Most Jews today accept that there are two ways of
becoming Jewish, by being born Jewish - generally accepted as being the child
of a Jewish mother - or by conversion. The most famous convert was Ruth, the
grandmother of King David, and the fact that the messianic line descends from
him tells us something about the high esteem in which the Torah holds
conversion - in fact we are commanded at several points in the Torah to treat
the convert kindly. However, over the years various events have shaped the
attitude to conversion. Not least of these has been the antipathy (overt or
covert) to Christians - in the societies where Jews have lived - converting to
Judaism. This has led, amongst orthodoxy at least, to a rather cautious
attitude to conversion, although this is less so in Israel today.
So what is involved and how does one go about it?
The basic requirement to start considering whether to convert, is an interest
in Judaism. The reality in the liberal society in which we live is that this
interest will often, though not always, come through some familiarity with the
religion or community through a friend or partner. Reform, unlike the orthodox,
takes the view that since many people live with and marry non-Jews with very
little if any stigma attached, there is no reason to suspect the motives of
anyone with a genuine desire to explore the possibility of conversion, however
they have come to be interested.
So what do you do if you are interested?
Firstly be aware that Judaism is not a proselytising religion. No pressure will
be put upon you to convert - there is no sense in which Judaism sees itself as
the only path. On the contrary, for all manner of reasons - not least of which
is the way in which Jews have been persecuted over the years - joining the
Jewish people is something with which one must feel totally comfortable.
Unfortunately the orthodox in this country have taken this rather to extremes
and have a policy of sending prospective converts away many times to make sure
they are "committed". This, combined with their requirement to live in a
strictly orthodox household for some years, means that orthodox conversion here
is not for most people.
However, the actual requirements laid down by
Judaism are quite simple. Following on from above, if one has the interest the
next stage is to talk to the Rabbi. At Maidenhead there is always a conversion
class going on and even if you are just thinking about conversion the
possibility is there to find out a bit more about the "goods" before buying.
The course lasts for about a year and follows the cycle of the festivals and
involves classes and attendance at services. Partners are also required to
attend. This is because the reality of many people's Jewish education is that
it ended at the age of thirteen and it is important in any partnership for both
people to have a similar knowledge base.
The course fulfils the first formal
requirement for conversion - that of gaining some knowledge - logical, really!
The next (informal) requirement for actual conversion is sincerity - you may
not have this when you start! However, if by the end of the course (or
thereafter) you feel that conversion is for you the next stage is... Yes you
guessed it - this is the bit where it is much harder for a male to convert.
Circumcision is obligatory for males - although you do have an anaesthetic as
an adult! If you are fortunate enough to have been circumcised already, a
ritual ceremony with a symbolic drop of blood being drawn is all that is
Both males and females have to go before the Beit
Din (Rabbinical Court). This is less daunting than it sounds since it consists
of three rabbis and a chairperson in a small informal room. Partners usually
attend the last bit of the interview - I use the term "interview" advisedly
because although you will be asked questions to test your knowledge you would
not be there if your sponsoring rabbi did not already know that you "knew your
stuff". The interview is mainly to discover what your attitudes are and,
equally importantly, to determine your degree of sincerity.
When you have completed the interview
successfully the next stage is to undergo ritual immersion in a "Mikvah" - a
ritual bath and this is the third (or second in the case of females) formal
requirement for conversion. There is a Mikvah at the Sternberg Centre where the
Beit Din sits. You then get a certificate - this part of the conversion process
is quite private. The final part is voluntary; it is the 'Service on Admission to the Jewish Faith' which is an interaction between the convert and the rabbi. It takes place in the synagogue and can either be done quietly after a service or, more publicly, during a service. It is a very nice touch after all the anxiety of the conversion process and can be viewed as a 'Graduation Ceremony'.
As an after note I would like to stress that as a
Reform community we value all our members and also their non-Jewish partners,
many of whom perform sterling work for the community and all of whom support
their Jewish partners. Conversion is not for everyone and we recognise this.
However it may be something which some of you will have had somewhere at the
back of you mind and, if so, I hope that this article is informative.