Religion & Jewish Life

Conversion to Judaism: denomination by denomination

Mikvah immersion is required for Orthodox and Conservative conversions and strongly recommended for Reform conversions. (Mayyim Hayyim/Tom Kates)
Mikvah immersion is required for Orthodox and Conservative conversions and strongly recommended for Reform conversions. (Mayyim Hayyim/Tom Kates)

(This is part of a special JTA report on conversion in America. Read our other pieces about who’s converting to Judaism in the AJP category Religion and Jewish Life, and about the 10 questions about Jewish conversion you want to know but are afraid to ask.)

Number of converts: Unknown. Over the last seven years, approximately 1,275 conversions have been certified by conversion courts affiliated with the Rabbinical Council of America, but plenty of Orthodox conversions take place outside the RCA’s system.

Ritual: Approval by a three-judge religious court comprised of three Orthodox men (usually rabbis), male circumcision (or, for circumcised men, symbolic drawing of blood at the place of circumcision) and ritual immersion in a mikvah.

Requirements: Commitment to performing all the Torah’s commandments according to Orthodox interpretations of Jewish law.

Preparation: In most cases, regular study with a rabbi and/or religious mentor. The only rabbi known to offer an Orthodox conversion class in the United States, Rabbi Maury Kelman of New York, has a yearlong curriculum for his Manhattan Mechina L’Giyur that covers Jewish philosophy, law, history and ethics; field trips to places like Brooklyn and Israel; and occasional Shabbaton weekends. Prospective converts are expected to adopt Jewish practices, join an Orthodox Jewish community and regularly attend synagogue.

Who’s converting? Spiritual seekers, non-Jews dating Jews, gentiles drawn to Judaism through friends and those who converted through other Jewish denominations. The latter category includes individuals raised as Jews in non-Orthodox households who subsequently realized they don’t count as Jewish according to Orthodox Jewish law (usually because their mother isn’t halachically Jewish), as well as individuals who previously converted Reform or Conservative and then decided they wanted an Orthodox conversion. This usually happens because they became more observant or want their Jewish status to be unimpeachable. Kelman estimates the breakdown of students at his Orthodox conversion course in Manhattan as 30-35 percent converts who already converted outside of Orthodoxy, 30 percent relationship converts, 15 percent seekers and 15 percent drawn to Judaism for social reasons. The vast majority of Kelman’s students are women, mostly aged 25 to 40.

Attitude toward conversions performed by other denominations: Not good enough. Orthodox conversion is the only acceptable path to becoming a Jew.

Problems: Only in 2007 did the Rabbinical Council of America, the country’s main centrist Orthodox rabbinic association, establish a standardized process for conversions. The system, called Geirus Policies and Standards, or GPS, constituted an attempt to “provide reasonable assurance that its converts and their offspring be accorded acceptance and recognition in other Jewish communities in the future.” But with many Orthodox conversions still taking place outside this system (perhaps most), critics say the establishment of central standards automatically casts aspersions on the Jewish credentials of anyone who does not go through the GPS process.

Who is a Jew without conversion: Anyone whose mother is Jewish according to halachah. In cases of uncertainty, such as some Ethiopian immigrants to Israel or members of so-called Lost Tribes whose Jewish ancestry is not universally accepted or known, most Orthodox authorities prefer conversion just to be on the safe side.

Number: Unknown. A ballpark estimate of 2,500-3,000 converts per year worldwide is cited by the head of the movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, a figure based on an extrapolation from the 350 people the movement says convert every year under its aegis in Los Angeles.

Ritual: Approval by a three-judge religious court, male circumcision (or symbolic drawing of blood) and mikvah immersion. The court judges ideally will be three Conservative rabbis, but it’s not a must. In smaller communities, cantors or suitable community members will do.

Preparation: Several U.S. cities have conversion institutes that run Introduction to Judaism courses. In addition — and in some places instead of classes — conversion candidates will meet with a rabbi one on one. Prospective converts are also expected to become part of the Jewish community, attend synagogue, celebrate holidays and engage with Jewish practice in some meaningful way. A sponsoring rabbi is necessary to complete the conversion.

Requirements: “The prospective convert must renounce all other religious beliefs and practices and commit to living a moral life according to Jewish teaching, having a Jewish household and, if they have children, raising them as Jews,” Schonfeld says. “They must commit to adopt and grow in their observances of Shabbat and holidays and kashrut, to give tzedakah and to engage in Jewish study. The exact minimum requirements for these and other observances vary somewhat from rabbi to rabbi.” Few if any rabbis require commitment to Jewish law as defined by the Conservative movement.

Who’s converting? Two-thirds are non-Jews in an interfaith relationship with a Jew, says Rabbi Adam Greenwald, director of the Miller Introduction to Judaism Program at American Jewish University in Los Angeles. But because intermarriage is so prevalent among Conservative Jews these days (nearly four in 10 Conservative Jews are doing it, according to Steven M. Cohen of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion), partners willing to go the extra step and convert tend to be pretty involved with Judaism, Greenwald says. The other one-third of Conservative converts include spiritual seekers, young people turned on to Judaism through friends in college, the elderly — even single moms looking for direction, according to Greenwald.

Attitude toward conversions performed by other denominations: If the conversion meets Conservative requirements, it’s kosher. That generally includes Orthodox conversions and excludes Reform ones, but not across the board. If a Reform conversion included an acceptable three-judge panel, mikvah, circumcision, and a serious course of study and commitment to Jewish life, there are Conservative rabbis who would find it acceptable.

Problems: Conservative conversions are not recognized by Orthodox institutions, including Israel’s Chief Rabbinate.

So if you immigrate to Israel (the Israeli Interior Ministry accepts Conservative conversions for the purposes of immigration), you probably won’t be considered Jewish by the Rabbinate and therefore won’t be permitted to marry a Jew in Israel. You’ll either have to marry overseas, have an “unofficial” wedding in Israel that won’t be recognized by law or re-convert Orthodox style.

Who is a Jew without conversion: Anyone with a Jewish mother according to Conservative interpretations of Jewish law.

Number: Unknown, but at least 800-900 per year. The American Jewish Archives in Cincinnati keeps a record of conversion certificates but does not know what proportion of converts send them in. The Union for Reform Judaism says over 1,000 individuals took one of its 16-week conversion classes in 2013.

Ritual: Varies. All “Jews by choice” make some kind of public declaration of commitment. It may be in the rabbi’s office before a three-person religious panel, in front of the entire congregation in the synagogue sanctuary or at the mikvah. Mikvah immersion is recommended but not required. Some men also undergo circumcision or the symbolic drawing of blood, but it’s not required. In synagogue conversion ceremonies, the convert typically holds the Torah, recites the Shema, is given a Hebrew name and receives a blessing.

Preparation: A 14- to 16-week Introduction to Judaism class that meets weekly and covers such topics as basic Hebrew and prayer, holidays, Jewish history, Jewish lifecycle, Israel and how-to Judaism. These may be supplemented or substituted by individualized counseling or study sessions with rabbis.

Requirements: Broadly speaking, commitment to the Jewish people, living life as a Jew and Jewish values. Some ceremonies require affirmation of six key tenets as outlined in the conversion service published by the movement in 1988: accepting Judaism to the exclusion of all other religious; freely entering the covenant between God and the Jewish people; being loyal to Judaism and the Jewish people; establishing a Jewish home and participating actively in synagogue and communal life; pursuing Torah and Jewish knowledge; raising one’s children as Jews.

Who’s converting? Longtime non-Jewish spouses of Jews who may have raised Jewish children and long been involved in synagogue life and now want to formalize their Jewish identity; gentiles marrying Jews; spiritual seekers.

Feeling toward conversions performed by other denominations: If you have chosen to become a Jew and gone through some kind of legitimate conversion, you’re Jewish.

Problems: If you’re applying for Israeli citizenship, Reform conversions usually pass muster with the Israeli Interior Ministry but not with the Orthodox-dominated Israeli Chief Rabbinate. That means you can move to Israel but you can’t marry a Jew there. In the United States, too, Orthodox institutions don’t accept Reform conversions. Your conversion probably won’t count according to Conservative interpretations of Jewish law, either, but that depends on the specifics of your conversion and which Conservative rabbi you ask.

Who is a Jew without conversion: Anyone with a Jewish parent (mother or father) living as a Jew. Someone with a Jewish parent who identifies with another faith is not considered Jewish.

(This piece does not include conversion by other denominations or no denomination because the numbers are negligible compared with the three main American Jewish religious denominations.)

Read 10 questions about Jewish conversion you want to know but are afraid to ask.