Working With Converts

Excerpts from the Reform Movement's Guidelines for Working with Prospective Converts

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These excerpts from the "Guidelines for Rabbis Working with Prospective Gerim [Converts]" adopted by the Central Conference of American Rabbis in June 2001, highlight the Reform Movement's understanding of the conversion process, including acceptable motivations for conversion, the acceptability of reaching out to a potential convert, and guidelines for the ritual of conversion. This article is excerpted with permission from the complete guidelines with an integral commentary and the section numbering is not in sequence because it is an excerpt. For details on the Reform Movement's understanding of kabbalat mitzvot, acceptance of commandments, click here.

Initial contact

1.       Following an initial inquiry, an individual who seeks to explore the possibility of conversion, shall meet with a rabbi. The purpose of this initial meeting is for the rabbi to:

 

a) explore the religious and personal background of the prospective convert and to discuss that person’s motivation for wishing to explore conversion. It is important to bring out at this meeting the Jewish teachings concerning motivation. While an impending or existing marriage to a Jew is an understandable reason to begin the exploration of conversion, it is not a sufficient motivation for finalizing conversion. Prospective converts need to understand that only if they decide that they want to live their lives as Jews regardless of their marital status is a decision to pursue conversion appropriate and valid.

b) share with the prospective convert our joy at and encouragement of a decision to pursue the possibility of conversion. The Reform Movement, by its embracing of Reform Jewish outreach, has formally rejected the traditional practice of strongly discouraging prospective convert three times and formally endorsed the attitude of "joy and encouragement" as articulated in this paragraph. This does not mean, however, that some of the elements contained in the traditional approach--such as explaining the reality of contemporary anti-Semitism, exploring the difficulty of living a meaningful Jewish life in a non-Jewish environment, and the like--should not be included in conversations with prospective throughout their exploration of whether or not to become part of the Jewish people.

c) inform the prospective convert that any partner or prospective partner will be required to participate in all of the appropriate components of the process of exploring conversion. A lack of willingness on the part of the partner in a relationship to participate in the process of exploring ought to be seen as a warning of potential problems in any commitment to Judaism in the home. In addition, since home observance should always be negotiated between the partners, it is far better for both partners to be part of the preparation process…

Communal

4.      Each prospective convert should be required to participate in as much of the ongoing life of both a synagogue and the general Jewish community as is possible.

5.  Each prospective convert should be paired with a haver, or mentor, for the purpose of ongoing support. Providing haverim, or mentors--individuals or families--from among past converts and other interested people, can be an extremely valuable way for prospective converts to assimilate the knowledge they are gaining as well as to experience Jewish life in a much less threatening manner. This system can also provide the opportunity for prospective converts to see Judaism working in a Jewish home as a model for their own homes. Becoming a haver presents a wonderful opportunity for lay people, under the auspices of a congregational outreach oommittee or other appropriate body, to participate in the education and integration of prospective converts into the community.

7. While recognizing that determination of readiness for conversion is a highly individual and subjective decision, rabbis should ensure that prospective participate in a full year of Jewish life prior to completing in order to demonstrate a credible commitment to Jewish living and become part of a Jewish community committed to Jewish life.

Concluding Rituals and Ceremonies

8. Completing the process of conversion has as its purpose both the proclamation of a desire on the part of the convert to be part of the Jewish people and acceptance of the convert by the Jewish community. As such, the following steps are recommended as part of the ritual:

a.       Rabbis should convene a beit din [court responsible for ruling on a conversion] consisting of rabbis, cantors, and/or Jewish educators. Lacking their availability, knowledgeable and observant lay members of the community should be utilized. A beit din of three rabbis represents the most appropriate framework for formalizing conversion. In addition, the use of a beit din can also contribute to a sense of legitimacy as perceived by the prospective convert and it can give the rabbi who has been working with the candidate the opportunity to see the candidate through another set of eyes. The meeting with the beit din is not intended to be an extensive examination of the candidate's specific Jewish knowledge; rather, it should be used to explore the candidate's motivations for conversion, Jewish experiences, general areas studied, reactions of family members to the planned conversion, level of dedication to the commitments [to kabbalat mitzvot], and plans for future life as a Jew. The beit din may also wish to request a "spiritual autobiography" from each candidate as a way to acquaint themselves with each candidate as well as to judge more effectively a candidate's readiness for conversion. All of this notwithstanding, however, it should be noted that the final authority to approve or reject the candidacy of any given individual for conversion rests with the beit din.

b.      Rabbis should educate concerning appropriate traditional rituals for the ceremonies of conversion, including milah [circumcision], hatafat dam brit [symbolic taking of a drop of blood], and tevilah [immersion in a mikveh, or ritual pool] and should use them as appropriate. While the procedures and practices of the Reform rabbinate do not currently affect the acceptance or lack thereof by the Orthodox Jewish community of converts who become Jewish under Reform auspices, they are relevant in other arenas. The official position of the Rabbinical Assembly (Conservative) is that all who become Jewish by means of the traditional rituals of milah or hatafat dam brit and tevilah will be accepted within the Conservative Jewish community. In 1893 the CCAR declared the rituals of milah or hatafat dam brit and tevilah to be unnecessary for conversion. The position of the CCAR since 1979 has been as follows: "Nevertheless, we recognize today that there are social, psychological, and religious values associated with the traditional initiatory rites, and therefore recommend that the rabbi acquaint prospective converts with the halakhic [Jewish legal] background and rationale for brit milah, hatafat dam brit, and tevilah and offer them the opportunity to observe these rites." There are two legitimate approaches to take in the selection of rituals and ceremonies. After first discussing the various practices with the prospective convert, one approach is to allow him/her to make the choice. The other approach is that the decision appropriately lies within the purview of the rabbi. This document presumes a preference for the latter approach while acknowledging that many colleagues may continue to follow the former.

c.    Since public affirmations by the convert and public acceptance by the Jewish community are important parts of this process, public ceremonies of affirmation are encouraged. Public ceremonies of affirmation, frequently held in conjunction with Shabbat services, include such things as the bestowal of a Hebrew name, a public affirmation of Judaism by the convert, or a ceremony of welcome to the community. These ceremonies may at some times represent a conversion ceremony itself and at other times an affirmation of conversion rituals completed at an earlier time.

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