Reasons for converting a baby or child
* When a parent converts to Judaism they may decide to convert the children they already have.
* If a Jewish or interfaith couple adopt a baby, they may want to convert the little one.
* When a non-Jewish woman has a child and wants to raise the child Jewish with her Jewish partner, she may want to the child to be officially converted.
The reason for converting a child in one of these situations is to ensure that a larger percent of the Jewish world will view the child as authentically Jewish.
How it works
EVERY conversion/convert holds the status of the rabbi(s) who performed the conversion. So an Orthodox conversion is accepted by all streams of Judaism. A Conservative conversion is accepted by Conservative and the Reform/Reconstructionist /Renewal movements. Conversions by a Reform, Reconstructionist or Renewal rabbi will be accepted by that same group of rabbis.
Additionally, every rabbi will have their own requirements for how the child will be raised by the parents in order for the rabbi to be willing to perform the conversion. So it is vital that you contact the rabbi to learn what will be required! In interviewing rabbis about their requirements I found that all of them, including the Orthodox, had their own, nuanced requirements.
Requirements can be things like this:
Family must be members of a synagogue
Observing Shabbat and the Jewish holidays
Enrolling the child in Hebrew school, or perhaps a Jewish day school
Keeping a kosher kitchen
Some aspects of a child's conversion are the same as an adult. Male children will have to be circumcised. If they are already circumcised, a traditional rabbi will require that they have hatafat dam - a ritual drawing of a few drops of blood from the penis. Both male and female children are taken to be immersed in the mikvah. One of the parents, dressed in a bathing suit, takes the child into the mikvah and dips them under the instructions of the rabbi. Many rabbis have little suggestions or tricks for helping to get a baby to close their eyes and hold their breath. (I've been told that blowing on a baby's face causes them to do so.)
But it is also up to the child
The ancient rabbis had a very thoughtful debate about a child who is converted by their parents or guardian. They believed that the child had a say in their identity. Thus, at the age of Jewish adulthood, typically 12 for a girl and 13 for a boy, the child is asked whether they want to be Jewish. They are free to say, no, and decline to be a Jew. Or they can affirm the decision that was made "for them" and live as a Jew.
This idea of individual autonomy runs against many other religions and can be difficult for non-Jews, or Jews lacking education in this area, to understand. Personally, I believe it is one of the most beautiful things about Judaism.
This article from My Jewish Learning about converting a baby or child is quite good.
Have you had your child converted? Please share your experience and recommendations in the comments below.