Conversion Requires Identity Transformation

Conversion means life change, but the path to Jewish identity varies widely.

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The need for a new language to discuss the process and act of becoming a Jew is compelling. We shall discuss conversion as transformation. An individual does not convert from one state to another; identity transforms through both experience and understanding. The transformed identity leads to inclusion, a sense of belonging. Ruth did not convert; she became a Jew. The concept of becoming is vital, especially since the process begins prior to formal declarations and continues afterward. 

Identity transformation and becoming must take place in two realms. The first is promoting religious conversion. This is the process where individuals become part of Judaism as a religion by understanding its laws, its forms of worship, its ritual observance, and so on.

Communal conversion takes place through the adoptions and values and norms of the Jewish people, their customs in terms of language, history, mythology, self-views, and institutional participation.

id cardSometimes a Jew helps create another Jew. The process also works in reverse. A Jew with a marginal Jewish identity, but one that he or she is unwilling to abandon completely, may marry someone who has deep religious and spiritual convictions and who is willing to transfer those convictions to Judaism. If given venues for expression and encouragement, the non-Jewish spouse's interest in Judaism may become more involved and more passionate than that of the Jewish spouse. The "new Jew" can bring the Jewish partner and the children along, facilitating the process of identity transformation for born-Jews as well as for himself or herself.

One of the most powerful paths to identity transformation is through a passionate and committed Jewish spouse. Jews who believe deeply and understand their religious beliefs and practices can teach their non-Jewish spouses through their own practice.

The act of becoming a Jew is really a process with final actions that include ritual ceremonies declaring that an individual has become part of the Jewish people. The process of actually becoming a Jew involves a wide range of activities leading to identity transformation. Identity transformation is adoption of one identity and abandonment of another.

Becoming part of the Jewish people means accepting, to one degree or another, the Jewish experience as one's own, as well as cultural attitudes and norms, religious practices, and membership in a community's groups and institutions. It involves adopting a Jewish perspective, from a myriad of options, in debates or disagreements. Identity transformation means thinking and feeling like a Jew and feeling bound to the community of Jews, for better or worse.

The process of identity transformation can take place in a number of ways. One path is through study, learning, and education, a cognitive approach that involves absorbing knowledge and sets of ideas. Acquiring this knowledge comes through formal and informal channels, studying texts and secondary sources, and also through lectures, conversation, and various media.

The learning process includes history, theology, the sociology and behavior of the contemporary Jewish community, language, and a host of other elements that make up community. It includes both the religious and the cultural aspects of the Jewish people and can be learned in individual study, classes, and participation in institutions such as synagogues, Jewish community centers, or the United Jewish Appeal. It also comprises elements of worship, volunteerism, philanthropy, and customs and norms relating to holidays and life cycle events such as marriage, birth, and death.

Another path of identity transformation may be within the context of a relationship before marriage, during marriage, or through friendships. Individuals who become part of Jewish families and are exposed to Jewish culture and ritual may find it attractive and fulfilling. This transformation may also take place for a person growing up in a Jewish neighborhood (there are still some) and having primarily Jewish friends or a Jewish best friend.

The motivations for becoming a Jew also differ. They include, among others, selecting a Jewish spouse, searching for spiritual well being, or desiring to be part of a vibrant community. The length of time, too, varies a great deal. Identity transformation may take place quickly, for example through some cataclysmic event in one's life, or because at some point in time the motivation is incredibly strong to become part of a Jewish family. Or years might transpire as a person is gradually immersed in Jewish life, usually through marriage. Identity transformation through friendship, as one begins to think and act like a Jew, perhaps unintentionally, can take years.

The starting points for transformation differ as well. One may begin the process of becoming a Jew through religious dimensions first, that is, learning how to worship, studying theology, and learning how to observe religious rituals. Or one's induction into Jewish life might be primarily cultural: belonging to a Jewish community center, visiting the state of Israel, or living in a Jewish neighborhood. All of these, and many more, are entry points into Jewish peoplehood.

A person's reason for entering may not be that person's reason for continuing. It is possible that the process begins as an intellectual decision, or a willful choice because of a marriage partner, and ends up being a very emotional odyssey as one is swept away in a newfound identity. Conversely, one might live within Jewish environments for a long period of time and already believe oneself to be part of the Jewish community, and begin intellectual pursuit of learning the hows and whys of Judaism well after feeling a major connection.

Reprinted with permission from Opening the Gates: How Proactive Conversion Can Revitalize the Jewish Community(John Wiley & Sons, Inc.).

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Gary A. Tobin

Gary A. Tobin, Ph.D. (1949-2009) was President of the Institute for Jewish & Community Research in San Francisco. He was also Director of the Leonard and Madlyn Abramson Program in Jewish Policy Research at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles.