What should the orthodox conversion process look like? What are the steps? What is the timeline?
Let's begin with the hardest question to answer: the timeline. It will almost certainly not be less than a year. It will likely be at least two years, but may be more, depending on your personal progress (or the progress of a significant other).
The process (which will include the steps):
- Visit synagogues. ALL of the ones available to you. Even if that means more than one from a particular movement. Get a feel for them.
- Decide you would like to be orthodox (since I'm presuming we're talking about orthodox conversion). Articulate why that is, but your reasons will likely change over time and as you learn more. And be prepared to articulate why you did not choose one of the other movements (or even another orthodox subgroup!).
- Talk to a rabbi. Even better, talk to several rabbis from different groups/movements! Even if you haven't taken a single step in observance, it would be best to begin the conversation and begin getting to know a rabbi and learn about the resources in your community. Us converts can tend to be isolationists, and this is not what Judaism is about!
- Begin taking on mitzvot. Keep track of your progress. Write down every milestone you can think of and the date: taking on a new observance, as well as refining those observances.
- Start taking classes in the community or online. Read/research some more. You may want to engage a private tutor.
- Keep talking to the rabbi.
- Arrange to spend a "real" Shabbat with a family. Not a single person or couple (though do that later!). You should see a real, full orthodox family so that you can see if that's what you want your future to look like.
- Develop relationships with members of your community or Jews in other communities you visit. If you don't like Jews, you can't like Judaism. You will be surprised how quickly your relationship with the entire Jewish people will begin to resemble one big, loving, raucous family!
- Remember a few things: (1) that you will meet Jews who do not follow halacha. (2) that people will think the same thing about you. (3) that people say stupid, hurtful things sometimes. And most importantly, (4) someone else's problem is just that: his/her problem. Not yours.
- Decide how you want to describe yourself to people. Are you a "conversion candidate," "Jew in training," or something else? What information are you comfortable sharing with complete strangers? Make up stock answers that you can use at a moment's notice.
- Set up a meeting with a representative of your desired beit din. Some beit dins require that your rabbi must be the one to initiate the process. You do not have to be fully observant at this point, but please at least begin working towards observance so that you can show you understand what you're undertaking. Remember the difference: no observance necessary to start talking to your community rabbi, but you should be at least be working towards observance before meeting your beit din. However, your rabbi may advise you differently, and you should follow that advice.
- Begin following the process your beit din has designed. Some parts will be standard, but the overall process will be individual and based on your weaknesses and needs.
- You will likely begin studying with a private tutor, as well as your community rabbi.
- Become fully observant. Your beit din may place some limits on your observance.
- Refine your observance, continually learning more.
- Men get (re-)circumcised.
- Go to the beit din.
- Go to the mikvah.
The take away? Don't wait so long to talk to your potential beit din. You don't need to be fully observant to show your dedication. In fact, things will probably be much easier if you're growing in observance in conjunction with your beit din! There will be no need to un-learn things, and you'll know that there aren't holes in your knowledge! It seems like conversions take much longer when we become fully observant before beginning to work with a beit din. It's almost as though they all have a minimal period, and if you're already fully observant when you begin, you still have to wait all that time.