Welcoming in the convert

"When a proselyte comes to be converted, one receives him with an open hand so as to bring him under the wings of the Divine Presence."
(Leviticus Rabbah 2:9)

Today I'm excited. I'm looking forward to a day accompanying candidates to the Reform Bet Din (Rabbinical Court) who have applied for conversion. This is one of the greatest privileges of being a Rabbi.

Judaism isn't a religion that goes out to seek conversions (although there were times in ancient Israel when conquered nations were converted), and I often meet people who believe it is impossible to convert to Judaism. One of the reasons we don't seek conversions is that we don't believe the only good way to live is as a Jew, and this is an important theology.

Nonetheless, people do seek us out for conversion when they find it is their path. At our synagogue we run one of the biggest conversion courses in Europe, and over the last few years have on average taught around 1/3 of the movements converts. Teaching on the conversion course (which we call Jprep - short for Jewish Preparation) is one of my favourite parts of the week. Firstly because it is so wonderful to engage with a group of people who are so passionate about and engaged with Judaism, and who are involved in a true struggle to make it their own. But it is also one of those opportunities, like dialogue, where I often learn more about myself as I am pushed to respond to questions and to find new ways to explain Judaism and Jewish life.

We set out on a journey with our students, and gradually watch them begin to talk about 'us', and 'we'. They are almost always nervous on the day (one Rabbi once said to me if a candidate isn't nervous, it doesn't mean enough to them!). They are also often individuals who will continue to give a huge amount to the Jewish community. Indeed Midrash suggests these individuals, who choose Judaism, are dearer to God than those born to it:

"Dearer to God than all of the Israelites who stood at Mount Sinai is the convert. Had the Israelites not witnessed the lightning, thunder, and quaking mountain, and had they not heard the sounds of the shofar, they would not have accepted the Torah. But the convert, who did not see or hear any of these things, surrendered to God and accepted the yoke of heaven. Can anyone be dearer to God than such a person?"
Tanhuma (ed. Buber), Lekh Lekha 6:32

Having studied with and guided these incredible individuals, it is always moving to see their hard work and often long held desire come to fruition. After an interview with the Bet Din we accompany candidates to the Mikveh, a ritual immersion which importantly doesn't wash anything away, or purify someone - we are all impure without the Temple, but rather is a ritual of transformation (this is true in all the contexts in which it is used, though many misguidedly think of it as purifying). This beautiful ritual helps mark a shift in a persons life, and can be seen as a womb-like metaphor, birthing this new stage in a persons life. Rather than washing anything away, I like to think of the Mikveh as adding a layer to the person, although of course it is their own hard work and dedication that has already added this layer.

Once a person emerges from the Mikveh they are a Jew, and can never again be reminded that they are a convert, unless they choose to discuss it. They are as Jewish as anyone born into the faith, and all areas of communal and ritual life are open to them (in Orthodoxy this is not entirely true as a convert cannot marry a Cohen, a Priest, a restriction that also applies to divorcees). Of course there are lots of political issues with which conversions are recognised by whom (and this isn't restricted to orthodox restrictions on progressive converts, but orthodox conversions have also been rejected by the Chief Rabbinate in Israel and London and other Batei Din have rejected various Israeli courts). While these political issues are understandably painful for all, today I encourage candidates to feel proud of what they are a part of, not what they are not, and try to remind Jews of the respect and love that should be offered to all converts. Our community is infinitely stronger for them, and I'm looking forward to a day of welcoming and blessing them!


  1. What a lovely lovely little entry. Just wanted to say that as a prospective convert myself, you and everyone at your shul has made me feel incredibly welcomed into the community. I remember how terribly nervous I was the first time I went there, and now - a year or so later - it really feels like I have a natural place there, and that it's something of a second home to me.

  2. Debbie, this is a lovely article. Although coming to WLS was daunting to begin with, it has become easier with time and I enjoy it very much. It made something that was a part of me, but which I always felt unable to explore accessible. Coming from a secular/Zionist background, I was never able to step over the 'comfort' zone that I had become trapped in and just found the religious side an obstacle.

    The students I meet come from all backgrounds
    and are all great people who bring something different to the table with each discussion and are full of knowledge. I feel that my group are a particularly well put together group and I often wonder whether anyone is turned away at the interview stage.

    Some of the people I meet in the Progressive community live far more observant lives and do so much good for people, that I hold many of them, including those not considered Halakhic by the Orthodox, as being more Jewish than some people I know born into a Jewish family. WLS, is a very special and very spiritual place and I have no doubt that many of those who go through the conversion process will go on to do great things. It has helped me, in a very shrt amount of time, realise my own goals in life and whilst I could have done this five years ago when it was first presented as an option to me by my friend Nada, or four years ago by a close friend in Israel or even three years ago when I first started looking at prospective Shuls, the important thing is is that I finally made it through the door and look forward to going to the Beth Din myself and having my Jewish status confirmed.

    I would like to ask, however, why Patrilineal descent is not considered Jewish? Is Deuteronomy 7:3-4 really a law relating the descent through the mother? I sat down to read the 'What is Reform Judaism?' book the other day and this topic came up and it seems, that for the time being that the Reform movement is going with the status quo simply for practical reasons. Any more information on this would be useful! Outer marriage has in the majority of cases that I know led to a loss of Judaism for the person and their descendents but I am sure I have read in the Talmud that it is acceptable for a Jew to marry a Non-Jew if they are person of high repute?

  3. Apologies for not responding sooner - if you see the bomb site that is my desk at the moment you'll understand! I'm slightly drowning in work at the moment!
    Re: Patrilinality this is a very hot topic, and one that is very emotive for a lot of people. We don't define law by just what the Torah says, but it is a constantly growing and changing thing depending on rabbinic interpretation, communal practice, etc. If we did follow the laws of torah literally we'd be Kairites (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Karaite_Judaism) or AJ JAcobs (this is a fun read http://www.amazon.co.uk/Year-Living-Biblically-Literally-Possible/dp/0099509792/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1308811537&sr=8-1). At some point between the biblical and Rabbinic world there was a shift from patriliniality to matriliniality. Perhaps because we were a community under attack at various times, and you always know who the mother is. The mother for much of history was also largely responsible for educating a child in the home, and so needed to have the skills and knowledge to raise a Jewish child.
    Today there are Progressive movements that acknowledge Patriliniality (Reform in the USA and Liberal in the UK, using in part those Biblical ideas at the root of their responsa on this) and there are others that have developed mechanisms which allow for children of non- Jewish mothers to be converted and raised Jewishly. Much we do is rooted in practicality, history, and an attempt to function as progressive readers of halakhah. But things are also changing all the time - we are constantly adding voices to the understanding of Jewish law and life, (as Jews have done for thousands of years), doing so in conversation with the voices that have come before us. I was asked last night how we can be egalitarian when we don't accept patriliniality and this is a good question (though I also think there are also other equality battles to be fought).
    When I studied at Paideia, the European Centre for Jewish Studies it became very apparent to me that the biggest question facing European Jewry in the next 50 years will be 'who is a Jew'. People all over Europe are creating Jewish space and engaging with Jewish life in a variety of ways. For me the key thing isn't how we define a Jew, but whether a Jew is, in Dennis Praeger's formulation of it, a serious Jew or a non-serious Jew. Do they engage with Jewish life to make it meaningful and authentic and something they will hand on to the next generation. There are boundaries within this, but we worry far to much about denominational divides, when what will ensure a Jewish future is Jews, however they are defined, taking Judaism seriously as something that can add to their lives, and to the world, and contributing to the community and it's future.


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