Conversion Requires Identity Transformation

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

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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.