I am not Chabad, but I have a lot of respect for the movement. I certainly owe a debt of gratitude to chabad.com for when I was living in isolated Jewish communities!
Chabad and conversions, traditionally: the Rebbe himself instituted a policy (in the 70s, I think?) that Chabad does not "do" conversions. I hear of people here and there who say they "converted Chabad," but I don't think Chabad actually arranged the batei din (and maybe didn't even sit on it). People who seek conversion but identify with Chabad have to convert through "mainstream" orthodox batei din, whether modern orthodox or "ultra-orthodox." That has been the status quo for a long time. Personally, about one-quarter of the converts I know went that route. All but one "re-joined" Chabad after the conversion was complete. My understanding is that these people say they "converted Chabad" because they learned Lubavitch minhag and halachic interpretations, as well as attending a Chabad shul. Many Chabad rabbis assist these conversion candidates, but do not "do" the conversion. Today, we would call these Chabad rabbis the sponsoring rabbi.
That background out of the way, you should know that Chabad is now a more complicated issue in conversions. I'll give you a short background, in case you aren't familiar with the issues. The Rebbe passed away in 1994, but a movement arose that said he is moshiach. The idea is very similar to Christianity in that these people believe that the Rebbe didn't die; he has gone into hiding and there will be a "second coming" where he will redeem the world. That is why you may see many emphatic references to how "very dead" the Rebbe is.
The idea that the Rebbe is moshiach is against Judaism. This idea is also not official Chabad "doctrine" (if any orthodox group can be said to have doctrine). However, if you have ever visited Crown Heights, it is not an insignificant number of people. Many orthodox people believe that messianics ("meshichists") have "infiltrated" 770 (Chabad headquarters and leadership) but that they are careful to keep it quiet. Understandably, 770 says the messianics are a very small number of people. Infiltrated or not, the meshichists are very bad for Chabad's image. Walking through Crown Heights told me that this is no insignificant number! (Yellow flags and banners proclaiming the Rebbe as moshiach are almost overwhelming there.) Because of the uncertainty of how far this belief reaches into the heart of Chabad, many orthodox Jews (maybe even most) distrust the movement as a whole. As many people (inappropriately) "joke," "Chabad is the closest religion to Judaism!"
There is a separate movement of people who believe that the Rebbe is actually G-d himself. They are called elokists. They are scary.
What does that mean for conversions? When candidates come into "mainstream" orthodox batei din and proclaim how much they love Chabad, the batei din are generally not pleased today. An increasing number of batei din have official policies that Chabad rabbis cannot serve as "sponsoring rabbis" and that the candidates must attend the shul of their sponsoring rabbi during the conversion process (which could mean several years in a non-Chabad synagogue). The Chabad-leaning candidates are (to my knowledge) allowed to continue studying Chabad texts, ideas, and be involved in the Chabad community, but the beit dins seem to limit the influence of the Chabad rabbis as much as possible.
That may seem cruel at first, but it is also intended to protect the candidate's conversion from questioning later. As much as Chabad is distrusted in the larger community, it is to the candidate's benefit to distance themselves during the conversion process. After all (at least in theory), the conversion is "closed" at the time of the conversion, so re-joining the Chabad community after conversion should not taint the convert's "Jewishness" in the eyes of the larger orthodox community. If you are Chabad, it shouldn't matter if non-Chabad people want to question your conversion for that. However, it may matter to your children, so that's why people might put up with these policies.
It is sad but realistic. But trying to see things from a more positive viewpoint, Chabad is here for kiruv, outreach to born Jews. And like all organizations...funding, time, and space are limited. "Outsourcing" the conversion candidates (so to speak) allows Chabad to stay close to its mission, and all klal Yisrael benefits from their mission to increase traditional observance among the Jewish people.
So what should Chabad-leaning conversion candidates do? These are just my initial thoughts on how I would approach the situation.
- I suggest applying to convert with an RCA regional beit din or other "Israel-approved" beit din. That is boilerplate advice I would give everyone.
- Be clear that you intend to be Lubavitch.
- Also be clear that you know about the controversies. Then explicitly disavow any faith in the Rebbe as moshiach or G-d. (Assuming you don't believe that...)
- Ask the beit din about their policy on Chabad rabbis participating in the process as a sponsoring rabbi or tutor. (Some are not up-front about this and will use it as a "discouragement" tactic later. Less pessimistically, they may save it until the beit din views the candidate as "officially" entering the conversion process. I have seen some told that they have to get a new shul nearly a year into the process.)
- Ask whether you can continue to attend your Chabad shul.
- If they don't allow Chabad to be active in your conversion at all, deal with it. You have to play by their rules if you want a conversion. Look into other batei din (if they are available), but this issue isn't uncommon anymore.
- Likewise, if Chabad is supposed to keep its distance, ask about social events, learning, shiurim, etc. I don't know how these batei din handle those "informal" areas of Jewish life in these cases. It would appear they are okay, but it's better to know exactly what is expected of you.
- Read Chabad materials and learn Lubavitch hashkafah.
- You can probably still adopt Chabad halachic practices now, even if they are not the practices of your sponsoring congregation.
- Expand your horizons Jewishly, and you might discover your hashkafah lies in another form of orthodoxy! After all, you may be living in your first Jewish community with more than one or two shuls!
- Once you have converted, you have the choice to return to your Chabad congregation. However, ask about any requirements for staying within the converting community for a set time period after conversion. Your sponsoring rabbi may have to file a follow-up one year later to make sure that you are still Jewishly active and observant. That may tie you to his congregation for another year. Moving congregations in the year after conversion may also be problematic for aliyah/Israel purposes (but this policy changes a lot and is kept from public knowledge). Make sure you know exactly what is expected of you to the best of your ability.
As a practical tip: Be very careful how you discuss Chabad. Avoid doing so if you can. Tempers flare very quickly, and suddenly accusations are flying. Even the most innocuous comment can set people off on either side. I've been accused of supporting meshichists, and I've also been accused of claiming Chabad aren't Jews. Both sides can be quite vile and vitriolic. The only time I have worried that a Jew would physically hit me was someone (already clearly unbalanced) who thought I had made a disparaging comment about Chabad. To be quite honest, I'm not looking forward to today's comments...