Converting to Judaism: Your Experiences
February 2, 2016 1:34 PM   Subscribe

I'm strongly considering converting to Judaism. I've heard about the process during a class that I'm taking, but I'd like more insight into what actually goes on. I would be converting through a Reform synagogue. If anyone has experiences or tips to share, please do so. Thanks for your help!
posted by Fister Roboto to Religion & Philosophy (10 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: My stepmother did this. (I was born a member of the tribe and feel quite honored you want to join us!) You'll want to pick your synagogue first, based on what feels most simpatico to you, and then you'll be taking a course of study. The actual ceremony also depends on the synagogue -- my stepmother, for example, did one that included bathing in a mikvah, something I have never ever done.

So, pick your synagogue and rabbi, and then talk this through with them.

I met a woman who just did this, btw, on a Holocaust trip I took. I view her now as a friend. I will point out that besides going to synagogue and taking the course and undergoing the ceremony, she also spent some time getting affiliated with the local community and its history, by reading and by doing things like going on the trip. You don't have to do that, but being Jewish is only partly about the religious education and community. It is also about history and culture.

Lastly, get ready for the fact that we Jews are the furthest thing from organized or unified. In Israel, there are plenty of people who don't think anyone who isn't Orthodox is Jewish, and even then question the Jewishness of people who aren't of THEIR Orthodox group/sect.

Mazel tov on this decision. Memail me anytime.
posted by bearwife at 2:07 PM on February 2, 2016 [6 favorites]

Best answer: Not a convert, but am friends with someone who just went through the process, and my spouse is currently going through it. What exactly the process will consist of depends on your synagogue/Rabbi, and since my familiarity is with Conservative conversions, I can't say much to the details of a Reform conversion. But the reactions from other community members are pretty standard, I think, so it's useful to be prepared for the following:

-You're going to get The Question ("Why are you converting?") from lots of people. You are probably going to get annoyed and exacerbated by The Question. Those feelings are completely valid, and it's perfectly acceptable to respond with "It's kind of personal" or some variant.

-If you do convert Reform, you might also get the follow up question "You know other denominations won't accept the conversion, right?". This might continue post-conversion, as well, as it's reflective of a general tendency for some more observant Jews to think that Reform Jews don't know anything about traditional Jewish law. I don't have a good come back for this one, but I do apologize profusely on behalf of my people.

-If you have a penis, you'll also potentially get another, even more uncomfortable follow up question. Again, no good comebacks besides "That's kind of personal", and I'm sorry.

-Ashkenormativity. In most Jewish communities in the US, fluency with Ashkenazi culture is assumed. There's been some push back against this in some places, but it's going to be a long time before things change.

But! Despite being subjected to all of the above, both my friend and my spouse have been finding the process incredibly rewarding and personally fulfilling, and for the most part, have been supported and loved by the local Jewish community here as they've been going through it.
posted by damayanti at 2:09 PM on February 2, 2016 [6 favorites]

Best answer: My cousin's husband decided to join us. He's a funeral director and worked for a Jewish funeral home. He grew to love the community and found that he wanted to be a member.

He was already well known within the community through his work, and was welcomed by rabbis and congregants alike.

My G-ddaugher is also exploring Judaism and of course, I am happy to oblige her with nifty objects, books and my own viewpoint. You might want to find someone with whom you already have a relationship to discuss things with as you go through the process.

I think being Jewish is more than just going to temple. It's a cultural, historical and societal in nature, in addition to being an expression of faith.

My dad always used to wonder about converts, "Why would anyone volunteer to be a member of an underclass?" He's a liberal guy, but in his day Jews had it pretty hard, what with bigotry and all I might think about this aspect of it, not because you should be deterred, but because if you come from Christian Privilege, some absolute bullshit from non-Jews may shock you. I have been asked if I celebrate Thanksgiving. Which, was an honest enough question...but...not really, if you catch my meaning.

Anyway, enjoy your studies, and welcome to the tribe!
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 2:17 PM on February 2, 2016

I am not a convert, but I am a Reform Jew and took a Jewish education class for teaching certification that was also required for several folks who were converting. Almost everyone in the class was Reform, but for some reason it was led by two Orthodox rabbis. It was an exercise in frustration for me, because almost every class featured sexist comments or heteronormativity or ideas about God's will and miracles that are not endorsed by any Reform rabbis I know, and when this was pointed out, the instructors would make mildly dismissive comments. We assured the people in the process of converting that these points of view were not representative of Reform Judaism, and I felt bad that their synagogues hadn't been a bit more careful about the class. So I'd say: congrats, that's awesome, and make sure your education is led by someone affiliated with Reform or a more liberal branch.
posted by thetortoise at 2:59 PM on February 2, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I'm just a garden variety Reform Jew, but I have close family with significant experience in this process: my mom has been tutoring people interested in converting to Judaism for 30+ years and has co-authored at least one book on this subject, and my brother is a Reform rabbi who, among other duties, advises converts and officiates both their beit dins (Jewish religious "courts" necessary to confirm that a prospective convert is sufficiently educated and committed to the religion to undergo conversion) and their actual conversion ceremonies.

Fair warning: A proper conversion education takes time and is not a quick process.

Speaking generally, the process of converting to Judaism is broad enough that your specific course of study will likely be dictated by the rabbi who oversees your conversion, making it hard to tell you much about what to expect in advance. The process should include introducing you to thousands of years of Jewish history and culture, Jewish religious beliefs (from Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform perspectives), significant Jewish religious texts and associated commentary texts, major and minor Jewish holidays (both the why and the how), basic-to-intermediate Hebrew, the Holocaust, the importance of Israel to the Jewish community and its relevance to the Jewish Diaspora, etc. A good conversion education covers all of those topics and more and often takes its time doing so.

Feel free to MeMail if you run into any questions to which you aren't able find answers, and I'll be happy to either get answers for you or put you in touch with someone who can.

Mazel tov!
posted by mosk at 3:50 PM on February 2, 2016 [1 favorite]

Minor point (oy like there could be a minor point:) if you inquire and the rabbi is offputting or well even grumpy go back at least three more times.

Now if you can find the right rabbi it can be done quickly while standing on one leg. :-)
posted by sammyo at 4:19 PM on February 2, 2016 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I am a Conservative convert, so I can answer your questions from that perspective.

Conversion to Judaism was a long process for me, of at least 5 years of learning and internal investigation and three years of active progress towards conversion. It was only in the last year that I found the right rabbi and the right congregation and was able to convert. I have been Jewish for five years now, and it is a central part of my life. I am glad that the process was difficult for me, as it helped me learn that conversion marked a fundamental change in who I am.

The general process for me was learning about Judaism, finding a rabbi, studying with the rabbi, a conversion test (beit din), and conversion itself (mikvah).

Learning about Judaism -- it sounds like you are already doing this. As you've probably already learned (and will be told again and again by other Jews) you don't need to convert to be a good person by Judaism's definition.

Finding a rabbi -- the conversion process typically takes a year, and you will be attending the rabbi's synagogue and meeting with the rabbi personally. You need to find someone you are comfortable with and whose ideas about observance match with yours. One rabbi I spoke to wanted me to move to a different city to convert. Another was Sephardi, which meant that my Askenazi girlfriend did not feel comfortable with his traditions. Another rabbi expected that I would be able to meet standards of observance that none of the Orthodox Jews I know are interested in keeping. The rabbi I ended up converting with was the right rabbi, and a genuine friend by the end of the process.

Studying with the rabbi -- Generally this will mean one on one meetings as well as group sessions. You should ask your rabbi at the beginning of the process exactly what he or she expects. How many classes will there be? How long does the process generally take? Does he or she have other students? Because of my long process of finding the right rabbi I went in to the process thinking that I I already knew it all. This was true on one level - I knew the practical laws of Passover better than other students I studied with. But I didn't know my particular rabbi's take on them, or the other students take. That process was valuable for me.

Conversion test (beit din) - This is likely the area of biggest difference between Conservative and Reform tradition. The way it worked for me was that - once my rabbi decided I was ready - a court of three rabbis met and tested me on my knowledge and attitudes towards Judaism. In retrospect this is probably one of those things where they don't let you get to the beit din unless they know you are going to pass, but I was petrified at the time. This consisted of some 101 type questions about holidays and kosher law, but they also asked some interesting questions about Judaism itself. For instance, they wanted to know if I thought it was fair that born Jews did not have to go through this whole process! This probably took 60 minutes, but it felt much longer because I was so nervous.

Conversion itself (mikvah) - My understanding is that Reform Judaism does not do this, in general, but Conservative conversion finishes with a ritual dunking in a pool of water (a mikvah). Intellectually I knew that this was going to happen, but I was so focused on the test I never really considered that I was about to get naked in front of a bunch of strangers. As someone uncomfortable with nudity it was very anxious through the whole process, even though it took less than 5 minutes. What stuck with me was that I said the Shema (a central prayer of Judaism) right after I got my clothes back on - starting a new chapter of my life with my first mitzvah.

Tips and tricks wise, here are some things that have been hard for me:

Conversion recognition - By converting to something other than Orthodoxy you need to be aware that a large number of Jews won't think you are Jewish. For me this hurts. I cannot make alia to Israel, and I can't have an alia at an Orthodox shul. On a fundamental level I don't count. And given how important my Jewish identity is to me, that hurts. I'm sorry to say that my movement, the Conservative movement, would not recognize your conversion to Reform Judaism. For me this has never been a reason to convert to Orthodoxy - the Judaism I love is traditional and innovative at the same time in a way that Orthodoxy can't currently accommodate. But it hurts. I hope that Orthodox and Conservative Judaism can adapt to be more inclusive of all Jews.

Family - I don't know what your background is religiously, or what your relationship with your family is. Conversion to Judaism will likely change that relationship. I was raised in a secular Christian family. I was in a Christmas pageant once. One parent is deist and the other is atheist. My parents and larger family are liberal and open minded. But it's weird for them that I wear a kippah. And it's hard for them and for me that I don't come home for Christmas anymore. Even after I converted I still celebrated Christmas with them, but when my daughter was born I realized that I needed to establish traditions for my own family that were exclusively Jewish. Your choices about how to integrate your Jewish and non-Jewish life will be your own, but understand that you will have to make choices.

I'd be happy to talk more by memail. Best of luck to you!
posted by Maastrictian at 8:19 PM on February 2, 2016 [4 favorites]

Best answer: I converted to Reform Judaism at a relatively late age (56), but I feel that I've always been Jewish. And despite what Orthodox and Conservative Jews think, in my heart I -- daughter of a Methodist and a Presbyterian -- am a Jew.
My conversion was enlightening, delightful, fulfilling and extremely educational. I was fortunate to find a welcoming and brilliant rabbi who was willing to share his brain and his heart with me, as well as others who were in his Taste of Judaism class -- which is where it all started. We progressed to weekly Torah study, Shabbat and High Holy Days services, and a class that he taught at a local university. After close to a year of study and worship, I was surprised one morning after Torah study when he said we should schedule a date for the conversion ceremony. (I had felt so much a part of the synagogue that I had almost forgotten about it.) And then I did it!
Long story short: Wonderful, welcoming rabbi. Extensive study of Torah, customs, etc. Regular attendance at Shabbat services and holidays. Helping with synagogue programs or whatever was asked of me.
My Reform synagogue didn't require immersion in a mikveh, and I was/am OK with that.
I did find that many longtime friends and my relatives were shocked to learn I had converted. Most of them asked why, and my response was and continues to be, "Because I have always been a Jew in my heart."
posted by Smalltown Girl at 12:04 AM on February 3, 2016 [3 favorites]

By converting to something other than Orthodoxy you need to be aware that a large number of Jews won't think you are Jewish. For me this hurts. I cannot make alia to Israel,

Just a quick comment on this, because I think it may be pertinent to Fister Roboto's question --

1. I am sorry, and apologize for this thing many Jews do (to people born Jewish too) of judging whether others are really Jewish or are "bad" Hews.

2. Please try not to feel hurt. It has nothing to do with you and the sincerity of your Judaism, and has everything to do with the narrow-mindedness of people, a thing which one finds everywhere, not just among Jews. It is their problem, not yours.

3. Making aliyah is something you do in your own heart. The First and Second Aliyahs to Israel were pretty much entirely by Zionist Jews who had no interest in practicing the Jewish religion at all. So just show up in Israel and know that IS aliyah. (I also don't spend a minute worrying about the dress code for women that some religious Israelis in some neighborhoods like to enforce by throwing stones. I just stay out of their neighborhoods and frankly think them a bunch of intolerant sexist weirdos.)

4. Remember that argument and division are pretty much built into Judaism. There's the great splits between groups due to history -- Ashkenazi, Sephardi, Ladino, Mizrahi, etc. -- and due to theological differences -- Reform, Conservative, Orthodox (in their many iterations), etc. -- and just due to a very argumentative tradition. Since humor is mostly built in too, let me illustrate with a chestnut of a Jewish in-joke:

A Jew is shipwrecked on a desert island. Ten years later, a passing ship notices his campfire and stops to rescue him. When the captain comes ashore, the castaway thanks him profusely and offers to give him a tour of the little island. He shows off the weapons he made for hunting, the fire pit where he cooks his food, the synagogue he built for praying in, the hammock where he sleeps. On their way back to the ship, however, the captain notices a second synagogue. “I don’t understand,” the captain asks; “why did you need to build two synagogues?” “Oh,” says the Jew, “this is the synagogue I never go to."
posted by bearwife at 10:59 AM on February 3, 2016 [1 favorite]

I cannot make alia to Israel, and I can't have an alia at an Orthodox shul

The second of these is true - but the first is not. Emigration to Israel is a secular matter and not subject to the Orthodox rabbinic court. Anyone who converts outside of Israel with a recognized rabbinic authority (which includes both Reform & Conservative Movements) can legally emigrate. They may not be recognised as "Jewish" for religious purposes within Israel (such as marriage) -- and also, no one can legally convert inside Israel except through an Orthodox beit din. But they have the right of return. (I just had this confirmed by my rabbi last week; she is a Reform rabbi, and I recently converted via a Reform Beit Din -- not that I'm looking to move.)

As for the conversion experience itself, it's hard to generalise, because there is no standardised system. Converting through the Reform movement in Canada is a bit more like converting through the Conservative movement in the US (we always require a mikvah, for example).

But the specific requirements - classes, studying one-on-one with a rabbi, exams, etc - depend on where you are, which movement you are converting through, and (of course, as in all things) what your sponsor rabbi requires (if you have a sponsoring rabbi - this is required by the Reform movement in Canada, for example). My rabbi requires you to attend synagogue for a year before she will even consider sponsoring you to the conversion class; another Reform rabbi in the same city might be willing to sponsor someone even before they have attended a synagogue.

This is the basic process, as required by the Reform community in Toronto, Canada:

- they require that you take a one-year class, called the "Jewish Information Class" - which teaches the Hebrew alphabet, how to follow along in a Hebrew prayerbook, and has lectures on different aspects of Judaism (history, practice, holidays, etc), though the curriculum is not very organized and is very much at a simple level

- you then must pass an exam, which tests your Hebrew reading (can you read simple words like שׁבת) and the material (supposedly) taught in the class (only they missed a whole lot because it's co-taught by all the rabbis - and have you ever tried to organise rabbis? I'd rather herd cats). You have five years after having completed the class and exam to convert, after which you have to do it again. (Jewish information must have an expiry date)

- having passed the exam, you go to a Beit Din (panel of three Rabbis - also defined above) - and they talk to you about your reasons for converting. Unlike the conservative experience described above, they asked me absolutely no knowledge questions (which were in the exam, anyways), only personal ones. They wanted to know if I was doing this of my own free will and I was sincere, whether I believed in G-d (which - notably - is not a requirement of born-Jews), what attracted me to Judaism, etc. The whole process took much less time, as well - only about 10 minutes. They talked to 4 of us in one hour.

- then, the men who were converting had to have their surgery between the Beit Din and the Mikvah. If they had a foreskin, this was removed in a full circumcision. If they have already had their foreskin removed, there is a ceremony called "Hatafat Dam" where a drop of blood is drawn from the area where the foreskin was.

- Then we mikvah (immersion, prayers, etc). It was wet, but much warmer than you might expect. Also, now my rabbi has seen me naked (I try to forget this).

I realise this is pretty literal - just the process. But given that it takes a year, it's obviously a lot more involved. I attended synagogue regularly before even thinking of converting - and had already participated in passover seders, purim parties, and attended high holidays. But for some people, that conversion year is also a year of many firsts.

As well, if you have a Jewish partner and family, your experience may be very different than someone who has no Jewish family. Because so much of Judaism is family-based, it's essential to make a family if you haven't got one. I've been lucky - while I have no Jewish family nearby, I've fallen in with a crowd who are all in a similar situation, either because they are also converts or simply recent immigrants with all of their family overseas. So I've actually had the (wonderful) problem of being invited to too many Seders, even if I'm traditional and do both.

If I were to give advice, it would be to:

- attend synagogue regularly before you start conversion. It's the best way in - the best way to engage with a Jewish community. I know many Jews don't attend synagogue, but converts are required to be religious to even be allowed to convert (another double standard).

- if you don't have Jewish family (either at all or just local to you), think about making your own. There are many Jews who are also lacking in local family, for many reasons. Otherwise, it can be a very lonely process.

- thumb your nose at anyone who even suggests that a Reform conversion doesn't count, or that Reform Judaism is "Judaism-lite". They are just jealous that we have more fun and that our rabbis are prettier.

Actually, both my partner and I are pretty adamant that far from being "lite", Reform Judaism demands a sincerity and kavannah in practice that many more traditional movements don't. I think of it as Judaism-done-right (not least for their egalitarianism, anti-racism, anti-poverty and pro-LGBT stances).
posted by jb at 6:03 PM on February 3, 2016

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