About this siteThis site gives my advice for obtaining an Orthodox Jewish conversion. I was born and raised Jewish. My father was born Jewish, and my mother had a conversion recognized by the Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, and Renewal movements. I became sabbath observant, so I held out for a conversion recognized by the Orthodox.
It took me two years and a dozen rabbis in three US states and two cities in Israel, and I finally converted several years ago. The following are my advice derived from my experience.
I continue to follow the issue of conversion, and will update the site as I learn more about the controversies, though most of the content right now is a few years old.
I have additional information about conversion and rabbis from spending extensive time with Yeshiva University and REITS (the rabbinical seminary affiliated with YU) students and having spoken with the major figures of Centrist Orthodoxy over several years.
Executive Summary: Adopt a GrandmotherImagine that you have a frum (observant) Jewish grandmother, and act how she would want you to act. If you're not sure how that is, make friends with an old frum woman or man and ask them what Jews are supposed to do. I am advising this, rather than saying to get a book and do what the book says, because Judaism is still in large part a tradition inherited through personal relationships and the actual behavior of traditional Jews has more relevance to real life than 500 pages of rules. Learning from a person with a family tradition also gives you the advantage of learning what they consider to be most important and what is less important, since a thick rulebook treats everything as Extremely Important and will turn you into a Goody Two-Shoes.
This advice from a frum grandmother is also important to learn what was really done by mainstream frum Jews. As with many religions, there have been some "conservative innovations" in recent years, as Orthodoxy has moved to the right and adopted traditions previously obscure or unique to only a small group, so it is good to know what the tradition really is.
In the other direction, there are many customs of Orthodox Jews that, strictly speaking, are not laws. There is a famous story about a rabbinic family, where both the father and son were rabbinic leaders, and the son rabbi's wife goes out and asks her husband to do the dishes. There are both meat and dairy dishes, and wanting to save time, they fill the sink with cold soapy water, and wash the dishes. That is permitted because flavor is not transmitted in cold, and the soap renders food no longer food. The wife comes home and protests this method, and in response to her prominent rabbinical husband and prominent father-in-law's defense of their decision says, "You and your Shulchan Aruch are treifing up my kitchen." (Shulchan Aruch = the definitive legal code whose name is used often as shorthand to signify all of modern Jewish law, treifing = making non-kosher). In other words, there are many customs which are so universal as to be binding without a doubt, irrespective of the letter of the law. (And, if you are wondering, in practice, no one would wash meat and dairy dishes at the same time.)
It is definitely important to read books to understand the origins of specific laws, such as the 39 melachot (labors) prohibited on shabbat or the basic laws of kashrut (kosherness), since these books help you understand the legal framework and let you see the breadth of observance. Also, some topics are very stgraight-forward and more easily conveyed in writing: e.g., it's more efficient to read a book on which brachot (blessings) are said on which foods than to ask someone 200 questions. For what to actually do, though, talk to someone with a family tradition.
Certainly, also sometimes family traditions are wrong. It is a long-standing tradition to talk during services, even in the most important parts of the service, and that's clearly not the law. At the same time, a big part of conversion is fitting into the community. If someone talks to you during services, to say that you should never continue the conversation ignores social reality.
This advice pamphlet was given to me in Israel and has other useful tips.
What to doFew rabbis will state specific expectations for converts because they want the converts to take actions on ther own, and not simply go through a checklist. However, converts often face a dizzying amount of information and seemingly infinite numbers of requirements, so in the next few sections, I will outline the expections that rabbis are most likely to prioritize. These expectations are stated here as a matter of fact, rather than my personal opinion of what is important.
Again, these are general requirements. Your rabbi may differ to some degree, but these should be accurate in >95% of cases.
To be a good candidate for conversion, someone of any gender must:
Accepting the Mesorah (tradition)Accepting Tradition, the grandmother test writ large, is the most broadly encompassing and probably the most important requirement for conversion. Some battei din (courts) seem to consider this requirement to the exclusion of all others. Since Judaism doesn't seek converts, no one sees it as their duty to convince you that (what they see as) Judaism's view of issues is correct; since you as a convert are seeking Judaism, the expectation is that you will say "your Torah will be my Torah, and your laws will be my laws" of your own accord.
That is not to imply that conversion rabbis do not expect you to struggle; they do, but in their mind the struggle is one where the ending is foretold, that you will accept whichever conclusions are the law. They will say that you can still acknowledge that you don't like something --- as the Rambam says quoting the gemara, "you should not say that you do not like pork. you should say rather that you like pork, but your father in heaven has forbidden it to you." --- but you should have a positive attitude towards the observance in question. For this type of attitude, see autobiographies of baalei tshuvah, like Uri Zohar's My Friends, We have been Robbed. Rabbis are uneasy with converts who are too different from the surrounding community, and ideally they want converts to blend in seamlessly with the community while still remaining genuine.
There are a number of hot button issues that rabbis are particularly sensitive to, which I am stating these issues so that you don't end up in a situation in which you've given the rabbi a falsely negative impression. Jewish identity politics is an area in which converts are not familiar, and yet some rabbis react to converts as if they are familiar with these issues. As an analogy, a foreigner who had learned English from detective novels might call me a "broad", thinking it was just a slang term for a woman rather than outdated and insulting. A responsible guidebook should warn its readers about which issues pose such difficulties.
The issues are those in which traditional Jewish practice differs from contemporary society, the Reform and Conservative movements, and Feminism, such as: the mechitza (synagogue divider), modesty between the sexes including no mixed swimming or dancing, academic Jewish studies especially Biblical criticism, etc. For women, there are additional sensitive issues: married women covering their hair, women not davening in women's tefilah groups on a regular basis (or perhaps ever), women feeling that they have a special unique role in Judaism and having an attachment to the mitzvot traditionally associated with them (tsniut, lighting candles for shabbat, separating challah, etc.), and sometimes rabbis are against women having any public synagogue leadership role at all. No Orthodox rabbi wants to convert someone, only to have them become Conservative or Reform (or, worse, a rabbi in these movements), so they will be particularly vigilant to signs that show these inclinations.
Another hot-button group-related issue is that of Centrist versus Open Orthodoxy. You might have noticed that in several places I referred to Centrist Orthodoxy. I did this because the movement which used to be called Modern effectively split ten years ago, although the roots go back perhaps 20 or 30 years. The ones who control conversion and virtually all rabbinical institutions are the Centrist Orthodox, and they are the larger and (to some extent) more mainstream group.
In addition, rabbis want to see signs that you have broken religiously from your background. You should say that you will not go to family funerals or weddings if they are held in a church (or maybe even a non-Orthodox synagogue), that you will no longer eat your mother's cooking, you will no longer hug old family friends, etc.
While I have been speaking about the stringent side of Tradition, it also has a flip side --- the lenient side. Do not investigate this side of Tradition extensively until after you convert, but you should be aware that the grandmother in the above grandmother test may not cover her hair, she may have gone to mixed dances held in Orthodox synagogues and to mixed beaches with her rabbi's children, and when she visited Europe she may have gone into churches to look at the art. If you investigate this side of Tradition too extensively, it will look like you are trying to avoid "ol malchut shamayim" (the yoke of the kingdom of heaven, that converts are supposed to accept), so don't. Just keep in mind that if you don't know if you can commit to not holding hands before marriage, that's not so terribly important.
Just live your life day by day, and know that right now you are being more religious than everyone else because you converting, but when you are a normal Jew you can do what other normal Jews do. For now, enjoy the feeling of not having many moral dilemmas because your religious decisions have pretty much been made for you already, and see what it's like to keep mitzvot by the (Artscroll) book.
Your frum grandmother can put these issues in perspective for you --- which issues are definitely huge deals and which issues are not so important and are more just the current faddish stringency. So, for instance, you should absolutely be prepared never to have non-kosher meat again, never to attend a non-Jewish religious service, and use the mikvah, but if you can't stand the idea of never eating your mother's vegetarian chili again, not hugging your best friend from elementary school, wearing only skirts (or always wearing a kipah), these aren't the things that should keep you from converting. But don't take it on my authority.
Yirat ShamayimI'm assuming that any prospective convert believes in G'd and cares what G'd thinks.
KashrutKashrut is one of the mitzvot which seems second-nature to people who do it, but is extremely confusing to those who don't yet. There are several good overviews to the idea of kashrut, but I had difficulty finding practical how-to guides.
Rabbi Eidlitz's Kosher Information Bureau is highly recommended. The website includes a book discussing the kashrut issues for many different foods, lists of foods which do and don't need a heksher, and lists reliable heksherim. If the website does not answer your questions, you can email him, and he will respond quickly. He was ordained at Ner Yisrael in Baltimore, and his viewpoint on kashrut is entirely mainstream. If you follow his website's kashrut recommendations to the letter, including how to deal with restaurants, you will be well within the guidelines of your rabbi.
One other kosher guide which is eminently practical is by Rabbi Wolfe and is called How to Keep kosher in a non-kosher world.
Consult with your rabbi before kashering your kitchen, but these guides will give you a good idea of what is involved. If you live with non-observant people, do your best to keep separate pots and dishes and work something out with your rabbi.
Kashrut is an area where there is a great deal of strict custom that is not really in the legal codes. Rabbinic students are often surprised to realize how much of the prevalent custom is not required. Some say, "From learning kashrut, you realize that everything is kosher; from learning the laws of shabbat, you realize you have never kept shabbat fully in your life."
As a prospective convert, you have to keep all the virtually-universal strict customs, but remember that others who do things more leniently may have a legal basis to rely on, and may even be following a long-standing family tradition that did not, for whatever reason, follow the virutally universal strict customs. Israel also has different customs.
To be specific, some areas where customs may differ are: designating a dishwasher, oven, kitchen sink or dishpan, or microwave as only for meat or only for milk; whether plastic may be kashered (in Israel, it is kashered because many people can't afford to buy new and because Rabbi Moshe Feinstein was not as influential); how to kasher glass; whether Pyrex counts as glass; whether Corelle counts as glass; which gelatins and cheeses are kosher (difference between Israel and US in the former); whether pareve food cooked in a dairy pan may be eaten with meat (sounds obscure, but is very important in daily life) and in general the importance and necessity of having many pareve utentils and pots; whether grape juice needs to be kosher (in the olden days, it did not need to be; now, 99.999% of frum Jews everywhere say that it does); whether food that is "kosher by ingredients" is kosher (80+% of frum Jews say no; you do too, at least until you convert and learn kosher laws from the original sources).
On the strict ends, there are some strictures that people adopt that you do not need to adpt, but should be aware of: requirement that milking be supervised by Jews ("chalav yisrael" or "cholov yisroel" depending on accent) rather than relying entirely on the FDA to ensure that what is sold as cows' milk is 100% cows' milk; requirement that red meat come from cows/lambs whose lungs have no lesions of a particular sort ("glatt" or in Israel "chalak"); which kosher supervision agencies are sufficiently strict.
A word on the Land of Israel that few Americans know, so if you know this you will be ahead of 90% of American frum Jews. Israeli produce has additional kosher laws derived from agricultural requirements. All produce grown outside Israel is kosher, but all Israeli produce needs to be kosher-certified. Agricultural laws are very serious laws, equally serious as not eating pork. Some produce sold in the US happens to have been grown in Israel, and there's usually no information available about whether it is certified; the most common Israeli crops I have seen in the US are bell peppers and oranges. If produce grown in Israel is not kosher-certified, you have to do a specific tithing that is somewhat involved that you can find described in the Artscroll siddur and many others.
ShabbatSpecific expectations for shul attendance will be listed below in the male and female sections, but generally your shabbat should look like everyone else's shabbat in your community. If you don't live near an Orthodox synagogue, stay with someone who does. Go to shul, go to a family for dinner and lunch, hang out, read, and go for walks. Visit as many different families as you can. Many families will be thrilled to meet someone converting to Judaism --- you may feel like you don't know anything and don't understand how to fit into this world, but this insecurity is only within your own head. Relax, enjoy yourself, and be yourself. If you are younger, you should also get to know people your own age.
As far as shabbat laws, read as much as you can. The best overview of all the laws and their rationale that I know of is Dayan (rabbinic title meaning judge) Isadore Grunfeld's The Sabbath. Specific laws are covered well in e.g., the Artscroll books. You do not need to memorize everything to do in every situation. You only need to know how to act in normal circumstances, and the types of actions which might be forbidden, so that you know when to ask a question in unusual circumstances.
Remember the quote above: many rabbinical students discover that they have not been keeping shabbat properly once they begin learning the laws. Do not make yourself crazy. Just make an effort to do as much as seems reasonable, and most important blend in socially.
Things that some people do that are so common you should not be surprised to see others do them, but it is mainstream in Centrist Orthodox not to do (so you shouldn't either): leaving fridge light on, tearing toilet paper, using regular sponges.
Things that some people avoid but which are completely defensible: brushing teeth with regular toothpaste, using hot water in an apartment building with majority non-Jewish tenants (assuming shared water heater; many European apartments have individual water heaters).
Taharat Ha-mishpacha, Family PurityIf you are married, your conversion is complex anyhow, and I don't know what you need to do.
If you are single, read some of the flowery conceptual books like Aryeh Kaplan's Water of Eden, Norman Lamm's Hedge of Roses, or Tehila Abramov's The Secret of Jewish Femininity. If you have questions, find someone of your gender whom you can speak openly with and ask questions of, preferably a married person. A beit din will assume that you are fully willing to keep taharat ha-mishpacha. They will almost certainly not ask you whether you will hand objects directly to your spouse when you are (or she is) a nidah, and can safely assume that people will work particular issues out when they get married.
Basically, you should be willing to sleep in separate beds and minimize physical contact during the appropriate times, and go to the mikvah if you're female.
Other MitzvotAlthough people commonly say that there are 613 mitzvot in the Torah, there are actually many more. Be familiar with them. My recommendation would be to skim through the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch in order to get a sense of the breadth of the commandments and customs. The Kitzur may be stricter than many rabbis, so only use it to get a sense of what is involved. It's been years since I've looked at it, but I think that Aryeh Carmell's Masterplan does the same thing, and it is much more readable since it's intended to be read like a book.
One book which is actually an important legal work from 12th century Spain is Sefer HaChinuch, the Book of Education, which is available in a several volume English translation, although in Hebrew it is only one small book. It uses Maimonides's list of 613 mitzvot and discusses them. In spite of being several centuries old, it has relatively accessible discussion.
For instance, you should know that you should get wool and linen clothes checked for shatnes, to make sure that they do not contain a mixture of wool and linen. You should also know the laws of lashon hara (gossip). There are many more ideas you should minimally be aware of and ideally know how they relate to your life.
Learn HebrewThere is a lot of material in English. In theory, one could learn much halacha (Jewish law) in English. However, Hebrew is necessary. I found the First Hebrew Primer to be valuable --- it gives you the tools necessary to read the Torah on your own. Subsequently, the Linear Chumash puts three words of Hebrew and their translation on each line and will really help you learn Hebrew. Although I learned some Hebrew in Hebrew School, I owe most of my current Hebrew abilities to the above method.
After a year with the Linear Chumash, reading one aliya (section) per day of the current weekly Torah portion (or as much as possible), you will have very respectable Hebrew skills. Cover the English, read the Hebrew, try to translate as best as you can before reading the English, and don't be discouraged if you don't know the translation.
Tsniut (Modesty)Do not touch the opposite sex, and definitely not around frum people. Everyone knows that mixed-sex hand-shaking may be professionally advantageous and there are those who allow it (even when it's avoidable), but assume that your beit din takes the stringent view. This issue is unlikely to be raised, but is rather a question of your appearance in your community.
Likewise, there are those who allow mixed swimming. I have perfectly frum friends and relatives who go mixed swimming, and some rabbis will accept it, at least in private. The spoken norm in the frum community, however, is not to go mixed swimming, and any beit din will expect that converts not, although again they probably won't bring it up. A woman could perhaps go to a beach dressed as she normally dresses and get in the water this way as long as she stays covered, but there's no such work-around for a man since the problem is seeing the women in bikinis. New York and Israel have separate sex venues, and other cities often have some.
LearningIn a fit of wishful thinking, I am putting learning in the unisex section. Expectations for women are lower than those for men, but just as women face lower expectations in math and physics and yet well surpass them, so should women surpass the lower expectations for Torah learning.
Everyone should learn the parsha (Torah portion) every week, ideally with Rashi. It is available online in easily searchable format
Also, see the books list for recommended books.
What to do, girl versionThere are many sex-specific expectations for converts.
Tsniut (Modesty)Women are expected to wear shirts with sleeves that fall to their elbow, and skirts which cover their knees. If a skirt is slightly short, wear dark opaque tights under it. Shirts should not come close to showing cleavage; the rule of thumb is that necklines come within an inch or two of collarbones, although other communities are stringent to insist that collarbones are covered.
Depending on your community, these rules may loosen up after you convert --- in many communities, women wear loose pants and shorter sleeves --- but a convert has to pass the grandmother test (see above.) This may mean hiking in jean skirts and 3/4 sleeved shirts, as many women in Israel do. In some communities, women only wear long sleeves, longer skirts, and always wear socks. Dress like the average person in your community, but do not go below the above standard of covered knees and elbow-length sleeves. When visiting another neighborhood, do as the locals do.
Wearing a skirt has in effect become the female kipah. In fact, Rabbi Ellinson writes that in his book (The Modest Way which (contrary to its perhaps prissy title) is a very serious book filled with legal sources and a fair weighing of the sources), and says that even if there were no modesty reasons to wear a skirt, women should wear skirts anyhow in order to publically identify as religious. Since not that many women wear skirts anymore, a woman in a skirt might be religious; in Israel, it is virtually certain because the lines are more firmly drawn that longer skirts are religious, so short skirts are really quite short. If she is wearing longer sleeves and it is hot outside, the probability that she is frum is higher. And eventually you can recognize a certain uniform. Lots of frum girls wear skirts just below the knee and black leather/leather-like boots up to the knee, for example. Unlike a kipah, a woman in a skirt is only identifiable as frum by other frum people, but this can have its advantages. Once I was sitting on a bus in Jerusalem and a woman I'd never seen before in my life got on through a rear door, handed me her baby and then went to pay.
Married women are expected to cover their heads, and some say their hair.
Some report rabbis making extensive inquiry into potential women converts' romantic histories.
Davening (Prayer)A woman should know her way around the prayer book. She should come at least to Friday night and Saturday morning davening. She should arrive within 15 minutes of the start of davening on Friday night and within 30 minutes of the start on Saturday morning. (While being late is undesirable, it's far from unusual. At non-Jewish and Reform and Conservative services, people generally come on time but, for better or worse, frum Jews are often late, perhaps because prayer is such a regular occurence.)
In a campus environment, she should try to make as much of the weekday davening as possible --- out of the eleven or so weekday services, coming to half of them is extremely impressive, and also very educational. The more services you go to, the faster you'll learn.
The Artscroll siddur is widely used, and does include some helpful descriptions of what to do, but the layout makes it difficult to see the translations while using it. Although Artscroll now has an interlinear siddur (with translations immediately underneath each line of Hebrew), I think the Metsudah linear siddur has much more easy-to-read format.
What to do, boy versionI'm actually much less certain of the expectations for men, but I will try these out.
DressA guy should dress like a ben Torah. Specifically, he should always wear a collared shirt or nice sweater --- polo shirt or long-sleeved t-shirt being the most casual. T-shirts are limited to the gym, and tanktops or going shirtless are not done. Jeans and shorts are decidedly non-ideal, but okay in casual settings (like hiking).
See your rabbi about whether tzitzit should be worn in or out, and what kind to wear. As for in vs out: wearing tzitzit in is actually the more traditional in terms of American society because Orthodox Jews chose to dress so that they blended in seamlessly with other Americans until a few decades ago, but some like to be reminded of their duties as observant Jews by seeing their tzitzit all the time.
The other question about tzitzit is what kind to wear: the four-cornered garment comes in mesh, plain cotton, and wool, and the fringes themselves come in regular cream-colored wool, or cream with one strand of techelet (a blue dye derived from a specific type of snail.) There are also a zillion ways to tie the tzitzit. Tzitzit have to be tied by a Jew, so if you learn to tie them now, you will have to retie after conversion. Wool is considered frummer, and it has the good properties of wool clothing: as we know from the occasional use of wool in athletic gear, it is not actually overly hot (so I hear), but people tend to go for cotton in the summer. To keep everything clean, most men wear a plain undershirt, then the tzitzit, and then their shirt, though will wear cotton or mesh tzitzit without an undershirt. The techelet dye is worn more by particularly Zionist types, who see it as a return to older customs now that we have the State and Land of Israel; which snail yielded the dye had been unknown for many centuries, and it was recently discovered, and people started making the tzitzit blue. Before the snail was discovered, all tzitzit were white.
Always wear a kipah. Once you can convert, you can think about not wearing one all the time. Not wearing a kipah sounds transgressive, but it's actually very mainstream: few Orthodox Jews in London and Paris wear them outside or in the workplace, and that was the practice in the US until the rise of ethnic awareness.
Wear whatever type of kipah is prevalent in your community. Knitted (kipah sruga, sometimes abbreviated colloquially in English as sruggie) kippot are common to Modern Orthodox (and in Israel religious Zionist) types, especially the type which are colored with a pattern around the edge. Knitted kippot come in watermelons and happy faces, but obviously these are not mainstream. It is mainstream to wear a kipah with the name of a baseball team written in Hebrew around the edge where the geometric design would normally be, or a presidential candidate's name in Hebrew (though note that the proportion of Republicans in some Orthodox communities approaches 90%). Black suede is also common to the Modern Orthoox, and has the advantage of looking more conservative than a knit kippah. The double-layer kippot usually from black velvet are Charedi/Ultra-Orthodox, who believe that it's necessary to have two layers.
Kippot made from nylon, any kind of shiny material, and anything loose-fitting are called "bar mitzvah kippot" and frum people make fun of them because they're a clear sign of not belonging.
Wearing a kipah is a very public form of identification, and you start to think about issues that you wouldn't otherwise. I was at the store with a guy I was dating and buying a gallon of milk. I expected to be charged the price on the sign outside the store, but the cashier rung it up at 50% more than that. I pointed out the sign price, the cashier initially said that the sign didn't count because the price was only listed on one side of the sign (?), and then gave me the sale price. Boring story --- the whole thing was resolved in maybe 60 seconds, but as we were leaving the store, the guy said that he was embarrassed that I had just reinforced the idea of Jews being cheap since he was wearing a kipah. I hadn't realized how far these issues of identity could extend before that incident.
The positive side of being publically identifiable as Jewish is that people will approach you with random questions. Non-observant Jews and non-Jews will ask questions that they have been thinking about for a long time and haven't met anyone before who could answer. Observant Jews, perhaps from out of town, will approach to ask for store and bakery recommendations, directions to a synagogue, or minyan and candle-lighting times.
When frum boys do not want to be seen as frum, they wear a baseball cap over their kipah (sometimes put kipah in pocket, depending on logistics, and put kipah on as soon as they take baseball cap off.) Occasionally, they will wear a tweed newsboy hat or try to pull off a beret, but usually it is a baseball cap. Baseball caps with business casual style clothing has by default become another form of frum uniform, and it's possible to pick out who is frum because not that many men wearing button-down shirts wear baseball caps. It's fun to see how many men still get approached in this uniform by other frum people: on his first day there, a friend of mine got stopped on the streets of Paris in his baseball cap to be asked directions to the nearest kosher bakery.
LearningFind out what the other men in your community do for learning, and join them in that.
DaveningDavening (prayer) is expected according to the traditional schedule. Three times a day, and generally rabbis expect male potential converts to attend every service possible in a minyan.
A tallit (prayer shawl) is worn in the morning services. As with the tallit katan (small tallit) worn with the fringes all day long, there are variations in tallitot and customs. As for who wears them: my understanding is that it was a universal custom for all males over 13 to wear a tallit during morning services, but many Eastern European communities had unmarried men not wear them as an incentive to get married, or as an indication that they were not married. The communities where unmarried men wear tallitot are the German and the Sephardic/Mizrachi Spanish/MiddleEastern (from Spain, Italy, Mid East and North Africa), and they view the Eastern European custom and a mistaken waste of an opportunity to do a positive mitzvah. It is possible there are isolated Eastern European traditions for unmarried men to wear a tallit, but I don't know the specifics. If you are converting, you can adopt any set of customs you like, as long as you are consistent: so you can choose to be German or Sephardic/Mizrachi.
As for what the tallit can look like: the mainstream choices are blue or black stripes. Blue is for the techelet. Black is for mourning for the Temple, and virtually universal in the more right-wing communities. Usually there are some gold or silver threads in addition to the stripes. Some avoid gold highlighting because of the golden calf. Rainbow stripes and other patterns exist, but they're seen as hippie trends.