Reform conversion to Judaism
Last updated: 2003-09-05
Throughout history there have been men and women who joined the Jewish people through conversion.
In Genesis 12, after Abram has been called by God to journey to the land of Canaan, we read: "Abram went forth as the Lord had commanded him. Abram took his wife Sarai and his brother's son Lot ... and the persons that they had acquired in Haran". According to rabbinic interpretation, the "persons they had acquired" represented the first converts to Judaism and all converts, when they acquire their Hebrew name, are known as ben (son of) or bat (daughter of) Abraham.
Undoubtedly, the most famous example of a biblical convert is Ruth who, we are told, was the great-grandmother of King David. Since tradition says that the Messiah will come from the line of David, then the Messiah too will be descended from a convert to Judaism.
In the Talmudic period several well-known rabbis and scholars were themselves converts, or descended from converts, and there have also been interesting examples of group conversion to Judaism, most notably the entire kingdom of the Khazars in the eighth century. Conversion certainly diminished during the Middle Ages but this seems to have arisen largely because Jews were forbidden on pain of death to convert Christians to Judaism, rather than any essential change in the Jewish attitude.
In our own time, when intermarriage has risen to levels which threaten the future of the Jewish community, the Reform Movement believes it is right to demonstrate a willingness to retain within the community those who wish to preserve their Jewish identity and that of their children, by welcoming non-Jewish spouses who genuinely and sincerely wish to embrace Judaism.
Preparation for Conversion
In recent years over one hundred people annually have been converted to Judaism under the auspices of the Beit Din (Rabbinic Court) of the Reform Synagogues of Great Britain. The majority have undoubtedly become interested as a result of having established a relationship with a Jew, but others have become interested in Judaism for its own sake.
The first step is to approach the local Reform rabbi. Once contact with a `sponsoring rabbi' has been established, care will be taken to ensure that whatever the reason for the prospective candidate's initial approach, he or she is sincere. The proselyte is required to attend synagogue for a specified period and, before instruction commences, to undertake some guided preliminary reading and to begin to engage in Jewish practice. The purpose of this time is to ensure that candidates are fully aware of the implications of the step being taken and have some real experience on which to base their decision. The formal course of study includes learning Hebrew; becoming acquainted with Jewish history and beliefs; understanding and celebrating the festivals of the Jewish year and the practices associated with them; becoming aware of Jewish life cycle events and their significance, and what it means to establish and maintain a Jewish home. It is important that candidates begin to integrate into their particular synagogue community through a full personal involvement in its religious and social activities.
The Beit Din
At the end of the formal course of study, when the sponsoring rabbi is satisfied that these criteria have been fulfilled, an appearance is arranged before the Beit Din. The candidate will be examined as to learning and assessed as to sincerity and readiness for kabbalat mitzvot (acceptance of the obligations of Judaism).
The Reform Beit Din is administered by a Convenor, currently Rabbi Rodney Mariner. Each Beit Din is made up of three rabbis from the RSGB Assembly of Rabbis, whose members serve on a rota basis, and the Convenor.
Before the appearance at the Beit Din, males are required to undergo milah (circumcision). After the appearance all candidates, male and female, undergo tevilah (ritual immersion) at the mikveh (ritual bath) which is on site at the Sternberg Centre.
Children of Converts
The Reform Synagogues of Great Britain affirms the traditional Jewish teaching that a Jew is the child of a Jewish mother, or is a person who has converted to Judaism. While some women convert to Judaism prior to marriage, others take the step many years later, by which time they may already have children. The current practice is that children up to the age of 16 can be converted to Judaism with their mother as part of a family group. As with adults, milah is required for boys, and tevilah for boys and girls. The child is also required to have the knowledge appropriate for his or her age. After 16, at an age when they can accept personal responsibility, it is usually considered appropriate for them to make their own personal approach to the Beit Din through the sponsoring rabbi.
When a child is adopted, conversion is usually arranged as soon as possible after the legal formalities have been completed. This involves the parent(s) appearing before a Beit Din and signing an undertaking to bring the child up in the Jewish faith and requires milah for boys, and tevilah for boys and girls.
Children of Mixed Marriages
The reality of modern life means that there are many children born of a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother, and it is sometimes the parents' wish that these children be brought up as Jewish although the mother does not feel able to take the step of conversion at that time. It is now possible for such children to be converted to Judaism in their own right after the mother has undertaken a course of study equivalent to the conversion course and agrees to assist in maintaining a Jewish home to enable the child to have a Jewish upbringing, and after an interview with the Beit Din. Milah is required for boys, and tevilah for boys and girls..
As a full member of the Jewish community, it is hoped that the convert will become and remain fully involved, having the same rights, privileges and responsibilities as anyone born Jewish. Those admitted to Judaism under the auspices of the Reform Synagogues of Great Britain are recognised worldwide by the rabbinic authorities of the Reform, Liberal and Conservative Movements. Sadly, despite the fact that the Reform Beit Din demands all the traditional requirements for conversion to Judaism, they are not accepted as Jews by Orthodox authorities in the Diaspora. In Israel, Reform converts are accepted as Jewish by the State for purposes of immigration and citizenship, but they are not accepted as Jews by Israel's Orthodox Rabbinate.
The Assembly of Rabbis of the Reform Synagogues of Great Britain and the Movement's lay leaders and members welcome sincere converts into our midst.
For further information, including an initial reading list for prospective converts and the address of the nearest synagogue or rabbi if contact has not already been established, please contact the Beit Din of the Reform Synagogues of Great Britain.
About Rabbi Amanda Golby
Rabbi Amanda Golby is a graduate of Manchester University and received her semichah from the Leo Baeck College. She grew up at the North Western Reform Synagogue, has served at Southport New Synagogue and is currently at Nottingham Progressive Synagogue.