Why do you want to convert to Judaism?

Magen David, Jewish
My great grandmother’s Magen David

My first conversation with the Rabbi naturally includes her asking me why I want to convert to Judaism.

Obviously I want to make a good impression so I have pre-prepared an answer. I can sum up my reasons for wanting to convert as follows:

  • For me
  • For my daughter
  • For my ancestors

The first one is easy, I clearly need to explore this connection that I feel. The second one is because I want my daughter to grow up with a positive experience of what is a significant part of her heritage. The third one is a little more obscure.

Several years ago I mentioned to my husband that my grandmother had a Magen David that she wore on a few occasions that was a gift from her mother. My husband was flabbergasted, and rightly said that there was no way a poor Welsh miner’s wife would have such a symbol without a reason.

My grandmother was raised in complete ignorance of what a Jew even was. She told me that once when she wore her mother’s Star of David at work she was amazed that one of her work colleagues accused her of being Jewish. She thought it was a symbol of eternity and of St. David, the patron saint of Wales!

When my grandmother left Wales her mother had presented her with her 3 most precious items and told her to pick one to take with her. There was her cross (my great-grandmother was a devout Christian for as long as my grandmother could remember), a ring and the Star of David. My grandmother chose the latter without any inkling of what it would come to represent, a clearly Jewish symbol passed down the maternal line.

Time to call a Rabbi

The start of a new path. Photo by @szmigieldesign

On to more current events. I had phoned and emailed the Rabbi of the local congregation I had chosen to seek to join. I said that I been thinking about conversion for about 4 years now and had decided that now was the time.

I was in a very stable place in my life to start such a journey. Besides having accepted that yes, I could make the necessary dietary changes, my job and marriage were great and my daughter was now a bit over 15 months old.

It was though I was finally acknowledging that my current state of spiritual inertia was no longer sustainable. I could no longer resist the pull of this ancient religion that seemed to speak to me on a subconscious level. I felt that this was where I belonged, that a part of me had always yearned to return here.

Needless to say I relished the prospect of this journey of self-discovery and threw myself into reading. As part of the conversion process I would be expected to:

  • Learn to read Hebrew (not as hard as you think!)
  • Attend synagogue regularly (harder than you might think!)
  • Become involved in Jewish community life
  • Attend classes (at least a year)
  • Read about Judaism (there is always a set reading list which varies greatly depending on your community)
  • Read Torah (the most fundamental of Jewish texts)
  • Show an evolving practical commitment to leading a Jewish life (not just kashrut)

Once this was achieved I was expected to go before the Beit Din (literally house of judgement) which is a council of 3 Rabbis who pass judgement on whether you are fit to join the community and become Jewish. Then you go to the mikveh, for men circumcision is also usually required depending on your congregation.

Not put off yet? Excellent. Now you can join me on my journey of exactly what this process will be like…

My first impression of Judaism

After my first Shabbat dinner I became intrigued with Judaism. Over the next several years I held a positive attitude towards it but didn’t make any real active steps towards exploring it in detail. For example, we’d go to Pesach and the occasional Shabbat dinner. I’d discover Israeli chocolate wafers and shakshuka. I would also be delighted to discover that pickles go with everything…

Judaism seemed to be a religion that was completely integrated into the mundane. The whole idea that you were stricter about what you ate at home then when you were out was a very unusual concept to me.

It seemed closeted, full of fear of outsiders (not unjustly), with the unusual juxtaposition of desire for peace with a proud penchant for argument. To me, coming from a home culture where emotions were not shared and any form of loud discussion seen as aggressive confrontation, this last part took some getting used to.

I of course immediately fell in love with the ritual and intense feeling of connectedness of a Shabbat dinner. It would be some years however before I would come to understand that what I felt was not a fleeting emotional response to a new relationship.

Choosing a Jewish community

Synagogue, becoming Jewish, conversion
Do a lot of research before making contact. Photo by @struvictoryart

Which community you join is often a predetermined thing. For me, having so few options in my city made it a very easy choice.

This is not necessarily the case for everyone, particularly if you have several different congregations around you may not really know where to start.

Most of the time however you will probably have a pretty good idea of which stream of Judaism you wish to approach because of who you already know.

I would however encourage you to do your research about exactly what each stream of Judaism has to offer a convert before you dive in and contact a Rabbi. The goals you wish to achieve by converting may be better fulfilled with one stream rather than another.

For example:

  • Do you want to be considered Jewish in Israel?
  • Do you plan on keeping kosher? The full she-bang? Can you access kosher food easily?
  • Does your chosen stream of Judaism align with your personal beliefs?
  • Are there down-sides to your chosen stream that you are trying to gloss over?
  • Do you realise that a lot of Jews see converts as lesser Jews? Not that many will admit it.
  • How big a role do you honestly see Judaism playing in your life?
  • Do you realise there is a stigma to being a convert?
  • Can you give up Christmas?

Converting to Judaism is not something anyone else can do for you. The choice of which community you join that should best reflect who you are and what kind of Jewish life you want to lead. This is not something you can do half-heartedly.

My first Shabbat dinner

Challah
Challah, nom. Photo by @evgenit

My first experience of a Shabbat dinner was at my husband’s cousins’ place quite early in our relationship.

By now I knew a few things about what it meant to be Jewish. I had been briefed on the fact that there were blessings and candle lighting and a slap-up meal, although dairy with meat wouldn’t be happening, there would probably be brisket.

I was of course a bit nervous because I hadn’t met much of his family before now. They were lovely of course, although clearly just as hesitant as me about how I was going to handle this new experience. I don’t think they associated with terribly many non-Jewish people to be honest.

The whole experience left me with several questions:

  • Why does my husband like gefilte fish?
  • Why would anyone eat chopped liver?
  • Why would anyone miss chopped liver enough to make a vegetarian version? Although I can see the similarities in texture between mushrooms and liver to be fair…
  • Where have Israeli pickles been all my life?
  • Why do I feel as though I have finally come home?

No I’m not converting for marriage

I think converting for love is admirable… Photo by @amandamocci

I’ve been married to my Jewish husband for 5 years. We had a beautiful secular wedding that was exactly what we both wanted. A gorgeous day.

There is stigma attached to converting to Judaism for love or marriage. It is traditionally seen as a less than ideal reason for conversion. As though changing your identity as a person for another person isn’t a huge commitment in itself. If you love someone because of their Jewishness, it would naturally follow that you have some emotional affinity for their background.

If you were even contemplating becoming Jewish you would almost certainly be aware of the uncomfortable reality of being affiliated with one of the world’s minority religions, after all, just 0.18% of the world is Jewish, compared to 29.8% Christian and 24.6% Muslim.

Besides, aren’t we all converting for love? Love of another person, love of the religion, love of the Jewish community?

The bacon question

How did I know I was ready to formally convert? When I decided that yes, I could give up bacon.

How can I give it up?. Photo by @heftiba


Sure, that might seem trite, but up until now pork products have been a huge part of my life. I have been known as the main consumer of bacon in my family…

If I am committed enough to give up such deliciousness forever, then this Judaism stuff must be, well, super-important. Of course, by this time I have also realised that Jews aren’t supposed to eat shellfish either, which means no more prawns.

I have been learning bits and pieces about Judaism for several years now, including some Hebrew for fun (have always wanted to learn another language).

Bacon of course being a symbol of my life up until my decision to convert. Really what I had realised was that I would be gaining so much more by becoming Jewish than I would be giving up.

Bacon is delicious, but it is just a food. There are things in life that are just as important that up until now I’ve not really had. Things like deeply satisfying spiritual growth, a sense of community belonging, a connection to the universe on a level that makes me truly appreciate being alive, being part of something greater.

In my usual decisive way, when I decide to do something, it gets done, ASAP. So I called a Rabbi…

How did I come to this point?

I grew up in a non-religious household. My father was a (very) lapsed Catholic and my mother had a spiritual ‘bent’ you might say, but nothing very serious. The town I grew up in was very small and predominantly Catholic. I went most of my life without knowingly meeting a Jew.

I stopped having any real interest in religion at the age of 10, one of those formative moments you might say. I didn’t feel it added anything particularly noteworthy to my life.

My experience of Judaism was pretty much limited to TV shows, I knew that Jews didn’t eat pork, that they had been heavily persecuted throughout history, and that they didn’t believe Jesus was the Messiah. That was literally all I knew.

Then I met a guy…

Correction, then I met THE guy.

Introduction

Are you curious about Judaism? Contemplating conversion? Wondering what exactly makes someone Jewish? Well you’re in the right place. Join me on my journey.

Hi there. I am not Jewish yet. But I want to be.

I felt I needed to write this to share my experience of converting to Judaism, now that I’ve finally decided to take the plunge.

Why read this?

  • Because you are contemplating converting and have questions, so many questions…
  • You’re interested in what it means to be Jewish explained from the point of view of someone who is not Jewish.
  • You want to understand how exactly Jews can live without bacon.

I plan on writing a series of posts about my personal perspective on my conversion journey, how I feel, what I learn, what is expected of me and how all of this affects me and and my family. I aim to give you a first hand perspective of exactly what the process of conversion requires and what it offers.

I will probably be writing about a whole range of other things that interest me related to my conversion journey. Things like food, parenting, spirituality, food, language, history, family, nature and food.

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