Almost nothing goes exactly the way you’d imagine, and converting to Judaism is no exception. I don’t regret it in the least, but there are plenty of things I wish I’d known before I made the big plunge. (And that’s things beyond how good the food is and how much I needed Shabbat in my life.) If you’re thinking about converting, allow my hindsight to be your foresight. Here are just a few of things I wish I’d known.
It’s uncomfortable to talk about, but in this case, we really do need to talk about money. I feel like one of the things that might shock some people is that converting to Judaism can be an expensive venture. There are books to buy for reading lists, honoraria for rabbis, classes to pay for, Jewish paraphernalia to acquire — it’s not cheap. Some streams of Judaism require you to move within walking distance of the synagogue before you even start the process.
You don’t have to buy/pay for everything all at once, though. I still found it to be surprising since I’d never really seen the cost of conversion broken down anywhere beforehand. Some synagogues offer a sliding scale on classes or honoraria, and you can always keep a look out for good deals on books and Judaica, so don’t let it scare you off. Many people are able to make it work.
And then there’s the homework. A myth I had heard before was that rabbis will turn you away three times to make sure you are really invested (we can probably blame “Sex and the City” for that). But in my experience, what they actually do is give you a reading list and a syllabus. If you’re interested, you’ll make the time to chip away at it. This is another reason conversion takes so long. Hope you love essay questions!
The beit din
I knew there would be a beit din, but the way it’s described is terrifying: “A panel of three rabbis will judge whether you’re ready to become a Jew or not” sounds really intimidating! What they don’t tell you is that your rabbi wouldn’t put you up for the beit din unless they thought you were ready for it and that the people overseeing it are pulling for you to succeed.
Mine was a very pleasant hour of conversation over what the challenges and joys of my conversion journey had been. There was one awkward question, but I must have given a valid answer because they all let me join! Overall, it was painless. And I’ve heard similar experiences from other converts. It’s meant to be a very affirming time for you to have a chance to speak about Judaism in your own words.
I’ve written a whole article on the mikveh and how scared I was to do mine. Let’s face it, hearing you’re about to submerge in a pool naked while someone else makes sure all your hair goes under is a little scary. But the reality was very different. Yes, there was someone checking my immersion status, but it still managed to be a very private, respectful event that I even found relaxing. My time in the mikveh was holy and incredibly meaningful. I hope yours will be, too.
It can be deeply emotional
You might be surprised that there’s more to converting than learning about laws and theology and other Torah. There’s a fair bit of scraping the barnacles off your soul and inspecting any religious baggage you carry with you, and this can be difficult in a whole other way. But your rabbi is trying to prepare you for pangs of possible mourning when you’re reminded of the religious world you were part of and may still carry affection for. They’re trying to prepare you for the feeling of being a fish out of water for a while.
All of this can be a little painful, but it’s ultimately the best way to start with a new worldview: thoroughly inspect the baggage and see what’s worth carrying forward and how much it will hurt to leave other things behind.
One of the things I hadn’t expected was just how rewarding my experience would be. I love nothing more than being a Jew today. I am honored to be part of a tradition that spans millennia and continents and all walks of life. I am proud to be a part of this People and I have no regrets, even though these are some of the things I really wish I’d known up front. Maybe this list will help prepare you for the more hidden aspects so you won’t have any regrets, either. If you decide to pursue this, I can only give you best wishes on your journey and say welcome home.