There is a tradition that 3,000 years ago when God gave us the Torah on Mount Sinai - that every Jewish soul that ever was and ever would be was present. We can learn from this that there are people in our world who have Jewish souls although they may consider themselves Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Agnostic, Atheist, or otherwise.
Through the process of conversion, those Jewish souls and the beautiful people who house them are allowed to find full expression and joy in living a Jewish life.
The first “Jew by choice” was Abraham. In following God’s command to leave his land, his place of birth, and his father’s home - Abraham was choosing to follow the One God who, remains today, every Jew’s Guide and Teacher.
Later in the Tanakh (Bible) we read the story of Ruth and Naomi from the Book of Ruth.
During the time of the Judges when there was a famine, an Israelite family from Bethlehem—Elimelech, his wife Naomi, and their sons Mahlon and Chilion—emigrate to the nearby country of Moab. Elimelech dies, and the sons marry two Moabite women: Mahlon marries Ruth and Chilion marries Orpah.
The two sons of Naomi then die themselves. Naomi decides to return to Bethlehem. She tells her daughters-in-law to return to their own mothers, and remarry. Orpah reluctantly leaves; however, Ruth says, "Entreat me not to leave you, or to turn back from following you; For wherever you go, I will go; And wherever you lodge, I will lodge; Your people shall be my people, and your God, my God. Where you die, I will die, and there will I be buried. May ADONAI do so to me, and more also, if anything but death parts you and me." (Ruth 1:16-17)
This beautiful story of commitment to family, the Jewish faith and One God serves as an inspiration for many people who discover that they too feel called to the Jewish religion. In participating in a formal process of Gerut (conversion) we affirm that this Jewish soul will continue to nurture their faith and, as Abraham did, walk with God.
What to Expect
The process of converting to Judaism is almost identical for men and women with one important difference which will be discussed below. There are essentially five steps that both men and women who wish to convert to Judaism must take:
Choosing a Hebrew Name
Beit Din (Rabbinic Court)
Mikveh (Ritual Bath)
Simcha/Seudat Mitzvah (Celebration)
These will all be explained below. The one step that is unique to men is, of course, brit milah (circumcision.) If a man wishes to convert to Judaism and has not been circumcised - then his first step is to contact a mohel and have the procedure done.
If he has been circumcised as a child (not for the purpose of conversion) then he need only have what is known as hatafat dam brit (extracting a drop of blood) which serves as a circumcision’s ritual re-enactment.
While in traditional communities, a brit (circumcision) or hatafat dam brit(extracting a drop of blood) is universally required for the sake of adult conversion, in more liberal communities it may be less important. You should check with your local rabbi for his or her opinion.
Where to Start
If you or someone you know is considering converting to Judaism, the best way to start the journey is to meet with a rabbi. In many urban communities there will be many congregations and many rabbis to choose from. In more rural settings you may have to trek a little farther.
Choosing a rabbi and congregation with which to learn and celebrate is a wonderful opportunity to begin to get to know the landscape of American Jewry. You may want to begin your searches with the links below.
For a directory of Reform Jewish congregations, click here
For a directory of Reconstructionist Jewish congregations, click here
For a directory of Conservative Jewish congregations, click here
For a directory of Orthodox Jewish congregations, click here
Of course, Rabbi David is happy to help you along your journey. You can contact him here.
Most rabbis will require some period of study before moving into the next steps of conversion to Judaism. For some it will be a year or more while for others it may be a few months. From the perspective of the person converting - it would be beneficial to experience a full calendar year with all of its feasts and fasts before committing to a Jewish lifestyle.
Choosing a Hebrew Name
Before meeting with the Beit Din and immersing in the mikveh, each candidate for conversion should choose a Hebrew name.
Since Biblical times, a Jew’s name has been more than just what she or he is called. The name given to a Jewish person has symbolized our dreams and wishes; it has spoken of his or her personality and character; and has often kept alive the names of loved ones - living and deceased.
There are no rules when it comes to choosing a Hebrew name. There are, however, customs in both the Ashkenazic and Sephardic communities. Ashkenazic Jews often choose the name or a similar name to that of a loved one who has died. In doing so we hope that this this person will embody all that was good about the deceased. Sephardic Jews will sometimes choose a name after a family member who has died, but will also name after a family member who is still living. In addition many people look to Biblical names for inspiration (Sarah, David, Avraham).
Click here for a wonderful article on choosing a Hebrew name by Anita Diamant.
Here are some wonderful books to guide you in your search:
The Comprehensive Dictionary of English and Hebrew First Names by Alfred Kolatch
The Complete Book of Hebrew Baby Names by Smadar Shir Sidi
Beit Din (Rabbinic Court)
Final authority for conversion rests with the three-person beit din (Rabbinic court,) which rules on a candidate's sincerity, knowledge, and potential for success as a Jew. Although a beit din is always part of the conversion procedure, the requirements for membership in the court differ by movement. In the Reform movement, the beit din consists preferably of rabbis, cantors, and/or Jewish educators, or in their absence, knowledgeable and observant lay members of the community. The Reconstructionist movement states that the beit din should consist of three adult Jews, male or female, one of which should be a rabbi. The Conservative movement's position is similar to the Orthodox one in which, a rabbi with a traditional ordination who is thoroughly conversant with the requirements of the conversion protocol can select two other rabbis or, in their absence, two knowledgeable and observant laymen, and form a valid Court of Admissions. One important difference between the Conservative and Orthodox positions is that many Conservative rabbis will allow women to be on a beit din.
Generally, the candidate for conversion meets with the beit din for a short period of time (around 30 minutes - depending on the beit din, of course) and discusses their personal faith journey, how they’ve come to this place and what it is that draws them to Judaism. The beit din will have questions but it isn’t a test. Usually the beit din will meet at the local mikveh, the ritual bath.
A mikveh is a ritual bath. Made up of rain water (mayyim hayyim - living waters) and warm water, the mikveh represents the womb and allows for those who immerse to be “re-born” as Jews. While the mikveh certainly isn’t only used in conjunction with conversion - that will be our focus here. You can find a directory of mikvaot (plural of mikveh) here. Please note that this directory only lists Orthodox mikvaot. There are non-Orthodox mikvaot, like Mayyim Hayyim in Newton, Massachusetts.
When you arrive at the mikveh (or after your beit din has concluded) ashomer/shomeret (guard/assistant) will show you around the mikveh and answer any questions you may have. Since this is a rebirth, you will be asked to remove all of your clothing, makeup and jewelry. You want to come out of the mikveh just as you did when you were born (just a little taller.) (Women should remember that it is prohibited to enter the mikveh when menstruating - so plan accordingly.)
Once in the mikveh, your three-person beit din will assemble outside of themikveh room to protect your privacy. They will be able to hear you but not see you. You will be asked to immerse fully once and then say a blessing. A full immersion (tevillah) means going completely under water, lifting your feet off the bottom and opening your hands, mouth and eyes for a moment.
After your first immersion you will recite the following blessing:
Praised are You, ADONAI our God, who rules the universe, whose mitzvot(commandments) add holiness to our lives and who gave us the mitzvah(commandment) of immersing for the sake of conversion. (others: of immersion.)
Then you will be ready for two more immersions done just as they were before and another blessing:
Praised are You, ADONAI our God, who rules the Universe, who has kept us alive, sustained us and allowed us to reach this moment.
For a wonderful discussion of the mikveh (ritual bath) and tevillah (immersion), click here.
Siyum (Celebration of Completing Study or Mitzvot)
After your study, your brit or hatafat dam brit (for men), your meeting with the beit din and your tevillah (immersion) in the mikveh (ritual bath) - you are officially a Jew and a member of the Jewish people. Now it’s time to celebrate! In fact, the Talmud (Shabbat 118b) teaches us that we should hold a party at the conclusion of every intensive period of study, and by extension, at the completion of lengthy and difficult mitzvot (acts of commandment and connection.)
Celebrating your transformation to a full member of the Jewish people is best marked in a synagogue where you can perform your first public mitzvah (act of commandment and connection.) Many people choose to have an aliyah (coming up to the Torah and reciting the blessings before and after the reading.) Others prepare a Torah reading themselves while others offer a d’var Torah, a word of teaching on the weekly Torah portion and the significance of this simcha (joyous occasion.)
After performing your first mitzvah it is appropriate to share your joy with others by sponsoring, hosting or preparing a Seudat Mitzvah (celebratory meal.)