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 should I 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.