Our fifth Alma roundtable is a discussion between four Jewish converts. They talk about when they first felt Jewish, how their identities played a role in their conversion experience, the reaction of their friends and family, and what Jewish communities can do to make converts feel more welcome.
Their conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.
How old were you when you started and finished your conversion?
Liyah: I started my conversion in the Conservative movement in early 2018 and will be finishing this fall. (I had just turned 18 when I started and am now almost 20.) Afterwards, once I move to a different city, I will begin an Orthodox conversion.
Hannah: I started exploring Judaism when I was about 17, and by 18, I knew for sure I wanted to convert. I am planning on converting through Reform Judaism. The path to conversion is a long one, but I’ve sincerely enjoyed every step I’ve taken, as well as every step I will take.
Jacqueline: I’ve been on the path toward an Orthodox conversion for a little over two years now, but have been exploring Judaism for a little while longer.
Liyah: How old were you when you started?
Jacqueline: That depends on what you define as “started.” I started researching on my own — looking for rabbis to learn with and communities — at the age of 19. I finally found a sponsoring rabbi and began taking classes a little over a year later, when I was 20. Almost two years later, I’m still on my conversion journey and anticipate completing it close to the end of this year.
Laura: I converted with a Reconstructionist rabbi, and I started when I was about 16.
Liyah: Wow, it’s really cool that we all began around the same time in terms of age. Especially because I feel like people think young converts really only convert for marriage.
What were your various experiences like in the denominations you chose to convert under?
Laura: My conversion happened entirely with my personal rabbi. I took a class at the 92nd Street Y in New York, so a multi-denominational space, but primarily Reform. I didn’t meet the beit din [rabbinical court] until the day I did tevilah [immersed in the mikveh]! It was my rabbi who decided I was ready, and my rabbi convened the ad hoc beit din. I was part of a Reconstructionist synagogue for a few more years until I moved to an area without one. Then I switched to a Conservative synagogue, and I’ve basically been Conservative since. I have not had any problem with being a convert with anyone in any community I’ve actively been a part of.
Jacqueline: I can’t speak too broadly about my experiences with the denomination as a whole, since my experience varied from person to person and from community to community. There were definitely periods that were emotionally lifting and some that were emotionally draining. I think the most draining part of my journey was searching for a sponsoring rabbi. I live in a medium-sized town with a few small Orthodox communities. Some of the rabbis I approached were either incredibly busy and couldn’t take on a candidate, or were hesitant about my age and ability to make such a life-changing decision. I did ultimately find ones that were very supportive. They’re extremely helpful but give me the space to work through my conversion at the pace I’m comfortable with.
What about the communities as a whole?
Jacqueline: I’ve found them very welcoming and supportive. No one ever pushed me to take on more mitzvot than I wanted or was ready for, but showed support when I expressed wanting to. I’ve met with my local beit din twice to discuss my progress. The beit din members are quite removed from the conversion process and only receive updates during these meetings. While I understand that it may be difficult for them to be more involved, the lack of communication outside of these meetings can make it hard for me to communicate my progress or for them to communicate what direction they want me to go in.
Hannah: I’ve definitely found the Reform community to be incredibly welcoming and supportive — almost surprisingly so. Actually, when I first began to seriously explore conversion, I was so scared of what people might think of me. Would I be accepted? Would they even want me? What if they say no? Would there be anyone else my age, or anyone I could relate to? I didn’t know a single Jewish person in my life, and had never met anyone who had converted to any other religion. I just felt lost.
When I was in my freshman year of college, I emailed the rabbi at my local synagogue, which happened to be a Reform/Conservative congregation, to let her know about who I was, that I had been convinced of the truth of the Torah, and was hoping to meet and discuss conversion. She was enthusiastic about meeting me, but I was still so scared that I never emailed her back. It took me almost another year of more studying and more personal reassurance to get the confidence to get in touch with her again. We finally met at the beginning of this year, and I “officially” started the process. Since then, everyone I have met has just been so supportive of me. Obviously, faith is a really personal and vulnerable thing, so exposing my desire to convert like that, and just hoping they would be receptive, was scary to me — but looking back, I wish I wouldn’t have been so scared! I wish I would have started sooner! It gets better every day.
Laura: I think it’s so amazing. I didn’t meet another convert my age… ever, maybe. Not in person. So this is amazing to me. I wasn’t allowed to convert until I turned 18, because they were worried about questions of liability!
Jacqueline: That’s exactly how I felt. I was positive no other convert existed in my area, much less someone of the same race. It was wild to find out otherwise. If anything I’m glad we’re demystifying the process.
Laura: I was lucky enough to blend in ethnically and I know that was just luck. I could blend into the back row and nobody really noticed me.
Liyah: I admit I felt really lonely too during the process, but I was also lucky enough to have a small group of Jews who were around our ages and converted a little before I did. However, there aren’t many Jews of Color in my community in Asheville, and all the ones I do know were born Jewish.
Do you believe that your gender, sexual, and/or racial identity played a factor into your conversion experience?
Laura: Oh, for sure. I mean, I’m a queer woman. And over time I have thought over and over again, “Maybe I should have an Orthodox conversion to ‘clean up’ my provenance, so my children will be unimpeachably Jewish.” But, one, I would never be able to find a rabbi to do a private conversion, let alone be accepted by a beit din! And two, I couldn’t ever agree to be a part of a non-egalitarian community.
Hannah: I’m also LGBT; I’m not sure I could say if it’s heavily impacted any part of my conversion experience (thus far); however, I definitely understand Laura’s point. The Reform community seems more likely to accept me and my identity; if I converted Orthodox, I don’t necessarily know how open I could be about my identity. But any theoretical family I have would for sure be considered Jewish, which is also something very important to me. So I definitely hear you on that.
Jacqueline: I’m still trying to determine how much of my conversion experience was affected by my multi-faceted identity. Growing up, I was already used to ‘”adjusting” my actions and expressions to fit the mold of the individuals around me. I was already expecting to stick out, be prodded with inappropriate questions, etc. When you dive into a community with that outlook, it obviously tints your actual experiences. But I trust my instinct and know when I’m being treated poorly and/or discriminated against. I think the most noticeable aspect of my identity was my race/ethnicity. There aren’t many Jews of Southeast Asian origin, so I was conscious of sticking out as an obvious non-Jew in a Jewish crowd.
I don’t yet feel comfortable disclosing my sexual orientation with individuals in Orthodox circles, simply because it remains such a charged topic. My main priority is doing my part so that, hopefully, acceptance of and care toward LGBTQ Jews becomes mainstream in Orthodoxy, rather than the exception.
Liyah: I completely understand where you guys are coming from in terms of the LGBTQ issues you face, and I am extremely privileged that I don’t have to deal with that. I’ve opted to finish up my conversion with the Conservative movement and then begin an Orthodox one. My future children will already have it hard being POCs, so I just wanted to solidify their Jewishness regardless as they may want to marry someone who’s Orthodox or move to Israel.
Laura: I am married to a non-Jew, and that has caused me far more issues than my status as a convert!
Hannah: My current boyfriend is a non-Jew; if we were ever to get married, both scenarios are… dizzying and frustrating, to say the least. The choice between either managing an interfaith marriage or having them convert are not exactly easy choices, or choices to be taken lightly. Both come with their own heap of struggles that are… honestly, something for me to unpack a little later, haha.
Jacqueline: My hope is that the beit din doesn’t give you a hard time because your boyfriend isn’t Jewish! Really your relationships should be your own business.
Liyah: I hope so, too, honestly, but we never know. There’s also a rise in liberal Orthodox movements so hopefully by the time I sail across those seas, things will be different.
What was the hardest part about the conversion process for you?
Liyah: For me, the hardest part about converting was having to deal with individuals in the Jewish community thinking that they are entitled to tell me how I should be acting as a Jew and what I should do. It was almost as if I was in a fish bowl and was carefully being looked at while swimming through the waters of Judaism.
Jacqueline: I haven’t finished, so my answer could change, but what immediately jumps into my head is no longer being able to eat my mother’s cooking with ease, and worrying about how to respect my family’s traditions and faith without jeopardizing the religion I’ve chosen for myself.
Laura: I’m at a really different place. I converted about 17 years ago now (!!). I think what I’ve found hardest is being “behind.” Not knowing the camp songs or the lingo or the order or davening, etc. All these years later, I still feel like I’m behind, and that can still be frustrating or embarrassing.
Jacqueline: I’m also still grappling with how I want to raise my children. My partner is Ashkenazi Jewish, and while I know that many interracial families do well at balancing the traditions of both parents, I know I’ll have to put a lot of work into finding that balance, and making sure my children don’t feel alienated from either their Jewish or Vietnamese heritage.
Hannah: I think for me personally, the hardest and most intimidating part thus far was telling my parents. I was raised in Lutheranism (which I honestly am thankful for, I loved my upbringing in many ways), and my parents are believers (not militant… but they believe). They’re also both a little older, and a little more set in their ways — my dad especially. My mom took it well, but it took my dad a little time to come around. Seeing his firstborn baptized in that church, taking her to Sunday school every week… I think he was confused. Was that not enough for me? Did I not appreciate that? They’ve both definitely come around now, though. They’ve been very supportive — for my 18th birthday, after I told them I was serious about conversion, they bought me a hamsa necklace from a Judaica store, and want to buy me a magen David necklace once I actually convert.
Jacqueline: That’s very sweet of your family!
Hannah: On a lighter note… Hebrew is incredibly intimidating.
Liyah: Hebrew has definitely been a challenge for me, too. I slightly gave up currently as with school, working, undergraduate research, and other Jewish learning, it just hasn’t been a priority for me.
Laura: I went pretty serious at some point and decided I was GOING to catch up, and now I’m getting my PhD in Talmud. I took it as a personal challenge. And yet, I’ll still realize that I don’t know simple things like what I can build a sukkah out of!
Liyah: Other hard aspects for me was definitely my race and the ignorance surrounding Black Jews — and my family’s acceptance/willingness to learn.
Speaking of, how did your friends and family react?
Laura: My parents thought it was great, that I was committing to something. The rest of my family thinks it’s a little strange sometimes, but I think everyone is used to it now. It’ll be stranger if we get more frum [observant] after we have kids! Like, I started to cover my hair last year and my mom was so confused.
Jacqueline: Each of my family members had a different response. I think my mother was the most hurt, because according to her faith, if I stray, my soul won’t be saved. So, I know her reactions came from genuine pain, not malice. I encouraged my mother to do her own research and she’s definitely become more comfortable with the idea of me being Jewish. I still find myself making compromises for the sake of her comfort and happiness, but so far, these compromises are things I’m comfortable doing. They’re worth it. And my siblings from the start have been supportive and try to make being Jewish at home easier.
Hannah: Other than my parents, the reactions have been… interesting, to say the very least. My brother never comments or asks about it; he doesn’t understand, at all. He’s not rude, he just doesn’t get it. My friends have been great — they really just want me to be happy. Answering the occasional awkward question from a friend or co-worker happens, but that’s okay. No one has been demeaning about it — or at least not intentionally. My extended family on my mom’s side thinks it’s great! The extended family on my dad’s side are baptists who think it’s “fun” that I’m “studying” Judaism. I love them, though.
Liyah: Ugh, I had the experience with the weird Christians. Not a good time.
What was the easiest component to take on as a Jew?
Laura: I love davening [praying], honestly. And I like the stuff. I have a tallis I love, I have a bunch of hanukkiyot, I own a zillion books. These days I’m saving up my money for a pair of tefillin. I find that the objects always accept me, never question my background or my devotion or beliefs.
Hannah: Laura, I also own sooo many books and I honestly wouldn’t have it any other way. I really need a new bookshelf — no, bookcase — for all the reading I’ve done in my conversion.
Liyah: I definitely feel you guys about the books. When I became a Jew, my book collection grew by 200x, seriously, and I thought I was an avid reader before.
Hannah: This might be a little hard to describe… but I think the thing I’ve found the most inspiration from is the holidays, the calendar, the routines, all that. I love how much significance and deeper meaning many of the important days in our calendar have; I love traditions and routines, like having a routine on Shabbat; I love the flow and the movement of the cycle of the year.
Jacqueline: Keeping a kosher kitchen was one of the first things I really wanted to do after deciding I wanted to convert. In fact, one of the reasons I moved away from home so early was to be able to slowly start keeping kosher. Food is so important, and it felt like a powerful yet simple way to start connecting with other Jews. On a related note, I am lucky that I know people who are able to host me for Shabbat and really show me how enjoyable and peaceful the holiday can be.
Liyah: Pretty much the same thing for me, in regards to keeping traditions. But what I love the most is the diversity in Jewish expression. Like, everyone has their own way of being Jewish, and Judaism allows you to have that wiggle room. I also love how there’s opportunity within our communities to work and grow.
Jacqueline: Agreed! I also like how dedicated all Jewish communities seem toward championing social causes.
When did you begin to feel Jewish?
Jacqueline: Probably the first time I went to a Shabbat service. In the beginning, that feeling had its ebbs and flows. I don’t really know how to describe my current state of being, but I identify with being Jewish so much that I feel like I’ve always been Jewish (as in, I don’t know any life beyond being Jewish).
Laura: I think I knew I wanted to be Jewish from my first Shabbat. But I didn’t feel Jewish for probably… a year? A year and a half? Definitely before I actually converted. By the time I did beit din and tevilah, I was already Jewish to myself.
Hannah: It was probably when I joined the Hillel at my university. We didn’t do that many activities, and there were only like five of us, but meeting other Jewish people and knowing that they accepted me and supported me helped.
Liyah: I tell people all the time that when I found Judaism, it was like finding a forever home. So for me, I began to feel Jewish as soon as I made the decision to convert and haven’t looked back since.
What are some misconceptions about “Jews by choice” that you have faced?
Liyah: Many. But the main one is, people think I don’t know anything about Judaism because I’m a convert (and because of my race) when in fact it’s the complete opposite. They also fail to realize how strenuous and frustrating the conversion process can be regardless of denomination, and often think that it’s just fluff. I’ve also been told that most young women who convert do so in order to marry a Jew. That is not only a harmful stereotype, but it isn’t even true.
Jacqueline: That women who convert are doing it to get married. Also, the misconception that a convert’s identity should only revolve around Judaism and they should shed their “old” background or culture.
What should the wider Jewish community know about converts?
Jacqueline: The community can help by demystifying the conversion process, making it more accessible to people of lower socioeconomic status or with disabilities, and being more receptive to converts integrating their cultural backgrounds with their Jewish identity.
Hannah: I think what the Jewish community should know is that conversion, and faith in general, is a deeply personal thing, and some questions can (at times) feel somewhat touchy. Curiosity is totally understandable! It’s not everyday you meet a convert. I would just hope they can understand that sometimes, some questions can be pretty sensitive. I would never get mad at anyone for asking! I just hope they can understand if we’re hesitant to answer. I often don’t mind more personal questions, but some people might have many reservations about answering them.
Liyah: We are not required or compelled to tell you anything. You don’t need to know why or how we converted, and it’s an invasive question that is heavily frowned upon in Jewish law. We deserve to have the same freedom that born-Jews have regarding observance and expression. We shouldn’t (nor are we even supposed to be asked to) check off certain boxes for others’ definition of what a Jew is.
What are some ways in which the Jewish community can make converts feel more welcome?
Liyah: Stop treating us as if we are outsiders in a community that we earned the right to be a part of. If the Jewish community itself doesn’t properly acknowledge the incredibly many roles converts play in continuing our legacy, then outside communities will feel as if they too can treat us with dismissal.
Jacqueline: Understand that our opinions about Judaism, Jewish communities, and Jewish politics are just as valid as those belonging to other Jews.
Hannah: I hope that they can try — like so many of them already do — to help us feel more at home. Include us, or help teach us things we don’t know. One of the hardest parts is feeling like you missed out — all of our friends and peers who are born-Jews have memories of going to Jewish summer camps, or having special Shabbat dinners, etc. We just don’t have any of that. Sometimes it can be really hard to have the confidence to participate like everyone else when they have a lifetime of experiences, and you have about two years of learning and no real experiences. If you are willing to include us, and help us out if we don’t know everything right off the bat, that can make a world of difference for so many of us.
And lastly, please don’t out us as converts if we don’t say it’s okay. At times, so many of us feel like we’re walking around with giant blinking signs over our heads that say “CONVERT!” We hope to be a Jew first, convert second — not the other way around.