Thursday, March 7, 2019

How Long Does It Take to Convert? The Real Answer Is There's No Answer

This is probably the most common conversion question out there:

How long is this going to take?? 

(I wish Blogger offered a "scary" font! Letters dripping with blood would convey the feeling much more accurately!)

It's obvious to think about this question when you first get interested in converting. But you rarely realize this question will recur again and again until you're done, finished, converted. This is not a one-time question. This question runs on a loop and often feels like it dominates your life. 

I think this question-on-loop is the root of so much of the "let down" feeling many people experience after conversion. We've spent so much time and energy, often years, counting down to some unknown time in the future, that we don't know what to do when that question no longer feels like it rules our lives. My whole life has centered around this question for so long - what do I do now? 

All this is to put the question in a broader perspective and to recognize that the question is far more emotional than it seems on the surface. 

Such a simple question, right? How long does it take to convert? 

But it's far from simple to estimate how long a particular conversion will take, and there are no easy answers even though we can talk about generalities. Anyone who says otherwise is either ignorant or lying. 

Generalities, however, are no guarantee for you as an individual. And getting mad that your life doesn't reflect what you think is (or should be) "average" is rarely very helpful. It just eats at you and your self-esteem instead.

Because after all, when you ask "how long does a conversion take?" don't you really mean, "how long will it take ME to convert?" Those are two completely different questions. 

There are lots of follow-up questions to ask before you can even get into the ballpark of a timeline for an individual person. This is a non-exhaustive list:
  • Which Jewish movement are we talking about? (There are no guarantees even in the non-orthodox movements, despite what people say, though generalities are more likely to be the average experience.)
  • How long have you been learning about Judaism?
  • How deeply have you learned? (You can have years of superficial learning or months of intense learning and be in the same place!)
  • What are your prior connections to Judaism, especially in your family?
  • Were you raised in another Jewish movement and only need a conversion to join another movement?
  • Were you raised with a deep faith in another religion or is this your first "official" foray into organized religion? Do you have a history in multiple faiths?
  • Have you gone to a synagogue yet? Are you a regular attendee? For how long?
  • What relationships, romantic or friendship, do you have with other Jews?
  • Are there outside time factors at play, like a wedding date or you'll be moving?
  • What do you know about Jewish practice in your movement?
  • How much of that practice have you personally put into practice?
A patrilineal Jew (one whose father was Jewish and is not considered halachicly - Jewish law - Jewish) who has a lot of experience in the orthodox community has a very different timeline for an orthodox conversion than the person who just did their first Google search. Same in the non-orthodox movements (and remember that a patrilineal Jew would also need a conversion to join the conservative movement). Further, that same patrilineal Jew would have a very different answer about the timeline depending on whether they're approaching the conservative or orthodox community. 

Now that I've lawyered this up with a dozen versions of "it depends," let's talk generalities. 

Assuming you're new to Judaism, the "textbook" answer for how long a conversion takes is 1 year for non-orthodox movements and at least 2 years for an orthodox conversion.

Is that actually average for our Google searcher? I don't think so. I think this is an average for an "ideal" conversion, not an average of actual conversions. And I think, at best, it's an "average" from the time the person makes contact with a rabbi who actually has the power to get things moving, not from that first Google search. The amount of time between Google search and sitting across the desk from a rabbi ranges wildly. 

What I've found is that, in general, few people take a straight-line path to conversion, aka an "ideal" conversion. Those timelines presume consistent and relatively intense commitment, education, and putting it into practice. The non-orthodox conversion generally involves taking a class that lasts about a school year plus a calendar year of active practice in the community. An orthodox conversion is much harder to quantify in that same way because usually, the education will have to be self-directed, you arranging your own education (few places have organized classes or mentoring programs). 

Is that really an "ideal" way to convert? Not many people maintain the "necessary" commitment and education consistently over a year or two to finish a conversion under these suggestions. Most of us slow down or take a break entirely one or more times during the process. After all, making a decision this important and for life (especially in an age of growing antisemitism) is a huge decision not to be taken lightly. Most of us step away to see if it still feels right, and we may do that several times over several years - I did. I moved to a whole other country to see if I felt I could be happy living a "secular" life! I took another big break when I began law school. Both of those breaks (and the smaller ones along the way) reconfirmed that this is where I need to be, come hell or high water. Don't worry, hell and high water came too. When those challenges came, and they'll continue coming throughout my life, knowing I took those breaks and how I felt during them confirms my decisions and helps me push through the hard times. 

I was very angry at myself when I ended those breaks because I felt like I wasted time, that I put "my life" on hold. But that time wasn't wasted, and I'm still drawing dividends from those times a decade later. Knowing me and my personality, if I had pushed through and finished my conversion at a breakneck pace (as my perfectionist self wanted and judged me for failing to do), I would not still be here. I would question my decisions and wonder whether the grass is greener somewhere else. I know it's not because I asked those questions before I signed on the dotted line. I converted long after the honeymoon period had passed; I knew the people in the Jewish community were human beings with failings. I think having several hits to my idealism about Judaism and the humans who practice it were valuable long-term because, of course, I'm still dealing with these people now. I disappoint other people (as some of you commenters are so happy to tell me), and they disappoint me. Of course, our religion is structured to need the community, and when that community fails you consistently or actively throws you under the bus, I understand why people leave. In my earlier years, even my own negative experiences didn't prepare me to have compassion in those cases. They weren't spoken about as actively as they are now online, and it always looks different when it's the people you love. We have a long way to go as a community, but I still choose to be here. And I understand why other people don't. An "imperfect" conversion process with starts and stops won't answer all these questions for the rest of your life, but I think is helpful for most people. A cooling off time is good for any permanent(ish) question, whether conversion or marriage or tattoos. 

I read online that my orthodox conversion would take about two years. Honestly, I can't even measure how long my conversion took because where do I start counting? I was involved with the Jewish community, primarily the orthodox community, for five years before deciding to seek a conservative conversion. I was told my conversion could have been immediate given my experience and practice, but I had to "check the boxes" so to speak by completing the year course. I converted in about nine months, still converted a little before the class ended (and yes, I had to finish the course). So was Conversion 1.0 six years or nine months? 

On the other hand, I've known many non-orthodox converts who took far longer than one year, and they've been shamed by others or themselves that they didn't finish in the "right" amount of time. Our journey is our journey and no one's journey is the same as another's. This attachment of personal virtue to a certain timeline only hurts people.

My orthodox conversion process started almost immediately after that conversion, thanks to various factors. Do we start measuring from when I made the decision? Or when I began working with a beit din? Or from the time I began working with the other beit din that actually did my conversion in the end? From the decision, it was a little over a year and a half. From my first beit din meeting with my final beit din, four months. From the time I "discovered" Judaism? Eight years. If you had told me that I wouldn't convert for six or eight years, would I have continued past that first Google search (technically, it was a dive into the Yahoo database)? Maybe not. Does that mean I shouldn't be telling you this story for fear of discouraging you? Maybe. But the premise of this site has always been to help conversion candidates understand the unwritten "rules" and practices and get honest answers to hard questions. Without good information, we can't make good decisions. And too many people believe they're bad or inadequate or a failure because they don't measure up to these timelines people parrot as though they actually mean something. They don't. 

My advice: as immediate and practical as questions about the timeline are, they're not actually that helpful. If you convert in less time that "suggested," yay! But resist the urge to feel superior to the people who are taking longer than you. Your factors and their factors are completely different (even more so if you're converting with different rabbis and batei din, which introduce their own factors). 

But if you take longer than "suggested," and it will be longer for most of you, that question often makes you feel bad about yourself. Like you're a failure. Like your life is on hold. Certain parts of your life may be on hold (particularly romance), yes, but this is still your life. I wish I'd remembered that - I was living my life even while I thought it was on hold. I focused on what I couldn't do and not on what I could do. I missed a lot of opportunities. 

Timelines aren't the right question to ask - ask what you need to do to get to the next level. What do I need to focus on next? Where are my weaknesses and how can I strengthen them? What relationships can I build with friends and mentors and teachers? What should I learn next? What practice should I take on next? How can I do a current practice better? Those questions to the rabbis overseeing your conversion will be a lot more practical and useful than "how much longer do I have left?" And the answers will be a lot more empowering because it gives you something you can do. When you're told a time (and you usually won't be able to get a rabbi to say a time), everything remains out of your power. You're a powerless bystander watching things happen to you, just logging your time. Focus on being an active player in the process and let the time fall where they may. This approach, ironically, will probably get you to the finish line faster and with more of your self-esteem intact.