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GET YOUR JEW ON: What you should expect when converting to Judaism

Conversion to Judaism means more than simply adopting a new way of relating to God. It requires an identification with the Jewish people, and Jewish peoplehood itself encompasses both Jewish religious practice–the mitzvot, or commandments, that Jews are required by God to do–and a sense of national destiny in which all Jews are responsible one for the other.


Because being a Jew is not a side issue that can be compartmentalized into weekly attendance at Sabbath services but rather a life-defining commitment, conversion to Judaism requires a transformation of personal identity. The prospective Jew-by-choice is embarking on an evolutionary journey that involves the adoption of new values, cultural norms, and mythological understandings as well as holiday and life cycle rituals that transform daily life. This personal metamorphosis is embodied in the traditional definition of a convert as a newborn.

The process of conversion created by the rabbis is modeled upon the “conversion” of the Jewish people from an amorphous group of slaves in Egypt with shared ancestral memories to a people defined by a covenant with God–expressed through their acceptance of the Torah at Mount Sinai. Just as the Hebrews were circumcised in preparation for leaving Egypt–distinguishing themselves with a ritual sign that united them as a single people–the new convert’s circumcision is a physical identification with the Jewish fate. And just as the people had to cleanse themselves at Sinai in preparation for receiving the Torah (the document that specifies the mutual obligations between God and the Jewish people), similarly the new convert immerses to signify acceptance of this covenant with God.


Both aspects of conversion–the national and the religious identifications as a Jew–were expressed by the biblical prototype for the convert, Ruth, who said to her Jewish mother-in-law Naomi, “Your people shall be my people, and your God my God.”


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