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!