Question from a reader : How did you find the RIGHT conversion process?
Now this is from a friend who asked me via Facebook. She’s half Jewish (I’m assuming through her father since her mother would make her fully Jewish but she did not specify.)
To go through my entire conversion story would take just sort of forever although most of it has been published in Choosing to be Chosen. I published under my Hebrew name, Mordechai Yisrael. For hardcore information on how to convert to Judaism, I am going to have to have you stay tuned for the book I am in the process of writing which is going to go through the entire process more in depth and talk about everything.
However, to answer the question how I found the right conversion process, you have to understand a few things about conversion and who is and is not considered a Jew. If one’s father is Jewish and one grows up identifying as a Jew, several movements would consider that person Jewish. Reform and Reconstructionist consider you fully Jewish. Humanistic consider you Jewish (I know, a lot of people don’t consider them Jewish, but hey I do). Renewal apparently depends on the congregation as I don’t think the movement has officially made a decision but I know patrilineal Jews that are considered Jewish in Renewal. The Conservative movement and the Orthodox movements would not consider this person Jewish because Judaism is traditionally passed down through the mother, thus they would require a conversion even though the person already identifies as Jewish.
Now let’s talk conversion itself.
Until recently I only knew of one way to convert and that is what is considered the more traditional route. Circumcision (if male), beit din (of three “learned” Jews), and mikvah.
In the second process, which I learned from Webyeshiva in a shiurim called “Hilchot Geirut: The Laws of Conversion.” In the second process, a beit din is not needed so as long as the person lives as a Jew among other Jews. If a person does that, they are considered Jewish. Of course the person is not issued converting paperwork, but they would be considered Jewish. By that definition, I was Jewish long before I went before the beit din. Heck by that definition, I was born Jewish!
Honestly I am not sure there are enough options for me to be able to say “Well this process is right for me or this is wrong for me.” What I knew is that I wanted to be considered Jewish and there is only considered one way to do it as far as most Jews are concerned. Very few people accept the conversion without a beit din. This by the way is called “self-conversion.”
Self-conversion is fine in certain situations such as if you are only doing it for yourself. However, as one of my beit din members said when he handed out our certificate of completion for Introduction to Judaism, “Nothing in this religion happens without a certificate.” And that is very true. Having your “papers” (or evidence of your parents’ papers) can be very important for joining a synagogue, making aliyah, getting married, or really having almost any life cycle event. As a Jew-by-Choice, my only paperwork identifying me as a Jew is my certificate of conversion. Jews who “self-convert” don’t generally get issued conversion papers. 🙂 In addition, since there is no evidence that a conversion took place, it can be hard to prove the person did what was asked of them and that they really are Jews rather than Noahides or even gentiles who are pretending to be Jewish! I wanted my paperwork for the purposes of moving to Israel (just in case) or marrying a Jew (just in case). I also figured since I was studying for conversion for so long that I deserved my paperwork.
One can make the argument that I was living as a Jew among Jews and thus self-converted years ago. However, I hated being called a Jew before I was “official.” I felt it was a lie since I wasn’t done to my minimum standards and I did not have the rights of a Jew. To quote a favourite movie of mine (1776), it “is like calling an ox a bull. He’s thankful for the honor, but he’d much rather have restored what’s rightfully his. ”
So now that we have discussed the processes, lets talk movements/denominations. There are six branches of Judaism, but for the sake of everything let’s just concentrate on the four main movements – Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist. Actually since Reconstructionist has similar standards to Reform (ironic since Reconstructionists are a split from Conservative, NOT Reform), let’s just throw it out. Pretty much anything I say about Reform will apply to Reconstructionist (although I have had better experiences with Reform). Orthodox only recognise Orthodox conversions. Conservative recognise Orthodox, Conservative and most Reform conversions. Reform recognises all.
I have experience being rejected by all the main movements plus Reconstructionist plus post-denominational. Post-denominational is not much better than a self-conversion. The conversion is easy to question. A post-denominational rabbi sat on my beit din though.
Personally, I originally wanted to go Conservative. I am fairly traditional. I think the mitzvot should be followed to the best of one’s ability. I keep kosher. I do my best to keep shomer shabbat when I can although one of my shuls makes it almost impossible at least every two weeks. The Conservative movement, however, is not friendly to transsexuals. A Conservative rabbi is who single handedly forced me away from Judaism for many many years and who drove me to attempt suicide… twice. I was not even out as transgender at the time and was living as a woman although a butch one. Sorry I was a tomboy! If the Conservative movement hated me, the Orthodox were really going to hate me.
Then there is Reform. Reform has a lot of things going for it. It’s a very large movement. It’s LGBT friendly. Unfortunately, a lot of Orthodox consider Reform Jews barely Jewish since Reform does not believe mitzvot are binding. Plus there is the whole issue of who Reform defines as a Jew with patrilineal descent and such. Their converts are not considered Jewish by Orthodox standards, although I have had Orthodox Jews independently tell me they would make an exception for me since I am traditional at heart (tzitzit wearing etc).
As my friend Amber said once “The Orthodox do what G-d told them to do, Conservative do what they want, and Reform do nothing at all.” I’ve had several Reform Jews (including a Reform Rabbi who I was talking to before my conversion) tell me that I am really a Conservative Jew.
So when push comes to shove, the fact I am LGBT friendly pretty much puts me on the border of Reform/Conservative (although most of my practices are closer to Conservative/Orthodox, although I HATE covering my head). I dealt with SEVEN different rabbis before I could find one who was willing to work with me. He happened to be Reform. I did not care so as long as I ended up with paperwork identifying me as a Jew in the event I needed that paperwork. I already was Jewish as far as I was concerned. A Jew is a Jew no matter your flavour. On the scale of Reform practices, the synagogue is Reform leaning towards Traditional. That effectively means they are on the border of Reform/Conservative, which works for me although I am more observant.
When I went before the beit din, one of my final statements discussed what I learned in webyeshiva about conversion without a beit din. As I told them in my final sentence after that, “It really does not matter how you rule because very little is going to change. I’m still going to live as a Jew because I AM Jewish.” Less than a minute later, everyone ruled in my favour.
So to summarize. I converted because I needed to convert. I converted in the traditional way with a beit din because I was worried about my paperwork and knew self-conversion was not realistic. I converted Reform because a rabbi was willing to convert me and I was on the border of Reform/Conservative anyway. If I was half-Jewish (aka a patrilineal Jew) and had paperwork from Reform identifying me as a Jew or could GET identity paperwork, I would have been highly unlikely to convert unless I had to do so for the purposes of marrying an Orthodox person.