A new acquaintance pulls me aside. She is considering converting to Judaism – has been for years, in fact – and a mutual friend told her I might be a good person to talk to. She reminds me of myself 15 years ago in that she’s hesitating, overthinking, worrying all too scrupulously about whether she’s good enough, whether she’s ready, what is the “right” thing to do. It’s clear that she is already knowledgeable about Judaism and that she has long since decided, or realized, that Judaism will be her religion. The only question is whether she will embrace it formally.
I counsel her as best I can, but for days afterward I keep thinking about our conversation. None of the things she’s debating with herself really matter. The decision that counts is the one she has already made and it would, I think, be better to formalize it sooner rather than to wait until she has achieved some elusive bar, whether of personal observance or of public acceptance. Of course her knowledge will increase over time; everyone’s hould. Of course her practice will evolve over time; everyone’s does. But converting now will free her to live her life without a cloud of religious ambiguity hanging over it. It will allow her to benefit from the Jewish community and the Jewish community to benefit from her. It’s hard to see how waiting benefits anyone.
One month later, Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove’s suggestion that the Conservative Jewish community might revise the conversion process so that intensive study of Judaism follows, rather than precedes, conversion spawns a mini-typhoon in the Jewish press. Reactions vary, but the most audible waves of murmuring concern the ostensible erosion of standards and the specter that uninformed, imperfectly committed people may convert to Judaism for frivolous reasons.
As a convert, I feel – as I have felt many times before – that the Conservative Jewish community is worrying about all the wrong things.
It’s not that I want hordes of uninformed people to impulsively convert to Judaism for frivolous reasons. It’s just that I have never met anyone who contemplated becoming Jewish for frivolous reasons, and I find it hard even to imagine such a person. Rabbi Cosgrove was speaking primarily of men and women who convert in the context of marriage, because they want to build a unified Jewish home and family. In the 21st century, it’s easy enough for Jews and non-Jews to marry each other and even, if they wish, raise their children as Jews without having the non-Jewish partner convert. A person whose impending marriage to a Jew prompts him or her to seek conversion is undertaking a commitment that is voluntary, earnest and honorable. And those who convert alone, driven solely by conviction – still a difficult, though no longer an unusual, thing to do – surely cannot be called frivolous. What, then, is the danger that those who fret about frivolous, too-quick conversions hope to shield us from?
I think it’s hard for anyone who grew up Jewish to understand how intimidating – how downright scary – it can be for a non-Jew to set foot in a synagogue or make an appointment with a rabbi to discuss conversion. I waited three and a half years from the time I started considering conversion until I approached a rabbi; informal conversations with other converts suggest that this span of time was, if anything, shorter than average.
Those whose conversions are prompted by wedding plans may have to move more quickly, but often they have been exploring Judaism over their years of dating. Sitting down with a rabbi is never the first step in the process.
My own relatively drawn-out conversion process did me no harm. I was young, single and fixed in one place, so waiting affected no one but me. Did it do me any good? Spending 14 months on the formal conversion process gave me time to settle into a congregation and begin to feel at home. But although I liked and admired the rabbi who supervised my conversion, I had researched Judaism very thoroughly before I approached him, and the task of persuading him to let me convert was more of a chore than a spiritually illuminating experience. It did little to foster my Jewish identity. Instead, it made me skittish, self-conscious, and doubtful that I would ever be fully accepted. To this day, I have not gotten over the sense that I, as a convert, am in a fishbowl, continually vulnerable to others’ assessment of my sincerity and practice.
One might argue that the conversion process needs to be long so that prospective converts have time to consider how they will live as Jews. This is not a bad idea for those with the time to design their Jewish lives. But most of my figuring out how to live as a Jew came after I converted, just as couples figure out how to be married after they get married and parents how to parent after they have children.
There are better things to worry about than the question of whether conversion may be too easy. One is the danger of losing prospective converts because the process is too inattentive to their individual needs: a time line that doesn’t mesh with marriage plans, conversion courses pitched at too low a level for people who have been studying independently, and processes that don’t take account of individual circumstances and perspectives.
One of the most heartbreaking conversations I ever had was with a young black woman. The rabbi she was meeting with seemed inexplicably reluctant to accept her as a candidate for conversion. My guess is that this rabbi was simply adhering to the custom of turning any would-be convert away, and had not considered how this stonewalling might appear in a society burdened by centuries of racial prejudice.
I wish we could tease all of the subtle negativity out of the conversion process. Scrapping the tradition of turning prospective converts away three times might prevent painful misunderstandings. The practice carries the implicit message that prospective converts are in some way not good enough. Those who seek to convert are, by and large, serious-minded folk who already expect a lot of themselves. They are exposing private beliefs and yearnings to public judgment. Having taken this risk, they deserve to be treated with more than ordinary sensitivity. Questioning converts’ motives, drawing the process out, and discouraging those who seek to convert – even in a pro forma manner – do more harm than good. A more supportive conversion process would be both a little faster and a little more flexible, but above all it would be forward-looking, easy to navigate, and positive in tone.
For similar reasons, it is time to scrap the tradition of not singling out converts or reminding them of their non-Jewish past lest one shame them. Most converts today are not ashamed of their status, nor should they be. By downplaying converts’ presence in the community we miss opportunities to examine and improve the process and more effectively support prospective converts. In a world in which I fill out endless questionnaires on every topic from my experience as a history Ph.D. to those as an L.L. Bean customer, it surprises me that I have never been surveyed on my experiences as a convert. This might be a good moment to get in touch with some of the thousands of converts and ask them to reflect on how well the process served them.
There are two bottom lines in the reemerging discussion of conversion to Judaism. One is that conversion is good for the people who convert. If one believes in the inherent value of Judaism, not just as an ethnic tradition but as a body of wisdom and a blueprint for living, then one must believe it will be of value to others. When prospective converts put themselves forward, we who believe in the value of Judaism must recognize that people who are drawn to Judaism and interested in living as Jews will benefit from doing so.
The other bottom line is that welcoming converts promotes the survival and vigor of Judaism in the modern world. The Jewish community’s attitude toward converts reminds me a little of the parable about how a faithful servant of God, stranded by rising floodwaters, spurned first a rescuer in rowboat, then a rescuer in a motorboat, then a rescuer in a helicopter – and, upon dying, remonstrated with God, “I have served you so faithfully. Why didn’t you save me?” “Why,” replied God, “I sent you a rowboat, a motorboat and a helicopter. Why didn’t you take what I offered you?” Admittedly, an influx of converts may not be the sort of response to dwindling numbers that most Jews imagined or hoped for, but it seems to be the response that God is sending us right now. We should embrace this gift.