On Conversion to Judaism
On Conversion to Judaism

Consider what a sincere conversion candidate to Judaism is being taught.  The person comes, seeking to become part of a great and ancient people who brought monotheism to the world, the weekly day of rest, the great principles of the Ten Pronouncements, and the great words of the Torah and the Hebrew Prophets.  Perhaps the candidate has wanted to be Jewish ever since having read “The Diary of Anne Frank” or after coming to doubt her own religion’s fundamentals.  So she comes to learn about Judaism, and she learns great, magnificent thoughts and life values.  Along the way, she also learns that . . .

Jews burn bread crumbs on sidewalks one morning every April.  We do not believe in ghosts, but we open doors for Elijah.  We pay a fortune to rent two sanctuary seats for a service highlighted by someone blowing into part of a ram’s head (with inconsistent results) every ten minutes. We throw crumbs into lakes, pray for rain when the weather finally is perfect, move for a week into a squatter’s hut.  We shake $60 lemons that must look perfect but have no flavor or use, and we discard them a few days later.  Men wrap leather straps around the arm, women take a handful of dough out of a pile and just burn it.  And we pay a guy five dollars or shekels to ransom a new first-born boy like from Rumpelstiltskin.

That’s not all.  There’s a night when adults enter synagogue all costumed ridiculously, shaking noisemakers and banging on pots during a profound religious Bible reading in the holy sanctuary — all while demanding that parents keep their children absolutely silent during the reading. Jews do not carry outside on Saturday unless the local telephone poles are wired together, with little upright things nailed to the bases.  Some food labels bear every imaginable kosher symbol, leaving almost no room on the label for the name of the product or its ingredients. Indeed, one rabbi endorses “star-k” but won’t comment on “triangle-k” or “tablet-k”; another endorses “circle-k” but nothing about “half-moon-k” or “square-k.” (No one has yet trademarked a “crucifix-k.”) And that’s not all.

If you drop a siddur (prayerbook), you kiss the book in front of everyone.  Drop a chumash (Bible) — kiss it publicly.  Drop a yarmulka — kiss it.  A Torah passes by — kiss it.  But your wife walks into the room — don’t touch her in public! Meanwhile, when the books get old — we bury them. (No, we are not planting a library.)  We eat “bread of poverty” that costs $16 a pound.  (Not to mention swinging chickens one morning a year.)

When one pauses and contemplates this, one better appreciates the bemusement facing a prospective convert to Judaism: for the newcomer, how is she to know what in Judaism is crazy, and what in Judaism demands utter deep respect and obeisant adherence that must not be challenged?  So there is real concern among many conversion candidates as to what they may ask without incurring rabbinic reprisals, disapproval — or, worst of all, time-line setbacks.

I initially was surprised to meet people who first “converted reform,” unaware there was more.  Then a “conservative conversion.”  And then, upon learning of the life of Torah and mitzvot — Orthodoxy — they came for a third time, finally attaining the Giyur (conversion) they had been seeking all along.  Descriptions of such a religious journeys seemed a bit curious, and then one day I met with a Lutheran pastor about a mutual concern.  I always had thought that, as among the Protestant denominations, there were Methodists, Baptists, Episcopalians, Lutherans, etc.  Yet, he soon made passing reference to three distinctly different denominations of American Lutheranism: Wisconsin Synod Lutherans, Missouri Synod, and ELCA. Though I am worldly, an Ivy League graduate, a law school professor — I had no idea there are three completely different kinds of American Lutheranism with contrasting beliefs.  That moment I better understood what a prospective convert to Judaism goes through, just to get to the batter’s box.

In sponsoring conversions to Judaism, I have found these principles to be critical:

1.  The conversion Sponsoring Rabbi should be a local resource for the candidate, answering religious questions, providing pastoral care, providing guidance opportunities for religious learning and observance, helping the candidate to network and integrate within the shul congregation, assuring plentiful Shabbat meal invitations, advising some candidates that the time is not right for them to proceed while passionately advocating for others whom the rav sees are on track.

2.  The Sponsoring Rabbi absolutely must be a separate individual from the three rabbis who comprise the judges (Dayyanim) of the conversion court (Bet Din).  The judges must be more dispassionate and detached — deeply sensitive and warmly kind — but removed and objective.  By contrast, the Sponsoring Rabbi must be the “attorney” who advocates to the Bet Din where appropriate, who conveys the candidate’s questions and uncertainties to the judges, and who obtains specific black-and-white information to allay any and every concern a candidate may have.

3.  The Sponsoring Rabbi should not accept any remuneration or emolument for that rabbinic role.  His congregation’s salary should cover his needs and should anticipate the inevitable demands on his professional and personal time that ministering to conversion candidates may entail.  By contrast, a Bet Din should charge something meaningful for their time and public service — setting a price structure that is fair, reasonable, and transparent from the outset.

4.  A Conversion Candidate should be advised from the outset that a reasonable Orthodox conversion typically requires at least a year, possibly two, through fruition.  Time differences will depend on each unique conversion candidate’s own actions in moving to live within walking distance of her local shul community, her demonstrated commitment and intensity in attending all classes, learning to read Hebrew, getting home from work timely on Fridays, adopting Torah observances, and living the Torah life.  At regular intervals during that process, she should be given clear and informative updates on her conversion’s anticipated time frame.  Her Sponsoring Rabbi should relay that information promptly.

5.  Female conversion candidates should be mentored and taught directly by a female, not by the Sponsoring Rabbi.  The Sponsoring Rabbi will teach her much, but must not be assigned the role to be her primary teacher who spends necessarily greater amounts of study time with her.

6.  Congregational rabbis and their communities often fail miserably to include and socially integrate conversion candidates (or, for that matter, middle-aged-or-older single men and women).  These less-integrated people are the Levi, the Widow, the Orphan of the modern Jewish world, and it is imperative that communities — and particularly their Rabbis — recognize that closed circles must be pried open so that these wonderful, highly idealistic assets in our lives — Jews by Choice — not be isolated. 

7.  Under a publicized written agreement between the Chief Rabbinate of Israel and the Rabbinical Council of America, a formal Gerut Policies and Standards (GPS) protocol exists.  It is imperative to assure conversion candidates that a kosher GPS conversion obtained honestly never can be annulled later.  In rare cases, where candidates deceived the judges and lied to Bet Din (for example asserting full adherence to Judaism while still secretly holding alien religious beliefs, or otherwise defrauding the court), once the Bet Din uncovers the prior deceit, they simply clarify that the conversion never happened.  

However, an honest GPS conversion is forever — underlining the very reason that Orthodox conversions require time for learning, for observance, and for integrating a lifestyle.

Rabbi Dov Fischer is author of General Sharon’s War Against Time Magazine (Steimatzky: 1985). His political commentaries have appeared on the op-ed pages of the Wall Street Journal, The Weekly Standard, National Review,  Los Angeles Times, and in other major American publications.  He formerly was Chief Articles Editor of UCLA Law Review, is an adjunct professor of law at two prominent American law schools, and is Rav of Young Israel of Orange County, California.  He is author of Jews for Nothing (Feldheim: 1983) and is in his fifth year as a member of the National Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America. His writings can be found at Home - RabbiDov.com  As with all of Rabbi Prof. Fischer’s writings, this commentary expresses his own views.