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(Image: A view from the balcony by photographer Joel Bischoff.)











A friend of mine longed to be Jewish, but everyone communicated that that was impossible. So she and her husband, who also wanted to be Jewish, gave up that dream. Then one day in a public library she came upon a book ABOUT conversion to Judaism! She was thrilled. She went home, told her husband and phoned the local synagogue. Soon they were in the rabbi's office. As they worked with the rabbi on their conversions their children were enrolled in Hebrew school so that they could know enough about Judaism to determine for themselves whether they wanted to be Jewish. In the end, two of her three children converted with their parents. Their oldest says, she's fine as a non-Jew and loves practicing Judaism with her Jewish family.

Too many people get the idea that there is no such thing as conversion to Judaism. What about YOU? When did you know that conversion was possible? What did you believe the barriers to be? What barriers did you encounter? Who helped you along the way?

Tell us in the comments or email me at dawn@buildingjewishbridges.org and I would be happy to share your story anonymously if you would prefer.
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(Image: The ancient mikvah in Hebron, Israel)

A lovely woman sent me her "Pre-Conversion Adventure".  It contains so many common challenges, misunderstandings and mis-direction from Jews that I asked her if I could share it and comment on it. She graciously agreed. This is Liaz bat Lois' story.


When your soul is crying out so loudly it seems people nearby might actually hear it, it’s hard to be patient. But I knew the process of becoming a Jew required the help of a rabbi, so I patiently set about to find one to help me convert.
The cities where my pre-conversion adventure took place are not overflowing with Jewish congregations, so I’ll leave the locations blank. But it was in the middle of the US, and south.
I approached one rabbi on the phone, and that was not successful. He did not agree to help me, and told me to keep looking. So, I learned not to approach rabbis on the phone.
A friend invited me to Chabad, and I went to High Holy Day and Passover services there. Everyone was very kind and welcoming, until the rabbi took me aside and explained that his wife was uncomfortable. She thought I was only there to snag a Jewish husband. I apologized for making her uncomfortable and said I wanted to convert. He told me to pursue that in another town.
So, I did. I Googled it and found a rabbi who offers an online conversion course. It was very expensive and requires an in-person visit for the final mikveh and completion.
In the meantime, I found a congregation that welcomed visitors of all faiths. It was a great blessing to me. During a break in services there, I explained to a visiting, retired rabbi how I was setting up my online conversion. He cautioned me to find a real, live rabbi instead.
He had decades of experience and a wonderful, welcoming demeanor. He said, essentially, “The point of being a Jew is having a community. Jews need a community, and you need a community to be a Jew.” He helped me understand I wasn’t going to get what I needed online because it wasn’t only about finding a rabbi to help me convert. It was about finding my people, my community.
The president of the congregation told me it’s not easy for older people to convert because most rabbis want to invest their time and energy in young adults who will be raising Jewish children. I could see his point. Undaunted, I kept studying and praying for a rabbi who would agree to help me.
That same congregation eventually hired a young rabbi, a recent graduate, to conduct their monthly services. She agreed to help me convert. It was private and personal, perfect for me. Looking back, I feel very grateful for the way it worked out.
Most of all, I feel tremendous gratitude to Hashem for organizing my conversion process for me.

Here are my thoughts on her Adventure.

Each person has a different experience and no one’s story defines conversion.
Finding a rabbi by phone is difficult. Sometimes it works, but many times it does not. You have no idea how busy a rabbi is and their primary focus is their own congregants. They have no theological imperative to make Jews. A single phone call will not suffice in most cases. A call asking for an appointment may get you in the door. Then with a face-to-face meeting not only will the rabbi get to know you, you will get to know them. The relationship needs to be a “match” for the seeker.

It’s surprising that the Chabad experience was not good as Chabad staff is typically very good at welcoming everyone. However, Chabad does not do conversions. Chabad rabbis refer seekers to other Orthodox rabbis in the community. I wish more people knew this as it can make Chabad seem rejecting when, in most cases, you are asking a gas station to fix your broken axle; that’s just not part of their job.

Online conversions are intended to bring income to the teacher/rabbi who offers them. Think of it like a musician or a science tutor or a craftsperson. They have a website to advance their business. It can be quite expensive. Since you still have to go to the mikvah with the rabbi, you also have to pay to travel to where the rabbi is, or can meet you, to complete your conversion. More expenses.

Most conversions are done by congregational rabbis and don’t cost anything. If you take a class, yes, you will pay for the class like everyone else. But your meetings with your sponsoring rabbi are free. The expectation is that you will enter into the life of your rabbi’s congregation. You will attend services, make friends, come for holidays, volunteer, etc. The rabbi AND the congregation are building a relationship with you and you with them.

As you say, location does matter. It is important that you shared this in order to put your story in perspective.  Living in a place with very few Jewish options made the process of locating a sponsoring rabbi very hard. In the general community this is made harder because most people don’t even know they need a sponsoring rabbi. They also don’t know that that rabbi has to be connected to a synagogue to be taken seriously by most Jews and Jewish organizations.

I am stunned that the president of the congregation said that rabbis prefer to convert young people. I will point out that that is one person’s opinion and a very damaging one at that. In one sentence he or she has blighted the reputations of thousands of rabbis he/she has never met. I don’t know of any rabbi who shares that opinion. Perhaps this person’s previous rabbi felt that way, in which case, I’m glad they left.

Finally, you say that the most important thing to you is that HaShem guided you. That is a fine thing to believe. Some of us Jews agree that there is a Guide in our lives. Many other Jews do not. Luckily Judaism teaches both perspectives. I am delighted that more than one person can be right at the same time.
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The Reform movement sent out this article in a recent email --

I am dating a woman who is considering conversion to Judaism. How can I support her without coercing her?
 
I am wondering a few things.
 
Did you ever feel coerced?
Did you wish you had more support?
If you have a born Jewish partner, did/does it matter whether they "want" you to be Jewish or not?
If you have a non-Jewish partner, how has your becoming Jewish impacted him or her?

Most important, if you were asked this question, what advice would YOU give?
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​Just as Kabbalah became the Jewish flavor of the month in America a few years ago, Mussar is suddenly appearing in non-Jewish environments. Mussar, like Kabbalah, is a serious study undertaken by many observant Jews. I encourage you to learn about it and to go beyond whatever your FIRST source of information is to other views and approaches to Mussar.

Here is a handy starting point, an article on www.myjewishlearning.com 
A History of Mussar

You can learn online from one of the teachers that I respect, Alan Morinis.  One of the San Francisco Reform synagogues shared the class information below with their members. I first heard Alan Morinis speak at an Orthodox synagogue a few years ago. He works across denominations. Take a look; he is quite good and can be funny too.
 
Taste of Mussar for Individuals or Online Groups
An introduction to the study and practice of Jewish spiritual ethics
Mussar is a centuries-old Jewish body of teachings, a perspective, and a disciplined practice that provides distinctively Jewish answers to the sorts of questions any thinking person asks about life:
Why do I keep making the same mistakes over and over?
Why do I cause pain to myself and others?
What steps can I take to bring my life closer to my spiritual potential?
Are there lessons I can learn from the experiences of previous generations?
Mussar provides guidance in identifying your uniquely personal path of spiritual growth and offers practices to help bring about that growth.
A Taste of Mussar is an introductory four-week course developed by Dr. Alan Morinis to give you the opportunity to experience the tradition of learning and practicing Mussar that has engaged and helped people for centuries.
4 weeks
Fee: $36 US per individual payable upon registration for individuals. $54 US per individual for online groups

Details here.
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When you convert to Judaism with a Jewish partner you have an automatic "in". You have someone knows something about Judaism. You may get a regular invitation to Jewish holidays. But when you are single you have to work harder to create your "Jewish family" unit.

You may have other differences that make you feel out of step with your congregation. Perhaps you are older (over 50), are gay or lesbian, don't have children. Maybe you don't have the money for Jewish events. Bottom line, you need a circle of friends that function like family; a place where everybody knows your name and expects you to show up.

One person expressed it this way, "I was wondering if you knew of any resources or articles or books about being single and observing Judaism? I’ve been really struggling lately. Being gay is also part of that. My shul isn’t homophobic at all, but programming is for sure for straight people. Anyway, any thoughts about single Jewish observance and life would be appreciated."

This is a reoccurring issue for single Jews by choice, so we asked everyone on the email list: If you are single, can you share some of your solutions & ideas? If you are not single, do you have a suggestion that might help? 

(1) I’m single and understand the challenge of ‘feeling Jewish’ without a Jewish partner.   
Ways that I continue to express my Jewish identity are by attending services, celebrating the holidays, watching YouTube videos, reading Torah and staying up to date on the Parsha readings, and having Judaica around the home. I don’t “keep kosher," but I do try to buy kosher meat as much as possible. It’s important to set goals (e.g. learn Hebrew, keep mitzvot, donate to a charity, etc.) too. 
 
I understand how lonely it can be without a Jewish partner as I went from being in a relationship with a Jewish person to being single. It’s really not the same without that social element. 
 
The only advice I have for this for people who have converted, like myself, is to concentrate on what in particular makes that individual feel Jewish on a personal level. Then one’s Jewish identity will shine even more. 
Hannah

(2) Thank you for recognizing that being Single is a challenge regarding connecting to Judaism. Especially important is around the holidays, such as the upcoming Passover.

Here's what I've done to increase my connection:
1. Participated on a committee
2. Helped with planning the update of the temple website
3. Went through a B'nai Mitzvah (by far the most connection was felt here, learned Hebrew and to chant Torah and haftarah)
4. Joining the temple choir
5. Volunteering at the temple or for special events in any small way that I could.

Overall, I've found it helpful to get involved with ongoing activities. And if the activity involves getting through struggles together (like learning Hebrew or chanting Torah and haftarah) the better for deepening the connection. After all, when becoming Jewish, it's not just converting to a belief system, but its about becoming part of a people. So becoming integrated with the people is key.
Miri
More replies will be coming so stay tuned!
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Reasons for converting a baby or child
* When a parent converts to Judaism they may decide to convert the children they already have.
* If a Jewish or interfaith couple adopt a baby, they may want to convert the little one.
* When a non-Jewish woman has a child and wants to raise the child Jewish with her Jewish partner, she may want to the child to be officially converted.

The reason for converting a child in one of these situations is to ensure that a larger percent of the Jewish world will view the child as authentically Jewish.

How it works
EVERY conversion/convert holds the status of the rabbi(s) who performed the conversion. So an Orthodox conversion is accepted by all streams of Judaism. A Conservative conversion is accepted by Conservative and the Reform/Reconstructionist /Renewal movements. Conversions by a Reform, Reconstructionist or Renewal rabbi will be accepted by that same group of rabbis.

Additionally, every rabbi will have their own requirements for how the child will be raised by the parents in order for the rabbi to be willing to perform the conversion. So it is vital that you contact the rabbi to learn what will be required! In interviewing rabbis about their requirements I found that all of them, including the Orthodox, had their own, nuanced requirements.

Requirements can be things like this:
Family must be members of a synagogue
Observing Shabbat and the Jewish holidays
Enrolling the child in Hebrew school, or perhaps a Jewish day school
Keeping a kosher kitchen

Some aspects of a child's conversion are the same as an adult. Male children will have to be circumcised. If they are already circumcised, a traditional rabbi will require that they have hatafat dam - a ritual drawing of a few drops of blood from the penis. Both male and female children are taken to be immersed in the mikvah. One of the parents, dressed in a bathing suit, takes the child into the mikvah and dips them under the instructions of the rabbi. Many rabbis have little suggestions or tricks for helping to get a baby to close their eyes and hold their breath. (I've been told that blowing on a baby's face causes them to do so.)  

But it is also up to the child
The ancient rabbis had a very thoughtful debate about a child who is converted by their parents or guardian. ​They believed that the child had a say in their identity. Thus, at the age of Jewish adulthood, typically 12 for a girl and 13 for a boy, the child is asked whether they want to be Jewish. They are free to say, no, and decline to be a Jew. Or they can affirm the decision that was made "for them" and live as a Jew. 

This idea of individual autonomy runs against many other religions and can be difficult for non-Jews, or Jews lacking education in this area, to understand. Personally, I believe it is one of the most beautiful things about Judaism. 

​This article from My Jewish Learning about converting a baby or child is quite good.

​Have you had your child converted? Please share your experience and recommendations in the comments below.
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(Milan Cathedral)

Is it challenging to live overseas, away from one's home congregation as a Jew by choice?

Binah was raised Catholic. Her first language is Chinese, "more so Cantonese, but I can speak Mandarin." In the USA she became attracted to Judaism. She chose to have a Conservative conversion.  She remains involved with her US congregation when she is in the country, but her international work takes her to Italy for months at a time. Here are her thoughts on the topic.

Living half of the time in Europe does have bearing on my Jewish practice.  In the whole of Italy, there are only about 40,000 Jews.  When I first heard this statistic, I thought it was a mistake on the person's part -- Maybe he meant 400,000?! 
[Note: There are between 40 and 45,000 Jews in Italy today]
 
Honestly, it is difficult to keep up with Jewish practice.  But I think the difficulties also reaffirm my Jewish identity.  I remember my rabbi and teacher emphasized that Kashrut is a daily reminder of holiness.  I fully agree with that.  So, with the challenge of international traveling, I have to find other ways to reminder myself of the connection and the daily holiness.
 
There are Holocaust survivors at my synagogue in California.  Once I heard an elder member commented to young women wearing Star of David necklaces.  She said it is fine to wear it in the USA, but she wouldn't recommend that anyone traveling internationally wear any identification marks on them, especially Europe and the Middle East.  She has a point!  I usually am a little more careful about revealing my Jewish identity in Europe.  But if asked directly, I never have any reservation announcing proudly "Yes, I am a Jew."  Even if that may bring me certain negative prejudice (and knock on wood it hasn't happened as I spend most of my time in urban Milan).  And for this, I am glad the international travel served to reaffirm my identity!!!
 
The conversion process opened me up to a more free-thinking relationship between God and myself.  I have had a free-thinking tendency since I was born, but certainly the conversion brought about the expression of it.  I feel special to have had such an experience.  This is one of the reasons that I feel a sense of belonging even though I am away from my home community most of the time. Global-trotting actually reinforces my Jewish identity in my heart and soul!
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I received this inquiry about conversion:
​During the conversion process, how observant can or should one be? What kind of mitzvot can someone do? I can only find Orthodox information and that’s not very helpful in my case. My rabbi is advising me not to wear tallit or hang a mezuzah until after I finish, but why? What are the guidelines for other things? Can I kasher all of my dishes? Can I cover my head when I pray or study? (I have found it helpful to do so before.) Can I say blessings? I’m only a month into the process, but I know a lot and I’m feeling ready to take on some mitzvot.
 — Ready to Go

Here's my answer. (Share your thoughts in the comments below.)

Dear Ready: Part of becoming a Jew is becoming a member of a community with communal rules. Within every synagogue is a micro-Jewish community that lives by the rules of that group of people and their rabbi and their understanding of Jewish law.
If you have found a rabbi with whom you are comfortable, then trust him/her. Your rabbi is thinking about how you will fit into the community. If you wear a tallit or hang a mezuzah you are signaling other Jews that you are already Jewish. That can be seen as deceptive.
At one month into your study you are gaining a number of facts about Jewish life, i.e., the trappings of Judaism, clothing and home accoutrements, but you do not yet know the mentality of Jewish life, which includes theology, history and culture. Being a Jew is often referred to as being “a member of the tribe.” That is, you are becoming a part of a whole, dedicating yourself to a greater good a bigger family.
You ask about kashering your dishes and also say that you can only find Orthodox information and it is not helpful in your case. I am guessing from that that you are not studying for an Orthodox conversion.
The point of having kosher dishes is to permit traditionally observant Jews to eat in your home. Right now you are eating there just fine, and as a not-yet-Jewish person you do not require kosher dishes. A traditional Jew would not eat in your home now because there is no assurance that you know what you are doing in terms of food buying, handling and preparation.
Either you plan to observe kashrut, in which case you still have a lot to learn before you will be able to maintain your dishes’ kosher status, or you just want to have kosher dishes. If you just want kosher dishes, why? Is it to make you feel more Jewish?
You are at the very beginning of your journey. Slow down and let this precious study time sink in. Right now you are meeting with your rabbi regularly, learning something new each week. Once you become a Jew, it will last for the rest of your life. Embrace this liminal time.
Can you cover your head to pray? Many faiths have this practice. I see no reason you could not do that, but ask your rabbi. It may be that your shul expects men to cover their heads; others expect both men and women to do so.
Can you say blessings? I am guessing that your rabbi is teaching you blessings. You have to say them to learn and practice. If you are asking whether you can say blessings on behalf of the community as the shaliach tzibur (messenger of the community), the answer is usually no. Only a Jew can do that. (This may differ in nontraditional Jewish environments.) But one month of studying has not prepared you for such a responsibility.
In the Mishnah, the rabbis list and discuss the mitzvot. They mention honoring parents, visiting the sick, welcoming guests, comforting mourners and observing Shabbat and the holidays, among many others. There are so many mitzvot you can do that are simply a part of living a decent life.
Judaism focuses on our daily lives; focus on yours. Be cognizant of what you are doing and why. Do you call your mother to see how she is doing? Do you send a note to someone who has lost a loved one? Do you attend services? Do you got to Torah study or find a place to study with others?
The actions you are raising are primarily ones that happen “outside” of yourself — what you wear, what is on your house, the status of your dishes.
Turn your thinking inside. Are you careful to make your actions in keeping with Jewish tradition? Don’t lie, but don’t needlessly blurt out a hurtful truth. Avoid gossip. Look for ways to help those less fortunate than yourself. Do these things mindfully. It will be rewarding and begin connecting you to your Jewish practice and emerging identity.
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We tend to think exclusively about people who convert to Judaism. But there are people converting to other religions every day. A Jew by choice send me this sweet note about her own mother.




My mother became Catholic at age 70.  She's now 82.  I think she feels a tremendous sense & depth of love for God and closeness to her community.  She was raised Baptist, but I think Catholicism really resonated with her when she was exposed to it by enrolling me in a Catholic elementary school. I think the theology of the religion and the manner in which it is expressed felt intuitively right to her.  Although it took her almost 40 years to find a path, she found the one that was right for her. Ironically, I think I felt inspired and empowered to become Jewish because of her actions and modeling of courage in affirming her faith.

Is there someone whose actions encouraged you to pursue conversion? Tell us about it in the comments.
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We frequently receive requests for assistance with conversion from countries around the world. We simply don't provide that. There is an organization called Kulanu that offers help in a number of countries. You can take a look at their map of the communities in which they work to see if they can help you. They list these communities.

Abayudaya
Anousim, Crypto-Judaism
Brazil
Cameroon
Columbia
Cote d’Ivoire
Ecuador
Ethiopia
Ghana
Gabon
India
Italy
Ivory Coast
Kenya
Lemba
Madagascar
Nicaragua
Nigera
Peru
Poland
Papua Indonesia
Suriname
Tutsi
Uganda (Abayudaya)
Zimbabwe (Lemba)
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