There are many reasons a person might consider conversion to Judaism. Men and women who are seeking sacred meaning in their lives may find that Judaism speaks to their need for spiritual connection and community. Often, interreligious marriages spark curiosity and a desire in the non-Jewish partners to share the religion of their spouse. Similarly, when an interfaith couple decides to raise children, the non-Jew may initially decide to explore Judaism in order to seek a common religious grounding for the family. Each of these reasons is a valid beginning to a Jewish journey.
There is a common understanding that Jews don’t encourage conversion, but during early Jewish history Jews did engage in missionary activities. In fact, during the Greco-Roman period of Jewish history, thousands of non-Jews living in Asia Minor embraced Judaism. The destruction of the Roman Empire and mortal threats against Jews who sought converts marked the end of formal, organized efforts to proselytize.
Living a Meaningful Life
Judaism does not view itself as the only path to a meaningful life, but rather respects the integrity of other religious beliefs, as well as the convictions of those who opt for no religion. At the same time, it is an open religion that readily accepts and encourages those who look to Judaism for fulfillment and guidance in confronting the challenges of life.
Because of Judaism’s view that there are many ways to live a meaningful life, conversion to Judaism is not seen as necessary for each person, but rather as a potential way of living. As a result, individuals are not pressured to convert to Judaism. Even after a course of study, if an individual does not feel conversion is right for him or her, there is no expectation to do so.
Welcoming Interfaith Couples and Families
Most Reform and Reconstructionist congregations, as well as some Conservative and Orthodox synagogues warmly welcome interfaith families as participants in various ways in synagogue life. Nonetheless, some interfaith couples may be concerned that unless the non-Jewish spouse converts, the family (including children) will not be accepted in synagogue communities. In fact, in many interfaith families in which the children are being raised as Jews the non-Jewish parents often play key roles in providing for their children's Jewish education and in creating a supportive Jewish home. Many Jews view such parents as providers of a precious gift and a blessing to the Jewish people.
When Living a Jewish Life Leads to Conversion
Over time, many non-Jews in interfaith families find themselves living a Jewish life. Often a life cycle event such as a bar or bat mitzvah, or a feeling of being more connected to the Jewish community will prompt a person to consider or reconsider the possibility of formally joining the Jewish people. Rabbis in URJ congregations tell us they often work with individuals who have chosen Judaism only after living in a Jewish family for many years. The door to Judaism is always open.
Judaism welcomes those who voluntarily become Jews and considers them full-fledged members of the Jewish community. The Hebrew Bible and other Jewish texts include examples of individuals who made this decision. Perhaps the most well known and honored example is contained in the Book of Ruth, in which Ruth joins the Jewish people and eventually becomes the great-great grandmother of King David, from whose descendants, according to Jewish tradition, the Messiah will come.
In our day, most Jews wholeheartedly welcome “Jews-by-choice” or “converts” to the community. Although there is some objection to using distinctive terms to refer to a person who has voluntarily become a Jew, many people are proud to let others know they are converts to Judaism. In addition, as the number of people becoming Jewish continues to rise, and as various Jewish religious institutions develop programs to encourage and assist people in this process, it has become useful to talk publicly about choosing Judaism. Reform, Reconstructionist and, under certain circumstances, Conservative rabbis recognize the validity of conversions performed by rabbis of all branches of Judaism. Many Orthodox rabbis, however, do not recognize non-Orthodox conversions. It's worth noting, however, that in North America today, Jewish commitment is a matter of choice for all who come to it, whether by birth or conversion.
Judaism: Is it a Good Fit?
The decision to convert (or not to convert) to Judaism is intensely personal and private. Although many people begin a Jewish journey toward conversion, not everyone completes the process. The best way to determine if you really want to become Jewish is to learn as much as possible about Judaism (its theology, rituals, history, culture and customs) and begin to practice those aspects that most appeal to you. Seek out Jewish friends, family members or a synagogue community for support. As you study and experiment with things Jewish at your own pace, you will gain a sense of comfort and be able to make decisions about next steps that are right for you.
An excellent place to start your studies about the traditions and practice of Judaism is with an “Introduction to Judaism” course. The Reform Movement sponsors these courses throughout North America. Call a Reform congregation or find out where the course is being offered near you.
The study of Hebrew also is important, and some congregations offer basic Hebrew lessons. However, many prayer books in current use in Reform congregations contain transliterations (Hebrew words written in English syllables), making it possible for those who are not comfortable reading Hebrew to participate fully in Shabbat and holiday services. Nonetheless, many individuals who convert to Judaism choose to learn to read Hebrew within a few years of their conversion.
Finding a Congregation is Important
The best way to decide if a Jewish life is right for you is to begin to live a Jewish life and the best way to live a Jewish life is to become connected to a congregation. The URJ has congregations of all sizes and styles. Depending on what is available in your area, we suggest you visit two or three Reform congregations before you make a final choice. For the names of Reform rabbis in your area, and for more information about Reform Judaism, contact the Introduction to Judaism Coordinator in the area closest to you.
In adhering to the prophetic voice of Isaiah—"For My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples" — almost all Jewish worship services are open to the public and visitors are welcome. Shabbat services are held on Friday evenings and Saturday mornings, but it’s a good idea to call or check the website of the specific synagogue you’re planning to visit to confirm the time of services.
Many congregations have greeters or ushers who will welcome you and help you find a seat. For more information about what happens at Shabbat services, you may want to read “An Introduction to Sanctuary Etiquette.”
Plan to stay for the oneg Shabbat (short reception at which wine, challah, sweets and beverages generally are available) after services and introduce yourself to the rabbi. Although he or she will not be able to make an appointment on Shabbat, your participation at Shabbat service will indicate to the rabbi that you are serious about your pursuit of Jewish learning.
In addition to worship services, many Reform congregations offer classes that teach basic Jewish skills, such as Shabbat and holiday prayers and customs. They also provide opportunities to become involved in social action and caring community activities, which support congregants in times of need. The more you participate in Jewish life, the more you will feel like a Jew. As you become involved in congregational life, make sure you allow your congregational community to mentor and support you!
This glossary will be help you understand the words used in synagogues and explain the meaning of those that may be unfamiliar to you.
Finding a Sponsoring Rabbi is Essential
An important part of the conversion process is working with a sponsoring rabbi. He or she will guide your studies and help you along the path toward choosing Judaism. Many Reform rabbis will require that you attend an “Introduction to Judaism” course. He or she also will want to meet with you on a regular basis and work with you for a period of time as you learn the rhythms of the Jewish year. There is no finite period of time for conversion. The length and format of the course of study will vary from rabbi to rabbi, from community to community, and from person to person. These elements in the process, however, are required by most rabbis: a course in basic Judaism, individual study with a rabbi, attendance at services, and participation in home practice and synagogue life.
To find a sponsoring rabbi, check the congregations in your area. You may choose to meet with a rabbi in a congregation where you’ve already attended services or at another congregation in your area. When you call the congregation, it may be easiest if you tell the person who answers the phone that you are calling for the first time and that you are interested in learning more about Judaism. This information will help the person understand the importance of your call and direct you to the most appropriate person on the staff. Keep in mind that sometimes congregational rabbis and other staff members are not always able to return phone calls as quickly as they (and we) would like, and it may be a few days before someone from the congregation returns your call.
When you meet with the rabbi, not only will he or she discuss the process and implications of becoming a Jew, but also will explore with you your reasons for wanting to do so. In earlier generations rabbis would discourage potential Jews-by-choice, turning them away three times in an effort to determine how serious they were about this pursuit. Today, this kind of testing seldom occurs, but most rabbis will still endeavor to impress upon you the seriousness of such a choice.
It’s important that you’re comfortable with your sponsoring rabbi so if you live in an area with several different congregations, feel free to attend services at each of them and meet with the various rabbis until you find one with whom you “click.” Once you identify your sponsoring rabbi, he or she will become your guide every step of the way up to and through your conversion.
The Process Takes Time…
As noted above, the timeframe for the conversion process can vary widely. However, many rabbis will work with a conversion candidate for at least a year before completing the process. This gives you an opportunity to experience the complete cycle of the Jewish year—celebrating Shabbat at home and at services, observing the holidays and festivals, and studying with your sponsoring rabbi. Conversion will not happen unless and until you feel (and the rabbi agrees) that you are ready to become a Jew.
Judaism and My Non-Jewish Family
In Judaism, family—Jewish and non-Jewish—is sacred. Moses’ father-in-law, although not Jewish, was a valued member of the Israelite community. Most Jews-by-choice maintain warm relationships with their families of origin. Conversion to Judaism does not make you into something altogether new nor does it cut you off from family ties or memories. However, some converts to Judaism, especially initially, find that their families may be hurt or confused about their choice. Such feelings can result from misunderstanding or lack of knowledge about Judaism, and therefore are quite understandable. If it happens with your family, patience on your part and a willingness to discuss your choices and to show your family that you have not abandoned them can be helpful.
Additional Insights from Rabbi Jon Adland:
How do you know when you are ready to convert? How do you know when it is time to make that first, difficult, even scary call? Is there a check list? Not really, but there are many factors that you need to weigh in making this decision including such things as the impact on your family and friends. By the time you make that first call or send that first email there is one thing for certain that must have happened—any previous religious commitments, affiliations and connections must be over. If you are still participating in your church, then the time probably isn’t right.
Conversion to Judaism doesn’t meeting converting from another religion to Judaism. As a rabbi I would never try to convince you that your religion is wrong. Conversion to Judaism can only happen after your relationship with your current religion has ended allowing for you to begin the next part of your journey. As a rabbi, I don’t convert someone from, but rather I bring someone to a Jewish life. This means that you must wrestle with significant issues before the journey to a Jewish life begins. Some of these issues will be your relationship with God, as well as leaving behind the worship and celebrations that may have been a part of your life for some time.
As you well know, conversion is a giant step for someone to take, but it can only be done when you are ready to move forward. The journey toward becoming a Jew is exciting, but you must be ready with your heart, soul, and mind to take this giant step.