It occurred to me that this might be a good post to write. Despite the fact that converts have always been a part of Judaism and that most communities have many, in most communities I’ve lived in, conversion remains for most people a kind of secretive process and there’s a lot of misconceptions about it. To that end, here is what I wish more people knew about conversion and conversion candidates!
The Process, frankly, is a mess
We could debate the reasons for this for days, but it’s very complicated and it really doesn’t necessarily matter why, but for most conversion candidates, there is no real clearcut process to follow. There have been attempts to fix this, but even congregational Rabbis aren’t always certain what process to follow when a non-Jew arrives at their door asking to convert. As a result, it’s usually impossible for a conversion candidate to estimate how long their conversion might take. Often, they may not even know what they should and should not be doing while in that process, beyond studying. Sadly, it’s not uncommon for Rabbis and even some Beit Dins to even play mind games with conversion candidates, losing paperwork multiple times, “forgetting” meetings, making commitments then backing out. I have even heard from one couple that their Beit Din put them in separate rooms and told them each their spouse had decided not to convert, just to see what they would do.
Most converts who are suffering through things like this won’t tell you. They’re afraid of jeopardizing their conversion process. Just know that this is someone vulnerable who may be in a very painful situation and please treat them with a little extra care.
We Just Want to Belong
Once a conversion candidate has found a community, most just want to fit in…so badly. Little acts of acceptance can really make a big difference. Of course, check with your Rav, but in most cases, you can invite conversion candidates over for Shabbos meals and, with a little thought to get around any halakhic issues, even to Yom Tov meals. It really is a wonderful way to boost their spirits and help them learn. Some of the best ways I learned how to handle Shabbos observance, kashrus, and other things was by being invited to help a Jewish friend prepare food, being invited along shopping, and being invited over. She was kind enough to let me into her life in a way that felt welcoming and gave me the opportunity to see and ask questions and I’m so grateful.
Little things can also have a huge negative effect for conversion candidates. I know at times, I felt kind of like I was right back in Junior High, an awkward girl on the side, not chosen as part of the “in crowd” because I’d be left out of things that most of the other women were included in. If at all possible, please include your local conversion candidates if you can, or at least extend the invitation. It’s a huge act of kindness to remember to invite them to your Mary Kay party or to help with a committee. Again, if you’re in doubt, your Rav should be able to tell you what’s permitted.
We’re Going to Be Awkward
And speaking of awkward…conversion candidates can’t help but be that sometimes. There is SO much to learn and sometimes, our efforts to quickly fit in backfire spectacularly! Most conversion candidates will mispronounce new Hebrew and Yiddish words. We’ll use the wrong term or we’ll talk about the wrong thing at the wrong time. We may even be more socially awkward than we might otherwise be in other areas of our lives because we’re so nervous. We may follow chumras (stringencies beyond regular Jewish law), for a wide variety of reasons. Sometimes, we may even be told by those guiding us to do things differently than the rest of the community.
But, I’m asking you to not give up on us. I’m so thankful for those people who included me despite my awkwardness and who were patient with my questions as well as those who took the time to teach me. There were kind people who spoke to me about mistakes I might be making and helped me learn and there are people who accepted me even if some of my observance had to be different than theirs.
We Are Easy to Take Advantage Of
You don’t have to look far into the news of past years to find scandals around conversion. Because a conversion candidate’s future lies in the hands of their sponsoring Rabbi and Beit Din and because even just gossip or rumors can impact their conversion process, conversion candidates are really vulnerable to being manipulated or even blackmailed. Less serious, conversion candidates are often very eager to please their communities. They need to be seen as good potential Jews. This leads some to over-volunteer their time or try to make big donations that they may not even be able to afford. Right or wrong, often donations do make a difference in some convert’s progress in the process.
Being someone a conversion candidate can trust can help make a huge difference, but often conversion candidates aren’t willing to come forward when abuses do happen because they fear their process will be impacted.
Little Things Really DO Matter
One of the hardest things I often run into is when born Jews actually try to make me relax my observance. It’s hard to be an observant Orthodox Jew anywhere and it’s hard to be a Baalei Teshuva (a observant Jew who wasn’t raised observant) or a convert because we KNOW what it’s like not to have to work around observance. We know what bacon tastes like and, believe me, the reason the Torah forbids it is NOT because it tastes bad. Sometimes, born Jewish friends can almost be like my own yetzer hara (evil inclination) perched on my shoulder, saying things like, “Why do you ALWAYS wear a skirt? I wear jeans now and then and we’re not at shul…no one will see you…c’mon…” Or, “Why can’t you eat dairy out? My whole family does and we’re still Orthodox. How is the Rabbi going to know? Don’t you WANT to come with us?”
Yeah. Not helpful, unless your intention is to test our resolve. I’ll admit, not giving in to things like this has cost me some friends and even seems to put walls up between me and parts of the community who observe differently than I must. Maybe they think somehow that my choice to follow the guidance I’ve been given in those areas means I’m judging them, but I just don’t have the same choices available to me that a born Jew does.
Assume We Are Sincere
Are there some insincere conversion candidates? I’m certain of it. It’s likely, though, that most will be sorted out by the process, which can be so grueling both from a standpoint of everything that must be learned as well as everything they must go through. It simply isn’t your job to question their sincerity unless you are their sponsoring Rabbi or sitting on their Beit Din and in fact, you may be breaking the Torah commandments regarding converts if you are questioning them. Since conversion was never this long of a process until recent times, there are differing opinions on what applies to converts in process.
It’s sometimes tough for the frum from birth (people who were raised observant) to understand what a huge step it is for anyone who isn’t familiar with Orthodox Judaism to come forward and ask to convert. What can seem to a born Jew to be a friendly, welcoming environment can often appear to a non-Jew to be incredibly foreign and full of hidden dangers. Looking back, I was incredibly naive early in my process and as a result, I was probably too trusting and open. I’m a lot more cautious now. Anyone who has gotten far enough in the process to have moved into an Orthodox community and is attending shul regularly has already overcome big obstacles to be there.
If You Want to Help, GREAT! But, Be Sure You’re Giving Good Advice!
Most of my Jewish learning has come from other Jews who were kind enough to teach me. I really have never found formal conversion classes or a sponsoring Rabbi that had available time to learn with me, so being open to helping a conversion candidate learn is wonderful! That being said, it’s important for conversion candidates to learn in a way that is going to match their Beit Din’s expectations. For example, if a conversion candidate is planning to convert through a Chareidi Beit Din (pretty strict Orthodox), they’ll need to know how to answer questions in a way that their Beit Din will accept, which may or may not be different from how you hold as a born Jew. If you know their sponsoring Rabbi, it might be a good idea to consult them as to what sources to use for their study. I also have a list of resources for converts on a separate page that might be helpful.
Beware of Offering Advice on the Conversion Process Itself
I learned this one the hard way! When we first began our process, many well-meaning friends and family offered advice on how to go about converting. Some of it was really helpful and some of it…really not so helpful. The problem is that few people are really that familiar with the process of conversion and that process can vary from place to place. In some places, you approach the Beit Din first and then they guide you from there. In other places, you absolutely do NOT approach the Beit Din…you wait until your sponsoring Rabbi contacts them. In some places there are actually conversion classes you must go to and pay for. I actually think that’s a good idea as long as they are priced reasonably. In other places, you’re expected to learn on your own.
There are even Rabbis or Beit Dins offering conversions that won’t be recognized by many within Orthodox, if at all. (My link to resources for converts has a list of those Beit Dins and Rabbi’s whose conversions are currently recognized by the Israeli Rabbinate, which is about as close as anyone is going to get to a universally recognized conversion…there’s always someone somewhere who isn’t going to accept a conversion!)
In almost all cases, unless you’re really familiar with your local process, the best advice you can give someone is to refer them to their local Orthodox Rabbi and then give them support and encouragement. Trust me, the requirement to discourage the convert will be taken care of by the process itself and you don’t need to worry about discouraging any conversion candidate yourself!
Remember, Hopefully, This Person Will One Day Be Jewish!
Sadly, not all conversion candidates make it. I don’t know if anyone keeps any statistics, but based on my own experience with the conversion candidates I’ve known, I’d guess that the vast majority do not make it through the process. Of those, most don’t make it as far as moving into an Orthodox community and becoming a regular at the Synagogue, but even some of those don’t make it through. However, those that do? Once they emerge from the mikvah, they’re Jews and often very dedicated Jews.
Hopefully they’ll remember all the kindness shown to them, but I also doubt few forget any cruelty, either. Why not be the one that helps teach them about ahavas Yisroel (love of your fellow Jew) rather than sinas chinum (baseless hatred)?