About Orthodox Conversion
Considering this blog is about orthodox Jewish conversion, what exactly IS an orthodox Jewish conversion? This is my short and informal guide to orthodox conversion. There are many detailed explanations of orthodox conversion available on the internet. If you'd like to know more about the differences (in theory and in practice) between liberal and orthodox conversions, there are also many internet sources devoted to that debate. I won't go into it here.
Elements of the Conversion Process
Learning it. Lots of learning. Usually with a rabbi, nowadays usually with a tutor as well.
Living it. You can't just talk the talk, you gotta walk the walk. You must be fully observant (minus any exceptions your beit din has given you) before conversion. This also means living in a community that your beit din approves of. If you're lucky, it's where you already live. Most people are not this lucky. The luckier of those people only have to move across town. Some of us even have to move to another state!
Being it. Do you feel at home in the Jewish people? Do you fit in? Do you enjoy spending time with other Jews? Do you actually spend time with other Jews and in the Jewish community?
A beit din (a religious court, see the Glossary) will eventually become involved in this process. They will oversee your progress for however long it takes for them to feel comfortable putting their "stamp of approval" on you. There is almost no way to estimate how long this will take until your process is well underway. Usually, it's precisely when you decide that you're NOT ready that the beit din thinks you ARE ready. And yes, it takes an average of 2-4 years, but the process is completely catered to your individual progress. Even if you're already fully observant when you meet the beit din, it may still take 1-2 years for them to get to know you well enough and see your actions in a variety of situations in order to feel comfortable converting you.
Remember: a beit din is putting their institutional neck on the line when they convert you. If you turn out to be a bad egg, it reflects poorly on them. And even worse, one bad egg can call their other converts into question. This happened in Israel in 2006 with disastrous results. One "questionable" convert led to disqualification of her converting rabbi, which resulted in the de-conversion of literally thousands of people (the estimate I've seen is 10,000 people). YOUR ACTIONS AFTER CONVERSION MATTER. Just as the Jewish people are interconnected, so are all converts. We depend on each other to give us a good name.
The Actual "Conversion"
Oral examination by the beit din. It's not as frightful as it is in your mind. Think of it as a conversation. It could be an hour, it could be more. If it's more, it probably just means you're having a great conversation :) It's very similar to the way the computerized GRE works today: if you get an easy question right, they'll keep going to harder and harder questions until you don't know any more. It's an effective way to discover the limits and holes in your knowledge. There's nothing wrong with those limits or holes. No Jew ever knows everything. One of the most important things a beit din needs to know is that you are able to admit what you don't know and that you know where to locate an answer. For instance, when you finally have to say, "I don't know," they may next ask, "Then how would you find out?" And sometimes, the answer is as simple as "email my rabbi"!
Brit milah (if you're male). If you're not circumcised or not circumcised to Jewish standards (some medical circumcisions are not), you'll have to get (re-)circumcised. If your circumcision is correct physically, you just need to complete the ritual portion by having at least one drop of blood drawn from the circumcision area along with the proper ritual steps (I'm not male; I haven't really looked into this). Your rabbi will eventually have you checked out to see what you require.
Mikvah. Everyone must go to the mikvah to complete the conversion process. That ritual immersion is the moment that you actually "become" Jewish. You have to have 3 kosher dunks, and you will keep dunking until you get it right. I have a friend who had to dunk 7 times to get 3 kosher dunks! And that's perfectly ok. After all, you've probably never had to make a dunk kosher before!
Why Geirus Documents Are Important
Once you've gone to the mikvah, you receive your conversion documents. These are the documents a convert needs to prove his or her conversion and to prove which group did it. These documents are difficult to replace and should be kept in a safe-deposit box if at all possible. Normally, a copy will be retained by the issuing group, but you will receive the original. This isn't like a birth certificate; it can be very hard to replace, particularly if a participating rabbi has passed away. And if the document is lost and cannot be replaced, you may have to go through a geirus l'chumrah, which basically means you again do all the requirements above for the actual conversion.
A convert may present these documents multiple times in his or her life: (1) Upon moving into a new community, (2) Upon arranging for a Jewish marriage, (3) Upon arranging for a child's marriage (if the convert is female and was converted before the child's birth), (4) Upon applying to make aliyah to Israel, (5) Probably upon enrolling your child into a Jewish day school (particularly female converts who converted before the child's birth, but depending on the school, male converts may also be required) (6) Potentially upon arranging for burial in a Jewish cemetery, or (7) Any other time when it's necessary to prove that a person is legally Jewish.