Converting Infants and Children

A child must be formally converted if adopted or born to a non-Jewish mother, except within Reform and Reconstructionist Judaism, which accept patrilineal descent.

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Jewish law also allows those people converted as an infant or child to renounce the conversion when they reach maturity. After girls reach 12 or boys 13, converted infants and children can legally reject the conversion and go back to their previous religion. If they accept Judaism or are silent, they are deemed to be considered adult converts.

One potential problem for parents seeking to convert minors is that not all movements accept conversions performed by rabbis in other movements. Thus, Orthodox rabbis, for example, do not, in general, accept conversions performed by non-Orthodox rabbis. Conservative rabbis, in general, accept all Orthodox conversions and all Reform conversions, if the Reform conversions conform to the Conservative legal requirements discussed below. Reform rabbis, in general, recognize all conversions performed by Orthodox and Conservative rabbis. Because of this confusing situation, parents ought to discuss their choice with their rabbi.

Conversion Procedure for Children

The conversion of a female infant or child according to Conservative and Orthodox practices only requires tevilah (immersion in a ritual bath called a mikveh). A male child also requires immersion in the mikveh. While parents might have trepidation about immersing a newborn completely in water, the supervising rabbi will facilitate the procedure with great care ensuring that the infant is safe during this momentary immersion. Prior to the immersion, the male must have a brit milah (a legal circumcision ceremony performed by a mohel, traditionally an observant person trained in circumcision). If possible, this should be done on the eighth day after the birth of the boy. If a circumcision has already been performed, a drop of blood needs to be drawn in a ceremony called hatafat dam brit. A Hebrew name can then be given to the child, though some wait to give the name until after the tevilah ceremony. There is usually a wait of a couple of weeks between the circumcision and the immersion. 

A beit din, usually consisting of three rabbis, is convened for the immersion. Parents can enter the mikveh. If the children are old enough, they recite the needed prayers; if not, a rabbi does so for them. After the tevilah ceremony is completed, and a name chosen if one has not already been selected, the child is declared by the beit din to be Jewish.

Reform requirements for the conversion of infants and children vary. Some rabbis may simply have a naming ceremony, while others will include some or all of the same requirements used by the Orthodox and Conservative rabbis.

For detailed explanation of all of these ceremonies, it is crucial to consult a rabbi.

The conversion of infants and children is, of course, a moment of joy for parents, but it is also such a moment for the entire Jewish community. New children add precious lives to the community and bring with them that most valuable idea of hope for the future.

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Lawrence J. Epstein is the author of numerous books, including Conversion to Judaism: A Guidebook and Readings on Conversion to Judaism.