How to Become Jewish – YouTube Live
Hey, Heroes! I recently recorded my first YouTube Live video, all about how to become Jewish.
If you want to know how to become Jewish, you should know that there are four and a half steps.
Wait…”and a half”? What’s the half step?
It’s a step that only half of people who want to convert have to take. The dude half, so to speak.
How to Become Jewish: The Four and a Half Steps
Just in case reading is a better way for you to learn than watching a video, here’s a summary of the steps. I go into much greater detail in the video, but in case you’re looking for the Cliff Notes, here we goes:
1. Start learning.
First things first: You should know what you are getting into. Being Jewish comes with some pretty serious responsibilities; we like to know that you understand them and willingly accept them before you join the family.
First, you are responsible for keeping the mitzvot or commandments – the do’s and don’t’s listed in the Torah and deduced by the Sages of our tradition over the intervening centuries. Observing the holidays, keeping the dietary laws, not murdering people, that sort of thing. There’s a whole new culture’s worth of rules that would suddenly apply to you if you became Jewish! It’s important to know if you’re up to the challenge and whether this is something you really want to take on.
Second, it’s important to know how big and diverse this family is that you’re joining. There’s Ashkenazi Jews, Sephardic Jews, Mizrahi Jews (heard of that one?), and more. There’s Orthodox Jews, Conservative Jews, Reform Jews, Reconstructing Jews, Humanist Jews, post-denominational, trans-denominational, atheist Jews, and Jews of every skin color.
Anyone who tells you there’s one right way to be Jewish or to look Jewish is historically ignorant or lying to you.
So you should know about the wonderful diversity of the family you hope to join, if for no other reason than to understand that you belong, no matter how different you think you are.
Finally, it’s important to know our history. At one time or another, we’ve been kicked out of nearly every country that’s ever called itself a country, perhaps including the country you live in now. People and nations have expelled, imprisoned, economically isolated, beaten, and murdered us just for being Jewish. And unfortunately, this pattern has repeated itself so many times in history, as much as we say “never again” it would be naive to take that for granted.
Plus, while you are learning all of this scary stuff, you should be trying out different aspects of Jewish observance – Shabbat, dietary laws, holidays, prayer, etc. – to see if it’s for you.
Still want to join?
This isn’t to scare you off, per se. But the reason the conversion process is 99% educational and experiential (vs 1% rituals and ceremonies at the end) is so that you can fully appreciate and sincerely commit to what you’re going to be for the rest of your life: Jewish, and part of the Jewish family.
You can take this first step by contacting a synagogue or rabbi close to you and seeing if there is a class in your area, often with a name like “Introduction to Judaism”.
If you’re in Los Angeles, I recommend this one.
If you don’t have a rabbi or synagogue nearby, or the in-person classes don’t work for you, I highly recommend you visit us at The Jewcurious School.
2. Get a sponsoring rabbi.
After you’ve spent some time on your Jewish education, and you’re fully committed to becoming Jewish, you should enlist the help of a sponsoring rabbi.
While the sponsoring rabbi isn’t technically legally required to convert, it’s nice to have a relationship with a rabbi who can guide you through the process. They can answer questions one-on-one and in private that you may be embarrassed to bring up in your class. They can dig deeper with you and make sure that becoming Jewish is really right for you, or whether you may be better served by simply studying Judaism, but not joining the people.
It’s also nice to have a sponsor with you when you go before the beit din. First off, having a person there who knows you will help ease your anxiety. More than that, the beit din will warm up to you faster if they know at least one other rabbi is willing to vouch for you. And it’s possible that some batei din (plural of beit din) won’t meet with you unless you have a sponsoring rabbi from their same denomination at least sign off on you, even if they can’t be there with you that day.
Your Spiritual Autobiography
Some sponsors may ask you to write an essay or series of essays about your Jewish journey and what you believe about certain topics. This serves a couple of useful functions. First, it helps you demonstrate – to yourself as well as your sponsor – what you’ve learned in the process, both about Judaism and about yourself. Second, the sponsor can pass it on to your beit din, and they can get to know you in writing before you meet with them in person, “warming up the room” a little before your meeting.
For this purpose I like to ask people I sponsor to write just one essay. Following the custom of a teacher of mine, I ask them to write their spiritual autobiography up to this point that brought them to the point of conversion. Many have reporting that this is a very moving and fulfilling experience to write.
Also, at this point you’ll want to start thinking about choosing a Hebrew name for yourself. You’re sponsor can help you with this meaningful step.
When you and your sponsor are both convinced that you’re ready to take the next step, your sponsor can guide you through making arrangements for the final few steps, like the mikveh, the beit din, and possibly…
2-1/2. Do Brit Milah or Hatafat Dam Brit.
I call this a half step because it’s only required of half the population…the half with a penis.
(If this doesn’t apply to you, feel free to skip ahead to #3.)
If this does apply to you, and you are not circumcised, you will need to have brit milah – circumcision for the sake of the Jewish covenant with God – done. There are many urologists – the applicable specialty – who are also trained mohelim, or knowledgeable practitioners of this procedure’s ritual as well as medical aspects.
If you are circumcised, you will need a different procedure called hatafat dam brit. This requires that a single drop of blood be extracted from the area where the foreskin would be. You can get a mohel to do this; it only takes a couple of minutes, and they usually don’t charge for it. Some rabbis I know will let you do it yourself, with them present to instruct you and to witness that it was done.
A New Question I Get
I’m intentionally not saying “men” or “males” here because I’ve been asked a number of times whether transwomen who have the genitals they were born with, or transmen with a surgically constructed set, need to undergo one of these procedures. The short answer: Yes, they do. Now, while trans people have been around a long time, this is a relatively new scenario for most rabbis I know. The consensus among the Jewish legal scholars I’ve talked to: Anyone with a penis – whatever gender they consider themselves or identify as publicly – requires one of these procedures.
3. Go to the beit din.
A beit din is a court of three rabbis who convene to interview candidates for conversion. What’s most common in my experience is that a person will go before the beit din and then, with their endorsement, go to the mikveh on the same day. The beit din will often meet in the same location as the mikveh, and you can take both steps the same appointment, if all goes well.
People get really nervous about this step. I mean, you’ve been studying for months, maybe even a year or two or longer. You’ve made a life changing decision, but one that requires the endorsement of three total strangers for it to come to fruition. It’s easy to think of the beit din as the three-headed gatekeepers to your dream-come-true.
Will they like you?
Will they ask you questions you can’t answer?
Is it possible they will prevent you from being Jewish if you say one wrong thing?
In my experience with the Batei Din – the one that witnessed my conversion, the one that witnessed my wife’s, and with the dozens of Batei Din I’ve either served on or sponsored converts in front of – it’s okay to be nervous, but you have nothing to fear.
Of course you’re nervous. Talking to the beit din is an important moment in a big, life-changing day. But look at it this way: The beit din is not there with the express purpose to keep you out. The beit din is to make 100% sure that you know what you are getting into. Acting on behalf of the whole Jewish family, we want to be as certain as possible that you will make a safe addition to a family that had its share of problems. Acting on your behalf, we want to make sure that joining our family will be good for you, too.
As one of my colleagues on the beit din says, we just want to get to know you. In order to do that, we ask questions. Some of those questions are about you, so there is no right or wrong answer, only honest ones. We also ask you questions about Judaism, and even there we’re not necessarily looking for one “right” answer. We only want to satisfy ourselves that you’ve studied enough to take this significant step with full awareness of the responsibilities you’ll be taking on. The beit din may may ask you easy questions like, “What’s your favorite holiday, and why?” and “How did you pick your Hebrew name?” Or they may ask you harder questions like, “What did you struggle with most in your learning?” or “Is there something about Judaism that is challenging for you or distasteful to you?”
What’s the Right Answer?
The important thing is that you be honest. No family is perfect, and no family member has to love every other family member or family tradition. The important thing is that we’re loyal to each other, and that we pledge to keep trying, together.
This step typically takes 30-60 minutes, depending on where the conversation takes itself, and it usually concludes with your reading a formal statement of commitment to the Jewish people and signing a document (in your regular signature, not your Hebrew one…relax!).
4. Immerse in a mikveh.
As soon as the beit din approves and endorses your conversion, you are eligible to go immerse in a mikveh. Many cultures have purification rites involving water, and many religions use a cleansing-in-water ritual for officially joining their religion.
In Judaism our version is full bodily immersion in a mikveh, or a gathering of water. This mikveh should contain predominantly mayim hayim, or living waters.
Don’t worry: That doesn’t mean water full of fish, bugs, or other living things. It means water from a natural source. Thus, you can use a river, lake, or ocean as your mikveh, because it’s all water from a natural source. Alternately, you can use a constructed mikveh, which can range from the size of a large hot tub to the size of a small swimming pool. Such a constructed mikveh is kosher for use as such as long as it’s fed by a source of living water (such as a cistern of collected rainwater), and it’s big enough for its user to immerse fully.
Bathing Suit = Birthday Suit
One important thing to know about mikveh: Unlike public baptism ceremonies in other faiths, where people dress nicely for the occasion or at least cover up for modesty, mikveh immersion is only valid if the person immerses completely nude. Don’t worry, though: We take every precaution to preserve the modesty of the person taking the dunk.
In a constructed mikveh, there is usually a shower room where one can get wash up before using the mikveh. All jewelry, make-up, nail polish, hair extensions, etc., need to be removed. The person should be as close to their natural-born state as possible. For medical devices that you can’t remove without surgery or significant health risks, orthodontics, etc., those can remain. The person should remove anything you can safely remove. They can get in the pool in privacy, and if doing it for some reason other than conversion, the person can do it without any witnesses.
Witnesses to Your Conversion Immersion
For conversion, however, witnesses need to be present, to be sure the person immerses correctly for this serious, life-changing purpose; it is an official part of joining the Jewish family. Nevertheless, we do all we can to preserve the modesty of the person using the mikveh.
There need to be two witnesses in the room, usually rabbis, but there may also be a curtain in the room between the witnesses and the person in the mikveh. If a woman is immersing, for example, a person called a mikveh lady (because she’s the lady that supervises the mikveh) and any female witnesses can observe the immersion, and if it’s complete, the mikveh lady calls out to “Kasher!” (good one!) to any witnesses on the other side of the curtain. If a man is immersing, male witnesses are on his side of the curtain, and female witnesses are on the other side.
It’s customary for people converting to immerse fully three times. After the first immersion, the person says a couple of blessings (we give you these to study ahead of time). After the third immersion, people often say the Shema, a six-word prayer about the Oneness of God that is central to Jewish prayer. You may have learned this prayer, and even said it many times before, but this time is different: You’re saying it for the first time as a Jew. For many, this is a powerful, emotional, and moving experience.
We then will often leave the person alone in the mikveh, so that they can have a private moment to reflect on the experience, or a private conversation with God.
It’s customary not to shower off right after the mikveh, to let the living waters and holy experience soak in for a while.
That’s It! Mazal Tov!
Finally, now that you’re Jewish, it’s a nice idea to celebrate the occasion with family, friends, or your community. Often people will go to a synagogue on a Shabbat morning soon after their conversion, so that they can receive the honor of an aliyah (saying a blessing over a Torah reading) for the first time as one of the tribe. Likewise, you may now take part in any activity or take on any responsibility or leadership that had heretofore been reserved for Jews, because now you are one.
If you are on this journey, or you are considering it, what questions do you have? How has your experience been so far? I would love to hear from you in the comments below.
If you are ready to take the first step, we’d love you to take it with us in The Jewcurious School. We have an Introduction to Judaism course inside the school that will satisfy the educational requirements of most non-Orthodox communities, plus a friendly Community of Jewcurious people just like you.
Thanks for learning with me today, Hero!