Conversion to Judaism
April 22, 2006 11:16 PM   Subscribe

I was raised Christian (Southern Baptist, was baptized). However I feel pulled towards Judaism. There is Jewish ancestry on my mom's side but for whatever reason, someone had to have converted. In a way I want to 'take it back'. How does one begin a conversion process to Judaism? There is a Reform synagogue here but I feel so foreign there since I know so little of Jewish traditions.
posted by miltoncat to Religion & Philosophy (38 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I've been visiting a Messianic Jewish synagogue off and on over the years. They believe that God calls his "chosen people" back to the Jewish faith. So, that being said, the people of the church would say that since you have this pull, that means that yes, someone from your ancestry was Jewish. They're always able to find someone you were related to that was Jewish, not many people really "convert".

I'm sure that they would welcome you with open arms. If they don't, find another synagogue to visit.

Good luck.
posted by idiotfactory at 11:41 PM on April 22, 2006

This thread has several excellent resources.

Also remember if you do end up going for conversion, the rabbi is traditionally supposed to attempt to dissuade you three times.
posted by Captaintripps at 11:55 PM on April 22, 2006

Most synagogues are open to the public for Shabbat services.
Put on a shirt and tie and stop by for services next Friday night and/or Saturday morning and check it out.
Reform services are usually at least equal parts English to Hebrew, and they generally make it pretty easy to follow along.
Don't feel weird about not understanding the Hebrew, in a Reform congregation in the U.S. the Rabbi is often one of the few in the room who is fluent. The prayers are mostly translated as you go along, and the prayerbook might have phonetic english translations right there.
After that, if you are still interested, call the synagogue and ask to speak to the Rabbi about how you're feeling.
If you come with respect, most Reform Rabbis/congregations are pretty welcoming.
Shabbat Shalom, my brotha!
posted by BillBishop at 11:55 PM on April 22, 2006

We don't encourage it at all, and it's a long hard process, but just make an appointment to talk to the Rabbi there. Most conversions happen thru Orthodox synagogues (they're the only universally accepted conversions), but you might not need to do it at all. Some Reform synagogues just have official statements, instead of a whole drawn-out process.

Rabbis are usually very cool, and easy to talk to, esp Reform ones. They're not bosses or authority figures really at all, just educated people. And what one Rabbi says another may say something different--we like it that way.

Good luck...and welcome, maybe : >
posted by amberglow at 12:00 AM on April 23, 2006

this is pretty much the standard Orthodox and Conservative conversion process, i think--you study for a year or so, and then Rabbis question you and they decide if you deserve it and really really want it. (many many of us born Jewish would not stand for other people making that kind of decision)
posted by amberglow at 12:06 AM on April 23, 2006

"I've been visiting a Messianic Jewish synagogue off and on over the years. "

Sorry, but "messianic judaism" is bullshit; or it's Christianity. You are free to do what you want, but call a spade a spade. Christ may have been Jewish, but messianic Jews are not Jewish.
posted by ParisParamus at 12:07 AM on April 23, 2006

(Jewish in the sense that he was born as such)
posted by ParisParamus at 12:11 AM on April 23, 2006

Messianic "Judaism" is not recognized as Judaism by any other Jewish denomination.
posted by grouse at 12:41 AM on April 23, 2006

For the record, there was a huge influx of interest in our Synagogue from a certain breed of Christian around the end of 1999.

As if they were sure that "being Jewish" would garner them some sort of special dispensation at that magical year.
posted by sourwookie at 1:15 AM on April 23, 2006

Miltoncat, my advice is this:

Just learn some Yiddish folklore, impart said wisdom among the Goys, and in no time at all you will have earned your status as an Elder of Chelm.

Close enough, right?
posted by sourwookie at 1:20 AM on April 23, 2006

I've heard about being discouraged three times. The Reform synagogue here is very welcoming and has an awesome rabbi. It's just my own self consciousness, which is stupid. There are Conservative and Orthodox synagogues in my city as well, but I figure Reform is the best place to begin.

Though I'd feel like a dork in a tie, Bill... since I'm female and all. :) But Shabbat Shalom to you too!

I didn't wake up one day and think "Dude, I wanna be a Jew!". It's been a long time coming and too long a story to get into here. And I realize it's nothing I can just leap into.

I'm aware of the Messianic Jewish debate. I won't even go there.
posted by miltoncat at 1:34 AM on April 23, 2006 [1 favorite]

Talk to the Rabbi. Only a rabbi can guide you through the process, and there IS a process of learning and ritual. It's a bummer, but as a convert you have to master more knowledge than many slack Jews such as myself have. Think of it as a study program with stiff entrance and pass criteria. If you can't muster the gumption to talk to a rabbi, I'm afraid you're not going to make it.

Be aware that the Orthodox will not recognise a Reform conversion and this will limit your choices in marriage and in where and with whom you can practise.

And what the others said about the so-called Messianic crowd. If you're going to do it, do it right.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 3:19 AM on April 23, 2006

"Most synagogues are open to the public for Shabbat services."

posted by ParisParamus at 4:00 AM on April 23, 2006

First thought: It is possible to own/honor/appreciate the Jewish culture in your ancestry without "converting."

That said, it's probably a good idea to clarify for yourself why you "feel pulled towards" a religion you know so little about. What does it mean that "in a way" you want to "take it back"? Take what back? You sound rather vague about the whole thing, and it's worth taking time to explore the pull. Is Judaism an exotic Other that's more appealing than what you grew up with simply because it's different? Are you yearning for some kind of rootedness you're currently missing? What?

Given that there are lots of different kinds of Judaism, you should start with some reading about Jewish theology, history and community. It's a neat tribal history, as tribal histories go. But, to be honest, if you're not looking for the Orthodox Jews' literalist interpretation of the Old Testament and heartfelt belief that Jews truly are God's "chosen people," then there's really not much in liberal Judaism that can't be gotten in liberal branches of lots of other denominations, including Southern Baptists - guidance, fellowship, organized worship of the divine, organized good works, etc. So why the need to switch? In other words, what exactly is your dissatisfaction with Southern Baptism?
posted by mediareport at 4:07 AM on April 23, 2006

IMO you're in a better position to make the sorts of considerations you're making - i.e. having a feeling for/connection to/pull towards the religion itself - compared to someone who is converting for marriage/relationship purposes.

I know someone going through an Orthodox conversion currently (for marriage reasons) and it is a very difficult process - you'd want to know that you have a really solid basis for considering Judaism before you commit yourself to the process.

To the best of my knowledge, it takes three years (and eight separate units of study - which means eight exams) to convert Orthodox. It's one year to convert Reform. And that's only once you've been through the three refusals. That's how it works in Australia and I've heard it's harder elsewhere - particularly in the UK.

As others have suggested, a little research could go a long way - seek out some Orthodox, Conservative, Reform congregations, go to some Shabbat services, holy days services (New Year, Day of Attonement etc. - the next one coming up is Shavuot which starts the evening of 1 June) and get a feel for what it's all about.
posted by prettypretty at 5:07 AM on April 23, 2006

I agree with those who say start with research. There's a lot of good books out there about the fundamentals of Judaism (such as this one). If your near a college campus, the local Hillel House might be a good place to look into -- they'll have services and educational programs, and they're usually pretty generous with their time.

And since you asked specifically about Judaism, I'm going to go a head and agree with PP. If you're interested in Judaism, specifically, so-called Messianic Judaism isn't it. It's Christianity, and there's not a Jewish organization on earth that recognizes it as Judaism.

You should know that there are three main branches of American Judaism, of varying degrees of liberalism -- Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform, with Reform being the most liberal. People who are new to Judaism have a tendency to think that Orthodox is somehow the most legitimate (in part because Orthodox often present themselves that way), but this isn't the case -- they're all legitimate, but approach Judaism with different philosophies. In many cities, there is also Reconstructionism, which is worth looking into. It's worth noting, however, that if you were to ever think about moving to Israel, the Rabbis there tend to take an Orthodox conversation a lot more seriously than any other.
posted by Astro Zombie at 5:34 AM on April 23, 2006

Have you read 'Daniel Deronda' by George Eliot? It is all about being drawn to one's (Jewish) roots.
posted by altolinguistic at 6:03 AM on April 23, 2006

[a few OT comments removed. If you want to chat about Messianic Judaism, there's MetaTalk]
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 7:04 AM on April 23, 2006

I would suggest reading enough Jewish-oriented material—Leo Rosten (The Joys of Yiddish is both fun and educational), Philip Roth, Isaac Bashevis Singer, whatever you enjoy—that you start to feel you're getting an insider perspective on American Judaism. Then you should have a better idea of what it's all about and a better sense of whether you want to go through the whole tsuris of converting.

I don't understand why so many commenters feel compelled to talk about Messianic Judaism, which the poster did not mention in the first place and does not appear interested in ("I won't even go there").
posted by languagehat at 7:17 AM on April 23, 2006

My wife converted to Judaism fairly recently through the local Conservative synagogue, but out here, anyway, they kind of tag-team teach the conversion class with the Reform folks. The first step was taking a class... but yeah, chat with the Rabbi about it. I'm sure he/she will be happy to point you in the right direction.

I might add, though, that converting to Judaism is a serious thing. They don't make it easy and frankly, it ain't for everyone.
posted by ph00dz at 7:20 AM on April 23, 2006

My mom converted (in a Reform synagogue) before I was born. Like you, she was raised Catholic but never felt right in the church- when she met my (Jewish) dad and they decided to get married, it was a no-brainer.

I'm in agreement with other posters who have said that you will be welcomed by your local Reform synagogue, and that you should go to services there and talk to the rabbi. I just joined a synagogue on my own and everyone was so welcoming and friendly- if it's not the same for you, then get out of there and find a better community!

I just have one thing to add- don't let the closed-mindedness and insularity of the Orthodox community (i.e. "Reform conversions don't count") dissuade you. If someone truly cares about their faith, they will welcome anyone whose heart is in the right place. I've been told I'm "not really Jewish" because my mom converted in a Reform synagogue- not taking into account my lifestyle or the fact that I had a Bat Mitzvah- and it's very hurtful.

Don't let anyone tell you what your religion is or isn't!

And if you have any questions or would like to talk more (not that I'm a great resource but hey!) feel free to email me.
posted by elisabeth r at 8:33 AM on April 23, 2006

Yeah, feel free to email me as well. I attended a Jewish day school and majored in Jewish Studies. I am also a Reform Jew, or was raised Reform anyway (I'm don't really associate with any movement right now), so I'm not dogmatic in any way. I used to teach in synagogues, and my sister-in-law is a convert.
posted by Astro Zombie at 9:57 AM on April 23, 2006

I converted last April. Some good books to read to get more familiar with conversion and Judaism in general are: Choosing a Jewish Life (Anita Diamant); Living a Jewish Life (also Diamant); and Essential Judaism (George Robinson).
posted by gokart4xmas at 9:59 AM on April 23, 2006

according to orthodox judiasm, being jewish comes from matrilinial line only...

and its not possible, according to judiasm, to "renounce" being jewish...

so if your mom's mom's mom's mom's mom was jewish, yopu are jewish too, and have no need to convert. on the other hand, if your moms moms moms father was jewish but his wife was not, then according to halacha, you are not jewish and would need to convert if you wished to become one.
posted by Izzmeister at 11:00 AM on April 23, 2006

read this at for some insight on the effect between orthodox/reform versions and the effect it could have on later generations.
posted by Izzmeister at 11:06 AM on April 23, 2006

In semi-defense of the Orthodox, the vast majority of Reform shul congregants view Judaism as The Cult of the Bar Mitzvah and the High Holidays and Chanukah. Again, the vast majority, not the clergy, and not all congregants. So while there are large numbers of ignorant Orthodox, one can't say the contempt for Reform Judaism is devoid of merit.
posted by ParisParamus at 11:14 AM on April 23, 2006

And, in semi defense of Reform, the vast majority of Orthodox Jewish shul attendees I have known sneak out of the back to smoke cigarettes on Shabbos. Let's not make this a pissing match between the movements, all right?
posted by Astro Zombie at 11:25 AM on April 23, 2006

Some good internet resources are,
Noah Chat; where you can receive a "knowlegable" answer to your questions and, with loads of informative articles and info. Gil
posted by GILBRAM at 11:31 AM on April 23, 2006

Izzmeister is correct, If your mothers mother was Jewish,
you are Jewish, with no need to convert. Even thought you were was raised Christian -Southern Baptist. You may email me for further questions.
A good discussion on authentic conversion is
posted by GILBRAM at 12:21 PM on April 23, 2006

Astro Zombie, I don't disagree with you. There is much hypocritcal intramural contempt in Judaism.
posted by ParisParamus at 1:04 PM on April 23, 2006

As I did in an earlier thread, I would highly recommend the book "Towards a Meaningful Life" by Simon Jacobson about the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe. It makes accessible some wonderful, beautiful Jewish ideas and inspired me to care about being Jewish more than I previously had. The web site Is maintained by the same person.
posted by ParisParamus at 1:22 PM on April 23, 2006

A major aspect of Judaism, as opposed to Christianity is that skepticism about God is not an "in the closet" thing. Keep this in mind during your explorations.
posted by ParisParamus at 1:25 PM on April 23, 2006 [1 favorite]

Thanks all. I don't know if it is totally matrilineal, my jewish descent. It IS on my mom's side, but I don't know if it was a great-great-great grandmother or grandfather who was Jewish or what happened. My great-grandmother died when I was 19 and never said anything about it. She did make latkes though!

We are from Tennessee and about the era I know I had Jewish relatives around in the Civil War, General Grant ordered all Jews out of Tennessee. President Lincoln rescinded this order not long after, but still. Maybe this had something to do with it.
posted by miltoncat at 9:21 PM on April 23, 2006 [1 favorite]

Well, you wouldn't be the first Tennessee Jew via long-ago matrilineal descent: so was Elvis!
posted by Asparagirl at 11:14 PM on April 23, 2006

Wow, miltoncat, I'd never heard of Grant's General order No. 11; thanks for the pointer. If you had relatives affected, I can see where the interest might be coming from. Still, it's worth saying again that it's possible to honor and value that part of your family's cultural heritage - including your great-grandma's latkes :) - without the need to go through an official conversion. Since you don't say how devoutly you take religion in general, it's difficult to know how seriously Jewish theology itself might appeal to you, or if enjoying the cultural and historic aspects while shrugging off the more strictly religious elements might work just as well. Lord knows it already works that way for lots of Jews.
posted by mediareport at 12:32 AM on April 24, 2006

The Teaching Company's Introduction to Judaism is fantastic and will leapfrog you over 90 percent of the tribe. Mazel Tov!
posted by vega5960 at 8:52 AM on April 24, 2006

Elvis was a Jew!
posted by Astro Zombie at 12:52 PM on April 24, 2006

There is a middle way; the Noahhide movement. is a web site, with thought provoking answers.
posted by GILBRAM at 6:27 AM on May 3, 2006

« Older Is my computer possessed? My BIOS has a mind of...   |   How can I give up driving to become a bike... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.