Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Convert Questions: Is Conversion Faster If You Have a Prior Conversion?

Many conversion candidates believe that a prior conversion will speed up the time of a second conversion. (If you are in the unlucky group that gets to 3+ conversions, you're more likely in the territory of geirus l'chumrah than "normal" geirus.) After all, it makes sense: you've already "cast your lot with the Jewish people," learned holidays and customs, become integrated into a Jewish community, probably even learned some deeper things, maybe even read Hebrew.

So does a prior liberal conversion help you to get an orthodox conversion faster? In short, I'm leaning towards an answer of no. 

But maybe the better answer is that I think other factors are much more determinative than having a prior conversion or not. A prior conversion may even be largely irrelevant.

This isn't scientific, I'm afraid. It's just the feeling I get from talking to other "upgraders" like myself. As for me, after a year and a half of being observant and many years of studying orthodox sources, I'm not converted yet, and I don't know when I will be. That doesn't seem to be unusual today. 

So what DOES matter?
  • Current relationship with a Jew. (If you're in a relationship with a non-Jew, don't even think about approaching an orthodox rabbi about conversion...you will get absolutely nowhere.)
  • Number of years studying towards conversion. (Yes, years.)
  • Even more importantly, what did you study? Five years of studying primarily liberal sources (especially reform and reconstructionist sources) will give you almost no background for an orthodox conversion. After all, the reform and reconstructionist movements don't view halacha as binding, so few sources discuss traditional halacha. In an orthodox conversion, that traditional halacha is the primary thing you will be learning.
  • Where you live. This is the killer for most people. A year lease is a long time to wait to "start" your conversion.
  • Integration into the community. They want to see a support system, friendships, the possibility of marriage for singles, etc. Will you be able to take care of yourself in the community and do you have the support system to keep you within the community? People who feel isolated or alienated from the community are the first to leave orthodox Judaism, whether born-Jewish or converted.

Not living in an "appropriate" community and romantic relationships seem to be the two things that will "slow you down" most. In my opinion, those two factors are much more determinative of the length of a conversion than whether there is a prior conversion. Prior knowledge, even orthodox learning, seems to have surprisingly little effect on conversion time. Of course, there are other unpredictable factors that can come up and "derail" you: bullies, being told to move a second time, finding out that a community or hashkafah isn't appropriate for you, health issues, school issues, etc.

Take that for what it's worth, I suppose. I can't give you an easy answer here. Every case is so very different.

30 comments:

  1. I was under the impression that NYC or LA are the only kosher communities when you are considering an Orthodox conversion. Don't you have to be in one of those two places?

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    1. Originally posted: November 9, 2011 at 2:48 PM

      Anonymous about communities: Depends on the beit din and who they're talking to. In my case, I had basically one choice of beit din where I was living previously, and they hold that any candidate who is a) single and b) of child-bearing years must live in either LA or NYC. Of course, they were based in one of those cities, so perhaps they don't have a real understanding of any community smaller than that scale.

      On the other hand, just about everyone will allow someone married and post-menopausal to live in any functioning orthodox community, even if it's tiny and there are few food resources. However, batei din in Atlanta, Chicago, St. Louis, and other communities will convert people in those cities, probably even singles. Regardless, there is a huge push for everyone single (convert or born-Jewish) to move to LA, NYC, or Israel because of the perception that the dating pool is nonexistent everywhere else.

      So as with everything else, your mileage may vary. However, pushing all young singles to NYC and LA seems to be the trend, whether that move happens before conversion or immediately upon finishing.

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  2. Blue Star: why is it that how much prior ortho knowledge you have would not matter? btw. thank you for the post! to me the beis din rav (NY) said it won't take me 2 years to finish this, but at the end of the day they seem to chose to do whatever they please whenever they want and not inform the individual on the details.

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    1. Originally posted: November 9, 2011 at 2:53 PM

      Blue Star: I think prior orthodox knowledge is helpful, but the threshold for halachic knowledge is actually quite low in most batei din. They're more concerned about integration within the community, and that takes a lot more time than the knowledge they require.

      As for your last comment, I don't know that I would agree. I think you and I both need to ask better questions about the timeline. I'm particularly guilty of not doing that. However, my sense is that NYC batei din are more "traditional" in that they seem to feel less compelled to join the push towards chareidi standards. Perhaps that comes from the fact that there are many batei din (traditional competitive market theory) or that smaller communities fell more of a need to "prove" themselves or some other theory. I'm still fleshing this idea out, so I can't make any real guess why conversions are generally more reasonable in NYC.

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  3. I think it depends on the Beit Din and where you live. I spent about two years learning informally and keeping Shabbat before getting a sponsoring Rabbi and going through a formal process. That process took another three to four years (I honestly lost count!) before I was done. I worked for a member of the community, had no significant other, and learned everyday for at least an hour. I doubt that my experience was typical, but you should be prepared to put in a serious amount of time.

    Also, this was done in the PNW with a Beit Din that is one of ten that the RCA uses and is approved by the State of Israel for Aliyah purposes.

    The main point is: if you really want it, stick with it, and your patience will eventually be rewarded.

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  4. Oh, and one other piece of relevant material to this post; I had no prior conversions in any of the other traditions. My first real exposure to Judaism was Orthodox and by the time I'd been exposed to the liberal streams of Judaism, I'd already decided to go for a halachic conversion.

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  5. I tried to post before but I think it didnt go through....

    Blue Star: are you doing this in NYC? by the way, I am surprised they would not place importance on knowledge because then they would get only average converts....

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    1. Originally posted: November 9, 2011 at 6:56 PM

      I haven't seen any other anonymous comments, so it didn't make it to me!

      What's wrong with "average" converts? a) They're still a convert, LOL... and b) Average, assuming they are accepted for conversion, is still passing. I hate how "average" has been changed to presume "substandard." Average is average precisely because that's where most people fall. That doesn't make it bad or unsatisfactory. Also, average in knowledge doesn't mean the convert isn't exceptional elsewhere. Not everyone is made to be a Torah scholar. Most Jews are just average Jews when it comes to knowledge. These converts may offer extraordinary spirituality or chesed or bitachon. Knowledge is not the only measuring stick for a convert, nor should it be.

      I don't know if I'm getting across the point I want to make. Average-knowledge coverts are just fine. We're trying to keep out the unsatisfactory ones!

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    2. Speaking of exceptional elsewhere - I had the pleasure of mentoring a lady on kashrut a few years ago, she was very insecure about everything for a rather long time, but nowadays her table is always full. People are angling for shabbat invitations, and our TLC groups always try to set up hospitality at hers. Such a great cook.

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  6. I've got to argue with your first point. Many non-Jewish married couples convert together. I think it may be more challenging in some ways, but it's far from unheard of. I think it depends more on the nature of the relationship with the non-Jew.

    Other than that...agreed. :)

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  7. Blue Star:
    it matters if converts are smart or not because Jews take great pride in getting Noble Prizes....that's why, heheheheh. Besides, if they're not a bit intelligent they won't be able to follow halacha because they don't have the insight to understand what they're doing...though you may say well, as long as they're doing it...but still, i would think the Beis Din would weed out people based on intelligene also. since they weed out people in plenty of other ways too.

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    1. Originally posted: November 9, 2011 at 11:03 PM

      I'm getting confused which anonymous is Blue Star.

      But regarding the last anonymous comment: Re-read what you just wrote. And think about it. You just argued that batei din should essentially practice eugenics in conversions. I have a pretty sick sense of humor, but I don't know if I can even stomach that jokingly.

      As a practical matter, your argument assumes that all converts are adults independently approaching a beit din. Your argument would prevent parents from converting children with many special needs, whether adoptive children, zera yisrael, or just plain children of adults converting. Jews with disabilities such as Down's syndrome participate fully in our communities, are often capable of leading davening, and fulfill all the mitzvot to their ability. They fulfill the mitzvot to the level that Hashem made them capable of doing, which applies to every Jew. Intelligence should not factor into it.

      And even despite all that, there are many kinds of intelligence. You might consider a person with autism dumb because he doesn't give you "right answers." But he might be able to run circles around you in mathematics or other areas of intelligence. That is a random example of an individual, not all people with autism.

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  8. What type of intelligence is required to master grammar and spelling?

    On a more serious note, we are told which traits are required to be a halachic Jew. Specifically, I'd say "אין בור ירא חטא, ולא עם הארץ חסיד, ולא הביישן למד," is relevant here. A crude individual (who follows his inclinations) cannot fear sin, an ignoramus cannot be pious (because he doesn't know the law), and a shy person cannot learn (because he won't ask).

    I see no criteria requiring genius.

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  9. The Curmudgeonly Israeli Giyorey says:

    "What's wrong with "average" converts? a) They're still a convert, LOL... and b) Average, assuming they are accepted for conversiont"

    Indeed. In my experience, being, or rather, thinking one's self too clever works to a potential convert's disadvantage. I have met too many genius "overachievers" who became discontent, or whose perhaps over-active spiritual inclinations rendered them inable to function in the "ordinary" religious world.

    It's helpful to be a quick study, but remember, most born Jews are "average" (taking into account Cousin Shlomo's assumption that "Jewish average" IQ is 120).

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  10. Blue Star:

    A very fundamental aspect of Judaism is that it is a religion of education. While the Egyptians were building pyramids and the Romans/Greeks monuments, the Jews were building schools. The hero of Judaism is the one who is able to transmit knowledge. It's knowledge that kept the Jewish people together. if a convert does not educate himself, then he is "average" thats what I meant when I said that....other religions don't stress the importance of knowledge and education, but they encourage blind faith. Judaism encourages asking questions. Therefore if a person wants to be a Jew and does not want to put in the time not educate himself, then he is not a good candidate.

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  11. What's the big deal with an Orthodox Beit Din? Why do the Orthodox consider say conservative conversions invalid even if the convert went to the mikveh and had the hatafat dam brit done?

    Full disclosure, I had a Conservative conversion, granted, with a Rabbi who could pass for Orthodox. It's the epitome of a catch-22 when it comes to dealing with the Orthodox though. They tell me Conservative conversions aren't valid because we don't follow the mitzvot--I actually keep Shabbat and kosher--and then one Orthodox guy told me since I wasn't Jewish (because Conservative conversions don't count in their convoluted mind) I have to do a malacha on Shabbat otherwise I'll incur a death penalty.

    I'm no scholar on Jewish texts, but doesn't the Shulcan Aruch say that conversions can be done by a court of three laymen? It seems like the Orthodox use the Beit Din part for their own self-aggrandizement--not an Orthodox Beit Din then not Jewish! Let me put this bluntly, I had a stranger stab my penis and my Rabbi and two others see my naked carcass bob three times in the mikveh but since it was officiated by Rabbis affiliated with the Conserviatve Judaism it's therefore invalid.

    Maybe the Orthodox skipped that part in the shulcan aruch about laymen doing conversions or perhaps they didn't get to that part yet--it is a big book. Kind of like how the lazy haredi bums in Israel missed the part in the pirkei avot about making a livelihood along with Torah story lest they sin.

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    1. You are absolutely right. The halakha says that a conversion undertaken by a beit din of three shomrei shabbat who are hedyotot (unlearned laymen) is even valid. The Orthodox don't care about halakha- they care about politics.

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    2. It's about halacha, not politics. Most Conservative Beit Dins don't have a Beit Din with three people that keep shabbos and kosher. If you drive to shul on shabbos it is considered to be not keeping Shabbos according to Orthodox rabbis. If you buy "kosher" food that has tablet k, or triangle k, or just a k it isn't considered kosher food by most Orthodox Jews. (There are exceptions like Ocean Spray cranberry juice that has a triangle k).

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  12. Blue Star to Anonymous from Nov 11 12:15 pm:

    The Orthodoxy doesn't recognize the Conservative conversions because they don't want to give legitimacy to the Conservative movement. The Conservative movement has done things that are not according to the halacha, such as allow driving on Shabbat, include women on a miniyan, it has ordained women as Rabbis, no mechitzah in shul, mixed seating, etc. Therefore, one reason they don't accept a conservative conversion is that those Jews who converted you in order to be valid witnesses among others would have to be Shabbat observers...since they would be allowed to drive on Shabbat, they are not valid witnesses anymore. Even Orthodox conversions would be anulled for such technical reasons. There are other reasons involved. If they are from the conservative movement, they may have recognized as Jewish other Jews who are not halachically Jewish. So you may get on your Beis Din or as Rabbi someone who may not be Jewish. In any case, conversion in and itself has its own issues. Now only RCA conversions seem to be recognized across the spectrum, but then what will really happen in the future with them, you never know. Conversions are getting more and more difficult to the point where there gets to a point where it seems ridiculous and people are making too much of a big deal over this. They make their standards so stringent forgetting that there are human beings on the other end of the line whose future is put into question.

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  13. I am someone who has been dealing with conversion issues for several years now. The sad truth is, there is no formal process for converting. The Torah itself is vague (according to the Torah you just accept G-d as truth and accept the mitzvot and you are Jewish). Each Beis Din MAKES UP its own rules. That is why there is confusion over which conversions are kosher and which aren't. Some communities will and some wont recognise certain conversions.

    In my experience, your wealth plays a BIG part in your conversion. More specifically, your willingness to share great sums of wealth with the shul or Beis Din. From what I have seen, wealthy people tend to have far fewer roadblocks. What does that tell you about the spirituality of the Beis Din rabbis.

    Rather than accepting you in and helping you learn and love Judaism, some rabbis constantly make you prove yourself and your devotion. They ask you to make ridiculous sacrifices because if you are spiritually on board, they say, then you will see it as a sacrifice. If you are not willing to do what they say then you are clearly not spiritually on board.

    Where I live the shuls are located in a neighborhood where the average house costs well over a million dollars. If you are not willing to live within that neighborhood then you can not enter the conversion program. A willingness to walk 45 minutes to an hour to get to shul is not indicative of your devotion, but living living in a place that will bankrupt you is.

    That is just one example of the nonsense you need to put up with to convert.

    Sad.

    Judaism is a wonderful religion. Beis Dins complicate things unnecessarily.

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    1. Originally posted: November 14, 2011 at 3:10 PM

      Joe: I think "makes up" is strong (and inaccurate) wording to use. The requirements do have a basis in our halachic literature, though policies created to fulfill those requirements may be rightfully questioned in some cases.

      Also, the question of money is beit din-specific. There have been abuses, and there will likely always be abuses until Moshiach comes, but I am pleased to tell you there are batei din not corrupted in that way. And that there are also batei din absolutely committed to seeing the conversion of good candidates regardless of financial circumstances, so long as the basic costs of Jewish living can be met (not counting day school tuition).

      I'm sorry to hear about the situation in your community. When I faced similar "sacrifices," I realized it was not a community I wanted to belong to, and I chose to move elsewhere. It's unfortunate, and I'm sorry those communities are like that, but that was my own "sacrifice," I suppose! However, it was only a short-term sacrifice because I am much happier now than I ever would have been there. And thankfully, I was in a position where moving elsewhere was realistic.

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    2. So if I understand your reply correctly, you saying that you did not really join "the jewish people" or "orthodox judaism" (defined as the set of all orthodox communities) but rather, you joined one particular orthodox community and you do not necessarily endorse others.

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    3. I have neither the power nor the ability to "endorse" a community. I joined the Jewish People (from totally unaffiliated to the most extreme orthodox), and I joined the orthodox movement, and I joined a particular orthodox community known as modern orthodox. It sounds flippant, but it's like finding the right place for yourself in the high school lunchroom. Do you sit with the jocks or the nerds or the weirdos? I happen to be a weirdo. So I found the right place for me within the larger community.

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  14. Hi Skylar, thank you for your thoughtful words. You are 100% correct. Corruption is a reality until the coming of Moshiach, and corruption IS specific to certain institutions. It is unfair to lump in all Bais Dins under one umbrella. So I stand corrected.

    As it turns out, after a few years and a few thousand dollars lost, I did leave that corrupt beis din's program and have joined another conversion program that I think is quite good. This program is organised, and the players make efforts to communicate with the students rather than constantly "testing" their devotion. The sad thing is, even though I am learning FAR MORE in this current program, because of Jewish politics this conversion will not be recognized by many communities. It is very well run and very supportive, but it is not in the same standing as my former program, so I'm told. Meanwhile, my former one was really a joke, yet it is regarded around the world as a top program. (Although, locally it is well known to many, including rabbanim in near by cities, that this particular Beis Din and its Rabbi's are corrupt to the core.)

    It is heartbreaking that my future children, G-d willing, will have to deal with questions about their identity. It should not be like this. Nonetheless, for lack of realistic options this is where things stand.

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    1. I come from a city with similar issues. A beis din that is surely recognized by the israeli rabbinate but everyone in the city knows they are corrupt. I know someone currently converting through them and I don't really know what to make of this.

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    2. It's politics, pure and simple. That's what happens when there is a rigid power structure built on hierarchy and nepotism, especially in an area of Judaism where you can go on a real power trip. Some batei din beat the odds, but sadly, many end up corrupt, cruel, or both.

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    3. Ok... so then what are we to make of this? People who want to join the Jewish faith are faced with what is arguably the darkest Jewish institution: the beis din (not every beis din but some of them). And then this beis din has the authority to tell someone if they "can become" a Jew.. how to become one, etc?? I mean... it makes no sense. The way I see it, someone should be able to just say "i wanna be jewish". Now, if, say, they used to be christian and they still build a nativity scene every year, then it's up to Jewish people to stay away from that person, to not invite that person to shabbes, to not engage with them in any way, etc. That person can just be deemed weird, and that's it. We Jews are smart enough to judge if someone is sincere. We don't (at least speaking for myself) want a panel of persons to determine this for us. The mikveh should be the official and only way to make someone a jew. Everything else is interpretation and judgement. If we're going to judge converts badly (or judge them well), rabbis should let us each judge the convert separately, and on an ongoing basis.

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  15. That being said, I don't think saying the rules are "made up" is inaccurate at all. Strong, yes. Inaccurate, no. Some of the rules are routed in interpretations of halacha, but from my experience, not all of them are.

    If a beis din wants to determine the sincerity of a potential convert they should spend time with us. Invite us for shabbos meals. Talk to us at kiddish after services. Check in with us outside of class, and return correspondence when we have questions or concerns. Communication is really the only way anyone can gain an understanding of our motives. Making up rules that are not always grounded in halacha and then using those rules to test our devotion is silly.

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  16. Skylar, I'm wondering how long it was after your conversion you realized you wanted an Orthodox conversion? Was it immediate? A few months?

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  17. In my case, having a previous conversion (Reform) likely added to the time line. I have no regrets. You can't "cram" for gerut. It's a major shift of inner values and outer habits. I'm thankful for each challenge, each change, each embracing point of taking on progressively more strenuous commitments.

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