Can I Convert to Judaism Online?

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Jews pray and celebrate in community.

Often I get email from people who want to know if online conversion is an option. Here are my thoughts about that.

IT TAKES A JEWISH COMMUNITY TO MAKE A JEW.   I believe very strongly that conversion should take place within a Jewish community setting, probably a congregation. The process of conversion is not just about study, it’s about becoming part of Am Yisrael, the People of Israel, and it’s very important that a candidate spend lots of time with Jews and get a feel for life in a Jewish community.  What if a person went through the rituals, became officially Jewish, then found out that he or she didn’t really much like Jews, or felt terminally out of place with Jews?

IT TAKES JEWISH EXPERIENCES TO MAKE A JEW.   Often people who feel drawn to Judaism first explore it by reading books and looking around online. Those are legitimate activities for learning about Judaism, but they will take you only so far. A person interested in Judaism should experience the whole range of sensory experiences that go into Jewish life: the crunch of matzah at Passover, the taste of traditional Jewish foods, the sounds of Jewish worship, the rhythms and unusual scales of Jewish music, the adrenaline of a good Torah study session. The candidate need not like all of it (I personally will never learn to like chopped liver, although I have grown fond of gifilte fish) but it’s important that experience be real, not theoretical.

IT TAKES TIME TO MAKE A JEW. Sometimes people want to know “how long does it take?” The answer to that is that it takes as long as it takes. Study begins with a class or with a rabbi without a fixed goal. The process of study may end with conversion, or it may be a step along some other journey that the candidate is taking. Until both the rabbi and the student are sure that Judaism is the only possible destination, options stay open. Most rabbis like for a student to experience Jewish life for at least a full year’s cycle (there’s that “experience” word again) to see what happens. Without face-to-face contact, it’s hard to sort out what’s going on with a person, and that is critical knowledge for a rabbi working with a conversion student.

Now, you may be saying, “But I don’t want to be a synagogue Jew!  I have a different vision of my Jewish life!” And my answer to that is to say, as gently as I can, that conversion to Judaism involves a massive transition of identity – you do not know where it will take you. I did not know where it would take me. But what I do know, for sure, is that community and experiences are key to the process of becoming Jewish. We are a communal people, so much so that we don’t read Torah or say Kaddish without ten Jews present. We have Jewish Film Festivals because we like to get together to watch Jewish movies.

I am aware that there are websites advertising rabbis who will study with conversion students online. And there may be circumstances in which there is a vibrant Jewish community with which to learn but no rabbi. Perhaps in those circumstances, if there’s really no better alternative, it might work.  But I worry when I hear about online conversions. I worry that students will not get what they need and will not be adequately prepared for life as a Jew.

First, check out your local options. If there really isn’t a congregation near, is becoming Jewish so important to you that you are willing to relocate, to live near more Jews?.  Why do you want to become a Jew? And if you do become Jewish, what will you do about being Jewish, if there’s no one else with whom to celebrate holidays, or lifecycle events, or pray?

Whatever you decide to do, I wish you well on your spiritual journey!

12 Responses to Can I Convert to Judaism Online?

  1. Isak Nygren says:

    I have been banned from all Jewish institutions in my country because I want to convert. I have never been treaten so bad as this security guard (which is very common in Europe to have security guards outside the synagogues). I have been trying to find an answer for two years on why I was banned (it wasn’t being refused three times).

    I can’t afford to convert in Israel unless I get a job there at the same time.

    What should I do?

    Like

    • rabbiadar says:

      Mr. Nygren, I have to wonder why you want to convert to Judaism under these circumstances. If you don’t know anyone in the Jewish community, why do you want to be a Jew? If you do know someone in the community, then they are your best way to find out why you have been banned, if indeed that is the case.

      It is an unfortunate fact that many European synagogues have to have security guards; they do because they or other local Jewish organizations have received threats.

      Not knowing the specifics of this situation, I cannot say more.

      Like

      • Isak Nygren says:

        I feel some kind of connection to Judaism. I can’t explain why. I have friends in the Jewish community and they have tried to help me. Only one of them belongs to this community where I tried to convert in. I knew him last year and I was banned two years ago. He really tried to help me but he was very closed to be banned from the synagogue even though he’s Jewish. He said to this guard he didn’t cared because the great synagogue was Conservative and he belongs to the Orthodox one. I want to convert to Orthodox Judaism. If I had more money I would have went to Israel and converted long time ago.

        Like

      • rabbiadar says:

        I don’t know enough about the situation to say more, Mr. Nygren. If you have indeed been banned from the community, there must be some reason.

        Like

      • Isak Nygren says:

        The reason is obviously this security guard is very mentally ill.

        Like

  2. Dawn Kepler says:

    I too get people asking whether they can convert online. There are serious problems with that. The ones you list above are very real. Additionally an online conversion may not be recognized by any Jewish community since it did not come from any particular community. I know of a Conservative rabbi who offers online conversion yet none of his colleagues support him or his system. When I emailed with him he was evasive and never signed an email with his name.

    Online conversion programs ask for money. No conversion should cost you anything. Yes, you will pay for a class, books and other study materials that you’ll need, but you should not be paying to meet and study with a rabbi.

    Online you are never in the same room with the person who is teaching you. You don’t meet their community — if they have one. You don’t get a sense of how they are understood and regarded in the Jewish community around them.

    I was contacted by an individual who was doing online study while living in New York City after he saw his ‘rabbi’ on a website that uncovered fraudulent businesses.

    I hope seekers will do their homework and find a community, a synagogue and a congregational rabbi with whom to convert.

    Thanks for this important article, Rabbi.

    Like

  3. Rabbi, during the last week I wrote a very difficult piece for my blog on the developments surrounding conversions online. I’m quite concerned, because im asked by people if i know about certain batei din, and i find out that the ones they are seeking out online are not legit. This is an even more pressing issues as in the last couple weeks other groups are deciding to do their own online conversions, by non-properly ordained people. Can you offer us some advice on this matter?

    Like

    • rabbiadar says:

      Thank you for raising this issue, Shmu. This makes me so very sad.

      Rather than reply in short form here, I’m going to spend some time thinking and gathering my sources, and post something more complete. Thank you for pointing me to the article, which has already led me to other troubling materials.

      This is indeed a very serious question.

      Like

      • I thank in advance! I really appreciate your guidance. especially because you embrace the internet in a creative ways as well. As you know I am accepting of all Jews and hate to be divided by politics. But i feel someone is deceiving people in a way that is so emotionally hurtful.

        Like

  4. alex says:

    What about a person with health problems, unable to. Get to a synagogue, even if one is available(which it isn’t)? I should add that I’m not looking to convert…..am born Jewish, but not raised in any faith. I have(as well as other health issues)agoraphobia, and books and online resources are such a blessing for . Me.

    Like

    • rabbiadar says:

      It sounds to me like connecting with Jewish community online is really your best option – and fortunately we’re living in a time when that is quite possible. Many congregations live stream services these days, and more and more organizations are offering distance learning opportunities. My own beloved Lehrhaus Judaica is beginning to do that (lehrhaus.org).

      In this article I was really speaking specifically of the issues facing prospective converts. Sometimes people fall in love with the idea of Judaism, but I believe it is really important for them to experience real live Jews in real time before making such a committment.

      Like

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