Jewish conversion 101
Conversion to Judaism is not easy. It requires a change in beliefs, actions and lifestyle. It involves extensive study, practice, a leap of faith, a shift in perception and some sacrifice. However, for those who feel it’s the right decision, it can be an exciting and rewarding experience.
Before stepping into the mikveh — the ritual of immersion in water that is the culmination of the conversion process — prospective converts to Judaism must choose a movement, which will determine what kind of observance they want to follow and how they want to live their life as a Jew.
“It’s cliché, but it’s true that converts make the very best Jews, because they are people that have chosen to be Jewish,” said Rabbi Adam Greenwald, executive director of the Louis and Judith Miller Introduction to Judaism Program at American Jewish University (AJU). “It wasn’t an accident of birth.”
Most prospective Jews by Choice go through a Reform, Conservative or Orthodox conversion, and the rules vary for each. Anyone considering conversion must find a sponsoring rabbi as the first step, then participate in a period of study, which might mean organized classes or individual study with a rabbi or tutor. Who guides the convert will determine which beit din — a rabbinical court consisting of three rabbis — is the best one to complete the conversion.
AJU offers an 18-week course for those considering conversion — as well as anyone wanting to learn more about the faith — that takes place at venues throughout Los Angeles. Students at AJU’s program learn about Jewish values, traditions and history, including Conservative traditions and observance. The Reconstructionist and Reform movements also approve these classes.
In addition to the classes, a Holocaust survivor speaks to the students. All candidates learn to read prayers in Hebrew and participate in a Shabbaton and in a scavenger hunt at Whole Foods for kosher products. Since the program got its start in 1986, more than 4,000 participants have converted to Judaism, Greenwald said.
Although Greenwald does not himself give approval for prospective converts to go before the beit din, he said he meets with all of his students and helps them to connect with a sponsoring rabbi: “It’s a great challenge to give a person the tools and information that they need in only a few months to be able to feel genuinely a part of the Jewish community,” he said.
“It’s cliché, but it’s true that converts make the very best Jews, because they are people that have chosen to be Jewish.” — Rabbi Adam Greenwald, executive director of the Louis and Judith Miller, Introduction to Judaism Program at American Jewish University (AJU)
Rabbi Neal Weinberg, the former director of the AJU program, has led Judaism by Choice, another educational offering for those wishing to convert, since 2009. Weinberg’s classes include about 300 students each year and cover Jewish history, holidays, rituals, Zionism and the Torah. Classes, which instruct students for a Conservative conversion (see sidebar for more on Weinberg’s Judaism by Choice program), are offered either once or twice per week, for an average of three months.
Since most students have busy lives, Weinberg acknowledged, he said he tries to make his classes entertaining. He demonstrates a brit milah (ritual circumcision) using a Cabbage Patch doll, holds a mock wedding with a chuppah (wedding canopy) and goes over the prayers. His classes are offered at synagogues in Beverly Hills, Santa Monica, Venice and the San Fernando Valley. “Anybody can take the program,” said Miri Weinberg, the rabbi’s wife, who helps run Judaism by Choice. “We don’t turn anyone away.”
The Weinbergs’ program includes Shabbat dinners and holiday-themed events for both current students and program graduates. He said that he expects students wishing to convert to attend synagogue consistently and keep a level of kosher. “I think there has to be a certain behavior,” Neal said. “I’d rather I be the one [teaching them] than having them go through the beit din and not passing. That could be painful. I’m a coach that prepares people for it.”
Most of the time, the participants in the Judaism by Choice classes undergo either a Conservative conversion or go before the Sandra Caplan Community Bet Din of Southern California, a pluralistic beit din that is endorsed by Conservative, Reconstructionist and Reform rabbis.
The Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) also offers an 18-week Introduction to Judaism course for prospective converts. This class, too, covers lifecycle events, history, holidays, prayer, Israel and theology. Many of the URJ’s candidates end up going through the Sandra Caplan Community Bet Din of Southern California, as well.
Rabbi Sabine Meyer, director of the URJ’s conversion program, said about 15 classes per year are offered throughout Los Angeles, all of them both rigorous and comprehensive. “Reform conversion is not conversion light. We do not convert people to Reform Judaism. We convert them to Judaism,” she said.
URJ has offered its introduction class for more than three decades, and Meyer has seen classes where up to 80 percent of the people have continued on to convert, but she emphasized that the class is not meant just for prospective Jews by Choice. “It’s for anybody who is interested in learning more about Judaism and the important tools that they need [to practice], if that’s what they want to do.”
Candidates for conversion in Los Angeles who would like to connect to a more traditional lifestyle can also prepare to go before an Orthodox beit din. The requirements for an Orthodox conversion typically require that the candidate observe kosher laws both inside and outside of the home, live within an Orthodox community, observe the Sabbath and study with a tutor.
Rabbi Avrohom Union, the rabbinic administrator of the Rabbinical Council of California (RCC), which features an Orthodox beit din, said candidates must be sincere and “want to be part of the [Orthodox] community and adopt that lifestyle. We look to see that people approach this with a certain maturity and a solid [reason as to] why they want to do this.”
Applicants accepted to the RCC’s program are assigned a private tutor, and a candidate should expect to spend 18 to 24 months studying and participating fully in Jewish life before the process of conversion is complete, Union said. The most important aspect of the conversion, he said, is establishing oneself in a community. “Orthodox Jewish life tends to revolve around Shabbat. We want people working with us to be a part of that community. We don’t want them to feel different from someone who was born Jewish.”
Since entering into an Orthodox lifestyle can be a huge change for most candidates, Union said that he and the rabbis on his beit din “want people to get personal attention. For someone to make a transition from gentile to Orthodox Jew is a significant transition, and it’s not like a university course, where you simply learn the material, take the test and pass. It’s a process of personal growth.”
Any candidate who chooses to convert — whether through an Orthodox, Reform or Conservative program — should know their goals and understand the process as they enter into it. They also need to realize that being immersed in the mikveh is not the culmination of the learning — it’s just the beginning.
“Becoming a Jew is not an event,” Miri Weinberg said. “It’s a process.”