Ask the Rabbis // Conversion
How do you decide when a candidate for conversion is ready to become Jewish?
When all reasonable attempts at dissuasion have been exhausted. On a more serious note, I am not an advocate of intensive drilling and overwhelming study demands. I subscribe to the more lenient methods of those ancient sages who left most of the responsibility of conversion to the converted, assuming that they would commit to continuing their studies of Jewish thought and practice and that they need not be required to know more about Judaism than most Jews. The basics of our creed, the seasons, the Sabbath, the core wisdom on interpersonal relations and our meager understanding about the God whose ways are as distant from our grasp as are the heavens from the earth, and—voilà!—off with the foreskin and into the river they go.
I tell candidates right off that there’s a good chance their conversion won’t be recognized in Israel—that while their conversion is acceptable to God and Sarah and Abraham and Moses and the sages of the Talmudic period, it might not be acceptable to a great many today who presume to have the final word on the rules of conversion. If this disclaimer doesn’t drive them away, they’re that much more prepared to join our people.
Rabbi Gershon Winkler
Walking Stick Foundation
Thousand Oaks, CA
When I first start working with someone who wants to join our Jewish family—what we refer to as adoption, as opposed to conversion, in Humanistic Judaism—I ask her where she thinks she is on a scale of 1 to 10 in becoming Jewish. Answers usually range from 3 or 4 to 7 or 8. Some are obviously just starting. Others have been at it for a quite a while, perhaps years, and just need to get over the finish line.
As we proceed, I check in with this question from time to time. The number starts to rise but often tapers off. The final stretch seems the most difficult part. Ultimately, although rabbis may be identified as gatekeepers, I believe it is up to the individual to decide when he or she is ready to cross the threshold. Newcomers often feel that they continue to fall short. If only they knew how many born Jews feel the same way! They also may feel it is chutzpadik on their part to self-affirm their Jewish affiliation, but that’s exactly what I’m looking for. So it is not uncommon for me to give a gentle nudge and say, “You’re ready. In fact, you’ve been ready for a while!”
Rabbi Peter H. Schweitzer
The City Congregation for Humanistic Judaism
New York, NY
People inquiring into conversion are already embracing Jewish cultural identity. Our synagogue offers them an educational program combining Talmudic emphasis on knowing ritual and ethical mitzvot (Yevamot 47) with Maimonides’s emphasis on theology and faith (Mishneh Torah, Issure Biah 14:2). For a year, candidates study the history, multiple interpretations and spiritual meanings of Jewish practice. Publicly, they participate in services and celebrations at the synagogue. Privately, they deepen Shabbat, eco-kashrut and personal prayer.
Following cultural, religious and spiritual preparation, we discuss seven threshold questions, evaluating the answers together. Some are open-ended: How do you practice Shabbat, eco-kashrut and tikkun olam? How do you experience God? How do you process discomfort with aspects of Torah or Jewish life? How do you negotiate multi-faith issues with your family of origin? Others must be confidently answered “yes”: Could you assert Jewish identity in the face of anti-Semitism? Are you ready to let go of past religious commitments and be fully present to Judaism? When you speak of Jews, do you say “we”?
Rabbi Laura Duhan Kaplan
Vancouver School of Theology
Vancouver, British Columbia
Conversion is not a cookie-cutter process. There’s no single recipe or agreed-upon timetable for Jews-in-formation. Some on this path choose to remain gerei toshav, supportive fellow travelers. Those who take the plunge and fully join our people are on a sacred journey, and the sacred is rarely predictable. It’s a privilege to guide individuals through these ever-different processes, learning from their insightful questions and fresh perspectives.
I tell prospective converts up front that this is not some “Jewish SAT” requiring at least a 610 (613?) to gain admission. Rather, we consider a person’s baseline knowledge, experience and sensitivity. Then we design and follow a tailored plan to make meaningful progress in key areas—values, Hebrew, history, prayer, communal engagement, connection with Israel and the affective/spiritual realm, which is hardest to define yet most important. Serious students and I inevitably agree on when it’s time to end the beginning, take the dunk and set off on the real adventure: living Jewishly. The process involves relationship over rules, art over science. We clergy take our gatekeeping role seriously, but we must trust our budding members of am Yisrael. The scores of Jews I’ve seen across this threshold uniformly do us proud.
Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb
Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation
As each conversion candidate is a unique individual, so too is his or her journey to Judaism. Each candidate begins that journey from a different place. For some, it is an emotional journey, for others an intellectual, spiritual or psychological one. As a guide, I have to meet that candidate at her starting point and guide her on her unique journey. As a rabbi, I think about how to maintain integrity in the process yet also remain responsive to the needs of the candidate. Does a candidate have to achieve a certain level of Judaic literacy to be ready? Or, does the candidate have to observe certain holidays or rituals with regularity in order to be ready? Perhaps readiness is reached when a candidate declares privately (and maybe even publicly), “I am a Jew.” Possibly that is the real moment in which her self-identity has been transformed and she is ready to take the ritual step of conversion.
Some believe that the conversion process should be hard and rigorous; for some candidates it might be. Yet for others, it may be a natural and easy step in their life journey. Checking items off a “To Do” list does not measure readiness. Readiness emerges in dialogue and reflection between the candidate and his or her guide.
Rabbi Laura Novak Winer
I feel very fortunate to work with men and women who are so inspired by the Jewish tradition that they want to convert to Judaism. Guiding conversion candidates is truly one of the highlights of my rabbinate.
I do not have an exact formula for deciding when a candidate is ready. Each individual has his/her own journey. Some are marrying a Jewish person. Others are embracing Judaism alone. As a rabbi, I aim to create an educational plan for each candidate. Sometimes my students study with me for six months, other times for several years. I expect conversion candidates to live a Jewish life: to associate with a synagogue, participate in regular worship (I understand regular worship may be monthly or weekly), observe some of the dietary laws and celebrate Jewish holidays.
I do not want conversion candidates to learn about Judaism, as they might in a social studies class. The purpose of our studies is to explore living Jewishly. At the mikvah and during the Bet Din, I remind students that conversion is really the beginning of the journey.
Rabbi Amy Wallk Katz
Temple Beth El
The right moment is when the would-be convert states that he or she feels ready. Generally, I encourage candidates to wait until they have a basic knowledge of Jewish history, culture and religion, and familiarity with Jewish living. But the most important moment has likely occurred much earlier. When we first explore the possibilities, I try to communicate a sense of Judaism’s religious vision of tikkun olam and its contribution to civilization. Then I point out that the price of standing for something important—really, ultimate—has been a great deal of hostility, persecution and suffering, climaxing in the Holocaust. When they reply that they know the considerable risks but feel that it is worth it for the rewards of being Jewish, I embrace them as a Jew to be.
Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik defined accepting Jewish fate as appropriating Jewish history (“It is mine”), Jewish suffering (“I will share it and not hide from it”), responsibility (to help all who share this fate) and action. When they affirm this commitment, the rest is commentary.
For the record, I disagree with the current position of the Orthodox establishment that any convert must commit to being totally observant. I do expect converts to affirm that living Jewishly incorporates norms and behaviors, not just ideas or words, and also that they not scorn or dismiss any specific observance. Still, I know many good Jews who are not fully observant. I know many converts who have immensely enriched Jewish life although they never became fully observant. Hundreds of thousands of secular Russian immigrants serve in the Israeli army and build the State of Israel. All such people are a blessing to Judaism and Jewry.
Rabbi Yitz Greenberg
On our conversion court, or Bet Din, our view of conversion-readiness reflects our mandate. There is a mitzvah of converting people who deserve to be converted, and there are criteria that define, loosely, some of the preparation. But in the background is the question: Are we doing a favor to the candidate and to the community? A candidate is ready when the court can ascertain that making this step will be good for the candidate—meaning that he or she is ready and able to bear the responsibility of halachically living as a Jew. Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (1910-1995) said that if you convert someone without confidence that they’re up to the long-term challenge, you violate the prohibition against putting a stumbling block in front of the blind. And sometimes, very rarely, a conversion could be bad for the community: Historically, this happened in Europe when highly placed people asked to convert, but the repercussions would have endangered Jewish lives.
We’re not perfect, and our crystal ball ran out of batteries a long time ago, but we have experience; we’ve seen successes and failures. We have to be confident that the candidate can live in the community with its ups and downs and can befriend people in the community, because you can’t survive as a Torah Jew without friends and mentors. And that’s when we dunk ’em.
Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein
Loyola Law School
Los Angeles, CA
When is someone ready for conversion? Well, what exactly is conversion? Since the Torah tells us that the covenant G-d made with our patriarchs is hereditary, a biological covenant “with you and your children forever,” how is it possible to turn someone who is not a Jewish descendant into a Jew? The answer is that when a person is willing to go through the same process that the Jewish people went through to seal the covenant at Sinai, then they are granted, by G-d Himself, the spiritual legacy that makes one a Jew and are of equal status to the greatest sage.
This process at Sinai consisted of immersion in a proper mikvah, circumcision (for males) and acceptance of the Torah by a declaration of na’aseh v’nishma (“we will do and then we will learn”)—an unequivocal acceptance of all the Torah, both the written and oral law, and its commandments. Anyone who goes through this process before a valid Bet Din receives the spiritual legacy granted by G-d and becomes a full-fledged Jew.
Since the process includes not only a changed lifestyle of full Torah observance but also a change of one’s belief system, the very foundation of our lives, it cannot be done in haste; it must be deliberative and thorough. When I am convinced that this “Sinai” commitment is total and absolute, then the person is ready.
Rabbi Shmuel Kaplan
Director, Chabad of Maryland