National | Religion & Jewish Life

JTA SPECIAL REPORT: CONVERSION IN AMERICA 10 questions about Jewish conversion you want to know but are afraid to ask

While none of the Jewish denominations sanction quickie conversions, there are ways to cheat the system using corrupt rabbis. This humorously labeled breath spray, however, probably won't do the trick. (carloscappaticci/ Creative Commons)
While none of the Jewish denominations sanction quickie conversions, there are ways to cheat the system using corrupt rabbis. This humorously labeled breath spray, however, probably won’t do the trick. (carloscappaticci/ Creative Commons)

(This is part of a special JTA report on conversion in America. Read our other pieces about who’s converting to Judaism, and about the denomination-by-denomination breakdown of how the different denominations do conversion.)

Must coverts pass a test to become a Jew?
Generally, no. Across all the denominations, rabbis are more interested in commitment to living as a Jew than in testing Jewish knowledge. However, such a commitment requires a certain level of fluency with Jewish practices, which varies by denomination.

Are there ways to skirt the system?

Absolutely. This is America! If your first choice of rabbi won’t convert you, keep looking. None of the Jewish denominations sanction quickie conversions for pay, but it’s not too hard to find stories of rabbis willing to take cash in exchange for fast conversions — in all denominations.

If someone converts to Judaism but then ceases to live a Jewish lifestyle, can the conversion be revoked?
Orthodox: “We recognize that we can’t predict the future,” says Rabbi Yona Reiss, who oversees Orthodox conversions for the Rabbinical Council of America and is head of the Chicago Rabbinical Council. “If there was a proper commitment at the time of the conversion process, of course the conversion is valid.”

Conservative: “The predominant halachic position for centuries with which the Rabbinical Assembly concurs is that conversions cannot be retroactively negated,” says Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly.

Reform: “If a Jew leaves Judaism by adopting another religion, that individual is regarded as outside the boundaries of the Jewish community,” says Rabbi Stephen Einstein, co-chair of the Commission on Outreach, Membership, and Sacred Community of the Union for Reform Judaism and Central Conference of American Rabbis. “Of course, s/he could choose at a later time to return.”

Orthodox conversion ostensibly requires a full commitment to an observant lifestyle. Are there any allowances for someone interested in conversion for the sake of marriage?

“A number of religious authorities wrote about cases of somebody who ostensibly is converting for the sake of marriage,” Reiss says. “As long as the individual ultimately wants to take on a Jewish lifestyle and sincerely believes in the Jewish way of life and ideology and theology of Judaism, then such a conversion could be performed.”

Most conversions involve mikvah immersion, which must be witnessed by three religious judges. Doesn’t that violate Jewish precepts about modesty, especially for Orthodox female converts who must dip in front of male judges?

In Orthodox conversions of women, the judges are poolside at the mikvah and the woman enters wearing a loose-fitting robe. When she’s ready to disrobe, the judges turn away and a “mikvah lady” witnesses the actual immersion. In a Reform conversion, the judges may stay in an anteroom while a mikvah attendant witnesses the immersion.
By and large, Orthodox law does not count non-Orthodox converts as Jews. Are there any circumstances under which Orthodox law might count someone as a Jew but liberal movements would not?

Yes. In Reform Judaism, a child of an interfaith marriage must be raised as Jewish to be considered a Jew. If the child isn’t, he’s considered a gentile, even if his mother is Jewish. “The mother’s status does not overrule the child’s upbringing and personal practice,” says Rabbi Daniel Freelander, president of the World Union of Progressive Judaism. “Most rabbis would strongly urge them to undergo conversion.”

Conservative Jewish leaders have criticized Israel’s Chief Rabbinate for treating non-Orthodox conversions as invalid. But doesn’t the Conservative movement also view Reform conversions as invalid?

Each conversion is considered on a case-by-case basis. A Reform conversion could be kosher, Schonfeld says, if it included mikvah immersion, circumcision and “a serious course of study and commitment to live a Jewish life, join a Jewish community and cast one’s lot with the Jewish people.”

Are Conservative converts expected to adhere to Jewish law as defined by Conservative Judaism?
Generally, no. The minimum requirements vary by rabbi but usually include a commitment to live as a Jew and adopt some form of the basic observances. “What I tell people is, in order to convert, they need to be engaging with all of the areas of Jewish life,” says Rabbi Adam Greenwald, director of the Miller Introduction to Judaism Program at American Jewish University in Los Angeles.

How are children converted?
Consent is not required for children under bar mitzvah age, but they may opt out when reaching that age. There are two primary scenarios in which children convert to Judaism. One, adoptive Jewish parents convert a non-Jewish child. Two, children are converted as part of entire families joining the Jewish faith. In both scenarios, children may choose not to be Jewish when they reach bar or bat mitzvah age, or at the point of discovery if they are older but did not know they had been adopted. Unless they opt out at that instant, they’re stuck being Jewish forever.

Is formal conversion really necessary to be considered part of the Jewish people? After all, so many synagogues welcome non-Jewish members and so many rabbis sanction interfaith weddings.

It’s true that Jewish communities have become more inclusive of non-Jews, particularly non-Orthodox synagogues. Many Reform and some Conservative synagogue grant membership to non-Jews, Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis will officiate at interfaith weddings, and some Jewish cemeteries will grant burial rights to non-Jewish spouses.
“There are plenty of people who want to sojourn in the synagogue and not convert and still know they’re part of the Jewish family,” said the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, Rabbi Rick Jacobs. They’re “living in the Jewish community.”

Indeed, surveys show that actual converts to Judaism are far outnumbered by Americans born outside the faith who consider themselves Jewish despite having never formally converted to Judaism. However, even in the most liberal Jewish communities, there is a dividing line that excludes non-Jews. Practically no synagogues allow non-Jews to be called to the Torah (unless they are accompanying a Jewish spouse at their kid’s bar mitzvah). Jews married to non-Jews are barred from admission to rabbinical school. And, of course, non-Jews can’t marry Jews under Conservative or Orthodox auspices.

Most importantly, you can call yourself whatever you want – friend of, member of, parent of. But unless you formally join, you’re no Jew.

(Read So you want to convert to Judaism…)