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What to Expect at a Conversion

What to Expect at a Conversion

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Question:

I’m planning to convert to Judaism. This has been something I’ve been considering and mulling over for years, and I’ve made my decision. What I should expect? What will the process look like?

Answer:

The most important thing is that when you convert you will be Jewish. This is something that you will carry with you for the rest of your life. It is important to note that conversion to Judaism is a one-way street. Once you take the plunge (literally and figuratively), you’re a full-fledged member of the tribe forever.

Another important thing to take note of is that conversion is something that can be done only under the auspices of a bona fide beit din (Jewish court) made up of three G‑d-fearing, fully observant rabbis. When looking for a beit din to do your conversion, do your homework, and make sure the rabbis are indeed Torah-observant (Orthodox) and recognized as such by others.

The Actual Conversion:

Conversion to Judaism has a few components, which are undertaken under the supervision of an established beit din:

  1. Accepting the yoke of the commandments. When you convert, you must verbalize your commitment to live in accordance with all of the Torah’s commandments as they are explained in Torah law. It is not enough to commit to some or even most of the precepts; a convert must commit to every single one of them. Also, this needs to be done out of a sincere desire to serve G‑d as a Jew, not because of any other motive, such as the desire to marry a Jewish man or woman.
  2. Immersion in the mikvah. A mikvah is a pool of natural water, usually rainwater. At your conversion, you will dunk into this spiritually cleansing bath. It is at this moment that you will accept the Torah upon yourself.
  3. Circumcision. If you are a male, you will need to be circumcised. If you were circumcised as a baby, a symbolic drawing of blood is all that will be done at this point.
  4. When the Temple stood in Jerusalem, a convert would bring a special sacrifice to the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. When the Temple is rebuilt—may it be speedily in our days—converts will again bring sacrifices.1

Why Does It Take So Long?

Conversion is a lifetime commitment. This means that you really need to know what you’re getting into, and the Jewish community, as represented by the beit din, needs to know whom they are embracing as the newest member of the Jewish family. In order to make sure that everyone is on the same page, many beit dins have a regimen of study and observance they require potential converts to undertake before they will perform a conversion. You’ll often be required to live immersed within the Jewish community, observing all the mitzvahs, so that you get a firsthand feel of every aspect of a committed Jewish life.

In some cases this process might be overseen by a rabbi vouching for your sincerity, knowledge and commitment. Other beit dins may actually set a course of study and practice spread out over the several months or years, to make sure that you are really ready to convert. (See Why Is Conversion to Judaism So Hard?)

The Biblical Basis

The laws concerning conversion are derived from the instructions the children of Israel were given to prepare for receiving the Torah at Sinai. As the verse states, “One rule applies to the assembly, for yourselves and for the proselyte who resides [with you]; one rule applies throughout your generations—just as [it is] for you, so [it is] for the proselyte, before the L‑rd.”2

Take a careful look at our nation’s conversion process at Sinai, and you will see all the elements there:

Circumcision: The children of Israel had to circumcise themselves in Egypt before partaking of the paschal lamb, as is clear from the verse in Exodus, “All uncircumcised males may not eat from it [the paschal lamb].”3

Immersion: Later, at the foot of Mt. Sinai, we are told that Moses sprinkled the blood of the sacrifice upon the Jewish people as a preparation for receiving the Torah and becoming the Jewish nation.4 The rabbis received a tradition, “There is never a sprinkling without immersion.”5 Furthermore, we find that G‑d tells Moses that in preparation for receiving the Torah he should tell the Jewish people to “sanctify them today and tomorrow, and have them wash their garments.”6 According to tradition, “washing” is a reference to immersing in the mikvah.

Sacrifice: The third thing that the Jewish people did before fully converting was to offer a sacrifice at Mt. Sinai.7

Beit Din: Additionally, the children of Israel were overseen by a rabbinical court, as the verse states, “I charged your judges at that time, saying: ‘Hear the causes between your brethren, and judge righteously between a man and his brother, and the stranger [ger, “convert”] that is with him.’”8

On a Spiritual Note

Our sages say that a convert is someone who has always had a Jewish soul. That is why the Talmud refers to the convert as “a convert who comes to convert” rather than as “a gentile who comes to convert.” In other words, the convert was always a Jewish soul at his or her core.

Additionally, our sages compare a convert to a newborn child. The process of birth is the closest human beings can come to touching the divine. At the same time, it is a painful experience that sometimes seems like it is stretching on forever. Like a birthing mother, hang in there. The results are well worth it.

Did you find this informative? This is part of a series of “What to Expect” articles that offer visitors a basic understanding of Jewish rituals and traditions.

Footnotes
1.
For an overview of the fundamentals, see Talmud Bavli, Yevamot 46a–49b and Bechorot 30b; Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Issurei Biah, chapters 13–14; Tur, Shulchan Aruch and Aruch ha-Shulchan, Yoreh De’ah 268–269.
2.
Leviticus 15:15; Talmud, Keritot 9a.
5.
There are other circumstances in the Torah where there are sprinklings, such as in the purification process required after coming into contact with a corpse (Numbers 19:18), as well as in the purification of a leper (Leviticus 14:7). In these other cases, the sprinkling alone is not sufficient to achieve the purification, and the individual seeking purification would need to immerse in a mikvah as well (Numbers 19:19, Leviticus 14:8). This supports the notion that immersion was needed for the sprinkling at Sinai as well.
8.
Deuteronomy 1:16; Talmud, Yevamot 47a.
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Sylvia Kansas City, Missouri/USA via plazachabad.com September 1, 2016

Conversion I have felt the pulling towards Judaism for a couple of years now. I have been told a number of times that I have a Jewish soul. I keep Shabbat. I am kosher. Where can I go to convert? Please help. Reply

Anonymous June 7, 2016

I found this article very helpful. I would only add to expect additional hardships if you live in a geographic region where there are few; if any, Jewish communities. An example is small rural communities where there are no other Jews. I do agree with Julie that it does feel quite a bit like your soul is being held for ransom. Reply

Anonymous Texas May 12, 2016

The Avoided Yet Most Important Step Only a Convert Will Know Nothing taught from our Torah is ever considered in the real word. Such lovely things the Torah says about the convert but there is a reason it was written over 36 times to love the convert. I estimate there are about 2 gifted Rabbonim in every 10 and although very rare there are Rabbonim that do such amazing mitzvos that will make you hear music from the heavens they are so pious. Idealistically converts are special to the Jewish people but in the real world expect to be lower than dirt to a majority of them. Why 36 times is it written in a non-trivial way in our Torah? Ahhhh it is maybe because G-D knew his chosen all too well. I regret wasting 5 years of my life to convert when I should have just enjoyed Torah as a noahide. In my opinion, the Jewish sole born goy is the truly blessed. It will begin only after you take the plunge, that innate distaste a convert evokes will cause a frenzy of lashon hara while defenseless. Now I am another zombie Jew, my neshama murdered. Don't do it. Reply

Anonymous South East Asia May 8, 2016

So beautiful explained. Shalom Reply

this is why i asked this Question Israel April 14, 2016

Please help me " Jewish Name " the law for choosing a Jewish name for a convert Reply

Anonymous Honolulu July 16, 2015

At a point, the convert to Judaism may feel like his or her soul is shipwrecked, crouched down on an outcrop of black wet rocks, dark beneath a desolate sea cliff lost to humanity. The ocean waves pound his soul against the rocks. He has no voice. There is nowhere to turn and no one to help.
This may happen when the convert realizes he or she is never going to be a Jew. He has tried. He has asked and pleaded to no avail. He has discarded his Christianity or whatever faith he previously held. Now he has nothing.
So he or she is left alone, in a fearsome predicament, in an awesome confrontation with the Holy One – the very One he or she had set out to encounter. Reply

Julie Smith Sydney July 16, 2015

I've been formally in the conversion process for two years and it has been pretty dreadful. I love learning about Judasim but essentially it feels like someone holding your soul to ransom. There is no other choice though, it's not like if the path to Judaism is too hard you can just go be a Noahide. Like it was for the Jewish martyrs throughout history, the choice is between Judaism or death. That sounds dramatic, but it's true for me. Reply

Michael Benav Canada July 15, 2015

Always a Jewish Soul or a New Creation - Which is it? If a convert "always had a Jewish soul" then how is it that " our sages compare a convert to a newborn child"? Reply

Sarah Lin Oakland July 15, 2015

I am telling you it is also taking on the yoke of the Jewish experience, good and bad. After I had made the commitment, weird things started happening and I mean, very obvious things from the left field: People acting up against you for no apparent reason, problems you have no control over and beyond your imagination occur that force you to stay calm, kind but actively engaged. On the plus side, you get rescued by mysterious forces and you find yourself ahead of people's games. It is a much wider bandwidth of experience that is not for the fainthearted! Suddenly, my life has become so busy that 24 hours isn't enough. Reply

victoria tucuman July 15, 2015

What to Expect at a Conversion I want to be jew.a week ago I went to beit Jabad for Shabbat

Shalom ubraja . Reply

Rabbi Joe Kolakowski July 15, 2015

the circumcision (or blood drop) comes before the mikvah Reply

Anonymous July 15, 2015

Great Rabbi. Shalom Reply