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Reform Conversion

Return to A Resource Guide to Jewish Conversion.

If you are in an interfaith marriage and already take part in Jewish life, chances are you are in a Reform movement congregation. Reform rabbis have Guidelines for Rabbis Working with Prospective Gerim (Converts) that they adopted through their organizational body, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, in 2001. Though the CCAR document outlines a conversion process that is essentially structurally similar to an Orthodox conversion, individual rabbis interpret these guidelines in very different ways.

For example, the guideline posits that the prospective convert should learn enough Hebrew to read the prayer book and understand basic Jewish terms. Individual rabbis may not make this a hard and fast requirement. One Reform rabbi told me that he expects at least a year commitment to living in the Jewish community before conversion, while another said that he didn't think that was important.

A key issue for male converts is circumcision. Since the 1890s, Reform Judaism officially abandoned the idea of any ritual requirements for conversion. Nevertheless, Reform conversions often do include circumcision and ritual immersion rituals, even though officially the movement takes the position that these are not required. Since most men in the United States undergo non-religious infant circumcision, Orthodox and Conservative rabbis developed a ritual called hatafat dam brit, the drawing of covenantal blood, to ritualize existing circumcisions. The Reform movement does not require this ritual, though individual Reform rabbis may require it when they supervise conversions.

The fact that the Reform movement doesn't require these rituals as a movement has other implications for the potential convert. If you have a disability and cannot ritually immerse in a mikveh, a Reform rabbi may be able to help you have an alternative conversion ritual. The Reform movement does not require the presence of a rabbinical court, though most Reform conversions today do convene a court as part of the process.

These are questions that are worth asking. Since the Reform movement doesn't require these rituals and Reform rabbis have a lot of leeway making their decisions, you might anticipate a ritual that your rabbi doesn't want to do, or vice versa.

Introductory Reading

Rabbi Howard Jaffe, one of the rabbis I consulted for this guide, told me that he requires a formal Introduction to Judaism course. The Reform movement provides these courses. (You may want to start with the A Taste of Judaism course, which is the introduction to the introduction.) You can find more about the Reform movement's courses, and about Reform conversion in general, on the website of the Union for Reform Judaism.

Rabbi Jaffe usually asks all prospective Jews by choice to read As a Driven Leaf by Milton Steinberg, Basic Judaism by the same author, and depending upon their interest and kind of reading they enjoy, a series of other books. He likes to assign Jewish history reading, and mentions Paul Johnson's History of the Jews, and Leo Trepp's History of the Jewish Experience. He also likes Joseph Telushkin's books, including Jewish Literacy and Jewish Wisdom. This is only an introductory list and your rabbi may ask you to read different books and many more of them.

Hebrew for "drop of blood covenant," it is a ritual circumcision for those already circumcised. (Usually men who are converting to Judaism.) A language of West Semitic origins, culturally considered to be the language of the Jewish people. Ancient or Classical Hebrew is the language of Jewish prayer or study. Modern Hebrew was developed in the late-19th and early 20th centuries as a revival language; today it is spoken by most Israelis.
Hebrew for "collection," referring to the "collection of water," is a bath used for the purpose of ritual immersion in Judaism. Today it is used as part of the traditional procedure for converting to Judaism, by Jews who follow the laws of ritual (body) purity, and sometimes for making kitchen utensils kosher.
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