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, interfaith 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-Jewish spouse may initially decide to explore Judaism in order to seek a common religious ground for the family. These reasons, among others, often lead to people to begin a Jewish journey.
This story is by no means an “exception.” In fact, thousands of non-Jews living in the Roman world, and everywhere in Asia and Africa, embraced Judaism. While Judaism does not seek out people to convert, it is, and always has been, open to welcoming anyone who sincerely embraces Jewish life.
Living A Meaningful Life
Judaism does not view itself as the only path to a meaningful life, but 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, and as a way of making a difference in the world through our own actions.
Because of Judaism’s view that there are many ways to live a meaningful life, conversion to Judaism is not seen as a necessity, but as an opportunity. As a result, individuals are never 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. The reality is however different; reform congregations, such as Beth Shalom, warmly welcome interfaith families in every way just as any other family.
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. We view such parents as providers of a precious gift and a blessing to the Jewish people.
When Living A Jewish Life Leads to Conversion
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 many 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-grandmother of King David (from whose descendants, according to Jewish tradition, the Messiah will come). Moses, Joseph, Judah, and Solomon among the many prominent Biblical figures who married a non-Hebrew spouse and yet fully embraced a Jewish identity for them and their children.
In our day, most Jews wholeheartedly welcome “Jews-by-choice” or “converts” to the community. 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 is worth noting, however, that the State of Israel recognizes as a Jew (and eventually grant a speedy citizenship) anyone who has converted through any of the main branches of Judaism, including the Reform sect.
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. This is offered in Raleigh twice a year, and is taught jointly by 6 different Triangle area rabbis, including Rabbi Edery. This course is offered at Temple Beth Or in Raleigh (check our Adult Education program, or contact the staff at Temple Beth Or for more information).
The study of Hebrew also is important, and Beth Shalom often offers basic Hebrew lessons for adults. However, our Siddur / Prayer book contains transliterations (Hebrew words written in English syllables), making it possible for those who are not comfortable reading Hebrew still 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.
First Steps: How does this process actually work?
While the process of converting to Judaism is very personal, there is a path to follow. This process usually begins by a personal conversation with the Rabbi. Then, the rabbi and the prospective Jew will create a personal plan. These are the common parts of such plans:
Periodic meetings with the Rabbi, experiencing the Jewish calendar and its cycle of holidays, participation in Shabbat services, involvement in some aspect of the congregational life, formal learning (through courses, or guided individual readings), and keeping a Jewish home.
At some point, both the candidate for conversion and the Rabbi will realize that there has been a movement from “becoming a Jew”, toward “being a Jew.” Then a formal recognition follows. A Bet Din (a “court” of three persons) representing the Jewish community and tradition, usually presided by a Rabbi, will interview and converse with the candidate, in order to answer one question: “Is this person a Jew?” The conversation centers on the candidate’s motivation, knowledge, commitment, and the meaning of this step. It is not an “SAT-like test,” and is not a simple checking of boxes on a list of requirements. It is a sincere conversation, in which each candidate reflects on what is Jewish about the way he or she thinks, lives, and believes. The Bet Din will then either recognize that the person they are talking to is a Jew, or they may have some concerns and discuss those with the candidate.
Following a recognition from a Bet Din, a ritual and ceremony follow. The Ritual of Tevilah / Immersion is an ancient ritual when entering the Jewish community. Blessings are recited and immersion in a body of water follows. This is ideally done in “living water” such as a lake, river, or sea; but it can also be done in a Mikveh, a body of water created specifically for this purpose, which many congregations have. At Beth Shalom we encourage the “Jews by Choice” to honor our Shabbat service immediately following their formal conversion by speaking to our congregation, and having an Aliyah, in which they are called up to the Torah.
There are fortunately many good resources for anyone interested in learning more. Your local Rabbi is the first resource you should contact and reach. Here are a few other good starting points: