Sometimes my students wonder if they are too old for converting to Judaism? Is there a maximum age limit? Is there a point to converting after a certain age? After all, so many of our traditions and public celebrations revolve around babies, Bar Mitzvah kids, and newlyweds. And synagogues quite visibly bend over backwards to attract young families, not older members. This happens even though (or perhaps because) synagogue members tend to be older.
Maybe you’re considering taking steps to become Jewish, but you’re worried: There’s so much to learn…Is it too late to start?
I wanted to share with you something that happened yesterday that was very special to me. It was a unique day, even though the circumstances are less and less rare.
Inspiring People, Starting “Late”
Yesterday I had the privilege of sitting on the beit din (rabbinic court) for the conversion of two holy souls who became Jewish.
Now, I’m not sure what the average age is of someone who converts to Judaism. I was about 25 years old (24 and three-quarters, as my youngest daughter might say). And for whatever reason, we think the typical person who converts is someone in their 20s, maybe early 30s, who wants to convert right before they get married, because of family pressures being exerted on their significant other, a la Fiddler on the Roof.
Whatever the average age is, these two were above average. I’m bad at guessing ages, but I can tell you that one guy was there with his wife of 30-some years and their two adult children, both in their 20s. The other woman was accompanied by her grown daughter and three grandchildren.
And I’ve seen older. A good friend of mine converted in her seventies. Another man converted who finally felt ready after living a Jewish life with his partner of over 40 years.
But I have to say, in the words of Bachman-Turner Overdrive: You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.
Abraham: Original Convert, Senior Citizen
When God decided to start a special relationship with a particular human family and make a covenant with Abraham that would radically change the course of human history, Abraham (then Abram) was 75 years old. We consider Abraham to be the first Jewish “convert” because he wasn’t born Jewish.
Want to top that? Part of the deal was that Abraham would have innumerable progeny. Even though he and his wife had no children yet (she was only 65).
Later, when God heard the cry of Abraham’s great-great-grandchildren, buckling under the weight of forced labor and genocide in Egypt, God picked a leader to shepherd them out, through the wilderness and into the Promised Land.
Born Jewish, but a “Late” Bloomer
Actually, God picked a literal shepherd, but he was a second-career shepherd. That guy had kind of fallen into the shepherd game, working for his father-in-law. His first career? Prince of Egypt. But he’d had to leave town to beat a manslaughter rap.
And when God picked this guy to start his third and final career, his life’s masterwork for which he would be most famous, how old was he?
Moses was 80 years old.
And he did pretty well for himself (and us, and God) after that.
My Personal “Late Start” Hero
One more example: Not so old, but he kind of started from behind. And also a shepherd. And my personal hero.
This shepherd was around 40 years old when one day he wandered into a cave. He was probably chasing a lost sheep, kind of how another shepherd we know discovered a burning bush (see above). And he was distracted because he couldn’t stop thinking about his beloved, who had told him there was no way her father would let her marry him, a lowly shepherd, unless he became either a wealthy businessman like her father, or else a famous scholar. Both seemed unlikely, as this poor 40-year-old shepherd was totally illiterate.
But instead of a bush, he saw a flat rock with a hole in the middle of it. There was water dripping from the ceiling of the cave through the hole. Now, our shepherd couldn’t read a single letter, but he was familiar with nature, and knew that it was the water dripping from the ceiling that had made that hole in the rock over a number of years.
And in that moment he had an epiphany: If water, which is soft, can penetrate rock, which is hard…surely the words of Torah, which are strong as iron, can penetrate my heart of flesh and blood.
Next, thing we know, Akiva (that’s his name) is sitting among kindergarten-age kids, learning the first few letters of the alphabet. Fast forward through a 1980s-movie-style training montage (a la Karate Kid) and career-building montage (a la…Scarface? Not the best example.), and our friend Akiva is now Rabbi Akiva, one of the most influential Sages of the Talmud, who some say had 24,000 students at one point.
All this from a standing start at age 40 as an illiterate shepherd. At least Moses had had management training in Egypt.
This story has always inspired me to keep going in my second (and final) career as a rabbi. But I have to say, that inspiration pales next to two moments at the mikveh yesterday, where first I heard a man blessed by his grown sons as he immersed, and later, I heard a grandmother say the Shema for the first time as a Jew.
Still think it’s too late for you to start?
Hero, wherever you are on your path, and whatever next step is hovering in front of you – but perhaps just on the other side of the particular fear that it might be too late for you – remember my friends from yesterday. Remember Abraham. Remember Moses. Remember Rabbi Akiva. All “late bloomers” who changed the world.
Who knows what change might be in store for you, just waiting for you to get started, no matter what age you’re starting from?
My advice: No matter how many candles are on your cake, blow them out (take 2 tries and have 3 friends help, if you need) and take that first step.
Thanks for reading, Hero. If you’re considering becoming Jewish – or you already are but you want to engage more deeply – is age or some other consideration standing in your way? What frustrating you most on your journey? Please let me know in the comments below.
PS…If you want to find people of all ages (not to mention time zones) who’ve faced similar challenges and are ready to support you on your journey, consider joining The Jewcurious School. In addition to new live classes every week (and recordings of all prior classes), I bet you will find Jewcurious people just like you to share your path.