Many people take my class because they are quietly checking out Judaism. Something has led them to consider conversion, and they are doing research. Actually, that’s a great reason to take the class.
Eventually, I will get a call or an email: “Rabbi, how do I convert?” That’s when I break the news that (1) they have to get a rabbi and (2) it can’t be me. I believe people are better off working with congregational rabbis, because they come with a Jewish community.
Rabbis are the gatekeepers to the conversion process. That is the tradition. We shepherd people through the process of getting to know the Jewish People, getting to know a little of the tradition, and in getting a sense of whether they will be happy being Jews. Some people have an intellectual attraction to Judaism, but when they encounter real Jews they are less comfortable. For others, Judaism is fascinating, but giving up what they loved about their past affiliation is too difficult. Some people are on a spiritual journey, and Judaism is a stopover or a necessary side trip. It is the rabbi’s job to discern what’s really going on and to help the candidate navigate it, whether the ultimate destination is Judaism or something else. That kind of discernment can only take place over time, in a relationship between rabbi and candidate.
Recently, there has been a lot in the news about a particular rabbi who abused the trust in such a relationship. He behaved as a predator, taking advantage of the trust of those in his care. I am glad that his congregational board immediately reported him to the police. I am glad that the rabbinical association to which he belongs promptly began changing their process to put better protections in place against such abuses. Horrible as the situation was, my hope is that it will lead to better process in the future. I hope and pray for support and healing for the victims of that rabbi’s dreadful behavior.
The vast majority of us take the process of shepherding converts very seriously, and regard it as one of the greatest trusts of the rabbinate. A vulnerable person trusts us to guide them towards Sinai. The Jewish People trust us to nurture Jews who will flourish as members of Am Yisrael.
If you are considering conversion, realize that nothing can really begin until you find a rabbi. Not every rabbi is the right one: you need to find your rabbi. Anything before that is a preliminary, no matter how many books you read or classes you take. When I approached a rabbi about conversion, I had read everything I could find, and I had an academic background in religion, and I thought I had little more to learn. The truth was that the journey to real Judaism was only beginning; all that I had learned was theoretical.
If you are on that journey, good luck to you! I wish you a fruitful trip, wherever it takes you.