A lovely woman sent me her "Pre-Conversion Adventure". It contains so many common challenges, misunderstandings and mis-direction from Jews that I asked her if I could share it and comment on it. She graciously agreed. This is Liaz bat Lois' story.
When your soul is crying out so loudly it seems people nearby might actually hear it, it’s hard to be patient. But I knew the process of becoming a Jew required the help of a rabbi, so I patiently set about to find one to help me convert.
The cities where my pre-conversion adventure took place are not overflowing with Jewish congregations, so I’ll leave the locations blank. But it was in the middle of the US, and south.
I approached one rabbi on the phone, and that was not successful. He did not agree to help me, and told me to keep looking. So, I learned not to approach rabbis on the phone.
A friend invited me to Chabad, and I went to High Holy Day and Passover services there. Everyone was very kind and welcoming, until the rabbi took me aside and explained that his wife was uncomfortable. She thought I was only there to snag a Jewish husband. I apologized for making her uncomfortable and said I wanted to convert. He told me to pursue that in another town.
So, I did. I Googled it and found a rabbi who offers an online conversion course. It was very expensive and requires an in-person visit for the final mikveh and completion.
In the meantime, I found a congregation that welcomed visitors of all faiths. It was a great blessing to me. During a break in services there, I explained to a visiting, retired rabbi how I was setting up my online conversion. He cautioned me to find a real, live rabbi instead.
He had decades of experience and a wonderful, welcoming demeanor. He said, essentially, “The point of being a Jew is having a community. Jews need a community, and you need a community to be a Jew.” He helped me understand I wasn’t going to get what I needed online because it wasn’t only about finding a rabbi to help me convert. It was about finding my people, my community.
The president of the congregation told me it’s not easy for older people to convert because most rabbis want to invest their time and energy in young adults who will be raising Jewish children. I could see his point. Undaunted, I kept studying and praying for a rabbi who would agree to help me.
That same congregation eventually hired a young rabbi, a recent graduate, to conduct their monthly services. She agreed to help me convert. It was private and personal, perfect for me. Looking back, I feel very grateful for the way it worked out.
Most of all, I feel tremendous gratitude to Hashem for organizing my conversion process for me.
Here are my thoughts on her Adventure.
Each person has a different experience and no one’s story defines conversion.
Finding a rabbi by phone is difficult. Sometimes it works, but many times it does not. You have no idea how busy a rabbi is and their primary focus is their own congregants. They have no theological imperative to make Jews. A single phone call will not suffice in most cases. A call asking for an appointment may get you in the door. Then with a face-to-face meeting not only will the rabbi get to know you, you will get to know them. The relationship needs to be a “match” for the seeker.
It’s surprising that the Chabad experience was not good as Chabad staff is typically very good at welcoming everyone. However, Chabad does not do conversions. Chabad rabbis refer seekers to other Orthodox rabbis in the community. I wish more people knew this as it can make Chabad seem rejecting when, in most cases, you are asking a gas station to fix your broken axle; that’s just not part of their job.
Online conversions are intended to bring income to the teacher/rabbi who offers them. Think of it like a musician or a science tutor or a craftsperson. They have a website to advance their business. It can be quite expensive. Since you still have to go to the mikvah with the rabbi, you also have to pay to travel to where the rabbi is, or can meet you, to complete your conversion. More expenses.
Most conversions are done by congregational rabbis and don’t cost anything. If you take a class, yes, you will pay for the class like everyone else. But your meetings with your sponsoring rabbi are free. The expectation is that you will enter into the life of your rabbi’s congregation. You will attend services, make friends, come for holidays, volunteer, etc. The rabbi AND the congregation are building a relationship with you and you with them.
As you say, location does matter. It is important that you shared this in order to put your story in perspective. Living in a place with very few Jewish options made the process of locating a sponsoring rabbi very hard. In the general community this is made harder because most people don’t even know they need a sponsoring rabbi. They also don’t know that that rabbi has to be connected to a synagogue to be taken seriously by most Jews and Jewish organizations.
I am stunned that the president of the congregation said that rabbis prefer to convert young people. I will point out that that is one person’s opinion and a very damaging one at that. In one sentence he or she has blighted the reputations of thousands of rabbis he/she has never met. I don’t know of any rabbi who shares that opinion. Perhaps this person’s previous rabbi felt that way, in which case, I’m glad they left.
Finally, you say that the most important thing to you is that HaShem guided you. That is a fine thing to believe. Some of us Jews agree that there is a Guide in our lives. Many other Jews do not. Luckily Judaism teaches both perspectives. I am delighted that more than one person can be right at the same time.