What is a Beis Din? Is it different than a Beit Din or Beth Din? These are often questions early conversion candidates have. Simply put, a Beis Din or however else you pronounce it or spell it is a Rabbincal Court. These courts are courts in the justice system sense, not the royal sense and Rabbinical Courts actually are the foundation of most modern justice systems. The concept is very similar in that there are most often 3 Rabbis that act as judges and people bring cases to the court for decisions to be made.
These courts handle all kinds of matters for Orthodox Jews and many of them are the same sorts of issues that people would go to a conventional court for. Orthodox Jews will sometimes choose to settle their differences in the Beis Din rather than in civil court, for example, if there is a disagreement over one Jew paying another for a service. It’s also the only place to dissolve a halakhic marriage by the process of a get. If a couple has a civil divorce in the regular courts, they will still need to go through the get process with a Beis Din before they can remarry as Orthodox Jews.
Conversion is also one of the common cases that comes in front of a Beis Din, but not every Beis Din can rule on a conversion. Only certain Rabbis and Rabbinical courts can be used for a conversion, at least if you want that conversion to be generally accepted in Orthodox communities and in Israel. A good list to start with of courts and Rabbis that can handle matters of conversion is here.
For most conversion candidates, a trip to the Beis Din comes only after they’ve cleared the hurdle of gaining a local Orthodox Rabbi to sponsor them and then that Rabbi referring them to the court. In some cases, this Rabbi will accompany them to the court, but not always. In most cases, conversion candidates are not given a conversion date in their first meeting with a court, but it does occasionally happen, but it’s also not unusual for a conversion candidate to have several meetings with a court before they are approved for conversion. You just never know.
I’ve been to two different meetings with two different Beis Din and each one was a bit different. In general, you want to dress as if you’re going to Shabbos services, whatever that means for you in the community you’re coming from. Most Rabbinical courts seem to be made up of Rabbis from more than one community. Each Beis Din I met with had a mix of Litvish and Chassidic Rabbis. RCA (Rabbinical Council of America) Beis Dins probably also have some Modern Orthodox Rabbis. Suffice it to say that the Rabbi’s joining you may be from a different community than the one you’re used to, with different customs, but they’re all highly respected Rabbis and all very learned in matters of Jewish law.
So, what are they going to ask you? What are they looking for?
Again, it’s hard to say because every conversion case is different. Many converts say that they were asked some tricky questions about different basic aspects of halakhah (Jewish law). Others get into deep philosophical discussions with their Beis Din about why they want to be Jewish. Ours was probably a bit different than most because the central part of our case that they were trying to determine was whether my husband is Jewish or not and whether he needs a full conversion or a gerius l’chumrah, which is a conversion just to remove all doubt. So, the questions we were asked may be different than those someone coming to convert without any Jewish past might face.
How do you prepare for a Beis Din meeting?
The best preparation, by far, is by living in a fully functional Orthodox Jewish community. There is no substitute for the learning that happens spending time in the homes of Orthodox Jews on Shabbos, cooking with them in the shul kitchen, attending minyan daily, etc. Just like learning a new language, learning happens best and quickest by immersion and there is no amount of reading that can make up for being immersed in a Jewish life. Beyond that, there are good books to read to learn the basic laws of Shabbos, Kashrus, and Mikvah (if that applies to you). Those are the big three that any Orthodox Jew needs to understand in order to live an observant life. In addition, learning about holidays, some Jewish history, and basic laws of prayers and blessings is important. I have a list of learning resources here. Beyond that, you’ll want to bring any important paperwork with you and they’ll be interested in important dates, so if you think you might forget those, be sure to write them down.
In my experience, at least, Rabbis who serve on Rabbinical courts are firm, fair, and kind. It really seems like as long as you are being upfront and honest with them and your intentions are sincere, they don’t want to unnecessarily stress or frighten you. They do have a weighty responsibility to make sure that anyone converting is going to be a good, observant Jew and I think most try hard to balance that responsibility with a sensitivity to how difficult the process is for the potential convert. In most cases, if you’ve made it as far as the Beis Din, you’ve already proven your dedication and sincerity and the biggest thing that the Rabbis are now trying to determine is if you’re prepared to convert and live as an Orthodox Jew or if you need some more time.
Functionally, most Beis Dins aren’t quite as formal as civil courts. Most meet either in Synagogue buildings or even at a Rabbi’s home. In general, you can expect someone to be taking notes, often one of the Rabbi’s and it’s a good idea to bring your own pen and paper, too, in case they have things that they would like you to do after the meeting or questions you need to find answers and get back to them with. You really shouldn’t count on your memory, similar to how it’s recommended to take notes when you visit a doctor. If you have children, you may be asked to meet without them or only for a portion of the meeting. In general, the Rabbis are more concerned with the adults involved since they will be responsible for guiding and teaching any children that are converted. Try to answer questions as fully and briefly as possible and understand that each Rabbi may have a particular area he is more concerned with and it might not be the area you expected to talk about. Generally, at the end, you’ll have an opportunity to ask them questions and there it’s a good idea to ask about your next steps and anything you should do/change before the next meeting.
It can be a very emotional day, no matter how the meeting goes. I recommend taking the entire day off from work or other concerns if possible and having a plan to eat out or have food already prepared so that you don’t have to worry about your basic needs before or after your meeting. It’s also good to have nothing big scheduled so that you can rest if you didn’t sleep well the night before or have some quiet time to think.