Whatever you do, don't panic. Google "how to cope with stress" if you need tips on how to keep your calm over the next few days or weeks. Nervousness will trip you up in the meeting and make you forget basic facts. That's normal (inevitable?). The beit din will expect it. After all, you're not blazing new territory here. They've been through this a time or two. I've heard of people forgetting the craziest things, and they were still converted sooner or later. I'm sure you'll be fine too.
So what should you review in order to prepare? This list is not representative of the meeting you will have. You'll only be asked some of these things. If you give each point a quick review, you should be more than prepared. You cannot cram for this test. You know it or your don't. Expect that you will probably get things wrong, and that's ok. It'd almost be suspicious if you didn't, if you're the average conversion candidate. But who knows, maybe you're the Hermione of Jewish conversion?
- Your "history." Family life, schooling, places lived, Jewish communities lived in, career, family relationships today. This should be a discussion in every first beit din meeting.
- Your religious background or lack thereof. Any religious affiliations you may have had as an adult.
- How you discovered Judaism.
- Do you have any Jewish history in your family?
- How your family reacts to this "Jewish phase" of yours.
- Why you want to be Jewish.
- Have you ever personally seen or suffered anti-Semitism? You realize this could happen at any time for the rest of your life, right?
- Your relationship with any prior Jewish movement you've been affiliated with. Why did you change?
- If you have a prior conversion, be prepared to discuss it in detail. Locate your conversion documents if you haven't done so already.
- What are you learning? Where are you learning? Who are you learning with? (Websites are allowed to be legitimate answers!)
- What are your plans for future learning? And do you plan to attend a seminary or yeshiva one day?
- Who are your friends in your current Jewish community? As in any Jewish conversation, there has to be Jewish Geography at some point. Sometimes it's during the "Hi, hello" stage, and sometimes it's here.
- Why are you in this community? Do you plan to move to a different one at some point? Do you plan to make aliyah at some point?
- In whose homes do you spend Shabbat/Shabbat meals?
- What are the weaknesses in your Jewish knowledge?
- Review the Rambam's 13 Principles of Faith. How do you feel about them?
- Do you accept both the written and oral Torah? What about the rulings of the rabbis?
- Which prayers do you say each day? Which do you say in English, and which in Hebrew?
- Expect to read Hebrew out loud. Either something you choose, something random, or both. If you're lucky, the randomly-chosen text is one you know already!
- Which brachot and tefilot do you have memorized in Hebrew?
- Upcoming holidays or a holiday that recently passed.
- Which bracha is used on several basic foods. Shouldn't be any trick questions like bananas. Expect to get 2-3 questions on this. This is not-so-affectionately known as "the bracha bee." (Like spelling bee, in case you missed the joke. There, now you've made me ruin the joke by explaining it.)
- You may be asked to recite the bracha rishona. While we generally avoid saying Hashem's names in a bracha/tefila, you can say them for educational purposes. You may want to ask your beit din if that is their position before you say it, but they should give you permission to recite it as though you really were going to eat the item. If you try to substitute Hashem, Elokeynu, and/or Elokim, you will mess it up. You are not capable of thinking at that high of a level under this kind of stress. If you are, then you don't need this article.
- You may or may not be asked about the bracha achrona for the items they ask you about. You shouldn't have to do these from memory, but you should memorize at least borei nefashot at some point.
- Other brachot, such as the ones over candles for Shabbat and yom tov. Those should be memorized, but you should also know the existence and gist of the havdalah blessings and the "fun" blessings like for rainbows, thunder, or seeing a great political leader. (You can find a list of them in your bentcher or siddur.)
- Asher yatzar. You should either memorize this or have it hanging outside your bathroom (such that you will eventually memorize it anyway).
- Shema. You should have at least the first line memorized. If you are asked to say it, follow the same rules about Hashem's name as we discussed for brachot.
- The Amidah. Very basic questions, not like this post.
- Your synagogue attendance.
- Basic Shabbat halacha, like how to make tea, how you eat hot food on Shabbat, carrying a key (eruv or not), selection/separating (Ex., removing olives from a salad). If you have special issues like children or pets, maybe that could come up.
- "Controversial" things about you, such as being a vegetarian or vegan, owning pets, having children (halachically Jewish or not, living with you or not), having a Jewish significant other, working in a field with a history of difficulties for/because of Shabbat (like medicine, law, and retail), being a female athlete, being a racial minority, having a disability or disorder, being an "older single," being "young" (21 or younger), or otherwise anything "weird" about you that might affect your ability to be accepted within a sometimes closed-minded community.
- And if you have a significant other, he or she will be interviewed at some point (which may not be today), either with or without you. You may be quizzed on how you're handling physical issues (Ex. are you shomer?), any wedding plans that have been made, or how your partner's family feels about you. More likely than a quiz is a lecture about what you should be doing, rather than making you admit to things you may not have known they would prohibit you from doing. This discussion will likely be very different if you're already married to a Jew.
Pro Tip #1: If you think they're going more "in depth" on something than you expected, that probably means that you're doing well! In that case, they may keep probing further just to see how far you can go. It's fine to get to the point where you finally answer incorrectly or have to say, "I don't know. I would have to ask my rabbi."
Pro Tip #2: You don't need to know the sources for any halacha you state. I hesitate to say never, but I would gladly make a bet that you will never hear "Correct. Now where does that ruling come from?" (I'd bet that even though I really dislike gambling). But you can likely get bonus points if you can say, "Well, there's a split between X and Y, but I/this community follow X" or "Traditionally, it was X, but today we follow Rav Y's ruling [because of technological gains or whatever]." Try saying that without sounding arrogant. I bet you can't!
Pro Tip #3: If you don't understand the question, ask for clarification. And don't get flustered if you gave an answer to the wrong question. Sometimes the question just wasn't worded well or you two were thinking on different levels. My favorite joke answer? "What do you cook on Shabbat?" "But rabbi, you can't cook on Shabbat!" "Ok...what do you cook for Shabbat?" "Oh."
I suggest not reviewing anything "Jewish" the night before. Take a hot bath, watch a silly movie, grab dinner with a friend. In other words, get your mind off it. Distraction distraction distraction.
What should you wear? Even if you don't dress tznius (whatever your definition of that is) full-time, dress very conservatively for this meeting. Try to follow the rules to the best of your knowledge/ability. Dress well, as though it were Shabbat. Blue jeans should be avoided by everyone, even jean skirts. They're just too casual. If you're a married woman, cover your hair, even if you don't normally cover it. If you're single, you want to dress in a way that shows you're attractive. So if you have a choice between a business suit and something else, singles should probably avoid the suit. Unless you're yeshivish and suits are the everyday outfit. Make sure your outfit fits you properly and that you don't have odor issues. On the other hand, you don't want to look too flashy or garish. As a friend said to me, "Try to look more sweet [dashing?] than professional. Part of their decision is based on marriageability." I think that's good advice.
Pro Tip: If they ask if you cover your hair full-time or dress tzniusly full-time and you don't...be honest. But phrase it in a positive way instead of being down on yourself. Assuming it's true, a sample answer could be, "I'm working my way towards full-time observance. I'm [dressing tzniusly] three days a week on average. My plan is to add one day a week every month/2 months/whatever." This is true for any area of observance where you don't yet "measure up." Be honest about where you are now, but tell them your plan for getting to the end goal. This is very common with kashrut: "My kitchen isn't kosher yet, but first I got rid of all the Biblically prohibited meats, then about two months later, I began only buying items with a hechsher (or that don't need a hechsher). About two months from now, I'll stop eating meat and dairy together. Then I'll stop eating in non-kosher restaurants. Etc etc." Show the beit din that you know where you're going and that you have a plan to get there. It shows initiative, drive, and the honest desire to live a Jewish life.
During the meeting, remember to take deep breaths. When asked a question, you can take a few moments to collect your thoughts. You don't have to blurt out the first thing that comes to mind. You may be tempted to do just that because time will be moving very quickly for you. You'll be so nervous that the 2-5 seconds it takes you to collect your thoughts can feel like 30-45 seconds. And that would be awkward, right? If you're worried about this time distortion factor and don't want to risk any awkwardness, you can say, "I need to think about that for a minute" or "Let me collect my thoughts for a second." You'll be allowed to take whatever time you need. There is no game show buzzer to cut you off!
You can even stop to take a breather if you're feeling overwhelmed or emotional or like you're hyperventilating. Remember: deep, slow breaths.
If this is your first visit to the beis din, the "interview" will be mostly superficial, focusing on your history and your current relationships with Jewish people. Expect that you will have more than one meeting with the beth din before being approved for conversion, no matter how much knowledge you have. In almost all cases, they just don't know you well enough after one meeting to feel comfortable staking their reputation on you being a good Jew for the next 40 years.
Pro Tip: Remember that even a relatively significant hole in your knowledge can be repaired by the time you have your next meeting. Be thankful you discovered a problem before the "final exam"! Now you have time to fix it. Getting an answer wrong is certainly no failure. This is even more true if it is an answer you know, but nerves tripped you up. In that case, you just need to work on your confidence and stress techniques. Practice sample questions in front of the mirror or with a knowledgeable Jewish friend. Even better if that friend is a convert, since they've faced a beit din before! After all, no born Jew ever makes a mistake or doesn't know the halacha of something, right? You will make mistakes for the rest of your life; it's what you do with them that matters.
Can you ask questions? Of course! Ask as many questions as you need to.
- If you don't understand something about the process.
- If you don't understand the role your local rabbi, your sponsoring rabbi, a mentor, or the beit din have in the process.
- The money arrangements, especially if you need to discuss waivers, discounts, or a payment plan.
- How your children should be educated at this time (and even whether they can be allowed to attend a Jewish dayschool).
- If you need/want "approval" for something, such as choosing a particular community, a particular sponsoring rabbi (especially important if you're working with a Chabad rabbi), or your desired Hebrew name.
- Do you have a conversion-specific halachic question? (Your local rabbi may not be qualified to interpret the halacha as applied to a conversion candidate. It just doesn't come up often, and it can be very complicated.) For example, you probably need to know if your beit din will require you to fully re-kasher your entire kitchen after conversion. There is a split on that issue. If required to re-kasher, you might have to replace a significant number of items that can't be kashered. That's one more surprised expenditure you don't need! There is also a split on whether at least some conversion candidates can/should observe Shabbat fully. (Normally, rabbis require that a non-Jew studying for conversion do one melacha every Shabbat. In most cases, because of a prior conversion, you may not necessarily be a "non-Jew" for the purpose of this particular halacha. But we're not sure. So we'll play it safe. It's a strange limbo zone of Jew-but-not-Jew. This same issue arises with a man who has had his brit milah for conversion but has not had the conversion mikvah visit yet.)
What should you bring with you?
- You, obviously. Ideally, that "you" should have an idea of what you want your Hebrew name to be.
- Don't go on an overly-full stomach, but do make sure you eat something beforehand to keep your blood sugar levels steady. I also suggest bringing a snack in your purse or backpack for afterwards, just in case. (Or for while you're waiting.) Speaking from personal experience (not Jewish-related), a big rush of adrenaline and stress on an empty stomach can result in fainting. Sleep deprivation increases your odds further. (Knock yourself out the night before if you have to!)
- Your signficant other, even if you weren't asked to. It shows solidarity and commitment.
- Yes, you can bring a friend. Your friend can't come into the meeting.
- Something to distract you while you wait for your meeting. The dumber the better. I recommend Angry Birds.
- Written directions to the address, and a contact phone number if you have it. Try to have a way to contact the beit din in case you get lost. Leaving very early will help.
- If you bring printed documents with you (such as a personal statement, "books read" list, or a completed "conversion test" (or one of the many others available), make sure to print enough copies for everyone. That usually means 4 copies, so that you can also have one to refer to. None of these documents are required, but their presence makes some people feel more comfortable.
- Something to drink. Hydration is important as a stress-fighter, but it also gives you something to fidget with. You can also stop to take a drink in order to steal a few seconds of thinking/breathing time.
- Your siddur.
- Your bentcher, if you have one.
- Tissues, in case you get emotional or sneezy.
- Your questions. Write them down beforehand when your brain is still fully-functioning. Otherwise, you will forget, and you will kick yourself later. You may also want to write out a list of any "update" calls you may have to make after the meeting, especially if you're approved for conversion! Otherwise, you will leave someone important out, and they will be upset. That's silly of them, so let's avoid the problem altogether by making the list while you're still a functioning human being.
- A pen and paper. You never know. Hopefully the beit din will give you some "assignments" at the end of your meeting. Write them down because you're likely to forget once you calm down.
- Most importantly, your sense of humor. Rabbis are people too. So either you'll get along better with the rabbis or you'll have the sense of humor to escape unharmed from a less "nice" rabbi.
It's over. Now what?
Most likely, you wait for news. At a minimum, you will be asked to step outside of the room so that the beit din can deliberate. On the other hand, they may send you home with no news for weeks. If you're lucky (or maybe unlucky!), you'll immediately get a list of the steps you need to take (with or without a timeline) and what the beit din would like you to focus on. I only say "unlucky" because maybe you weren't given any of that information because the beit din doesn't think you need it. In other words, maybe they think you're ready for conversion or very close to it. But who knows how rabbis think? Every situation will be different.
Good luck! Waiting is the worst part.