Joining the Jewish Family

Conversion to Judaism is rather like a two-sided adoption: a person approaches the Jewish people, through a rabbi, and says, “I think I’d like to be a Jew.” The Jewish People, through the rabbi, say, “Let’s study.”

The study that ensues is partly intellectual, partly spiritual, and partly emotional.

The intellectual is for most the easiest part: we learn the Jewish holidays, the Jewish life cycle events, and we learn the prayers. We learn what Jews believe and what Jews do. It looks like a lot to learn, but it is really just a beginning. While even the sage Hillel did not expect candidates for conversion to master everything in order to become part of the Jewish People, it is necessary to learn enough to function as a Jew and to communicate with other Jews. Most Jews, converts or not, continue learning for their entire lives. There are many ways to live out this learning: some study Talmud, some engage in Jewish humor,  some learn how to keep their synagogue afloat, some learn how to nurture their Jewish grandchildren. Learning is part of who we are, and the sea of Jewish knowledge and Jewish wisdom is far too vast to be completely mapped in a single lifetime.

The spiritual part can be tricky. A person may feel attracted to Judaism, and then find that some aspect of Judaism was their fantasy, not the reality. Reality sometimes doesn’t measure up to a romantic or heroic view of Jews. One truly spiritual moment is that in which a person grapples with the discrepancy between their fantasy about Judaism and the real people who make up Am Yisrael (the Jewish People.)

There are also many choices to be made: what parts of the tradition are important to me? Do I love the sound of Hebrew so much that I will learn it? How far am I willing to alter my life to become a Jew? How will I handle it, when I am faced with anti-Semitism? How will I handle it, when another Jew says I’m not really Jewish? Until those moments arrive, we don’t really know how either will feel or how we will handle them.

Emotionally, there is a lot of work to do. Becoming Jewish isn’t just swapping one set of beliefs for another. If a person has any significant connections to another tradition, those need to be evaluated and decisions made. For instance, I grew up as a Catholic in the South. Pork was a comfort food. Halloween was a family tradition. Whenever I heard a siren, I crossed myself and said a little prayer for the people in trouble. I ultimately chose to (1) give up pork chops (2) not observe Halloween beyond offering treats to trick-or-treaters and (3) clenched my hands every time I heard a siren for years, because the habit of crossing myself was ground in so deep it took years to eradicate.

Some things, like making a cross for sirens, were annoying but not difficult. It had gone from being a spiritual practice I learned as a child to being a habit. Even though it took time and effort to quit flapping my right hand around every time an ambulance went by, it was something I wanted to lose.

Other things were harder to change, because I felt a loss. I really loved the taste of pork. It was a comfort food, something from childhood that I was loathe to give up. I still sometimes struggle with that decision, because the connections are so deep. It isn’t just about liking a taste: it is about going home to childhood nourishment. However, I think about all the Jews who went hungry rather than eat it, I think about all the meanness done to Jews on account of it, and I remember that I have thrown in my lot with the Jews.  Also, there is the question: will I allow a craving to dictate to me? Can I not say “no” to this old friend? This is how a Jew eats, I think, and I pass up the pork. (sigh)

Halloween was another hard one. I LOVED the holiday: choosing a costume, making the costume, and later, making costumes and treats for my children. My children did not become Jews when I did, so I kept Halloween going for a while. I didn’t want to take it away from them. Once they were grown, I stopped. I still feel the urge to decorate and wear costumes, but I save it for Purim. (If you are curious about my thinking about Halloween, read the article Halloween Hospitality.)

Processing the changes and losses is work that every convert must do. It’s more pleasant to focus on the gains – after all, that’s why we’re going to all this trouble! – but coming to terms with the hard stuff is part of the process.

These three challenges, intellectual, spiritual, and emotional, are what takes up the time between the first conversation and the trip to the beit din and the mikveh. Some material must be mastered, if the person is going to live a Jewish life. A rabbi and a candidate have to explore that person’s attraction to Judaism, and find out how well Judaism fits the attraction. And finally, the emotional work must be well begun, if the conversion is to be a happy one.

It is also important to acknowledge that this process can lead a person to somewhere other than Judaism. One of the reasons we take time with it is that sometimes the introspection of the process reveals that conversion to Judaism isn’t a person’s destination. Maybe they would not be happy as a Jew, or that something about the Jewish community isn’t going to work out for them. Perhaps they are going to be part of Judaism’s extended family of “mixed multitude” (Exodus 12:38) or be a member of some other faith community who happens to be well-educated about Judaism.

A part of me that was restless found a home in Judaism 23 years ago. Torah is still a challenge because it calls me to be the best person I can become. If this is a path that appeals to you, I invite you to find a local rabbi and give it a try.

 

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Why Does Conversion to Judaism Take So Long?

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“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!

Mikveh for Conversion: 8 Things to Know

A contemporary mikveh at Temple Beth-El in Bir...
A contemporary mikveh at Temple Beth-El in Birmingham, Alabama. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If you are going to a mikveh as part of your conversion, here are things you may want to know:

1. A mikveh is a ritual bath which meets rabbinic standards for construction, volume and for the source of the water. Certain bodies of natural water may also qualify as a mikveh.

2. Jews use the mikveh for conversion, for family purity, for ritual immersion before a holiday, before a wedding, or for immersing dishes for kashrut purposes.  Some Jews have never been to a mikveh, some use it regularly. In recent years, the use of the mikveh has seen a revival of interest for recovery from rape or incest, for marking important anniversaries, and other uses.

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!

For conversion support in the Bay Area of California, go to BecomingJewish.net