Rabbi Gold–a Conservative rabbi–explains this difficult topic, making explicit the points on which he is expressing his own opinions and the policies he sets for his congregants. However, authorities from different denominations would disagree even with some of Rabbi Gold’s characterizations of who needs a conversion and how the conversion is done. These differences are made explicit wherever possible.
The bar or bat mitzvah ceremonies come week after week in my synagogue. But every month or so there is a bar/bat mitzvah that takes on a special meaning for me–one where the celebrant was converted to Judaism as a child. He or she may have been born of a non-Jewish mother and then adopted into a Jewish home, or perhaps he or she is the product of a mixed marriage where the mother was not Jewish. (Jews consider a child Jewish only if his or her mother is Jewish or if he or she underwent a formal conversion. In the Reform movement, it is left to the discretion of each rabbi whether they recognize a child born of a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother as Jewish or only a child born of a Jewish mother as Jewish.)
For such a converted child, bar/bat mitzvah then takes on particular importance. It is not simply a ceremony for the coming of age; it becomes the completion of a conversion procedure often done more than a decade before.
Is Conversion a Requirement for Bar/Bat Mitzvah?
What happens when a child born of a non-Jewish mother reaches the age of bar or bat mitzvah without a proper conversion? In the more liberal Reform and Reconstructionist movements, such a conversion is not always necessary. Being raised as a Jew is sufficient and the bar/bat mitzvah can go ahead (unless your particular rabbi requires one). But this lenient approach may lead to problems later when the child would not be permitted to join a more traditional synagogue or to marry someone Conservative or Orthodox.