The Conversion Process

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Steps Towards Conversion

If the candidate is male, the first step in a traditional conversion is to undergo brit milah, or circumcision, or if already circumcised, hatafat dam brit [ritual extraction of a drop of blood]. Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis may offer the candidate a choice about hatafat dam brit if he is already circumcised.

Once the circumcision has healed, a beit din is assembled. This three-person court, generally comprising at least one rabbi and two other observant Jews knowledgeable about the laws of conversion, has sole authority to rule on the convert's readiness for conversion. The beit din explores a candidate's sincerity by evaluating his or her knowledge, motivation, and intent to live as a Jew. For traditional Jews, a convert must assent to kabbalat ol ha-mitzvot, acceptance of the yoke of the commandments, that is, a willingness to accept the validity and often to commit to the performance of the Jewish commandments. Liberal rabbis usually ask only for a commitment to perform selected commandments.

MikvehOnce the beit din is assured of the candidate's sincerity, the candidate usually immerses in the ritual pool, or mikveh, if available, or else in a lake or the ocean, or, in some cases, a swimming pool [however, only certain non-Orthodox authorities allow a pool].

The mikveh water is symbolic of the in-between state, or liminality, of the convert, who is undergoing what amounts to a spiritual rebirth. The immersion, known as tevillah, symbolically cleanses the convert of past misdeeds and prepares the convert for a different future and destiny. Following immersion, the candidate is officially considered a Jew and can legitimately recite the blessing for immersion that includes the words "who has sanctified us with the commandments."

The newborn Jew takes on a Hebrew name, but a given name only is not sufficient to locate a person within the Jewish tradition. When Jews sign legal documents or are called up to the Torah, their parents' names are appended to their Hebrew names to locate them in Jewish spiritual space. A convert traditionally adopts Abraham and Sarah as spiritual parents and in legal situations is referred to as "ben Avraham Avinu," "son of our Father, Abraham," or "bat Sarah Imenu," "daughter of our Mother, Sarah."

Even for the most sincere converts, the post-conversion period can be challenging, as the new Jews-by-choice reestablish relationships with their birth families, develop new ones with newly acquired Jewish families, and work to bridge the emotional gap between feeling like "a convert" and being a Jew who truly feels part of am Yisrael, the Jewish people. With patience, persistence, and a realization that the process is one of evolution, not revolution, the convert acquires that combination of knowledge, habit, and subculture that constitutes an enduring Jewish identity.

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