Steps to Converting to Judaism
Converting to Judaism
If you have decided you want to convert to Judaism you should begin by visiting the different synagogues in your area. You should at least try one synagogue in every denomination. If all of the denominations are not in your area at least try the ones which are. There are several denominations of Judaism and each have their own rituals and customs in Judaism that they follow. The following list has most of the denominations which can be found in most cities.
There are other denominations and those that are not affiliated with any denomination. Sometimes you can find a synagogue who is not affiliated with any of the movements but will fall somewhere in the practices of one or combination of a couple.
It is important to note that not every congregation is the same. There will be some customs are present in all synagogues, like the use of Hebrew but the amount of Hebrew might differ from Orthodox to Reform.
As you visit the congregations see which one feels more comfortable for you, which one do you feel more at home. Let us say you really like the theology of Conservative Judaism but the congregation was not so welcoming, try another Conservative congregation. If there is not another Conservative congregation then try finding a Reconstructionist who will sometimes have a lot of the more traditional customs found in Conservative Judaism but you might find you like this particular congregation.
Each congregation serves its congregants in different ways. Some congregations have a large over sixty age group so there will be a lot of activities for that group. Some congregations (a lot of them) will work very hard to serve those who are single and young families. There will be groups for singles of all ages, different gathering for educational opportunities at the shul. The congregations focused on families will have a reputation for having a good/excellent religious school, excellent family programming and family services, which are geared toward younger children, at least once a month.
When you enter a synagogue there are certain customs/ritual to be aware of as a visitor. When you go to services and it is a quiet Shabbat, as in people are away for summer, etc. If there is a greeter, they will usually ask if you are new to the area and your name. They will usually greet you with a Shabbat Shalom, Good Shabbos and you repeat what they say as a response. Before seating ask if it is an OK time to enter the sanctuary. There are certain prayers where going in and out of the doors is not permitted. That would also be a good time to ask if they know of a place that you can sit and not be in some else's spot. It is customary for a person to sit in the same spot every time when they are at services. Davening, praying in the same spot is a spiritual process cavenah. Being in the right space for davening, both physically and spiritually.
Once in the sanctuary you will be given or directed to pick up a siddur, a prayer book. The services are lead from this book. The other book which you will pick up is the Chumash, the English/Hebrew and commentary of the Torah. You will use the Chumash during Torah services when they Torah is being read.
If you are at an Orthodox, Conservative and some Reconstructionist congregation, most of the service will be done in Hebrew. If you are at a Reform congregation the services will most likely have Hebrew every once and a while but will contain mostly English. Either way the leader or rabbi will announce where they are at in the siddur or chumash during services.
Depending on the congregation and the denomination running on time is not always an issue. Within the Reform movement being on time is appreciated. Within the other movements arriving late is not an issue. There are some good humored jokes about arriving only for kiddish, which is after services.
Services can be rather long for everyone but Reform. Expect to be at services for a few hours. In a Reform setting services will be about two to two and half hours. After services there is usually kiddish where everyone says the blessings over the wine & challah. Sometimes there is a substantial nosh with what could be considered lunch. This is an excellent time to sit and visit with everyone.
For the more traditional parts of Judaism carrying money, cell phones or using writing utensils are not part of Shabbat. When visiting a congregation please refrain from using cell phones, having money out or using pens/pencils to write something down.
If you ask the rabbi for a meeting she/he might say that you should call when it is not Shabbat. That would mean call after night fall on Saturday. Sundays during the year the rabbi is usually at the synagogue and can be reached for an appointment.
Wearing a tallit during services is something done on Shabbat morning and daily morning services. Please do not wear a tallis while visiting the synagogue. For Orthodox and Conservative synagogues your head should be covered. Kippot, head covering are often provided near the entrance. If you are attending an Orthodox service and a woman they will want your head covered but not with a kippah. In Conservative Judaism women also wear kippot. In Reform most the congregants are diversified and some wear kippot and some do not.
There are several thing which will help you along your way if you decide you want to convert to Judaism. Depending on the rabbi they will have you walk a certain path they use for helping converts. Some rabbis want you to attend a conversion class. The class usually last a semester and will cover all denominations of Judaism along with the holidays. Rabbis will sometimes compliment the class with a book, and you will study the book with the rabbi. Often the rabbi will make sure you are invited to holiday dinners and sederim for Pesach (Passover). If you prefer not to take the class but instead want a more one on one ask the rabbi. She/he might pair you up with a buddy. They will work with you, be there during services, make sure you have somewhere to go for Shabbat dinner, etc.
There are all sorts of books about Judaism. You can find most of them at a book store or on line now a days. Anita Diamante is someone who if often recommended as a read for conversion candidates. Some of her writing is very helpful in walking a person through life cycle events and how to help your family of origin walk with you so that they do not feel alienated. Learning Hebrew is almost a necessity. There are easy books made for adults which take you through the same steps as a child in religious school. Bet is for breshit, is an excellent series to learn Hebrew.
When it concerns learning Hebrew there are two different tracks. One is biblical Hebrew, which is used in the sidurim and humashim. Then there is modern Hebrew which is spoken in Israel. The biblical Hebrew is helpful in a lot of ways, learning that first is go so you can pick up on the prayers said daily, weekly or on Shabbat. Learning modern Hebrew will just deepen your knowledge and is fun.
There are also books about the yearly cycle and the holiday which fall throughout the year. Books are also helpful to look at things which are mentioned by the rabbi, teacher or anyone you meet. Exposing yourself to as much as possible will help make the journey more meaningful.
As you begin your conversion you will find out the process is not one that is quick. Usually the amount of time for a conversion is a year, it can be more. Usually the rabbi will want the candidate to go through the process for about a year because that will give the person the opportunity to experience the yearly holidays. Being able to experience the Jewish calendar is important in finding out what Judaism is about. During that year you will be asked to live as a member of the Jewish community but not be bound to the commandments that the members are accounted for. Some find during the year that they do not want to live without the holidays they usually celebrate throughout the year. Some people might find that although they originally thought they wanted to be part of a more traditional community, where people observe Shabbat or keep kosher and keep other commandments, the candidate might decide they want to be part of a community where some of the community are observant and some are not. This year is the time to work with the rabbi to see how your family adjusts to the conversion.
After about a year you will be scheduled to go before a beit din. These three, typically rabbis will meet with you and your rabbi. You will typically be given a sheet with questions that you answer before the date. Based on your answers they ask more questions about your decision to become Jewish and how prepared you have become over the year to make Judaism a life long commitment, way of life and become a member of the Jewish community.
After walking through the door of the beit din and mikvah you will be counted in a minyan. On Shabbat and daily morning services you will wear a tallit. You will be Jewish.
What is your Judaism?
When deciding to convert to Judaism be sure to keep your family part of this special event. A lot of families might take it as a rejection from how they chose to raise you. Be sure to reassure them that this choice is not something to reject them, your family history or their beliefs but a spiritual journey you have decided to be part of.
Ask your rabbi right away how to work with your family. She/he can assist you in how to explain to your family all about Shabbat. Do not just become unavailable for Shabbat without having a conversation with your family. Avoid creating resentment or misunderstandings but setting rigid goals right away. Remember that year is for you to figure things out. You are not bound by the commandments. Help prepare you family for the level of observance during this year and give them words on why these mitzvot are important to you.
Throughout the year remember not to exclude family or friends who are not Jewish. Allow them to be part of the process.