The process of converting to Judaism is, like so much else in the tradition, a high-low mix of deep spiritual work and rote, legalistic box-checking. Converting can feel like preparing for a DMV exam, or like a bad day at the dentist, or like the best grad school seminar ever, or like a transcendent encounter with the almighty. It involves historical rituals that confound common sense and distinctions that spark endless and unresolvable debate.
Welcome to the Tribe!
The first thing for non-Jews to know about converting is that it often feels like Jews don’t want you. As an ethnoreligious minority – a religion and a race, a belief system and a people – Jews are a famously non-proselytizing club. The tradition goes that converts should be refused three times before they’re allowed to proceed. That practice (now rare) may have been designed to demonstrate determination, but it was also about making sure converts properly reckoned with the burdens of joining a minority the world has long persecuted and oppressed. Point being, choosing to be Chosen is a LOT – it should in no way be spontaneous or casual.
Requirements for conversion vary depending on denomination, with Orthodox and Conservative rabbis making more stringent demands and Reform and Reconstructionist authorities being generally more loosey-goosey. Orthodox converts are required to study Hebrew, spend a year observing holidays and pledge to follow all 613 Jewish mitzvot. Converts working with a Reconstructionist rabbi are allowed, in contrast, to convert solely for the purpose of marriage and treat the mitzvot more as literary guideposts than literal, hard-fast commandments.
In general, though, all denominations make three basic requirements: the approval of a beit dein (a panel of three rabbis charged with determining a convert’s genuine desire and basic Jewish literacy), immersion in a mikvah (a ritual bath, like a Baptism or a Jewish jacuzzi) and for men, circumcision.
This last requirement applies to all men, including circumcised men whose original procedure wasn’t kosher, i.e. in accordance with Jewish law, i.e. men circumcised by a medical professional in a hospital. It’s required by the Orthodox, Conservative and even by the most groovy Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis.
They want your blood.
Once all requirements are met and the beit dein gives a thumbs up (and hands over a shtar geiruit certificate of conversion – a Jewish driver’s license no one ever checks), converts often choose a Hebrew name and are welcomed into the community as a full-fledged participant. While the Hebrew name for convert is ger or giyoret, which literally means “stranger” or “foreigner,” converts are understood in the Torah to be equal in all ways to Jews by birth (Lev 19:34: “The stranger that sojourneth with you shall be unto you as the home-born among you, and thou shalt love him as thyself”). In fact, many so-called “Jews by choice” end up being far more observant and knowledgeable than “Jews by chance”
Converts are then free to engage in the rights and privileges of all Jews: wrapping themselves in prayer shawls at Temple, whisper-debating the best pastrami during the sermon, arguing about Israel with inlaws at Shabbat dinner and identifying famous Members of the Tribe (MOTs) and that fascinating subset, unlikely converts (Marilyn Monroe! Jack Black! Connie Chung! Jenna Jameson!).