Cross-Denominational Differences Regarding Conversion

Differences between the movements grow out of more basic disagreements in philosophy and belief.

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Non-Jews are not accepted as members of Conservative synagogues, nor are the children of non-Jewish mothers considered Jewish. Although Conservative rabbis understand that the majority of their converts choose Judaism for the sake of marriage rather than out of deep personal conviction, they maintain that Conservative converts emerge from the conversion process with a basic understanding of Judaism and usually go on to become sincere Jews.

The Conservative movement requires a specific course of study for the prospective convert, usually about 18 weeks, conducted in a private or classroom setting. If a Jewish mate is involved, he or she is expected to attend the course as well. The conversion requires mikveh for men and women, and brit milah for men, or hatafat dam brit [ritually taking a drop of blood] for men already circumcised. The convert-to-be then appears before a beit din (a tribunal of three rabbis--in this case, Conservative rabbis), whose members ask questions to determine the emotional, spiritual, and academic readiness of the potential convert.

Some Conservative rabbis do not accept conversions performed by Reform rabbis if the mikveh or brit milah was not required or if a certain level of Jewish knowledge was not attained. This can also become significant if a couple wants to be married by a Conservative rabbi, but the non-Jewish partner was converted by a Reform rabbi who did not require the traditional rituals. In such cases, the Conservative rabbi may accept the conversion if the convert completes the rituals that were omitted. In some instances, Conservative rabbis have not recognized conversions done under Orthodox auspices because the rabbis believed the convert failed to attain a sufficient level of Jewish knowledge. The fact is that there are few absolutes in determining what is acceptable and what isn't. Much depends on the rabbi, the convert, and the individual situation.

The Reconstruction Approach

The Reconstructionist movement, Judaism's smallest and newest branch, defines Judaism as an evolving religious civilization whose essential unity derives from its peoplehood, not from its laws and theology. Founded by Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, who was a professor at the Conservative movement's Jewish Theological Seminary before he established the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, Reconstructionism holds that traditional laws guiding practice and rituals should be observed but are not binding.

Reconstructionist rabbis report a certain degree of flexibility in performing conversions and in accepting conversions by rabbis from other branches of Judaism. For the most part, Reconstructionist synagogues accept non-Jews as members if they are committed to Jewish living and to raising their children as Jews. In most congregations, the non-Jew can have voting privileges, but some rabbis do not permit a non-Jew to be called for an aliyah [literally, going up] to the Torah.

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Lena Romanoff

Lena Romanoff, founder of the Jewish Converts & Interfaith Network, is the author of Your People, My People: Finding Acceptance and Fulfillment as a Jew By Choice.