Monday, September 5, 2011

If You're Considering a Non-Orthodox Conversion, Speak to an Orthodox Rabbi First

When I began my conservative conversion process, the rabbi had a policy that all potential conversion candidates must visit the orthodox rabbi in town and ask him the following questions. I believe these are good questions to consider when deciding which movement to convert through. In other words, you should make an informed decision before making an assumption about which movement you belong in. Don't presume that you know the answers to these questions or what "the orthodox" are like. If nothing else, maybe this will be the first time you've met a real, honest-to-Betsy orthodox Jew. I wish I could say that is always a good first impression, but rabbis are people too.

  1. What are the steps and the process for an orthodox conversion?
  2. If I convert to Judaism under the supervision of a reform or conservative rabbi, will I be accepted by you and by the orthodox community as a Jew? Even if I have a circumcision, beit din, and mikvah?
  3. If I convert to Judaism under the supervision of an orthodox rabbi and at some point decide that I am more comfortable in a conservative or reform synagogue, how will that affect my orthodox conversion? In other words, can my conversion be taken away from me?

Feel free to add other questions if you'd like.

Of course, #3 has become more complicated since 2006, but read Conversion Is Permanent before freaking out and writing crazy comments below. If you ignore this statement and write me crazy angry comments anyway about precisely what I wrote about in that post, I reserve the right to embarrass you by telling you to read that post instead of responding to your statements.


  1. If the person is of child bearing age I'd definitely add: what will the status of my children in your eyes? Will they be able to go to certain schools/make aliyah/marry an orthodox person. I've heard many stories of people who find out that their/their parents' conversion isn't accepted when they are turned away from Jewish programs/schools, which can hurt.

    And possibly: if I convert under some other stream of Judaism and decide later to convert orthodox, what would the process be? That means more time, effort, expenses, etc on top of everything they've done to achieve the first conversion.

  2. The Curmudgeonly Israeli Giyoret says:

    True, clear, and scrupulously honest. I hope people will listen. Thank you so much for writing all this.

  3. I feel like asking #3 would be a good way to not have that Orthodox rabbi convert you...(all the ones I've talked to I felt like I was walking on eggshells; might just be me.)

    On a not very related note, not living near an Orthodox community is the only—only—thing that logistically keeps me from having an Orthodox conversion. I might add question #4 "What would I have to do to have an Orthodox conversion after having a Reform or Conservative one?" I wonder if/hope that the process is a little different.

  4. How much is this gonna cost me? :-P I'm kind of being silly but it's a valid question.

  5. I'm a bit put off at the suggestion that someone should speak to an Orthodox rabbi first before converting liberal. Any liberal rabbi worth his salt should be suggesting to you to experience *all* forms of Judaism before you finalize anything, because you should be open minded and Judaism is Judaism not matter how you cut it. I respect Orthodoxy in all its forms, and hell, even wish our shul was more traditional than it is. I enjoy the freedom of the mechitza.

    But I have far too much of a philosophical and theological break with Orthodoxy to ever fit under that label, and I know it. And there is nothing wrong with that. I'd love to have the recognition that an Orthodox conversion would bring, expecially since I'm working at being a 'frum' traditional Conservative (as my rabbi is) so in practice there's very little difference between MO and the kind of Jew I am aspiring to be- but you'd be hard pressed to find an Orthodox rabbi taken seriously by his peers who would convert someone who believes Torah was written by men, that the bible isn't a literal history, and that the men who wrote the Talmud are no more holy than scholars alive today.

    Sometimes, you just know where you belong.

    1. Originally posted: September 6, 2011 at 2:41 AM

      Threnody, I'm glad that you have such a clear understanding of why you are where you are. Not many people think that deeply about the issue, focusing simply on stereotypes such as "Orthodoxy subjugates women" or "Orthodox people are closed-minded" or whatever.

  6. So how did the Orthodox Rabbi you visited answer these questions? How did your meeting with him leave you feeling about your upcoming conservative conversion?

  7. Unfortunately, I think some liberal rabbis would love to have people ask these questions just to show them how "intolerant" and "disrespectful of others" the Orthodox are.

    1. Originally posted: September 6, 2011 at 8:05 AM

      I agree, Sarah, but that doesn't make the answers any less true. It's how we respond to them. Like just about everyone else, I responded really poorly to those halachic positions when I was younger, but I came to understand it with age and Jewish education.

      You can read these answers all over the place, but I think the importance is in hearing them from an actual person and directed specifically at you. The "I'm sure they'll make an exception for me" disease :)

  8. I'm pretty sure I stumbled upon the website of this rabbi's synagogue a few weeks ago. I saw the requirements for conversion and even wrote about it in my blog. While I believe 100% that the rabbi has very good reasons for doing this, I respectfully disagree with the practice.

    I, personally, would refuse to work with a liberal rabbi who required this of me. Part of the potential sponsoring rabbi’s job is to assess candidates. This includes determining where they are in their journey and what they individually need to be ready to enter the mikvah. There are some, like myself, that are very familiar with the inter-movement relations. There are some, like you said, that are na├»ve and should be provided the opportunity to make an informed decision* (but I’d argue that could be done in many ways, only one of which is meeting with the O. rabbi). But some have already made that informed decision, before approaching the Conservative rabbi.

    To require this meeting of everyone leaves a sour taste in my mouth and I think that’s in large part because it perpetuates this false idea that Orthodox rabbis are the Only Gatekeepers to Real, True Judaism. If this rabbi required the potential candidate to visit the Reform AND Orthodox (AND Reconstructionist when available) rabbis, before moving ahead with Conservative, it wouldn’t bother me as much.

    *My sponsoring rabbi participates each year in a three-part discussion series as the JCC. He, a Conservative rabbi, meets with an Orthodox and Reform to discuss topics like the nature of Torah, the role of women and gays/lesbians/T/B/Q, the politics of conversion, the future of the movements, Israel, what it means to be Jewish. This definitely gets the differences out in the open, while providing a forum for discussion, questions, and introspection.

  9. Originally posted: September 6, 2011 at 2:35 AM

    Thank you for the question suggestions! Laura, in this case, since the questions were prepared by a liberal rabbi and literally printed off and given to every candidate, everyone asked the same questions. That was how they avoided any individual stigmatization since everyone was expected to ask the same questions and the orthodox rabbi knew that. I think an individual could accomplish the same thing by printing this post (or just writing the questions down) and bringing it with them, saying "a/my conservative rabbi suggested/requires asking these questions. This is the text I was given."

    Josh - Because I began in the orthodox community and spent 3.5 years there, I was "exempted" from the requirement because the rabbi felt that I understood the inter-movement conversion issues. The whole point of this is to make SURE everyone realizes that there are Jews who will not accept their conversion. Just about everyone "knows" this but has the feeling that "I will be different, they'll know me and be talking to my face." This method aims to dispel those kinds of self-deception.