In the years I’ve been in process I’ve been privileged to be in contact with a lot of other conversion candidates as well as interact with a few in person. It occurred to me recently that I’ve seen a lot of common mistakes by those just starting out that could be avoided if they had a little more information up front. I’m hoping that this post helps just a few avoid these very common pitfalls!
Dating a Jew While Converting
This one is probably one of the most common ones and, I’ve been there. It seems to work out if there is already a committed relationship before you begin the conversion process, but if the relationship isn’t completely solid, the conversion process all too often is the final stressor that ends the relationship. I seem to see this most often with young women dating young Jewish men for some reason and it seems to be a recurring theme that the young Jewish man really doesn’t want to become observant, yet his family won’t settle for anything less than an Orthodox conversion. The conflict becomes that in order for her to convert, he does have to show the Beit Din (rabbinical court) that he’s committed to becoming fully observant…and staying that way. These situations involve a lot of heartache and I haven’t seen one turn out happy.
The other flavor this takes is a conversion candidate jumping into dating before the conversion is finished. This is STRONGLY discouraged by the Beit Din and may even ruin the candidate’s chances at conversion. At the least, it may severely slow down the process. I can understand people concerned that a long conversion process is going to leave them out of the dating pool too long, but there really is no other way here but patience.
Again, where there is already a longer term, committed relationship and the Jewish spouse or partner is committed to an Orthodox life, this may not be an issue at all.
Jumping Into “Appearances”
This flavor of conversion candidate has his tzitzits on, a beard, and blends right in…until you talk to him or her. It can be so uncomfortable standing out that some conversion candidates will become overly focused on externals. This can become a problem when the externals come too soon or aren’t accompanied by study and adding in regular mitzvah observance. When it becomes clear that the woman who looks more frum (observant) than anyone else doesn’t know basic blessings or other very basic prayers or the gentleman who looks more Yid (Jewish) than every man in the room doesn’t daven daily…Rabbis often will begin to question the candidate’s intentions.
This can be an easier mistake to recover from, but rather than step off on the wrong foot, ask your sponsoring Rabbi or mentor before making big changes like putting on tzitzits, growing a beard or peyos or putting on a sheitel. Let them tell you when you’re ready rather than jumping in too quickly!
Studying TOO MUCH on the Internet and Not Enough in Person
There is SO much information out there on the internet. There is also a lot of mis-information out there and it can also be hard to know what you should be studying during the conversion process and what you really probably should wait on until you have a bit more foundational knowledge of Judaism down. Nothing puts up warning signs in a Rabbi’s mind more than a conversion candidate who starts quoting obscure texts or seems to have ideas that have come pretty far outside of mainstream Judaism.
Even worse is when someone has some obscure or fringe beliefs, but lacks basic knowledge, like weekly parsha study.
Again, an easy way to avoid this one is to meet with an Orthodox Rabbi early on in your conversion process and ask them what you should study. Even better is to show up for classes in your community as a part of that learning.
Deciding that Certain Mitzvahs Don’t Apply to You
This can be a common error in communities that are very diverse in terms of observance. Sure, it’s perfectly fine for a born Jew to wear pants if that’s where she is in her own process of growing in her observance. However, it’s really important for conversion candidates to both know and accept that our path is a different one and not accept friendly advice from even Jews that tell us that we “don’t actually need to do x” or “really, no one does y.” If your sponsoring Rabbi tells you to wear skirts and how long they should be, that really is it, regardless of what other women wear. The same is true for men and their mitzvahs as well.
Rabbis aren’t looking to make more Jews that are resistant to halakhah that they need to convince and gently lead to observance. They are looking for conversion candidates to be able to abide by a Rav’s halakhic rulings without a lot of conflict. This way they can concentrate all the time and energy on kiruv (the process of helping Jews become more observant) on the born Jews who are already obligated.
Putting Off Meeting with a Rabbi or Moving to an Orthodox Community
Because of our travels, I’ve had to have that first meeting with a Rabbi about conversion a couple of times. One thing I’ve noticed each time is that sponsoring Rabbi’s tend to assume that their first meeting with you is right after the moment you even remotely considered conversion. This probably is often the case, but suffice it to say that it really doesn’t do you a lot of good to wait to meet with a Rabbi and study on your own. I made this mistake myself. I wanted to be absolutely, beyond a doubt certain that I wanted to convert before I took up a Rabbi’s time. I also wanted to be prepared when I met with him. So, I studied for months before I had my first meeting with an Orthodox Rabbi. Essentially, for the purpose of my conversion process, those months were wasted time and I would have been much better served going to meet with him sooner and letting him guide my studies even from an earlier point.
Another really common mistake I see people make is putting off moving to an Orthodox community. There are often good reasons for this, but then the conversion candidate seems to be frustrated that their process is held up. No reputable Beit Din will convert you until you live within walking distance of an Orthodox Synagogue and are integrated into a community there. There are so many small nuances that simply can’t be taught in books and there are variations from community to community. The Rabbis want to see that you have found a community where you can continue growing, with the support you need for after conversion.
In addition, if you have children or are within childbearing age, most Rabbi’s will want you in a community with day schools for any children you have.
The sooner you move, the further ahead you will be in your conversion process.
Lacking Patience and Having a “Full Cup”
Almost all these mistakes fall into two categories…either a conversion candidate lacking the extreme level of patience that conversion requires or having what I call a “full cup.” There’s a quote in one of my favorite movies that I love because I often fall into that trap. A character says, “You cannot fill a cup that is already full.” Conversion requires both an amazing amount of patience to move slower than you think you need to as well as an ability to let go of what you think you know and be taught and led.
Both of these go completely against our current society, in which you’re expected to push and strive for what you want, to be a “go getter,” and also where you’re never supposed to admit you lack some knowledge or allow yourself to be led.
Perhaps the most powerful things I’ve learned during my time as a conversion candidate have been to let go and unlearn what I’ve learned, allowing myself to be open and teachable like a child again and to be led as well as having the patience to be that child again, always chafing at not being “old enough” to take a next step, but realizing that growth just takes time.
I’m sure there are other mistakes out there. Have you seen any that would be good for new conversion candidates to know to avoid?