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Converting to Judaism - Becoming a Jew

 

Why this page is here

We believe that Judaism or any other people and faith should be open to those who want to join it. However, this is not a religious Web site. Your religious beliefs and ethnic identity are your affair. The Jewish people and religion do not seek adherents in the way that Christianity or Islam proselytize. However, we have had many inquiries about the subject of conversion, so it seemed that some basic  information and Web resources should be available for anyone who wants to become a Jew. The author does not pretend to be a religious authority or expert in this subject. Note also that there are many diverging and conflicting practices regarding conversion.

Why become a Jew?

Considering the difficult history of the Jewish people, and the considerable amount of Jew-hate in the world, perhaps there are good reasons not to become Jewish. You may wish to become Jewish because you are going to marry a Jew or because you have come to live in Israel, or because you are Jewish by ethnicity (have a Jewish ancestor)  and according to the law of return, but do not meet the criteria of orthodox Judaism to be a member of the Jewish religion.

Among the people of the world, there are probably several millions whose ancestors were Jewish and whose families may have a dim memory of Judaism, and many of these people, converted by force or for convenience to another religion, may seek to return to the faith of their ancestors.

There are others who may decide that Judaism is the correct path for them and they should be welcomed. However, nobody converting to Judaism should expect or be offered any material reward, and conversion must never be due to pressure or coercion of any kind.  Over 200,000 people have converted to Judaism in the United States alone.

What do Jews believe?

Members of the Jewish faith believe that there is one God, who is omnipotent and indivisible, and with whom the Jews have a covenant, a special relationship of ethical and moral obligations and of protection. The Jewish God, unlike the Christian trinity, has no distinct parts. The "spirit of God" mentioned in the Bible is understood metaphorically.  Jews allow no pictures or images of God. The orthodox Jew undertakes, in addition 613 commandments, that include dietary proscriptions, daily prayers, refraining from travel and work on the Sabbath and numerous other obligations.

Jews can view Jesus as a wise Jewish teacher, but Jews do not believe in the divinity or resurrection of Jesus. The afterlife, resurrection at the end of days, heaven and hell have become a part of Jewish theology and different Jewish traditions, though they did not apparently constitute part of the beliefs of Mosaic Judaism.

In addition to a long period of study, conversion to Judaism requires a ceremony of immersion in a ritual bath, and for males, circumcision. Converted Jews often change their family name to "ben Avraham," the son of Abraham. Those who become Jewish are adopted into the family of Abraham as though they were his actual descendants, and are initiated into the covenant of Abraham, as commanded to all Jews. Therefore, males who wish to convert to Judaism must undergo circumcision in Conservative and Orthodox rites.  If they are already circumcised, there is a symbolic ceremony that takes the place of circumcision. At least some Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis will apparently perform conversion without circumcision. However, Reform Judaism also have a Berit Milah (circumcision) program. See  http://beritmila.org/

Jews who convert to Christianity or to "Messianic Judaism" are no longer considered part of the Jewish community by Jewish religious authorities and by most other Jews.

Conversion and Converts in Judaism

Jewish religious thought holds seemingly contradictory views of conversion and converts. For example, consider these different quotes:

The only reason god exiled the Jews among the nations was so that converts could be added. (Pesachim 87b)

Continuous evil comes to those who accept converts (Yevamot 109b)

Converts are as difficult for Israel like a nasty sore. (Yevamot 109b)

'The Souls they made in Charan' These are the converts which Avraham and Sarah converted. This teaches us that whoever brings a gentile close and converts him it is as if he created that person (Bereshit Rabah 39)

The names of Gerim are as dear to me as  idolatrous wine poured on the altar. (Vayikra Rabah 1)

Even a gentile who converted and busies himself with Torah is considered as if he were the chief priest (Cohen Gadol). (Bamidbar Rabah 8)

Come and see how beloved converts are to God... (Ruth Rabah 2)

The major fear engendered by converts is that they would be insincere or ignorant and would introduce non-Jewish and unacceptable customs into the Jewish community, such as polytheism and idolatry. In the first centuries of the exile however, Judaism was apparently an active and very successful proselytizing religion. As much as ten percent of the population of the ancient Roman world were probably Jewish at one time, and in addition, there are many whose grave inscription read "Yereh Elohim" (god fearing) meaning that that while they had not converted to Judaism, they had accepted monotheism and many tenets of Judaism. Conversion activity stopped because it was outlawed by Christianity and Islam. At least some streams of Judaism however, are actively reaching out for converts today. 

Judaism and Zionism

We believe that Israel and Zionism hold a central place in Judaism. Zion and the holy land certainly hold a central place in the Jewish faith and prayers. However, it is not necessary to be a Jew to support Israel or the right of the Jews for a state, and support for Israel or Zionism is not a requirement for conversion to Judaism.

Is it hard to become a Jew?

It is much more difficult to become a Jew than it is to become  Christian or a Muslim, Becoming a Jew means joining a people as well as a faith, assuming a new ethnic identity and joining a worldwide community centered on Israel, on the Jewish history and the Jewish faith. Therefore, conversion to Judaism entails a long period of study, learning and preparation.

Different types of Jews

The foundations of the Jewish faith are given in the The Old Testament Bible and in the later law books, particularly the Mishna, the Talmud and the Shulhan Aruch. These are variously interpreted by different streams and factions and rabbis. There are four main streams of Judaism: Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist. Orthodox Jews are the strictest and, unfortunately, may not recognize the conversions performed by other rabbis. While there is no recognized central authority for the Jewish religion, if the Israeli chief rabbinate and rabbinical accepts a conversion or decides that a person is Jewish according to Halachic (Jewish religious) law, that decision is honored by all other streams. However, the reverse is not true.

A person may be accepted as a Jew according to the law of return by the Israeli government, but that does not mean that they are recognized as a Jew for purposes of marriage by the chief rabbinate.

How to become a Jew: Conversion Resources

If you are interested in converting to Judaism and have consulted at least elementary materials on the subject, you should contact a rabbi of the appropriate stream of Judaism to learn more and perhaps being the course of study that is required. The following are some centers and resources about Jewish conversion. The author and  www.zionism-israel.com  make no recommendations regarding these different organizations and persons, They are presented as a service for your convenience. We will be glad to add additional resources and notes.

Books:

Diamant, Anita, Choosing a Jewish Life: A Handbook for People Converting to Judaism and for Their Family and Friends, Schocken Books, 1998, ISBN-10: 0805210954

Epstein, Lawrence, Conversion to Judaism: A Guidebook, Jason Aronson, 1994 ISBN-10: 1568211287

Web Resources:

Note - the links will open in a new browser page or tab.

The Center for Conversion to Judaism - Conservative Rabbi Stephen C. Lerner.

Convert to Judaism Home Page of the conversion center - non-orthodox conversion

Becoming Jewish - Orthodox Conversion.

Converting to Judaism An eclectic Orthodox approach by Rabbi Celso Cukierkorn  of Adat Achim Synagogue in Florida.

Orthodox conversion to judaism - This site offers a great many links and resources and a chat board support group.

The Institute for Halakhic Conversion - Conversion according to orthodox Jewish Halacha.

Jews by Choice: Converting to Judaism  - Conversion resources of all streams provided by Reconstructionist Judaism.

Union of Reform Judaism: Conversion - Resources for conversion in the Reform stream. <

Boston Reform Judaism Outreach - Conversion - Offers explanations and courses.

Organizations that prepare for conversion to Judaism - A list prepared by the Israel Ministry of Absorption.

ITIM - Conversion in Israel - a step by step online guide by an organization whose goal is to make the process easier and integrate converts into Israeli and Jewish life.

Conversion in Israel - An online booklet in Hebrew produced by the Israel Ministry of Absorption.

External Resources about Judaism

Judaism

BBC Judaism

Judaism 101 - a basic introduction

Falsifiers of the Talmud

Antisemitism

 

Friends:

Magdeburger Chossid

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Anti-Zionism is Anti-Semitism

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Conversion to Judaism - Becoming a Jew