Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Conversion Special Cases: Young Conversion Candidates

What if you're considering converting to Judaism in your teens or early 20s? You face special problems during conversion. Sorry. But on the bright side, there are common problems that you will hopefully never deal with! In other words, all conversions have "problems" and frustrations. Unfortunately, when you're under 18 (or even under 22), you have less people to commiserate with and learn from. 

What problems might you face?
  • If you're under 18, most rabbis absolutely will not work with you. Some might with active (and written) permission from your parents.
  • Rabbis might not take you seriously because of your age. Of course, that applies across the board to any decision you make. At this age, most people won't take you seriously about any major life decision. I don't think anyone took me seriously until at least 24. Rabbis may be particularly hesitant if you have a bad home life. They may think you are trying to escape an abusive or otherwise negative family setting. But don't fret yet. Many conversion candidates (myself included) come from difficult family situations. Perhaps that is what makes us comfortable with making major life changes!
  • Rabbis may not believe you will maintain major life changes. For example, I know many people who became vegetarians for a few months or changed college majors 5 times. If you're in high school, you may choose to go to college in a community with few Jewish resources. When you're just starting your adult life, rabbis may doubt your willingness to live far from your family, even a bad one.
  • You have limited financial resources for books, tutoring, or establishing a kosher home.
  • You may lack the financial resources and job training to move to a large urban area.
  • Most batei din will expect you to move out of your parents' home and may even require full financial independence from your family. (And in some cases, they'll just tell you they expect full financial independence, even though they might accept significantly less.) Moving out of your parents' home is generally a non-negotiable prerequisite.
  • Rabbis may be more hesitant than normal about a conversion candidate dating a Jew because secular dating rarely leads to marriage at those ages. No matter how insistent you are on staying with your partner, a beit din may not take your relationship seriously. Thus, they believe that your interest in Judaism will stop once the relationship ends.

And now that you're frustrated, let me remind you of what you will hopefully avoid if you pursue your conversion now:
  • The "shidduch crisis." You should be available to date and marry at the "normal" ages instead of starting "late."
  • You are less likely to fall victim to unscrupulous people who charge exorbitant fees for tutoring and conversion. You simply can't afford them. You may also qualify for free or reduced conversion fees. But do be careful of people who may exploit your naivete. 
  • You will build Jewish memories very early in your adult life. I can attest to the comfort I have from knowing that basically my entire adult life has been lived Jewishly. Born Jews often seem to feel they can relate to me better once that piece of information is exposed. I guess I seem less alien.
  • You may still qualify for "life experiences" that frum-from-birth young adults experience. This includes the ability to attend yeshiva/seminary in Israel, working as a camp counselor during the summers, joining the Israeli Defense Force, attending a college with a large frum population, or marrying young and having your first child by 20. Not to mention Birthright.
Conversion as a young adult is difficult but certainly not impossible. Many people who begin considering conversion at that age take several years to "seal the deal." I would be one of those people, starting my own process at 20 but not having any conversion until 25. I feel that was the right decision in my case, but everyone is different. This is not something you want to rush.

Please feel free to add your own advice to the comments.

8 comments:

  1. Some of these things certainly hold true for becoming religious late in life as well!

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  2. LOL! All of this applies to me. I was a dating a frum Jew when I first approached a Beit Din (we're married now)and I was 19. They kept trying to deter me but I was unstoppable. I moved out and broke up with the boyfriend (lasted as long as I was in the conversion process, which was 1 year and 4 months). Not only did I show them I'm serious but we didn't even get married until three years had passed since my conversion. The fact that we didn't rush to the chuppah I believe served us well--it proved that I wasn't driven by hormones. I wanted to be a Jew since I was 12 and I was able to reach that goal when I was 20. I'm 24 now, I'm happily married, and I'm happily a Jew.

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  3. I think each age has its unique challenges, but I definitely think it is harder for younger conversion candidates to be taken seriously. They may also find that their families also take their decision less seriously or perhaps think it is a phase.

    On the bright side, they are less likely to have children, an established job, or have purchased a house outside of an Orthodox community, all of which can pose challenges. It is often a bit easier to make major life changes while you are early in adulthood as opposed to changing mid-stream.

    I like to think each age brings with it a special set of both challenges and benefits and that we each end up in the process at the time that is right for us.

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  4. "Moving out of your parents' home is generally a non-negotiable prerequisite."
    Not necessarily. If your parents are Jewishly-affiliated, they are ok. Even if they are not very observant.

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    1. Originally posted: September 13, 2011 at 10:31 PM

      Anonymous, you're right, I didn't consider Jewish affiliation as a possibility. However, I believe that the overwhelming majority today would be expected to move out before a conversion is complete because of kashrut and Shabbat issues.

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  5. The Curmudgeonly Israeli Giyoret says:

    I am really, really grateful to G-d for putting the obsession with Judaism into my head at a young age, and providing me with the opportunities to learn and to come closer so that I had my (final) conversion at 23. My only regret is not having trusted my instincts and my faith more fully and sooner. It would have been less painful had I been more steadfast earlier on. Also, I would have missed out on many "opportunites" of the non-religious lifestyle that I fell into in college.

    Earlier is better, but you have to know your own mind and to have a sense of commitment. It's hard to trust yourself, let alone know your true needs and nature, at that age, especially without adult guidance. It has become increasingly different, in American culture, to fully understand commitment as an ideal.

    As TS Eliot says in "Burnt Norton", "Ridiculous the waste sad time/Before and after".

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  6. I'm 18- nearly 19 and have been interested in converting since I was 14, but interested in Judaism before then... At this time, the Beth Din haven't been taking me seriously; they have said to me that they won't even let me start the conversion process or anything; they have told me that I would have to drop my university studies which I am due to start in September (Hebrew) if I want to be considered for conversion...It's a four year degree, so that's 4 years added on to my life, which would mean I will be 23 before they would even consider me, plus the London Beth Din is pretty famous long-lasting conversions...There goes the "normal marriage age", and my hope of kids before 27. :/

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    1. I'm surprised they would say to drop your studied entirely. Is that just one guy's opinion or just miscommunicated?

      As for waiting until you're 23, I doubt it. London is tough, but fair, based on everything I know about them. I don't agree with all their requirements, but they're fair within their own standards. If you go to university, continue to be involved in the Jewish community, and begin learning and living the orthodox life, I do not believe they will hold you up that long. They may wait a couple of years to make sure it's not a phase, perhaps somewhat longer than most, but everyone has a few year wait for the same reason. They're (meaning batei dins generally) hesitant with anyone younger, as I said above. But if you make it clear that you know what you're getting yourself into and walk the walk for a while, they shouldn't hold you up unnecessarily. If they do, eventually your rabbi and other community members should pressure them to take action. Being of marriageable age is a great help in that kind of "pressure" conversation. The "normal marriage age" isn't really so normal. Secular marriage ages (in the US at least) are 28 for women and 30 for men. Those are not uncommon in the frum community here, and they're downright normal in the modern orthodox world. Take care of yourself, and marriage will come when it comes. Most BTs and converts have no harder time getting married than FFBs who are still single at those ages, and there are plenty of good men to still be had! Stay strong!

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