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Choosing Judaism

Girl in blue dress waves goodbye to a man

We’re glad to hear that you’re enjoying our weekly podcast, On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah. Thanks for listening!

The Hebrew phrase at the end of the podcast is “L’hitraot,” which it means “See you again.” It is a bit less formal than the Hebrew word shalom (farewell).  

If you’re interested in more content along the lines of On the Other Hand, you may want to check our other podcasts, Stories We Tell and Wholly Jewish. If you’re interested in more resources for weekly Torah study, you might like to subscribe to Ten Minutes of Torah, weekday emails on topics of Jewish interest.

Answer By: 
Rabbi David Fine

How wonderful that you are seeking to find a religious home – not just a place, but one that resonates with your soul. Not only is there room for you in Reform Judaism, but we welcome you – with open arms, heart, and mind – and we need you! You have a lot to offer and we look forward to meeting you and to getting to know you!

We aspire to live up to our ideal of audacious hospitality. You can garner a lot about the Reform Movement from our website, but meeting people will demonstrate how comfortable you will be in the community.

Find a congregation near you and make plans to attend a Shabbat service on a Friday night. It may take a few visits for people to get to know you and you to get to know them. Give yourself time and be patient, but also try to participate in a congregational activity or two.  When you’re ready to explore Judaism further, you can inquire about taking an Introduction to Judaism course or meeting with the rabbi or cantor to learn about conversion.

Welcome We Are Open Sign

Reform Jews are committed to the principle of inclusion. Since 1978 the Reform Movement has been reaching out to Jews-by-choice and interfaith families, encouraging them to embrace Judaism. You can direct your new son-in-law to try three free A Taste of Judaism® classes,  designed for people who have limited or no Jewish background but are interested in learning about Judaism.  In addition, our 16-20 week Introduction to Judaism classes are perfect for interfaith couples, people considering conversion, and Jews looking for an adult-level introduction. All of these classes are offered in synagogues across the United States.

Answer By: 
Rabbi Victor Appell
A hand holding a Jewish star (Magen David) necklace

Judaism is not a monolithic religion. There are a number of branches or streams of Judaism, including Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative, and Orthodox. Each branch of Judaism sets its own standards for conversion. Orthodox Judaism usually requires that conversions be under the auspices of Orthodox rabbis, and they typically only accept conversions supervised by Orthodox rabbis.

If your interest is in Reform Judaism and you plan to be a part of a Reform Community, then pursuing conversion under Reform auspices makes sense. Learning about each of the branches of Judaism, its practices, beliefs, and requirements for conversion will help you find the denomination of Judaism that is right for you.

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Answer By: 
Rabbi Stuart Federow
A reform Jewish prayer book or Siddur

Full question submitted to Ask the Rabbi: I have been in the process of rediscovering Judaism. I am struggling with how to decide what to follow. Whether or not to keep Kosher, and how to observe Shabbat, are important pieces of my struggle. How do you justify not doing some and doing others?

You are not alone. Many Jews are returning to their religion, and are also struggling with the elements of Judaism. Please note that the name for us, ISRAEL, means those who struggle, who wrestle with God. So not only are you in good company, you are being true to your heritage by wrestling, by struggling with an answer and a response to God's call. One could argue, by the way, that those who do not struggle with all of this may be too comfortable.

At any rate, let me tell you a few things that I think will help you. The first is my all-time number one favorite Chassidic story. As you may know, the Chassidim are the ultra-orthodox, meaning that they are strict in their observance. Keep that in mind as you read and think about this story:

The students of the Rebbe (the number one head rabbi) wanted to see if they could stump him one day, and so the boldest student came to him and asked the Rebbe if he could answer a question. The rebbe of course agreed, and so the bold student asked, "Rebbe, there is a ladder, there are 613 rungs on this ladder corresponding to the 613 commandments. There is someone near the top and someone near the bottom (meaning that the one near the top does almost all of the commandments, while the one near the bottom does few of the commandments). The question, Rebbe, is "who in the eyes of God is higher?"

The Rebbe said nothing. You see, if the Rebbe said the one at the top, the obvious answer, it would have denied the heights, however low, achieved by the one at the bottom, but if the Rebbe had said the one at the bottom, it would have denied the heights reached by the one at the top. And so the students thought they had him! So the boldest student pressed him, and asked, "What is wrong Rebbe, have you an answer?" The Rebbe replied, "I am waiting for the rest of the details of the problem."

The student said, "But we have left out nothing! There is a ladder, with 613 rungs, someone is near the top, someone is near the bottom, who in the eyes of God is higher?"

To which the Rebbe replied, "But you have not told me which of the two on the ladder is moving upward."

It is not where we are on the ladder, it is that we know we have this ladder, truly a divinely given opportunity to elevate ourselves towards God and to be spiritually uplifted through the commandments, and that we are slowly taking steps upward, as you are doing by trying out for a while doing just one or two of the commandments, and then, after you feel comfortable at this new height on the ladder, only then moving to a higher rung.

The next thing I would like to tell you is that each and every commandment has its own merit, its own reward and its own effect on the one who does it. Do not worry what you are not doing, or how many you are doing, just know in your heart that you are wrestling with the idea of even having this ladder, and that you are slowly, cautiously raising yourself up it. Do not leap to a high place, if you lose your balance you will fall off and wind up hating the ladder (hating Judaism), but rather take a small step, get your balance, feel comfortable, then move to another step, try it out. And do not feel badly if it means nothing to you, there are a lot of steps and you will find your place on that ladder!!

Answer By: 
Rabbi George Stern
a Jewish star

I am Jewish and dating a woman who is considering conversion to Judaism. I'd be so happy if she did convert, but I don't want to seem like I'm forcing her to convert. How can I best support her without coercing her?

In a way, you've answered your own question: Support, not coercion. No one should convert out of coercion, and no rabbi should be involved in such.

When I send a prospective Jew by choice to an Introduction to Judaism class, if there is a Jewish partner involved I push hard to have the Jewish person join the class as well in support of their partner.  Attending synagogue and bringing Jewish rituals into personal life as much as possible also is a way to support their partner. If the Jewish partner can't go to class, then s/he should at least be willing and able to discuss the classes and support the study ― even read some of the books.

Years ago, Egon Mayer, a Queens College sociologist and maven on conversion, spoke at my congregation and said that the main reason given by people for not converting is that they were never asked. So the Jewish partner should indicate that honest conversion would be very important to them, as would a Jewish wedding.

Answer By: 
Rabbi Mark Washofsky
Parent holding the hand of an infant

Is it the policy that men must be circumcised prior to conversion? My 8-year old son wasn't circumcised. My husband is Jewish, I'm not. I would prefer for him to make his own decision when he is older, or when it can be done with a local anesthetic.

Jewish law prescribes several rites for conversion. A male proselyte is circumcised, and both male and female proselytes immerse in a mikveh (a ritual pool) or other suitable body of water. If the male was already circumcised before his conversion, a drop of blood is taken from the spot that was once covered by his foreskin. This procedure is known as hatafat dam b'rit.

Conversion is not simply a choice of a new belief system, but a decision to join a historical community that defines itself in ethnic and national as well as religious terms. Circumcision is the eternal sign of the covenant (b’rit) between God and the descendants of Abraham. However, circumcision does not create Jewish identity. A boy who is born Jewish is a Jew, even if his parents do not have him circumcised during infancy. While we would encourage him to become circumcised upon reach religious majority, we treat him as fully Jewish with respect to bar mitzvah and other community rites.

Answer By: 
Rabbi Jonathan L. Hecht
man knocking on door

Judaism has been a minority faith group for thousands of years. Throughout much of that time, the majority faith group has been either Christianity or Islam. Both of these religions are offshoots of Judaism and, hence, monotheistic. That is, not recognizing the validity of other gods. However, since Judaism was recognized by both of these daughter religions as the prior, incomplete, revelation of God, they decided to permit an active Jewish presence in their midst. Of course, restrictions were placed upon Jews living in Christian or Muslim society. Proselytizing was one of these restrictions. Jews were not permitted to seek converts, and in some cases, were forced to grant access by the majority faith group's missionizers.

Thus, while we know of converts to Judaism, it was not a large widespread movement and certainly not sanctioned by Jewish leaders. In fact, the opposite has tended to be the case. There is much Jewish material which suggests that Jews "oppose" proselytizing. Before modern times, it would be exceedingly difficult for Jewish leaders in Christian and Moslem countries to advocate missionizing to the host society. This is still the case in Moslem countries.

Today, however, Jews in the U.S. find themselves in a society where free market reigns supreme. This includes the free market of spiritual ideas, as can be seen by the explosion of interest in the New Age Spirituality Movement. Recently, there has been a quiet but significant emergence of outreach by Jewish movements. This outreach has been focused on those about to be interfaith couples, but is open to all. The idea being that Judaism has something unique and spiritually satisfying. Perhaps in cases where non-Jewish partners or others are non practicing of their religion, they might find fulfillment in Judaism.

Answer By: 
Rabbi Bonnie Margulis
money in an envelope that says "for you," a tip for a rabbi

I am in the process of converting to Judaism. When the Conversion ceremonies are completed, is it considered customary to render a gratuity to the Rabbi that we have been working with? This is a sensitive subject to ask of our Rabbi, whom we love.

I do not believe it is necessary to give an honorarium to the rabbi who is doing your conversion, particularly if you have joined or intend to join his/her synagogue. Working with conversion students is part of a rabbi's normal duties. However, it would be a nice thing if you made a contribution to the synagogue in honor of the rabbi and in celebration of your conversion. I hope that helps. Good luck, and Mazal Tov!

Answer By: 
Rabbi Alex Lilienthal
holding Star of David necklace

What is necessary to convert to Judaism may vary in detail from rabbi to rabbi, but a period of study is central to the conversion process. This study would not only familiarize the prospective convert with the basic beliefs and practices of Judaism, but it would also help the individual integrate into the actual community. I find it very important that the person do the studying (and the internal growing) while participating in the actual life of a Jewish community. This will allow many things to become second nature to the individual.

Once this slowly happens, it will be possible to assess how far the conversion has really gone. There is nothing miraculous here, simply an educational process that every rabbi needs to evaluate until his or her subjective criteria are met. Then there are of course ritual aspects to formalize matters which I would strongly encourage that they be done. In the Reform rabbinate, the requirement of ritual bath and circumcision will vary from rabbi to rabbi.

Learn more about conversion and read first-person perspectives on choosing Judaism.

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