How to Convert to Conservative Judaism
The Conversion Process
A traditional approach to Jewish conversion has been for a rabbi to turn away a seeker three times before accepting that the seeker truly wants to become a member of the covenant. Recently, the Rabbinical Assembly of Conservative Judaism has repudiated that process in favor of welcoming seekers and non-Jewish partners in interfaith marriages (although it is still not Conservative Jewish practice to proselytize).
If you ask a Conservative rabbi to convert you, he or she will sit down with you to discuss the pros and cons of joining not just a faith, but a people. After all, Jews have been persecuted, banished, and even killed throughout history just because they were Jewish. If being a member of the Jewish community still resonates in your heart, here are the steps you will need to take.
- Study with a Conservative rabbi.
- Begin practicing Jewish rituals and observing Jewish holidays and customs.
- For men only: Have a brit milah (circumcision) or hatafat dam brit.
- Be examined by a beit din, or rabbinical court.
- Immerse in the mikvah.
The process usually takes from nine months to a year, in order to allow sufficient time for studying and participating in the cycle of the Jewish year.
Study With a Conservative Rabbi
The first step in the conversion process is learning—and a lot of it. Most Conservative rabbis recommend that you first take a community-wide course in basic Judaism. These courses are often run through the local Board of Rabbis, and you can find one by calling your local synagogue. If you're not sure you're ready or want to learn more before committing to the conversion process, you will still be welcomed at these classes.
You will also need to find a rabbi to sponsor you—that is, to study with you and bring you before the beit din, the rabbinical court, when you are ready to become Jewish. If you live in a heavily Jewish area, you may have several rabbis to choose from. Talk to them all and attend a service at each synagogue to make sure you have found a rabbi with whom you are comfortable. Remember, conversion is a year-long process, so you'll be spending a lot of time with him or her, and presumably you will join the synagogue once you're a member of the tribe.
Either afterwards or concurrently, depending on how motivated you are and how quickly you learn, you will begin to take lessons with your rabbi, either privately or in a small group with other conversion students. Your sponsoring rabbi will also meet with you regularly outside of class time to see how the conversion process is affecting you and your family. If you are intermarried or are converting before marrying a Jew, your spouse (and/or children) will be included in some of these meetings.
Topics that a potential convert will study include (but are not limited to):
- Bible and rabbinics
- Hebrew language
- Jewish conceptions of God
- Commandments among people (e.g., charity and lovingkindness)
- Jewish law
- Life cycle events (e.g., birth, b'nai mitzvah, marriage, death, and mourning)
- Jewish calendar and holidays
- Ritual practice, including kashrut and Shabbat observance
- Prayer: history, structure, and choreography
- Jewish views on bioethics and other controversial social issues
- Jewish history
- Israel and Zionism
Begin Living a Jewish Life
The Conservative Movement understands that ritual observance is a process rather than a destination. As you learn about the mitzvot (commandments), you will be expected to try to incorporate them into your life, but no one will expect you to know everything and do everything perfectly at first. It may take time to get used to attending synagogue and refraining from work on Shabbat. When you begin to learn about the laws of kashrut, it is acceptable to begin by not eating forbidden foods, and then separating milk and meat as a next step, and so on. The most important thing is to show that your commitment is growing and will continue to grow.
The one step that will help you most in your quest to live a Jewish life is to become part of a synagogue community. Your sponsor can introduce you to people who are active in the synagogue, and you will have a ready-made support network in place. If you become friendly with some "regulars" at services, you will have someone to help you find your place in the prayerbook, as well as someone to chat with after services are over. Consider attending meetings of the Men's Club or Sisterhood to meet more people and cement social ties. If you have another interest, such as social action or education, the synagogue likely has other groups or committees you can join. One cannot become Jewish in a vacuum; being part of the community is one of the strongest Jewish values.
During this stage, spend some time considering what you would like your Hebrew name to be. This name is used to call you up to the Torah and during all lifecycle events. You may want to take a biblical name if there is a person in the Bible with whom you particularly identify (e.g., Yaakov, Moshe, Rivka, or Miriam), or you may want a modern Hebrew name that speaks to an attribute you wish to possess (e.g., Asher: "happy", or Rina: "joy").
Before completing the conversion process, males must undergo brit milah, or circumcision. This involves cutting off the foreskin of the penis. For an adult, this is usually performed by a urologist at an outpatient surgical center, and local anesthesia is used. (For a child, a pediatrician can usually do it in his or her office, also using local anesthesia.) Two witnesses are needed; if the doctor is an observant Jewish male, he can serve as one. The doctor recites two blessings, and the witnesses sign a certificate attesting to the circumcision. You will most likely be able to go back to work the next day, and resume sexual function within three to four weeks.
If a male was circumcised as a baby, a less invasive procedure called a hatafat dam brit is performed. This involves taking a drop of blood from the skin around the glans of the penis. The procedure is simple; it can be performed in a doctor's office by a doctor, a mohel, or even the rabbi. The doctor simply pricks the skin with a sterile lancet and wipes up the resultant drop of blood with a piece of gauze. No blessings are required, although witnesses are still necessary. There is no healing period; an adhesive bandage can be applied but will likely not even be necessary.
Come Before the Beit Din
Before meeting with the beit din (rabbinical court), candidates for conversion must write an essay enumerating their reasons for wanting to become Jewish and how they have been putting their newfound Judaic knowledge into practice. Some topics you may be asked to specifically address in your essay include:
- Discussing why Judaism is a better fit for you than the belief system which you previously practiced
- Describing how Judaism has informed and will continue to inform your home and personal life
- Discussing your commitment to religious services and prayer, Jewish education for your children, and to the Jewish community both locally and around the world
The beit din will read your statement in advance and may discuss your candidacy with your sponsoring rabbi before your meeting. At your meeting, the three rabbis comprising the beit din will ask you questions based on what you have written in your essay and basic Jewish knowledge. Their goal is to determine whether you truly "accept the yoke of the commandments," an acknowledgement that Jewish law is authoritative and that you plan to live Jewishly (including ritual observance) for the rest of your life. They will also question you to make sure you have given up all religious practices of your former belief system (e.g., you should not be planning to continue having a Christmas tree in your house).
After your meeting with the beit din, they will confer privately regarding your candidacy. Relax—your sponsor would not have convened the rabbinical court if he or she did not feel you were ready. The beit din will then have you sign a Declaration of Commitment, which declares that you are converting of your own free will and that you voluntarily agree to accept the mitzvot of Judaism. Among the mitzvot enumerated in this document are:
- Performing brit milah on your sons, welcoming your daughters into the covenant by a naming ceremony, and providing Jewish education for all your children
- Observing Shabbat and holidays, praying regularly, and attending services
- Keeping kosher
- Visiting the sick and feeding the hungry
- Participating in and supporting Jewish communal life, locally and in Israel
Once you have signed the document, it is time for immersion in the mikvah to complete the process.
The story of Ruth in the Bible demonstrates the acceptance of Jews-by-choice into the community, and includes this beautiful affirmation of commitment:
And Ruth said: "Don't ask me to leave you, and to return from following after you; for where you go, I will go; and where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God; where you die, will I die, and there will I be buried."
— Ruth 1:16–17
Immerse in the Mikvah
The mikvah is a ritual bath used for various purposes, including conversion. At the mikvah, you will prepare for immersion in a small private pool. This includes showering, removing nail polish and jewelry, combing your hair, and cleaning your ears and under your fingernails. You will be naked during your immersion, because the water of the mikvah must touch every part of you for the immersion to be considered proper. For reasons of modesty, the rabbis will not directly supervise your immersion if you are of a different gender. Instead, a mikvah attendant or other knowledgeable person of your gender will supervise you, while the rabbis wait within hearing distance for you to recite the blessings. You will immerse completely one time, say the blessings, and then immerse two more times. Once your immersions have been pronounced kosher, you are free to dry off and get dressed, before meeting the beit din one last time to receive your new name and copies of your conversion documents for safekeeping.
Jewish Conversion Process for a Child
If a non-Jewish woman has children with a Jewish man and they decide to raise the children Jewish, the children must be formally converted. The process is much simpler for children; there is no learning requirement or observance requirement, although the children will be expected to enroll in religious school after the conversion (if they are not already attending). A boy will need to undergo brit milah (or hatafat dam brit if he is already circumcised). Both parents (the Jewish and non-Jewish parents together) must sign a letter of commitment, and the children must immerse in the mikvah. The final step for children is to proceed with bar or bat mitzvah at thirteen years old, which formalizes their acceptance of the commandments upon themselves once they are old enough to undertake that responsibility.
Diamant, Anita. Choosing a Jewish Life: A Handbook for People converting to Judaism and for Their Family and Friends. New York: Schocken Books, 1997.
Lamm, Maurice. Becoming a Jew. New York: Jonathan David Publishers, Inc., 1991
Lubliner, Jonathan. At the Entrance of the Tent: A Rabbinic Guide to Conversion. New York: The Rabbinical Assembly, 2011.
Rank, Perry R. and Gordon M. Freeman, Eds. Moreh Derech: The Rabbinical Assembly Rabbi's Manual. New York: The Rabbinical Assembly, 1998.