Conversion to Judaism: Orthodox Jewish Conversion
On Converting to Judaism: Orthodox Jewish practice does not encourage conversions to Judaism — and we actually discourage conversion — because Orthodox Judaism focuses on the goal of guiding our own people, Jews, to live more wholesome, righteous, ethical Torah-based lives. Non-Jews, likewise, can and do live deeply meaningful and righteous lives, and there is no need for a non-Jewish person to feel an imperative to adopt Judaism. Thus, in the nine years since Rav Fischer moved to Irvine in 2005, he has sponsored only four RCC conversions to completion and presently is sponsoring three more. That is an average, over a decade’s time, of fewer than one conversion per year. However, because so many non-Jews in Orange County contact our Shul to inquire about converting to Judaism, and because so many of those contacts come from people who previously converted to Judaism outside of a recognized Orthodox process, leading to their subsequent regrets that they had never first inquired about the very process of converting to Judaism according to the Orthodox practice recognized by the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, this page is intended to provide information. It is decidedly not a solicitation of conversion — and, as the numbers evidence, the rigors of converting to Judaism under Orthodox auspices ultimately see fewer than one person annually successfully doing so in Orange County.
An authentic Jewish conversion under Orthodox Jewish auspices differs profoundly from anything else you otherwise may have encountered or been told at other orange county temples. There are no short cuts. But we are really a wonderful group to encounter along the way of your journey of a lifetime . . .and more. You not only must learn judaism but you must internalize the torah lifestyle for every day of the rest of your life. And you will be inspired by meeting and interfacing with others who live that honest, authentic jewish lifestyle. It is not about passing a test after taking a 6-month or 12-month class, but about honestly making the shabbat, the kosher dietary rules, the rules of heightened business ethics and personal honesty, and even the laws of sacred home life a part of your life and that of your family.
Several times every year, I am approached by individuals or couples in Orange County who would like to know more about converting to Judaism. “What does it entail?” I am asked. “And how does ‘converting Orthodox’ differ from converting with a Conservative or Reform Rabbi? What will be expected of me? Will my children be accepted as Jewish?”
I used to sit and meet personally with each inquiring person, meeting with approximately 50 such individuals annually, as each of the 3-4 monthly inquiries seemed to merit its own time. From several years’ experience, however, I learned that most people in Orange County, California, who inquire about conversion to Judaism do not understand what Conversion-to-Judaism means, how an authentic Orthodox Jewish conversion differs from the practices and processes presented more commonly among the local non-Orthodox congregations here. Typically, requirements of Torah-true Judaism for conversion just are too much, too demanding for most who are inquiring. In the end, therefore, the time devoted to such meetings is not well invested on either side: the inquiring person is not ready for an authentic Giyur (halakhic or Orthodox Torah-true conversion), and the time devoted to the meeting is not well invested.
Just as the United States maintains rigorous standards for accepting new citizens, even as it continues to honor the citizenship of those already blessed with that status even when such citizens act as miscreants, so it is that Orthodox Judaism — Torah-true Judaism — sets rigorous standards for accepting newcomers under the umbrella of Torah, even as we continue honoring the Jewish status of all Jews, Orthodox and non-Orthodox, no matter how detestably they may present themselves.
So back to The Question: What does an authentic Giyur (halakhic conversion to Judaism) entail?
The brief answer is: It is not that simple, but it also is the journey of a lifetime . . . and more. We are Orthodox. Consequently, our very world view of conversion is defined by our understanding of G-d’s word as articulated in the Written Torah and amplified in the Oral Law. Thus, a conversion to Judaism is not merely about joining a new family or joining a new team. It is not merely about changing holidays, learning some Hebrew, singing “Hava Nagila,” or showing a love for Israel or feeling bad about the Holocaust. Rather, an authentic conversion — a giyur according to halakhah — is about adopting a new personal way of life for the rest of your life. . . . and for the World to Come.
I cannot adequately emphasize that last sentence. When you convert to Judaism, your entire lifestyle changes – forever. You begin every morning by reciting certain prayers. If you are male, you not only must pray three times daily, but you must don tefillin every morning for the rest of your life (except for Sabbaths, Biblical festivals, and one modified rule on a specific Fast Day) – and you must worship daily in a minyan service at synagogue. Your eating habits will change – because they must. You no longer will eat non-kosher food or patronize restaurants that lack proper kosher supervision and certification. For the rest of your life, you will wait several hours after eating meat or poultry before you may eat something dairy. Every week, your Friday nights (after sunset) and Saturdays (until nightfall) will be governed by the rules of the “Day of Rest.” Some of those rules will delight you. Some will take some time assimilating into your view of “rest.” When you are invited to a “wine and cheese” social, you will be concerned whether the wine is kosher and whether the cheese is kosher – so, typically, you will not attend wine-and-cheese events sponsored outside your new faith community. Meanwhile, you will be expected to spend the rest of your life making some time every day, at least some time every week, to learn and study Torah texts, to keep growing. Your children, when you have them, will have to attend a yeshiva day school. Not a public school. Not a “community Jewish school.” And even your personal lives, the intimacy of husband and wife, will be governed by Torah law.
That’s a whole bunch for an opening paragraph. But there is so very much more. And that is why, unlike a “Reform conversion” or a “Conservative conversion,” an “Orthodox conversion” entails and demands so much more than just learning the laws and lifestyle. Rather, you will have to live the laws and lifestyle — for the rest of your life. And for that reason, your conversion will take quite a bit longer than the other kinds of programs. Because your study regime will be aimed not merely at teaching you the information but also at helping guide you into absorbing the information and assimilating our practices and beliefs into the rest of your life’s works.
Remember that high school course in which you scored an “A” on your final exam and report card – but whose substance you barely remember today? Maybe it was biology class. Maybe world history. You memorized everything there was to know about the amoeba or the paramecium. You memorized all the dynasties of China’s early power families. You memorized the kings of France and England, the dates of their wars. You knew it all so perfectly for the final exam, and your “A” on the report card demonstrated your knowledge.
But today you are a doctor, and you don’t know the “Wars of the Roses” from the “War of the Roses.” The Hundred Years War? Henry I? Henry II? John I? John II? How many Johns were there? Henrys? And, for that matter, Phillips?
When you study for “conversion” outside an Orthodox Torah framework, your teachers will have a curriculum for you, and they will teach you. You may learn a great deal. You will take the test. Your program may run three months. Maybe six months. Maybe a bit longer.
But – five years later – will you be reciting the blessing thanking G-d for water before you drink a cup of water? Will you be reciting the blessings thanking G-d for other foods? After your meals, will you be reciting the closing blessings? Will you be at daily services, donning tefillin, praying the services daily? Will you be living what you were taught? Maybe. Doubtfully.
By contrast, there is no “maybe” in an Orthodox “conversion.” Your program will last longer – much longer. At least a year. More like two years. Sometimes even longer. You not only will learn the curriculum, but you will live it – every day, every meal, every Sabbath, every holiday. You will be expected, within no more than six months, to be residing within a half-mile’s walking-distance from your sponsoring Rav’s Orthodox synagogue. If I am your sponsoring Rav, for example, you will have to be residing within half a mile of my Shul. Even as you study a comprehensive curriculum with your assigned same-gender mentor, meeting once every week, you also will be required to attend my weekly Tuesday night class on Chumash/ Rashi commentary/ Contemporary Halakhah (Jewish Law and Practice). Families in my shul occasionally will invite you to join them for Shabbat meals. Often, Ellen and I will invite you to join us with other of our invited guests for a Shabbat or Yom Tov (Holiday) meal. We will talk. We will learn.
Your weekly class with the mentor will continue, week after week. Your attendance at my weekly Tuesday night Chumash-Rashi-Halakhah class will continue, week after week. You will attend Shul, recite blessings of thanks, and increasingly take on more and more of the Torah lifestyle. Typically for approximately two years.
All the while, your progress will be monitored by an outside Bayt Din comprised of prominent and respect Rabbonim (i.e., Orthodox rabbis) who are accepted and respected throughout the Southern California Orthodox community. It will be they who decide initially whether to approve you for the “conversion” program. You will meet with them in Los Angeles once every three months, or so, as they monitor your progress and growth, get to know you. And it will be they who ultimately signal the “green light” – again, perhaps after a year, perhaps after two years, perhaps even longer – for your day of “conversion.”
So, with that introduction, let’s look closer at the “nuts and bolts” – the steps along the path:
- First, I will ask you to write me a substantive note, a letter or statement as to what you are looking for. What motivates your query. Why you would want to take on such a life. Tell me your story.Through my offices, as your sponsoring rabbi, I will guide you as you begin the process that culminates in your living an absolutely Torah-true life, observing the Shabbat according to its laws, eating strictly kosher in and out of the home, etc.You will not be alone. Ellen and I found that, when we arrived in Irvine in August 2005, there already were at least 15 couples in the Orthodox community in which a spouse, typically the wife, had converted to Judaism, while the Jewish-born spouse, typically the husband, had become Torah-observant en route. Subsequently, in my congregational role, I worked with three more such couples en route to their Giyur. At my newer Irvine shul where I have been Rav since February 2008, we have celebrated another Giyur while turning away or otherwise saying farewell to several others who inquired but were not ready to become Jewish according to Torah law.The thing is, I can sponsor a “conversion” only when the prospective convert (and the significant other, where there is a couple) undertake unequivocally to live a fully Torah-directed life, which means in short time – observing Shabbat (including attending worship services on Shabbat, but no driving on Shabbat, no turning lights on and off, no TV on Shabbat, no money, not using the phone, etc.); observing kashrut (including establishing a kitchen with two sets of dishes/ flatware/ cookware, strict purchase of kosher-only cheeses, breads, and wines, and evolving towards kosher-only eating out of the home, too).To reach this level of practice, it becomes absolutely mandatory within the first six months that you are in the program for you to establish a permanent residency within walking distance of my Shul. Otherwise, how can I observe and celebrate your growth and evolution, invite you occasionally for Shabbat meals spontaneously, and assure you are plugged into other avenues of Shabbat meal invites? That is, how else can I sponsor you?So, as Step One, please write me your story. Thereafter, perhaps, we can set a meeting.
- Once I have read your story, we can set a time to sit and meet in my office. I can share insights with you, and you can emerge better informed of what it means to become a Jew – really, authentically, to become and live as a Jew as that term and lifestyle have been understood for thousands of years.
- If you choose to proceed after we have met, your next step on the “conversion” process entails your calling the Rav who serves as director of the Bayt Din. You would tell him that you have met with Rav Dov Fischer in Irvine, who laid out the process for you. As noted above, it is a process that can take maybe two years, maybe three – well transcending a year of study . . . as the period of study also begins the period of practice, and it can take some two or three years of practice until it becomes really internalized within you – keeping and observing Shabbat properly, keeping kosher in-and-out of the home, living the Torah life.In that next stage, then, you meet personally with that Rav, and – if he emerges persuaded that your candidacy is rooted in a sincere readiness to take on a Torah lifestyle (along with your significant other, if there is one) – he assigns you books to read.
- Two or more months later, when you feel you have read and mastered the assigned volumes and have absorbed their essence, you again would call the Rav at the Bayt Din and ask that he set an appointment for your initial meeting with the 3-rabbi Bayt Din panel. The Rabbinical Panel typically includes that Rav and two other prominent Rabbonim (“rabbis”). At that meeting, again at the Bayt Din’s Los Angeles offices, they get to know you, too. Every three months or so thereafter, you travel to Los Angeles, and you again meet with the Bayt Din. At each such meeting, they speak with you and continue gauging your evolution.
- Throughout this process, every week, from the time that the Rabbinical Panel decides you are ready to start learning, you study at least twice weekly here in Irvine –
- once-weekly with a same-gender mentor in Irvine, whom the Bayt Din will designate for you as your personal mentor through the multi-year process, and
- the other time each week at my Tuesday night Chumash-Rashi-Halakhah class from 7:30-9:00 p.m.
Over time, you learn – you learn an enormous amount – and, much more importantly to the process, you practice what you learn. You live what you learn. You grow, and you evolve. In time, a conversion date is set when the Rabbinic Panel feels you are ready. The Bayt Din makes that decision in consultation with your mentor and with your sponsoring Rav.
If you think about it, American citizens who break American law retain their American citizenship. Yes, felons may lose their right to vote but not their citizenship. America does not strip citizenship. By contrast, immigrants who wish to naturalize – essentially, to “convert” to Americans — must meet a higher, longer, more demanding, pure standard. So it is with Jews and Judaism. If the “significant other” will not live the lifestyle, then there can be no “conversion.” If the couple cannot live within walking distance of a Shul, then they cannot possibly attend Shabbat services at Shul every week in a manner that conforms to halakha. Because, on Shabbat, a Jew must walk, not drive. And one must go to Shul.
There is no question but that our standards and requirements reduce the number of people who opt to pursue a “conversion” course in our ranks. As noted above, I sponsored five conversions to completion during the six years between 2005 and 2011, only one to completion between 2008 and 2011. So the standards are rigorous. We do not “cut corners.” But every “convert” in our Torah community becomes a Jewish person in the truest sense of the word because, once you are accepted in Giyur, you not only talk the talk – but you walk the walk. On Shabbat.
Within walking distance of us, and within our Eruv, there are apartments to rent at Parkwest Apartments. There are condominia to rent or buy at Rancho San Joaquin Apartments. You may want to “Google” them and contact them. This is what my wife and I had to do when we moved to Irvine. This is what all Torah-true Jews must do – we must live within walking distance of a Shul. If we cannot afford to live within walking distance of a Shul in Irvine, then we find another community, more affordable, and live within walking distance of that Shul. For some, it means leaving L.A. and moving to Seattle or Portland or Cincinnati.
If you do opt to pursue an Orthodox “conversion” from a residence based in Irvine, I would be honored to act as your sponsoring Rav – the Bayt Din’s representative in Irvine – guiding you and your mentor, overseeing your progress, teaching you, and welcoming you into my congregation’s life. Some of my most meaningful relationships have arrived from this role. But, again, before writing me, please read this page again, please ask yourself whether you really are prepared to undertake this rigorous process, to make the geographical move, to commit to study and practice as described here. If not, then this is not for you. And that is the reason that conversions conducted under the auspices of the Bayt Din are recognized and accepted throughout Israel, for you and for your future generations. Because the authorities in Israel trust the standard.
A final word: money. Many people whom I have met during my six years in Irvine have expressed concern whether certain rabbis do conversions as a financial enterprise. Others have expressed concern whether certain temples could survive financially without the conversion/intermarriage aspect of their operations. Deeply moved by those concerns, I simply have decided not to charge or accept any remuneration, payment, or other gift or emolument for time I devote to your “conversion” process as your sponsoring Rav. I am not the same-gender mentor. I teach my weekly Chumash-Rashi-Halakhah class anyway to the many members of my congregation who look forward to attending that Torah class. We typically average fewer than a conversion a year anyway. So I do not take anything for my time and personal sponsorship. There are certain nominal fees that the Bayt Din may charge, and your mentor may receive a fee. In all, you will find that the “conversion” framework is not viewed as a meaningful source of funding within the Orthodox Torah community. Our shuls do not rely on conversions and intermarriages to keep the seats warm.
For us, the “conversion process” is not an avenue for funding. Rather, it is one more way we humbly endeavor to help repair the world — by helping you on your journey, guiding you, teaching you, breaking bread with you, and eventually counting you and your future generations as “MOT”s — full “Members of the Tribe.”
And, yes, a conversion to Judaism through Young Israel of Orange County’s conversion process will assure you that you, your children, and theirs will be counted and accepted as full Jews anywhere and everywhere, including in Israel, now and for all time. That guarantee, which we make here in writing, is not something that you will receive in writing most everywhere else in Orange County, California.