I find myself talking a lot to people interested in converting to Orthodox Judaism.
Here’s some advice:
* There are five Orthodox Jewish law courts (Batei Din) in Los Angeles that do conversions — the RCC (the most rigorous and the least interested in converting anyone), the Beit Din of Beverly Hills (costs $5,000), the Beit Din of Los Angeles (firstname.lastname@example.org), and two in the Valley — Rabbi Samuel Ohanna and Rabbi Zvi Block with the Beit Din of North Hollywood.
All of these conversion programs have a success rate of over 90% (when success is measured by converts observing Sabbath publicly after their conversion).
All of these programs will require the potential convert to take weekly classes in Orthodox Judaism and to attend synagogue on the Sabbath and holidays. You will need to live within walking distance of an Orthodox synagogue where the rabbi is willing to sponsor your conversion because he believes in your sincerity.
Jews don’t seek converts to Judaism. Orthodox Jews, in particular, are not seeking non-Jewish converts to Judaism. They’re skeptical, with good reason, of the motives of people who want to convert.
In my experience, people, whether Jewish or not Jewish, who want to become Orthodox feel that their lives are broken and that Orthodoxy will fix them. This almost never happens, but converts to Orthodoxy may stick with it anyway for various reasons.
Converting rabbis are not stupid. If you’re not willing to live by Jewish law and to fit in with an Orthodox community, they’re going to sniff that out quickly and remove you from the program.
In terms of learning, converting to Orthodox Judaism is easier than getting an AA degree. It’s far from formidable but not easy.
* Processing costs through the Beit Din will run about $1,000 and classes will run another $1,000 at least.
* Conversion through these programs is black and white. If you abide by the rules, you’ll get through and if you don’t, you won’t.
* If an 11-page single-spaced application form (such as from the Beit Din of Beverly Hills) gives you a heart attack, well, all the Orthodox applications to convert are like that. If you’re going to convert, you’re going to have to be tough publicly and plow through this.
* Don’t seek support and understanding from the rabbis in your conversion program. Seek support and understanding from your family and friends and therapists. You wouldn’t expect emotional support from the people overseeing your green card application, so don’t expect support from your rabbis while you are in the process of converting.
* If you’re not tough enough to graduate from the conversion process, the Jews don’t need you. It’s tough to be Jewish and only the dedicated need apply.
* Don’t expect Orthodox Jews to welcome you with open arms when you show up and say you want to convert. About 95% of Orthodox Jews were born that way. So they’ve seen a ton of people come and go. Most people can’t hack the Orthodox life. Most Orthodox Jews are deservedly skeptical of would-be converts. After you convert, most Orthodox Jews will treat you according to your merits.
* Once you start converting to Orthodox Judaism, your life is on trial. So clean up anything messy about yourself in Google if you can. Conduct yourself in an upstanding manner in all ways as you try to convert. Don’t antagonize people at shul. Don’t make unnecessary enemies. Don’t be a doormat. Don’t be a whiner. Don’t be needy. Don’t expect Orthodox Jews to be thrilled to help you learn the Orthodox way. Act like you are on a long job interview. You’re applying to join the Jewish people. Most non-Jews regard Orthodox Jews with respect because Orthodox Jews have strict standards.
* If you are a normal person, you’ll form friendships as you convert. Friends can hear about all you are going through. Everyone else in shul does not need to hear the sturm and drang of your conversion. If you don’t form friendships as you convert, there’s probably something wrong with you and your lack of social skills will become apparent and you probably won’t make it through the program. Converting to Orthodox Judaism is ten times as much about social skills and life skills as it is about spirituality.
* If you don’t have the money to pay for classes and for the synagogue membership dues and for the Beit Din dues and for the rent of a place near your shul, then you should give up on becoming Jewish until you can earn the money that will allow you to do this (unless you have superior social skills and can talk your way into discounts). I think most rabbis would rather deal with a would-be convert sane, socially skilled and impressive but poor than someone who can pay without effort but does not know how to read social cues.
* Don’t talk about how you are already teaching Jews Torah online and how you would want to recite from the Torah on Yom Kippur in front of the whole shul and you desire synagogue honors and the like. Be quiet and humble till you convert and then you can be as obnoxious and greedy as the next Jew.
* Don’t expect your conversion process to be a series of spiritual highs. It is more likely to feel like a series of cold showers.
* Orthodox Jews have as many predators (sexual, financial, soul) proportionately as any other group. Beware.
* If you don’t make a secure living, converting may be difficult and living as a Jew will definitely be difficult (because Jewish life is expensive).
Abraham Isaac Carmel was a Catholic priest who converted to Judaism. Prior to his death in 1982, he came to the US for medical treatment and taught English literature in Yeshiva of Flatbush high school. Excerpts from an unfinished book about his frustrations as a convert were published as “My Chosen People” in Tradition (23:2, Winter 1988 – link) and reprinted in The Conversion Crisis: An Ongoing Discussion. I highlight here an issue that I think is applicable well beyond a convert’s experience and speaks to the dilemma facing anyone trying to contribute professionally to the Jewish community.
Teaching is a rewarding task, but in America a teacher is a long way down the community ladder. He has no prestige or vital influence. American Jews in particular find it difficult to respect a person who is without financial backing. You are not quite kosher. If I were planning my life again, I would give more attention to material things and, above all, security. Idealism should be linked to a sense of financial adequacy.