How to Convert to Judaism
You’re here because you’re thinking about converting to Judaism.
Maybe you’re dating or engaged to a Jewish partner, and he or she wants you to take on the Jewish traditions.
Or perhaps you’ve come to Judaism on your own because you’re dissatisfied with your current or former religion.
No matter what the reason, converting to Judaism is one of the biggest, most life-changing decisions you will ever make.
You’re going to have to let go of your former religious practices and embrace completely new customs. You will have to learn how to pray, study, eat, dress, and live like a Jew.
How long does it take to convert to Judaism?
It can take years to convert to Judaism, and you may have to put your marriage plans on hold, move to a different neighborhood, or even change your career.
But if you feel that Judaism is right for you, and you’re willing to make the moves to become a Jew, it could be the best choice you’ll ever make.
It is highly rewarding when you finally find a place where you feel spiritually at home and a community you love. Judaism may answer life’s most important questions for you and give your existence a whole new dynamic meaning.
If you’re in the stage where you’re asking, “How do I convert to Judaism? ” then here is an overview of the steps you’ll want to take.
Talk to your Jewish partner and friends
If you’re dating or engaged or married to a Jew, learn about his or her Jewish practices. If you have Jewish friends, do the same.
Ask them about what being a Jew means to them. Ask them what their practices are. Do they have Shabbat (the Sabbath) dinner every Friday night? Do they pray? Do they celebrate the holidays? Do they keep kosher? Do they know Hebrew?
This is a learning stage where you’re simply trying to gain insight into a Jewish lifestyle. Remember: There are many ways to practice Judaism. Some Jews keep many of the commandments and make Judaism a central part of their lives. Other Jews only celebrate Passover and otherwise are not practicing.
It can be confusing at first. What you learn in a Jewish class may not align with what you see Jews doing, and that’s OK. Every Jew has his or her own way of expressing (or not expressing) a connection to Judaism.
Explore the different strains of Judaism
Usually, you will convert through the movement that your partner is apart of. For example, if your fiancé is Conservative, you may look into a Conservative conversion.
The different Jewish movements are Reconstructionist, Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox. Within each movement, there are still different ways that people choose to practice their Judaism.
For example, some Orthodox Jewish women will cover their hair after they get married, while others will not. Some Conservative Jews will only eat in kosher restaurants, while others will only eat dairy foods in non-kosher restaurants.
Again, it can be confusing to choose which movement to pursue. It’s even more of a difficult choice for a woman who is planning to have children, because the mother’s religion dictates what the children’s will be, according to Judaism. One of the reasons this rule exists is because you always know who the mother is, but you do not always know who the father is.
In recent years, Reconstructionist and Reform leaders have declared that having a Jewish father means you are Jewish. You do not need to have a Jewish mother.
While this ruling is perfectly acceptable in these circles, the Orthodox will not recognize it. In addition, if you undergo a Reconstructionist, Reform, or Conservative conversion, your children will not be Jewish in their eyes.
That means if your children choose to become Orthodox or marry an Orthodox person, they will have to go through a conversion.
If you are a man and you marry a Jewish woman (who has a Jewish mother), and you have children, your children will be Jewish either way.
The bottom line is that the Orthodox do not accept non-Orthodox conversions. Even then, some ultra-Orthodox will not accept Modern Orthodox conversions. This is especially pertinent in the State of Israel, where the rabbis rule over conversions.
That being said, it is crucial that you do not pursue an Orthodox conversion for the sake of your future children if you are not actually sincere about it. One of the most important aspects of converting to Judaism is that you actually want to do it, and you are prepared to take on whatever it entails. If you do not know which route to go, continue your informational interviews with friends, partner, and spiritual leaders.
Speak to a rabbi
The next step is to speak to a rabbi. Maybe you go to your partner’s current rabbi or find one in your neighborhood. You can learn all about that movement and what a conversion will require.
There are many, many rabbis out there in each of the different movements if you don’t find one that you immediately connect with.
You may have heard that rabbis will reject you a few times when you want to convert. This is not always true. If it is, persist, and keep asking to start your process. You need to prove that you sincerely want to convert.
If you’re in an area where there is little Jewish life, look on Chabad.org for a local Chabad synagogue. Chabad is a Chasidic Jewish outreach organization that is focused on giving Jews a Jewish experience, no matter what their level of observance.
While Chabad may not do conversions, they can offer insight on Judaism, and you can attend Shabbat prayer services and meals there (services are free, and meals usually cost a small donation). Chabads are in numerous cities around the world, even in remote places, and may be your best local bet.
Start taking classes
Once you’ve found a rabbi you connect with, he or she will either teach you Jewish classes or find a teacher in your area. You’ll learn the religion’s laws, history, culture, and customs according to how that movement practices.
For example, while many Orthodox Jews believe the Torah, or the Old Testament, came directly from God, other movements believe men wrote it. Many Reform Jews do not keep the kosher laws, while Orthodox are strictly kosher. Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist Jews allow female rabbis to serve, while the Orthodox typically do not.
If you’re in a highly populated Jewish area, you probably won’t be taking classes alone. You might be expected to learn some Hebrew and read a lot of books on Judaism.
Classes can take anywhere from a few months to a few years. You can ask your rabbi how long his or her converts usually study before they actually convert.
Take on Jewish practices
As you’re attending Jewish classes, you’ll need to start exploring the various practices you’re learning about.
Judaism revolves around the Torah, which has 613 commandments for Jews. These commandments have been analyzed, explained, and dissected by rabbis throughout the centuries who dictate how to put them into practice.
For example, the Torah says not to cook a kid in its mother’s milk. From simply reading the literal Torah law, we would not do that. However, the rabbis explain that this actually means not to mix meat and milk. Therefore, we cannot have cheeseburgers or chicken Parmesan.
In Judaism, the Oral Law, or the law that is not in the Torah, is just as important as the Written Law. Without the Oral Law, there is no way to understand the Written Law.
Learn about the commandments, traditions, and customs and how you can put them into practice throughout your conversion process.
You may do the following things to learn what it is like to live as a Jew:
- Attend a Passover Seder, or the Passover meal where Jews read the Haggadah, learn about the holiday, and eat festive foods.
- Celebrate the Sabbath by praying in synagogue on Friday night and Saturday morning and eating the festive meals.
- Eat a kosher restaurant or make your kitchen kosher.
- Learn how to bake challah, the holy bread we eat on Shabbat and during holidays (except for Passover, when we do not eat bread, or Yom Kippur and Tisha B’av, when we fast).
- Celebrate the Jewish holidays like Rosh Hashanah, Purim, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, and Shavuot (to name a few).
- Hang a mezuzah on your doorpost.
- Read Jewish newspapers, magazines, and blogs.
- Go to Jewish cultural events like local festivals, concerts, plays, and movie screenings.
When you partake in Jewish practices and activities, it is important that you enjoy the people you are celebrating and associating with. If you have few Jewish friends where you live or you are not connecting with your community, you may choose to move to a different neighborhood.
Live in a Jewish place
If you are converting to Orthodox Judaism, you will be required to move near a synagogue and maybe into an Orthodox Jewish community. This is because Orthodox Jews do not drive on the Sabbath, and need to be within walking distance of a house of prayer.
Even if you are not doing an Orthodox Jewish conversion, you will need a Jewish community. It is important that you feel comfortable and at home with your fellow Jews. Otherwise, you may be lonely and discouraged throughout your process.
A majority of Jews live in Israel, the New York City metropolitan area, and Los Angeles, but there are many large Jewish communities in other places like France, Canada, England, Maryland, Florida, Arizona, Illinois, and more.
Stay for a Shabbat or a holiday in a place with a large Jewish population to see if you like it, you can afford it, and you can see yourself establishing a happy Jewish life there. Another great tip: Find a community that is welcoming to converts, so you will be able to interact with people who were/are in the same situation as you.
Visit Israel, the Jewish state, and Holy Land
Israel is the Jewish homeland. It is important to go there and learn Judaism’s history and roots in the Holy Land.
You can pray at the Western Wall, eat a falafel with hummus, study in a religious school, float in the Dead Sea, explore a kibbutz, ride a camel, or sleep in the desert.
There are various options for visiting Israel. You can go on your own or with your partner, sign up to study in a religious Jewish school, look at trips organized by your local Jewish Federation, or even attend Birthright after you’ve converted if you’re 26 years of age or younger.
Take a knowledge test
Right before you convert, you’re going to be tested by your rabbi (and maybe additional rabbis) about things you learned in class. It may be nerve-racking, and you might have to take more than one test.
However, as long as you work hard in your classes, and prove your sincerity, the rabbis should not penalize you for missing one or two answers to their questions. They will simply ask that you go back and review your material before you take another test.
Pick a Hebrew name
When you convert, you will choose a Hebrew name. You will have a Hebrew first name, and then will be “ben” (son of) or “bat” (daughter of) and then the name “Avraham Avinu” or “Sarah Imenu.” Or, ben/bat Avraham v’Sarah (Abraham and Sarah).
For example, if you’re a woman, and your chosen Hebrew name is Rachel, you would be Rachel bat Sarah Imenu or Rachel bat Avraham v’Sarah. If you’re a man, and your Hebrew name is Daniel, you would be Daniel Ben Avraham Avinu.
You can find a number of Hebrew names in the Torah, or on Behind the Name. Choose a name of a Biblical figure you admire, or whose story you connect with.
Some converts will choose a name based on the closest translation of their own name. For example, Anna might become Anat. Other converts may choose a more contemporary Hebrew name.
This Hebrew name will be used in all official documents and when you’re being called up to the Torah, among many other circumstances.
Undergo a circumcision or hatafat dam brit
The hatafat dam brit is a virtually painless procedure that involves pricking the loose skin on the penis (not the head) and releasing a drop of blood. A skilled mohel, or a Jew who is trained in circumcision, performs these.
Dip in the mikvah
Before you dip in the mikvah, or the ritual bath, you may have to take an oath with your rabbi(s) that you vow to give up any former religions, and declare that you dedicate yourself fully to Judaism.
The mikvah consists of natural water that is used for purification purposes. Before you go in the mikvah, you will thoroughly bathe yourself, removing any makeup, nail polish, or blemishes on your body.
If you are a woman and your supervising rabbis are males or vice versa, you will be instructed to wear a bathrobe in the mikvah water for modesty purposes. If your rabbis are of the same sex, you will be fully naked.
You will dip your head below the water a number of times depending on your tradition and say a few blessings. When you emerge, you will officially be Jewish.
Have a Jewish wedding
If you have a Jewish partner, you can then have a Jewish wedding ceremony following your conversion. For this, you will need to find a rabbi to lead the services, a chuppah to place around you and over your heads, a ketubah, which is the official Jewish marriage document, a ring, cups of wine, and a glass to break. Typically, a convert’s sponsoring rabbi will perform the marriage ceremony, though it doesn’t have to be that way.
What to keep in mind about this guide
This guide, “How to Convert to Judaism,” includes only the basics of a Jewish conversion. Also, in your movement or community, the conversion process may slightly differ.
It is best to speak to a Jewish spiritual leader you know and trust who will be able to take you through the process.
When you choose to convert to Judaism, you will know if it is the right choice for you. That is why conversion is, many times, a long process. The rabbis want you to be sure that this is the best choice for you, and that you will be able to dedicate your life to it.
If you do decide to go through with it, make sure you have the support of your partner and friends. Family members may be offended or hurt by your decision, so it is important to have other supportive people around you, including a counselor or therapist.
As a convert myself, I understand what the process is like. If you have any further questions, feel free to get in touch, anytime. Email me at JewessMag@Gmail.com.