Considering Conversion

A decision to convert to Judaism requires careful consideration and extensive self-examination.

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Reprinted with permission from www.convert.org/.

Conversion to Judaism means accepting the Jewish faith and becoming part of the Jewish people. Judaism welcomes sincere converts. In fact, Abraham and Sarah, the founders of the Jewish people, were not born Jewish. Throughout the ages, untold numbers of people have converted to Judaism.mikvah conversion

Still at the Thinking Stage

If you are considering becoming Jewish too, here are some suggestions for you as you explore Judaism a step at a time.

Consider why you are thinking about conversion. People choose to become Jewish for many different reasons. Some came to Judaism after a long spiritual search. Many people who eventually convert had their interest sparked because of a romantic relationship with someone Jewish. Among the reasons most given by people who do convert are that

    1.        Judaism has sensible religious beliefs.

    2.        Becoming Jewish allows the convert to share the faith of the partner.

    3.        Becoming Jewish makes the family religiously united.

    4.        Becoming Jewish will make it easier for children by giving them a clear religious identity.

Think about your own reasons. Remember, conversion must be your own free choice, not done because of pressure, but out of a genuine desire to embrace Judaism.

Learn as much as you can about Judaism. Some reading suggestions are included in the bibliography on conversion. Go to lectures, take introductory courses on Judaism that are offered by many colleges and Jewish congregations, and talk to some Jewish friends. Remember that Judaism has an important ethnic component. You are joining a people, not just a religion, and so need to learn about different aspects of Jewish culture and about Israel [and the Holocaust].

See if Judaism's basic beliefs and practices make sense to you. Remember, though, that Judaism is a faith of good deeds [and other ritual observances], not forced creeds. There is more concern in Judaism that you act morally than that you have specific beliefs [at least among liberal Jews]. All Jews share a passion to make the world a better place. It is difficult to provide a brief summary of basic Judaism. To get you started, though, here are some general Jewish beliefs that are widely held among Jews:

    1.        Judaism introduced the world to the idea that God is one, not many, and is kind, loving, and personal. In Judaism, you pray directly to God and can receive help, guidance, and understanding. You can pray on your own and with a prayer community in a Jewish congregation. Judaism accepts the idea of a covenant, or agreement, between God and the Jewish people.

    2.        Judaism doesn't accept the idea that people are born evil. Rather, people have free will to choose between right and wrong.

    3.        Judaism encourages religious freedom of thought. Judaism welcomes probing spiritual questions.

    4.        Judaism has, for 4,000 years, emphasized a strong sense of family and the value of a close community.

Experience Judaism as it is lived. Visit a Jewish congregation to sample a service or attend a Jewish ceremony, such as a Passover seder or a Sabbath meal. While ritual practices vary greatly among American Jews, all Jews have some rituals that, for example, celebrate the Jewish holidays and the Jewish family. If different sorts of Jewish institutions are near you, such as a Jewish bookstore, museum, YM-YWHA, community center, and so on, try to visit them.

Talk about your thoughts and feelings with your partner, your friends, and your family. It is important, for example, to discuss your feelings openly. It is common to experience some moments of doubt or fear of the unknown. It is also vital that you stay in touch with your birth family. Converting to Judaism does not mean you are abandoning your family, your friends, or your fond memories of past family life. When discussing conversion with your family, explain your reasons to them directly and tell them of your continuing love. Most families are supportive, often to the surprise of the person converting. Some families, however, do need reassurance and to have their questions answered patiently. There are also, sadly, some families, who see the conversion as an abandonment.

Talk to a rabbi. At some point in learning about Judaism, preferably as early as possible but especially as you get more serious about actually becoming Jewish, you should talk to a rabbi. As you study and learn about Judaism, you will read about different religious movements within Judaism. There are rabbis for each of these movements, so it is important to study and understand the differences among the various branches. For example, the Orthodox movement does not generally recognize conversions performed by non-Orthodox rabbis. Additionally, different movements may have different conversion requirements.

When You Think You're Ready

Here are some typical steps to take in order to convert to Judaism:

Find a rabbi. Some traditional rabbis may actively discourage potential converts by turning them away three times. This is a test of how sincere the would-be convert is in wishing to become Jewish. Other rabbis are more welcoming right from the initial contact.

Study. After finding a rabbi, there is a period of study to learn such matters as Jewish beliefs, rituals, and prayers. This study might involve working directly with a rabbi or study in a conversion or introduction-to-Judaism class.

Consider circumcision. Orthodox and Conservative rabbis require a male candidate for conversion to have a circumcision (or a symbolic one, if a circumcision has already been performed). Reform Judaism does not require a circumcision.

Immerse in a mikveh. Orthodox, Conservative, and some Reform rabbis require all candidates for conversion to go to a ritual bath called a mikveh. The candidate is immersed in water and says some prayers.

Appear before a beit din. The candidate for conversion appears before a beit din, or religious court, consisting of three learned people [usually at least one is a rabbi, and for Orthodox Jews, all three must be ritually observant] to see that all the steps of the conversion process have been done properly [and to question the candidate on motivations, knowledge, and intentions].

Choose a Hebrew name. Sometimes there is a public ceremony celebrating the conversion.

In looking for a rabbi, you can, in addition to just asking around or looking in the phone book, contact your local board of rabbis, Jewish Federation, Jewish Community Council, or Jewish Family Service for a suggestion. You can contact the various religious movements directly.

Conversion is a challenge, but almost all those who have gone through it describe it as exciting, as a time of real personal and spiritual growth, and as a time of intensified feelings of love and closeness to family.

Now it is your time to consider. The Jewish community stands ready to welcome you.

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Lawrence J. Epstein is the author of numerous books, including Conversion to Judaism: A Guidebook and Readings on Conversion to Judaism.