Choosing Judaism - Part II

Yesterday, I wrote about my decision to convert to Judaism.  Today, I thought I'd share a bit about what the process entails, for those of you who are interested in conversion*, who are intellectually curious, or who are just eager to relive those hilarious episodes of "Sex in the City" in which Charlotte goes through the conversion process.  This is another loooong post.  Sorry!


*A quick caveat: Modern Judaism is divided into a few movements (Orthodox, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Reform, etc.), which differ from one another in their level of observance, their liturgy, their approach to textual interpretation, etc.  My conversion is through the Conservative movement, so I can't really speak to what the conversion process is like in the other movements.

[Image source.]

So I guess I should begin where Charlotte begins!  Do you remember the episode where Charlotte knocks on the rabbi's door and says (in that dear, sweet Charlotte way): "Hello, my name is Charlotte York, and I'm interested in joining the Jewish faith"?  And then the rabbi says (in that dear, sweet old rabbi way): "Sorry, we're not interested" and slams the door in her face?  

It's kind of true!  

Okay, not literally -- no rabbi actually turned me away at the door or made me approach him three times.  But rabbis traditionally do insist that those interested in conversion go through a substantial period of reflection and study before making the decision to convert.  My understanding is this is not because the Jewish faith is unwelcoming.  Instead, because the Jewish people have at various times been discriminated against, persecuted, or coerced into converting to other religions, rabbis want to make sure that those who seek to join the faith are doing so with free will, intention, and knowledge of the benefits and hardships that come with being Jewish.  This is the reason why rabbis usually refer to people like me who convert to Judaism as "Jews by choice," which emphasizes personal agency and considered decisionmaking, rather than the noun"convert," which always seems to me like the result of some terrible brainwashing experiment.

Nowadays, rather than turning an interested party away three times, many rabbis require that you attend a course of study on Judaism, make a concerted effort to begin living according to Jewish laws (i.e., observing the sabbath, going to services, keeping Kosher), and make time for one-on-one conversations or intensive study with the rabbi who is sponsoring your conversion. Do all this for a certain period of time (there's no magic number), and at some point, your sponsoring rabbi will deem you ready to take the plunge (somewhat literally, as you'll see).

I started the conversion process this spring, just by chatting with rabbis in the area.  They referred me to the Jewish Discovery Institute, which is an organization that provides outreach to interfaith couples and runs a Jewish learning class geared toward those interested in conversion.  Through the JDI, I take a 2.5-hour course once a week, which is basically a primer on Jewish life.  The course covers everything from the very technical -- what is and isn't kosher -- to the more abstract -- why observe shabbat -- to the waaay more abstract -- Jewish attitudes toward God, prayer, death, etc.  Oh, we also learn a little bit of Hebrew (since conservative services are conducted in Hebrew).  There is nothing funnier or more pathetic than a bunch of us old people sounding out words like four year olds.  Hooked on phonics, geriatric style.

Mr. HC is in med school in CT, while I live in MA most of the week, so he doesn't come to class with me.  But most people who are converting for marriage attend the class with their partners. It's a nice diverse group.  There are a few thirty-something professional couples like Mr. HC and me, some people who are just out of college, as well as some older folks.  There are opposite-sex couples and same-sex couples.  There are people who are converting because their partners are Jewish, and others who came to Judaism for very different reasons.  One woman, for example, is converting because her godchildren are Jewish, and she wanted to be able to be a part of their Jewish upbringing.

In addition to the course, I try to go to services once a week, usually on Friday evenings.  I found an awesome, hippie dippie shabbat service that I really enjoy -- suffice to say, there are bongo drums.  (Mr. HC, who at one time was quite observant, but is now pretty much a "high holiday Jew" (meaning he only goes to services on Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah), is amused by my new SuperJew status and my dragging him to services and insisting on shabbat dinner.)  I also really enjoy the study of Jewish texts, so as a bonus, I take an Intro to Judaism class run my sponsoring rabbi, who like me is totally geek for Jew lit.

You can do all of this Jewish learning without committing to conversion, as my rabbi reminds me all the time.  In fact, even if I weren't converting, I think I would really enjoy the whole preparatory experience.  The actual conversion, at least for women*, involves two things beyond the whole program of study and reflection.

* Male converts have -- um, how do I say this gently? -- a little extra something something they have to go through.  (But those who are already circumcised only need to go through a ritual circumcision, which is just the letting of a single drop of blood.)  Ouchy.

First, my sponsoring rabbi will bring me before the beit din, which is a rabbinical court.  I keep picturing the beit din as a tribunal of old dudes in black robes and yarmulkes, but I think most of the rabbis around here are actually quite young and often female.  It's the beit din's job to figure out whether I'm ready for conversion.  I'm told that this isn't an interrogation, but more of a conversation about how it is that I came to Judaism, whether I'm interested in conversion for the right reasons, and whether I'm joining the faith willingly and with due consideration of what it means to be joining a minority religion and culture.

Assuming that the beit din approves, I then go to the mikveh.  The mikveh is a ceremonial immersion in a pool of "living water" (usually a bit of rain water mixed in with heated and treated tap water).  The immersion ritual is the most profound part of the experience and signifies one's rebirth as a Jew.  I was initially a little anxious about the experience -- I'm not so into ritual . . . or water -- but then I did a bit of research into the mikveh I'll be going to and am now really excited.  I mean, look at this place -- isn't it beautiful?

[Photo of the gorgeous mikveh at Mayyim Hayyim.]

If anyone is interested, I'll post again on this topic once I actually finish the conversion process. But for now I'll just say that this process has been the highlight of my "wedding planning journey" thus far.  It's intellectually exciting to learn more about Judaism and to have an occasion for pondering the BIG, metaphysical questions.  Also, it feels, for lack of a better word, anchoring to be doing something that is related to the wedding but much more permanent and significant than picking out the perfect shade of purple for our save the dates.  And it's wonderful to be able to bond with Mr. HC over a culture that will soon be ours rather than his. And let me also say that it's awesome to find certain areas in which I've now done enough studying to out-Jew Mr. HC.  Ah yes, my dear, the student has become the teacher.  ;-P

For those of you who have converted to a different religion for your partner, how was your experience?

Sweet T  – (November 13, 2008 at 8:38 PM)  

what a really great set of posts. I wrote a little bit about me and the Boy both 'converting' to Episcopalianism. It's been an interesting a rewarding process to be sure! I'm definitely with you on the whole questioning-monotheism stuff, though ;)

Carly  – (November 13, 2008 at 11:15 PM)  

hey hot cocoa, i nominated you for an Uber Amazing blog award. It's a fun way to show love for our favorite blogs. Check my blog for details :)

V  – (December 17, 2008 at 4:16 AM)  

i already forgot how i came across this blog, but i LOVE it!

this post, especially- i'm not married (or engaged), but the fiance of a friend from church came to me with questions about our religion- she was terrified with all the studying she had to do- we are Russian Orthodox (and I grew up going to the Orthodox Church in Roslindale, actually- in Boston) anyway, i ended up learning a lot just teaching her- and realizing just how much i knew IN teaching her! :) great post :)

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