While there are those who believe that the process of conversion should be as simple as a public statement of commitment (or as one rabbi noted “those who are Jewish are those identified by others as Jews”), there are others in the Jewish community who make it extremely difficult—if not impossible—for those who do want to convert to Judaism. This notion was made famous in a well-known episode of “Sex and the City,” when Charlotte made her initial overtures to convert. She was refused three times, reflecting the hide-behind excuse of unresponsive rabbis to refuse any approach by potential converts. When a recent convert to Judaism was asked why she worked with a particular New York City rabbi for her own conversion, she replied, “He was the only one who took my call.”
Converting to Judaism—or any religion into which one is not born—is not a simple decision. But it does not mean that the process to do so has to be encumbered. Instead, the Jewish community should do all it can to lower barriers to conversion and make it accessible to all. Ironically, the barriers—especially as anti-conversion pronouncement become more or less a weekly occurrence in Israel—are getting higher.
As Jewish wisdom continues to become available in the market place, either the interest to convert to Judaism will increase or there will be no need to do so since the wisdom will be so readily available. In either case, it means that conversion barriers need to be lowered.
Here is what you need to know about converting to Judaism, what is generally required, after which time the prospective convert will meet with a rather pro forma bet din (of three rabbis) to ensure the potential convert has not been coerced:
1. Basic education (defined along a continuum, generally depending on the sponsoring rabbi and the movement with which the rabbi is affiliated);
2. A dip in the ritual bath, called a mikvah;
3. A ritual circumcision for males (or a droplet of blood for those already circumcised).
So what can the community do make conversion accessible? The educational program should be available at various times and in various locations (and on-line) and at no cost to participants. Nor should people be charged to use the mikvah for the purpose of conversion. It’s the least that we can do to show people how much they are welcome in the Jewish community.
If Judaism has something to teach, then why keep it a secret? The late researcher Gary Tobin coined the phrase “proactive conversion,” reaching out to invite people in. An active Jewish mission to others was abandoned when community leaders were afraid that their enemies would infiltrate their communities and destroy them. That time in the history of the journey of the Jewish people is long over. It’s time to renew that action and become a “light to the nations” but only if community institutions can deliver on the promise of accessibility and welcome people when they do eventually make it to the gates of their institutions.
An afterword to rabbis: when a potential convert calls you. Pick up the phone. Answer it yourself. Make time for that person. You and the community will be enriched by a positive response.