Dear Dawn: Many years ago, under the guidance of a Conservative rabbi in Queens, New York, I converted to Judaism. My records have been lost and no one connected with the synagogue has been able to help me in recovering the document of my conversion. What am I to do in this situation? I am more than willing to undergo the process again, but I don’t know if a rabbi would consider this appropriate. I am also currently living in a remote location; no Jewish community here. — Jewish for a long time
Dear JFALT: You’ve presented me with an interesting question I’ve never confronted before — so I did some research.
Here’s what I found. No matter which movement an individual chooses for their conversion, it is best for that person to hold onto their conversion certificate! If you are a Jew by choice, make a copy, upload it to the cloud, save it to your computer, put a copy or the original in your safe deposit box.
The responsibility is primarily on you, the individual.
That said, here’s how the three largest Jewish movements handle conversion records.
The Reform movement encourages its rabbis to send a copy of each of their converts’ certificates to the central archive in the American Jewish Archives in Cincinnati. Many of the Reform rabbis remember to do this, but not all of them. If you convert with a Reform rabbi, you should confirm that they do that for you.
The Conservative movement encourages its rabbis to send a copy of the certificate to the Rabbinical Assembly in New York. One Conservative rabbi I spoke with had never been told this information! The moral of the story: Speak up, ask for your records to be sent, and keep a copy for yourself.
The Orthodox movement has a few approved beit din (rabbinic courts) around the United States. This means that people seeking to convert must travel to the location of the beit din for an interview and, of course, mikvah. Each beit din retains its own records. Thus, converts who have worked with one of these courts must contact their court for a duplicate certificate.
Your inquiry, JFALT, led me to wonder: When have you actually needed to produce your certificate? I asked you, and you replied that while you have never had to show it, the certificate itself has great meaning for you.
In fact, it’s so important to you that you’ve decided if you can’t get your certificate via the Rabbinical Assembly, you have found a rabbi who will take you to the mikvah again and give you a new certificate.
I take my hat off to your commitment and sentiment! Still, I hope the Rabbinical Assembly can help you.
All of this left me with a question: When do Jews-by-choice get asked to prove their status? I asked rabbis from the same three movements.
The Reform and Conservative rabbis I spoke with said they’ve never asked someone to provide their certificate. They’ve never had occasion to question someone’s self-proclaimed identity as a Jew or as a Jew-by-choice, they said. (One Reform rabbi did get a call from a synagogue once asking if he had indeed converted a person who was applying to teach in their Hebrew school.)
It is different for the Orthodox community and rabbis. Halachah (Jewish law) is as binding for their community as American law is for U.S. citizens. Proof of Jewish status is required for people who want to be members of an Orthodox shul, put their children in an Orthodox day school, go to a summer camp or be married by the rabbi.
As a Reform rabbi said to me, “For traditional Jews, this is simply law, not personal.”
Obviously, if you have chosen to convert to Judaism via Orthodoxy, you learn this and take it on as your way of life.
Ironically, I note that rabbis either don’t ask about status or, if they are required to, they ask everyone, not just those who may have converted.
Let this be guidance to all members of a congregation: We lay people do not need to question another person’s status.