“Dearer to God than all of the Israelites who stood at Mt. Sinai is the convert. Had the Israelites not witnessed the lightning, thunder, quaking mountain, and sounding trumpets they would not have accepted the Torah. But the convert who did not see nor hear any of these things, came and surrendered himself to God and took the yoke of heaven upon himself. Can anyone be dearer to God than such a person?” ~Tanchuma Buber, Lech Lecha 6:32A
The Jewish people is a nation of converts and born-Jews, of people born into the Jewish faith and of people who have come from other faiths. Abraham, the first patriarch of the Jews, journeyed to a new and strange land at the calling of a compelling Voice. Throughout millennia, those who have become Jews have responded to the beckoning of that same Voice, leaving the familiar behind them as they find a new spiritual family and a home.
The conversion process begins when a person considers the possibility of becoming Jewish. The reasons why people become Jewish are varied. Whatever the motivation, the first step in considering conversion is to explore Judaism. This early exploration might include discussing the subject with friends and family, taking out books and videos on Judaism, or just thinking about whether conversion is the right choice. Some questions that one might ask oneself are:
- Why do I want to convert?
- What do I know about Judaism?
- What are the differences between Judaism and my birth religion?
- Am I willing to spend the necessary time studying to become Jewish?
- Am I willing to raise any children I might have as Jewish?
- How does my family feel about this decision?
- What questions do I have about Judaism or conversion?
Once the decision has been made to pursue conversion at NefeshSoul, the next step is to register for and attend our Intro to Judaism class. Even those who don’t ultimately convert generally find that studying Judaism is both interesting and helpful in making a final decision about conversion. Our course includes basic Jewish beliefs and religious practices, such as prayer services, the history of the Jewish people, the Jewish home, the Jewish holidays and life cycle, the Holocaust, and Israel, as well as other topics. The study of Hebrew is required as a separate class. The class sessions last from six to nine months. Attendance is required.
The Religious Court, or Bet Din, consists of Rabbi Susan and two other clerical colleagues (either rabbis or cantors.) The Bet Din officially oversees the formal conversion. Because it takes place after learning, one part of the appearance will be to determine the Jewish knowledge of the conversion candidate. There might, for example be a question about the meaning of the Jewish Sabbath or about the Jewish belief in one God. These questions are not meant to trap candidates. Obviously, candidates are nervous during such questioning, but in almost all cases the questions are simply meant to assess the sincerity of the candidate and to make sure the conversion was entered into freely. Often an oath of allegiance to the Jewish people is made.
The liberal Jewish movements (such as NefeshSoul) generally do not require a circumcision as part of the conversion process. However, this is a discussion that occurs between rabbi and male convert.
Rabbi Susan requires both male and female conversion candidates to immerse themselves in a ritual bath called a mikveh. The mikveh can be any body of natural water, though the term usually refers to a specific pool that is built for the purposes of ritual purification. The immersion ceremony usually starts with cleaning the body as by a shower. The person is covered and the covering removed as the person enters the warm mikveh waters, which are usually about four feet deep. (When the ceremony is done in a public place such as a lake the candidate wears a loose-fitting garment). Blessings are recited and the person goes into the water.
In ancient times, conversion candidates brought sacrifices or offerings to the Temple in Jerusalem. After the Temple was destroyed, this ceremony disappeared. Jewish law therefore does not require such an offering. However, the custom remains as an opportunity to engage in an act of donating money to the poor or another act of charity as a symbolic offering.
Frequently, after a Bet Din and the signing of an oath, a Hebrew name is chosen. Some male converts choose the Hebrew name Avraham as their new Hebrew first name and some female candidates choose Sarah or Ruth. Since the use of Hebrew names includes mention of the parents’ Hebrew names, and the convert has no Jewish parents, it is common to add “ben Avraham Avinu,” or son of Abraham, our Father. Therefore if a male chooses the Hebrew name Avraham, that male’s full Hebrew name would be Avraham ben Avraham Avinu. For women, the addition is “bat Sarah Imenu,” daughter of Sarah, our Mother. The naming ceremony includes a blessing.
A public ceremony announcing the conversion involves the convert standing in front of the congregation and reciting the Shema and other blessings.
Every Jew-by-Choice is on a fascinating – and highly individual – spiritual quest. If you think you might be interested in this journey, contact Rabbi Susan.