How to Convert to Judaism

Judaism has traditionally not encouraged conversion, but the process, which seems to go back to the Book of Ruth, is not difficult.

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Jews from Kaifeng, China complete their conversion process.
Jews from Kaifeng, China complete their conversion process.Credit: Nir Kafri

Judaism has traditionally not been a religion that seeks out converts. Although there is some evidence that conversion was practiced in the Land of Israel in late antiquity, or even that Jewish missionary activity did exist, it has long been common for rabbis to discourage those who show an interest in becoming Jewish.

The tradition, in fact, is to turn the potential convert away three times before beginning to entertain the possibility of offering him or her instruction in Judaism.

Jews from Kaifeng, China immerse themselves in the mikveh as part of their conversion process to Judaism.Credit: Nir Kafri

This tradition seems to go all the way back to Naomi, who in the Book of Ruth, tried three times to convince her newly widowed daughter-in-law to return to her own people, the Moabites, before accepting her as an Israelite. (That tradition could even be seen on a recent episode of "Orange Is the New Black," when Cindy, one of the inmates on the show, converts to Judaism.)

The beit din: Three rabbis judge whether the couple before them is ready.Credit: Yair Ettinger

In general, though, it seems clear that the very demanding nature of Jewish observance is a key reason for discouraging all but the most sincere of potential converts. In any case, it is not a tenet of Judaism that only Jews can be righteous people or achieve salvation.

In contemporary times, wanting to marry a Jew has been the basis of many a request to undergo conversion. The different branches of Judaism have different approaches to that request, as do individual rabbis, but generally, are sympathetic to a potential convert who intends to establish a Jewish home, in which they will live and raise their children according to a Jewish way of life.

What conflict does arise usually stems from different branches of Judaism having different understandings, and in some cases, different requirements, for living a Jewish life.

In terms of rituals, the act of conversion is not unusually complex, and is delineated in the Talmud.

After a period of study, the candidate is brought before a beit din, a religious tribunal. This happens after the rabbi mentoring the potential convert feels that he or she is ready, but ideally, it should stretch over a minimum of 12 months, so that the candidate can experience the full cycle of the Jewish year.

(The three members of the beit din are usually rabbis, but they can also be learned laymen. Reform Judaism encourages but does not necessarily require appearance before the beit din.)

Son of Abraham, daughter of Sarah

Once the members of the beit din are satisfied, both regarding the sincerity of the candidate and also of his or her level of basic knowledge about Judaism, they can proceed to the rituals. For a male, this will involve circumcision, or, in cases where the candidate is already circumcised, a symbolic drawing of a drop of blood from him. Following that, the convert, whether male or female, will undergo immersion in a mikveh (ritual bath).

The new “Jew by choice” usually also adopts a Hebrew name. Since the convert is considered to be like a newborn child, that Hebrew name will include the suffix of "ben Avraham Avinu” or “bat Sarah Imenu” – “son of Abraham our Father” or “daughter of Sarah our Mother” – following the new given name. This is meant to indicate their new lineage from the very first Jews by choice.

Conservative Judaism follows the same ritual procedures as Orthodoxy, but Reform allows for more flexibility on the part of the individual rabbi sponsoring a convert.

There are also significant differences between the different movements in terms of the level of observance expected from converts in their new lives as Jews.

There have been cases in which conversions overseen by strictly Orthodox rabbis have been retroactively nullified, because the proselyte is deemed not to be living up to his or her commitments in terms of observance, or has been dishonest in a substantial manner about his or her intentions during the conversion process.

In Israel, there have also been attempts by some Orthodox rabbis to have conversions performed by other Orthodox rabbis annulled on technical grounds, but these have largely been seen as part of the perennial political infighting over authority. At least one such ruling, which would have affected thousands of veteran converts, was overturned by Israel’s High Court of Justice.

Additionally, for purposes of immigration, a new immigrant who had been converted to Judaism abroad will generally have his or her conversion recognized by the Interior Ministry if it was performed by an established stream of Judaism - but the officials in charge of making the decision have a significant amount of discretion in the matter. On the practical level, this means that the decision to recognize a foreign conversion – and hence one’s eligibility for citizenship – is very much in the hands of the clerk in the Interior Ministry into whose hands the application falls.

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