I was a teacher and student of the history of Christianity. Officially I was an Episcopalian, teaching Cumberland Presbyterian seminarians, and the fact that my contract specified that I was there to “teach, not preach” (using the language of Paul of Tarsus about proper roles for women) was actually a comfort to me. I was dimly aware that I could talk very confidently about history, but not so confidently about my own faith.
We began class with a prayer for the souls on the Challenger; I asked one of my students to lead the prayer, honoring my “teach, not preach” agreement. Then we dived into the intricacies of 9th century Byzantium and the fine distinctions between idols and icons, idolatry and worship.
A student asked me to clarify a detail of Byzantine Christology. As I gave him the proper answer, making the distinctions clear, a still small voice in my head pointed out the obvious: You don’t believe this stuff. Any of it.Why are you teaching it? I paused for a moment, reminded myself that I had a contract, and returned to the lecture.
Like the Space Shuttle, my sense of myself exploded that morning. I could no longer call myself a Christian. I finished out the term and spent almost ten years trying to figure out where I belonged, longing for a spiritual home I could not name.
Eventually I stumbled into a synagogue, long after I’d given up on belonging anywhere. That’s another story.
“Why is it taking so long? I can’t wait to get to the mikveh!”
If I had a nickel for every time a student has said that to me, we could go get fancy espresso drinks. There is something about being “in a process” or “on a journey” that makes us long for the destination and impatient to “arrive.”
Here’s the deal: Conversion to Judaism is a very serious matter. It’s serious for the person making this change, and it is also serious for the Jewish People. In the Middle Ages, it was illegal for Jews to convert Christians or Muslims to Judaism, and the repercussions could be terrible for the entire Jewish community. Today, it isn’t quite as dramatic, but what it boils down to is, once you are a member of the tribe, you are a part of us. We’re stuck with you, and you’re stuck with us. The saying is, Kol Yisrael aravim zeh l’zeh [“All Israel is responsible one for another.”] So the time of study, the courtship, is long and slow.
It takes a year to experience each of the Jewish holidays, and to experience the feeling of being apart from celebrations that we leave behind. Your relationship to the old holidays will change. Your relationships to family members and friends will shift to include the changes in your life. You will also make new friends, explore new possibilities in the Jewish community. None of this can happen quickly.
This is a very precious time. Congregational rabbis make an extraordinary investment of time and effort in candidates for conversion, because there is not only much to learn, but much emotional ground to cover. Most students meet regularly with their rabbi as they move through the year or more of study. The rabbi will not schedule a beit din or the mikveh until he or she is sure that this person is ready to move forward as an adult member of the Jewish community – that is, without the special support that a candidate receives.
So don’t get in a rush. Don’t worry about “when.” Studying for conversion is a special time, a time that, once over, will never come again. A new Jew is an adult member of the community, and they’re on their own: to work on committees, to choose classes or study, to be as involved as they want. But the days of being a baby bird will be over.
Conversion to Judaism is a long process: for most, it takes at least a year, and for some, more than that. The point is not to do it quickly, but to do it well. I wish you a challenging and rewarding process!
This is an update of a post I made two years ago. It seems like time to revisit the topic.
So, you’re thinking of conversion to Judaism? Here are five things you need to do.
1. FIND A RABBI. You do not need to be “sure” to do this. The rabbi will not immediately whip out a fountain pen and suggest you sign on the dotted line. Jews do not seek out converts or proselytize, and the conversion process is long and slow. What you need to know, though, is that the process cannot move forward until you have a rabbi. Rabbis do not charge for conversion, by the way; if someone calling himself “rabbi” talks about a fee for conversion, head for the exit. To make an appointment with a rabbi, call the congregation and ask to make an appointment.
For advice about finding a rabbi with the proper credentials for your conversion, read Choosing A Rabbi.
2. FIND A CONGREGATION, partly because that’s where you are likely to find a rabbi and also because that’s one place the Jews are. Judaism is a religion embedded in a People. If you think you want to become a Jew, get to know some Jews. Hang out with the Jews. Becoming a member of the Jewish People means you will also be spending time with Jewish people: better find out if you like them. If there is more than one congregation in your town, try different congregations, because they will be quite different. To find congregations, try Googling the name of your city and the word “synagogue.” You do not need to be a member of a synagogue to attend as a visitor.
Lately there have been some websites offering conversion to Judaism online. Before you settle for that option, read my article Online Conversion, Revisited.
3. DO SOME READING. Your rabbi will recommend books. If you are not ready to find the rabbi yet, here’s a good list of books recommended by actual converts to Judaism. Keep in mind that not all books and not all online sources are equally good; some are downright poor, so choose carefully or look for recommendations from sources you trust.
4. TAKE A CLASS. Many Jewish communities offer classes with titles like “Basic Judaism” or “Introduction to Judaism.” Your rabbi may offer a class; if you don’t have a rabbi, taking such a class is a another way to meet a rabbi. (I teach such classes in the San Francisco Bay Area. For more info on my classes, check out the Lehrhaus Judaica online catalog.)
One final thing: it’s OK, in fact it is critical, to listen to your heart. If you don’t feel comfortable with the first rabbi you meet, talk to another one. If you don’t feel welcome at the first synagogue, check out another synagogue.
And if, along the way, you realize that what you wanted was to learn about Judaism, but that it was just one step on your spiritual journey, that’s OK. There are many paths to holiness; Judaism is only one of them. I hope and pray that you will find the right path for you.
Back in May, I wrote a blog post entitled Can I Convert to Judaism Online? I’ve been doing some thinking about it, and today I am ready to share some new thoughts.
I am enthusiastic about conversion to Judaism. I became a Jew as an adult, and it has been a challenging and rewarding path.
I am an old hand in online communities. My brother gave me a 300 baud modem for my 30th birthday in 1985, and I’ve been online ever since. I’ve seen some of the best and the worst the online world can do in terms of community. I’ve learned and taught online.
Online resources are a mixed bag for conversion to Judaism. There is a wealth of information available online, and some of it is very good. Some of it is quite awful. A story to illustrate what a bad source of info can do for you: My Hebrew name is Ruth. I originally chose that name because I read “somewhere” that all female converts to Judaism had to take the name Ruth. When my rabbi asked me what name I had chosen, I said “Ruth” because I thought it was some kind of a test. He said “Good choice!” and put my new name on the shtar (document) of conversion. It was months before I found out that I had had a choice. I’m fond of my name, now, but I wish I’d asked more questions!
Judaism is a communal religion. Ever since the beginning, Judaism has been a practice of a living community. Abraham and Sarah were the first community of Jews, but it was not long before they were surrounded by a community. Genesis 12:5 says that they set out “with all the souls they made in Haran.” Traditionally we understand that phrase to mean that Abraham and Sarah welcomed others to their way of life.
I learned how to behave as a Jew from spending time with other Jews. I ate at the home of fellow Jews, celebrated holidays with them, copied them when I didn’t know what to do, asked questions, prayed with a minyan, studied in classes with Jews, asked more questions, and found my way to an ever-evolving practice of my own. It doesn’t happen privately or in a vacuum: I did this, and continue to do this in community with other Jews.
Important Jewish activity takes place with a minyan present, a quorum of ten Jews. They don’t have to be rabbis, they don’t have to be anything but adult official Jews, but we don’t say Kaddish, we don’t say Barechu, we don’t read Torah without those other nine Jews.
This is my great objection to conversion that happens purely online: a person may work with a rabbi, they may have a reading list and a to-do list, and they may even travel to meet the rabbi from time to time, but if they are not growing up Jewishly in a community with other Jews, they’re missing out on an essential part of the process: they aren’t spending actual time with actual Jews.
We are called “a stiff-necked people” and we’re all that and more. There’s a running joke about the guy who loves Judaism but can’t stand Jews. As someone told me after my conversion: “The good news is: you’ll never be alone again. The bad news is: you’ll never be alone again.”
There are rabbis online who will sign you up for a class or three, give you a reading list, and work with you for a conversion. Depending on that rabbi’s credentials, it may or may not be a valid conversion (more on that in a future post.) But my point here is: if you want even a minimally good conversion process, you need not only a rabbi, not only a beit din, not only a mikveh — you need a real Jewish community.
A real Jewish community has wonderful people, annoying people, breath-takingly smart people, staggeringly stupid people, Democrats, Republicans, Independents, crackpots, menschen, and that’s just the short list. You’re going to love some, and others you will duck when you see them coming. And that is part of being a Jew, being part of a big, unmanageable tradition with saints like Abraham Joshua Heschel and embarrassments like Bernie Madoff.
If your heart is tugging you towards Judaism, don’t settle for an “online conversion.” Call your local synagogues, and find a rabbi and a community with whom to explore Judaism. If there is no local synagogue, then ask yourself if you, like Abraham, need to “get out of your land, and from your kindred, and from your father’s house, and into the land which [God] will show you.” [Genesis 12:1]
If it is meant to be, then a Jewish community is waiting for you.
3. In the mikveh, you want nothing to separate you from the water. Therefore before entering the mikveh, we remove all clothing, all jewelry (even wedding rings) and all medical appliances (dentures, contact lenses, etc) as well as cosmetics and fingernail polish. We enter the mikveh the way we were born: naked.
4. Most mikvaot (plural of mikveh) will have a place for you to shower and wash hair and clean fingernails before immersion. It is proper to wash body and hair and to brush the teeth before entering the mikveh. We don’t want anything between us and the water (even dust or dead skin) and we want not to bring dirt into the mikveh.
5. Speaking of which, a well-run mikveh is kept scrupulously clean. It is OK to ask the manager of the mikveh about the sanitary procedures, if you are concerned.
6. Tzniut, modesty, is an important Jewish value. If you are doing a ritual which requires a witness (like conversion) a proper mikveh witness follows a procedure to avoid looking at any but the necessary part of your body. He or she will be looking only to make sure that everything, including hair, was completely submerged in the water. A “proper mikveh witness” is usually someone of the same gender who has had training for the task.
7. At a conversion, there are specific blessings which must be said aloud between “dunkings” in the water. Your rabbi will teach you those. The mikveh witness (who may or may not be your rabbi) can assist you with the blessings if memory is an issue.
8. A mikveh is an expensive facility to maintain, and there is often a fee for using it. Be sure to ask your rabbi about the fee.
Finally, if you have any questions about the mikveh, it is really OK to ask. Rabbis are accustomed to talking about all sorts of things that aren’t usually part of polite conversation and your rabbi is not going to be embarrassed by anything you ask. He or she will be familiar with procedure and rules at the mikveh you will use, and can be more specific than I can be in a blog.
I wish you a holy and meaningful trip to the mikveh!
I was still a brand new Jew, practically wet behind the ears from the mikveh, and I was at my first Big Jewish Event (the sort that had hundreds of Jews who weren’t from my congregation – wow!) I was big-eyed and surfing the learning curve, drinking up the fact that it is a Big Jewish World and I was now a part of it. I was deliriously happy to be a part of the Jewish world I saw around me.
I was walking along a hallway at the convention center with a senior member of my congregation when it happened. The guy (I’ll call him Dave, not his real name) was a macher, someone who knew lots of people at the convention, and who had been on many committees. I was proud to be walking along learning from him. Then he said to me, out of the blue, “See that rabbi over there? You’ll never be as Jewish as her little finger.”
My euphoria crashed in a ball of flame. I couldn’t speak, couldn’t respond, couldn’t move the muscles in my face. I could hear my heart beating. Shame rose in me, and I wanted to disappear through the floor.
I continued walking along beside this man, but I couldn’t look at him. And I never told my rabbi about it.
I have no idea what was going on with Dave, who before and after that awful statement was very nice to me. Today, more secure in my Jewish identity, I might ask him what the heck he was thinking. I would challenge him, because certainly the tradition says that a person who chooses Judaism and goes through the long process of conversion is every bit a Jew. But because I was new, and shy, and intimidated, I said nothing.
When I tell this story to others who became Jewish as adults years ago, they answer with their own stories. It seems to be a rather common experience, so much so that when I work with adults in the process of conversion, I feel it necessary to prepare them for the ambivalence in the community about adopted members of the tribe. It’s not a constant thing, but every now and then an otherwise perfectly nice person burps up a statement that says, “Nope, not one of us. Never will be.” There are ways to handle it, both conversationally and internally, but it isn’t pleasant.
Now, I have been around the Jewish block long enough to know that this is an extension of that popular pastime “More Jewish than You” – that for whatever reason, we Jews seem to have a need to reassure ourselves that someone out there is less Jewish than we are. But when I hear the wailing over the recent Pew study and the angsting over the declining membership in congregations, I want to say, “Well, what do you expect? If we hit people with sticks, they will run away. Duh.”
And I know that isn’t the whole answer, but when I meet people who have left congregations because someone was nasty to them, I just have to wonder: how would the Jewish world be different, if we all acted as if each Jew were precious and non-replaceable?
How would the world be different if we treated every human being that way?
From Rabbi Adar:Dawn Kepler is my friend and teacher. Years and years ago, she mentored me through conversion. She is the founding director of Building Jewish Bridges: Embracing Interfaith Couples & Families in Berkeley, CA. Dawn has worked in outreach to unaffiliated and interfaith couples since 1990. BJB’s programs also address the unique concerns of Jewish minorities that are often a subset of the interfaith population – multiracial, multiethnic and LGBT Jews.
In response to the needs of seekers and converts to Judaism, Dawn works with Linda Burnett on programs offered through the website www.becomingjewish.net.
She wrote to her mailing list about my Who’s the Most Jewish? post and said some things I wish I’d said. So I thought, “Gosh, it’s time for a guest blogger!”
Whether you were born Jewish or converted to Judaism it is highly tempting to get caught up in the mental high jinks of other people, especially ones who are verbally poking you with a stick. But don’t. Don’t let someone else’s insecurity color your confidence and your actions.
Read Rabbi Adar’s article, Who’s the Most Jewish? and ask yourself, do I need more learning? Do I want to read Hebrew better? Would I really feel better if I had converted or was converting in a more traditional movement?
Do what YOU need to feel authentic. I have a friend who began with a Reform conversion and years later decided to have a Conservative one. Then more years passed and she became Orthodox and had a third conversion with an Orthodox rabbi. Some people refer to this as an ‘upgrade.’ It’s not. An upgrade means to raise to a higher standard. What standard are you shooting for? Judaism demands that we use our brains, learn what our sages have taught and then upgrade our lives.
You know the story of Zusya who wept for fear that he had not been himself. In other words he had not fulfilled his potential. The upgrade you must pursue is to and do whatever it is that you were created for. Only you really know what that is.
So let’s think about it.
One of the most empowering things for a Jew by choice is to be active in Jewish community. If you are on a committee, setting out the oneg, cooking for the homeless project, helping out in the shul office, bringing snacks to Hebrew school, you’ll gain a sense of personal ownership. Make your shul, YOUR SHUL. Make your rabbi, YOUR RABBI.
I have a friend who decided to get on the chevra kadisha (the committee that prepares the dead for burial), another one joined the hospitality committee, another volunteers at Jewish Family & Children’s Services, another donates services from his business to various agencies’ fundraisers, another reads with kids through the Jewish Literacy Project, and another heads his shul’s blood drive.
Find out what your passion in the Jewish community is and DO IT. OWN your Judaism! Now lech lecha! Get going!