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Certain strands of Jewish tradition suggest that caution should be taken when it comes to bringing in converts, no doubt due to the concern that the decision to convert is a serious one. Yet, other rabbinic texts declare that bringing in converts should be a major Jewish priority. Indeed, according to Rabbi Elazar "God scattered Israel among the nations for the sole purpose that converts would become numerous among them." (Bab. Talmud, Pesachim 87b)
Today in the Reform Movement there is a growing openness, even eagerness, to welcome converts. Many assume it is difficult to convert to Judaism. It is not. Yet there is a responsibility on the part of every sponsoring rabbi to try to make sure that each convert to Judaism has sufficient knowledge, Jewish experience, and commitment.
Steps to Conversion
One begins the process of conversion by making an appointment to see a rabbi. At this initial appointment the rabbi can help the candidate get an overview of the requirements for conversion and answer any specific questions. Every rabbi has his or her own requirements. Mine include: 1) a program of study, preferably the Union of American Hebrew Congregations' Introduction to Judaism Course, which is a sixteen to twenty week course taught in different Boston-area synagogues by rabbis and educators 2) a year of observing the major Jewish holidays 3) attendance at synagogue at least twice a month for a year. I also expect the candidate to meet with me privately from time to time so I can answer questions that arise and get a sense of how he or she is feeling about the process. Rabbis do not charge for facilitating the process of conversion. It is part of our overall rabbinical responsibilities, and we consider it an honor to be able to help escort someone into the Jewish community.
After a year, when the candidate and I feel that he/she is ready, I will bring him/her to the Boston Area Reform Rabbis (BARR) Beit Din , the rabbinical court. The Beit Din consists of three rabbis who conduct a half-hour interview with the candidate. The purpose of the interview is not to test the candidate but to underscore the importance of the decision to convert. The Beit Din interview consists of hearing the candidate tell of his or her journey to Judaism and asking general questions about learning, worship, observance, and issues having to do with family and the Jewish people. While in other regions of the country, the candidate often goes to the mikvah , or ritual bath, immediately after the interview with the Beit Din , at the BARR Beit Din we have separated the ritual of immersion from the interview in case a glaring problem surfaces in the interview concerning a candidate's inability to give up a belief in Jesus or something similar. No such incident has ever happened, but the Beit Din still feels it is important to retain its juridical authority. As indicated above, each Boston-area Reform rabbi has his or her own requirements and procedures, and some choose not to include the separate BARR Beit Din interview in the process of conversion.
In terms of the rituals of conversion, while a variety of ceremonies exist, almost all Reform rabbis in the Boston area encourage their candidates to undergo immersion at a mikvah , a chest-high ritual bath containing some collected rain water mixed with tap water, or at a natural body of water such as a lake or river. I interpret immersion in the mikvah to symbolize a new birth, immersing oneself in the waters of a Jewish womb and emerging with a new Jewish identity. T'veelah , or immersion, also requires a Beit Din consisting of three rabbis or a rabbi with two Jewish witnesses. When the candidate for conversion is a woman, I have a female rabbi or witness observe the immersion while I and the other witness stand behind the door to the mikvah . Prior to immersion, the candidate is asked for the last time if he/she is doing this of his/her own free will and if he/she is committed to Judaism and the Jewish people. The candidate immerses himself/herself once, then recites a traditional blessing followed by two more immersions. He/she continues with a Shecheheyanu , the blessing which celebrates new and special events, and the conversion is complete.
In the case of a male convert, many Reform rabbis are encouraging hatafat dam, or symbolic circumcision, in which a drop of blood is draw from the penis by a mohel , a traditional expert in circumcision. This is done prior to going to the mikvah. In cases in which the candidate has not been circumcised, some Reform rabbis will also advocate brit milah , the covenant of circumcision, by a urologist at the hospital with the appropriate blessings. I know of very few Reform rabbis who insist on brit milah/hatafat dam and mikvah . While I encourage these traditional rites of conversion, if a candidate is fearful of the water or simply does not want to go to the mikvah or undergo brit milah/hatafat dam, I will conduct a verbal ceremony of conversion in the synagogue sanctuary in front of the open ark, with witnesses. In general, the growing tendency of Reform rabbis to use traditional ritual conversion rites is not only because we feel that the rituals are self-authenticating, but also because there is an attempt by the Reform rabbinate to gain acceptance of Reform converts in Klal Yisrael , the greater world-wide Jewish community. Due to political issues, especially in Israel, performance of halakhic (Jewish legal) ritual does not guarantee Orthodox acceptance.
After conversion, it is also appropriate for a candidate to choose a Jewish name. They are then known as so and so, the son or daughter of Abraham and Sarah (every convert is a son or daughter of Abraham and Sarah). The convert can be given his or her Jewish name, which has been pre-selected, immediately after immersion at the mikvah or later privately at the synagogue. Some rabbis will also arrange for a public affirmation of the conversion during a Sabbath service, during which the convert shares with the congregation his/her feelings about their conversion and perhaps has his/her first aliyah (blessing over the Torah).
My thirty-three year experience in the rabbinate has convinced me that conversion to Judaism is a wonderful experience for the convert and at the same time enriches the entire Jewish community.