Ask the convert to (Conservative) Judaism

I found out someone is interested, so I’m starting this thread. Here’s my story:

I grew up Methodist, in what I think was a fairly conservative Methodist church (there are a lot of different kinds of Methodists- George W. Bush and Hillary Clinton are both Methodists, just to give an example). The pastor in the church I went to as a kid liked talking about end-times stuff, which really scared me.

I remember thinking around the time I was eight or nine, "There are all these religions in the world, how do we know which one is right? I went to church every Sunday during the school year (my mom insisted, and I didn’t want to start a major family battle over it), but when I was a teenager, I realized I just didn’t believe in Christianity. I tried for a while to convince myself to believe, but failed. I never went to church again after I moved out to go to college (we had never gone to church in the summer, so it wasn’t a big deal when I was home on breaks).

I didn’t go to any religious services of any kind during college, though I was still trying to find a religious identity for myself. I tried being an atheist, but I realized I didn’t believe that any more than I had been able to believe in Christianity.

When I was visiting grad schools (5th year of college), I met Mr. Neville, who is Jewish. I started going out with him and learning about Judaism from him. I liked what I saw (both Judaism and Mr. Neville). I eventually converted in 2003, a few months before Mr. Neville and I got married. Before I could convert, I had to manage to convince myself that I wasn’t just doing this because I was marrying a Jewish guy- I had to come to the realization that I would want to do it even if I weren’t marrying Mr. Neville. A lot of people do convert to Judaism just because they’re marrying a Jew, but I would have felt hypocritical for doing that.

I specifically converted into Conservative Judaism. That’s what Mr. Neville and his family are. I thought long and hard about converting Orthodox, so more people would think of me (and my eventual children) as Jewish. I decided against that- Mr. Neville and I weren’t going to live an Orthodox lifestyle, and my personal beliefs align more with non-Orthodox Judaism (I don’t believe the Torah was dictated to Moses by God, for example), so I decided that converting Orthodox would make me a hypocrite.

Although we’re not Orthodox, we do live an observant Conservative lifestyle- we keep kosher and try to keep the Sabbath, though not in an Orthodox way (I have my own standards of what constitutes “work”, which is not the same as the Orthodox ones). We celebrate Jewish holidays and don’t celebrate Christian ones.

My family’s not thrilled, but they live with it. They love Mr. Neville, and that helps. Religion has always been a topic we never discussed in my family, so other than when I told them I was converting (and when I remind them what we can and can’t eat, because we keep kosher), we don’t really discuss it. My mom does send us Hanukkah presents rather than Christmas ones, and sends us a Hanukkah card or a non-religious holiday card. I anticipate a few more conflicts when we have kids (as we eventually plan to) and raise them Jewish.

Questions? I’ll be here off and on over the next few days (I do think it’s OK to post on a holiday, but we’ll be spending a fair bit of time at services), but I will try to answer.

How do you feel about keeping Kosher since you previously had no restrictions? Do you do it because you believe it is the right thing to do, or because it is just part of the rules?

Not an “ask the…” sort of post, but this made me remember when I was a child, growing up Jewish. One Passover, a regular guest, who had converted, was asked by another “So…aren’t you a convert?”

Her response: “I’m a Jew.”

I always liked that.

Jumping off of this question…how HARD is it to keep kosher when you didn’t grow up with it? Not just from the sense of missing certain foods (or food combinations…bye bye cheeseburgers!), but also how difficult is it to get used to all the rules? I could totally see myself slapping a piece of cheese on that burger without even thinking of it. How long did it take you to feel that the rules were a part of you, so to speak (if, indeed, you have reached that point!) I think that part of having all the rules is to make preparing food a conscious act, so maybe it’s not meant to really become a rote thing, but maybe you could clarify that as well.

(Sorry to use that term “rules,” I’m not sure that’s the most appropriate term, but I can’t think of a better one right now. No disrespect intended.)

Thank you for starting this and posting such a great Op.

I was wondering about how you treated the holidays. Especially tonights and the winter holidays.

Do you feel any extra pangs at Christmas time?

How hard was the transition to being religious again, after being free of it for several years?

I am not religious (ex-RCC) and my wife is a non-practicing Jew. We put up a Xmas tree that includes dradles as ornaments and light the Menorah during Chanukah.


What’s the conversion process like?

What (besides your husband) drew you to the faith, and do you ever doubt that this is the correct decision?

How much (if any) trouble did you have being accepted into the congregation and community?

Personally, I think it’s a great way to bring spirituality into daily life, which is something I really thought was missing in the Christianity I practiced as a kid. It reminds me of my religion every time I eat or shop for food.

I think it’s good for another reason- it means I don’t eat meat without thinking about it, as I would have before I started keeping kosher. If I’m going to have meat, I have to make sure it’s kosher meat, and that there’s no dairy products in the meal. It makes me more aware that I’m eating meat, and that something had to die for me to eat this.

I also think it is good because it keeps me from being too much of a foodie, and having my life revolve around food. That would have been an easy thing to do living in the Bay Area (as I did until last month).

(These are my opinions on keeping kosher, not the official opinions of Judaism, if there were any such thing)

It was tough to learn- I’d never read ingredient lists before I started keeping kosher. Now I have to do that, and to ask waiters whether a dish contains meat or chicken stock or anything like that. I’m understanding when non-Jews don’t understand it very well, because I know it’s a hard concept for someone who isn’t used to thinking about the ingredients in their food. And kosher for Passover- that was a real bear for me to learn…

I’d say it took a good six months. It took a few Passovers before I got used to those rules, too.

Yay veggie burgers :slight_smile: Most of the foods or food combinations I miss can be emulated with kosher foods, and I do so.

I do, but less and less as time goes on. I really missed Christmas at first. Now I’m to the point where I’m kind of glad nobody expects me to put on a Christmas like I had as a kid- that was a lot of work for the adults. And I’m glad decorating for Hanukkah is easier. I used to go more all-out, but now I just put the menorahs around (I have quite a few) and have done with it. It’s a lot easier than putting up a Christmas tree.

I’m not to the point where I could visit my family at Christmas, and watch them celebrate without doing so myself, but maybe that will come someday.

We have sometimes visited Mr. Neville’s family for High Holidays (but not this year), and generally visit them for Passover seders. We’re going to go to services at our synagogue tonight, tomorrow, and Friday, and have a festive meal at home (I went shopping for stuff for it yesterday).

Not very- I had always thought about religion even when I wasn’t religious. And the holidays and Shabbats are kind of fun. The only time I miss being non-religious is when we clean before Passover- I hate cleaning. But it does mean there are no leftovers in the fridge older than a year, which is probably a good thing all told.

Not much at all, but I could pass for Jewish by birth. Chabad has actually come up to me a few times at Jewish street fairs and the like. I’m sure the experience could be different for someone who couldn’t pass.

It varies a bit from rabbi to rabbi. In all of them, though, you have an initial meeting with a rabbi, a period of learning about Judaism, a Bet Din, and an immersion in a mikveh (ritual bath). Male converts have a real or symbolic circumcision at some point, but I don’t really know much about that.

My rabbi gave me a long list of books about Judaism and Jewish history to read. He knew I was observing Shabbat and Jewish holidays with Mr. Neville and his family- if he hadn’t, he might have found someone to mentor me on those. He did say that he asked all prospective converts to observe at least one Shabbat to the Orthodox standards, which I did, and any converts who weren’t already keeping kosher (I was) to keep kosher for a while.

I also took a formal conversion class, which met once a week. Many people converting to Judaism do this. It covered much of the same material that the books I was reading did, but gave me a chance to discuss things with other propective converts. (A lot of people who take those classes, though, end up not converting, and some people take them just to learn about Judaism with no intent of converting)

There was a lot more material on Jewish history and practice than on theology or beliefs about God, though we did spend some time discussing that kind of thing in the conversion classes. That’s one thing that really strikes Christian converts to Judaism as different- in Christianity, the important thing is what you believe, and there are lots of things you’re expected to believe. In Judaism, what you do is more important, and the only thing you really have to believe is that there is one and only one God.

The Bet Din is a group of three rabbis that you meet with on the day when you convert. The rabbi who is supervising your conversion sets it up, and he or she almost certainly wouldn’t schedule it if they didn’t feel you were ready, so it’s not really much like a thesis defense or anything like that (I’ve heard that Orthodox Bet Dins are harder, but I don’t know that). The rabbis of the Bet Din ask you some questions to determine your knowledge of and sincere desire to convert to Judaism. The rabbis on my Bet Din all knew me, though, so they didn’t ask me much.

The mikveh (also spelled mikvah) is a ritual bath. It’s like a small tiled indoor swimming pool with warm water that was about shoulder-deep for me. You get into the mikveh naked- only one person of the same sex is in the room with you at that point. In my case, it was one of the rabbis from the Bet Din. In cases where there is no rabbi of the appropriate gender on the Bet Din (though the Conservative Bet Din in the Bay Area always tries to include one of each, for this reason), they have a mikveh attendant there with you. You duck your whole body under in the mikveh three times, and say a blessing. You are supposed to say the blessing loud enough so the rabbis on the Bet Din (who are just outside the door to the mikveh room) can hear it. They will prompt you on the blessing if you forget it- they were actually pretty impressed that I managed to remember it. The mikveh was at an Orthodox synagogue- Orthodox women immerse themselves monthly (after their periods), which most Conservative and Reform women don’t, so they tend to have mikvehs at or near their synagogues. The Orthodox synagogue I did the mikveh at allowed Conservative converts to use their mikveh. Some Conservative and Reform communities are building mikvehs for converts, but the one in the Bay Area hasn’t.

After all that, you get a conversion certificate with your Hebrew name (you get to pick one). I sponsored a kiddush (luncheon after services) at Mr. Neville’s synagogue the Saturday after my conversion, and the rabbi called me up to the bimah (sort of like an altar) to announce my conversion to the congregation.

The focus on actions rather than on beliefs. I can’t make myself believe something, but I can make myself do things.

The everyday applications of Judaism, like keeping kosher. I also really like that there’s a way to observe the Sabbath that doesn’t necessarily involve going to services- I’m not a morning person, and I need to catch up on my sleep on weekend mornings. I can still observe Shabbat, though, by not working on Saturday and having a special meal on Friday night.

The lack of asceticism. There’s a Jewish teaching that God will ask you, for every permissible pleasurable thing you could have done but didn’t, “Why didn’t you do that?” That absolutely floored me when I heard about it- there’s no merit in placing extra deprivations for the sake of religion on yourself, unlike in some versions of Christianity.

The fact that Judaism doesn’t say that all non-Jews are going to hell- we’ve said, since talmudic times, that “the righteous of all nations have a place in the world to come”. And Jewish hell isn’t eternal, at any rate- it’s for a maximum of 12 months.

The focus on intellectual debate and learning. The anti-intellectual bias that’s in some flavors of Christianity is definitely not there in Judaism. You’re supposed to learn more and question your faith.

Do you ever feel like this is “cheating,” or not living up to the spirit of keeping kosher?

I thought that the important thing for being considered Jewish was that the mother be Jewish at birth, and it was OK for the father to be a convert. I realize that being jewish by faith and being jewish by culture and being jewish by ethnic group are all different things, but how do you fit into these groups and do some people in your new faith have a prejudice against female converts vs. male converts?

No- in fact the Talmud says that, for every non-kosher food, there is a kosher food that tastes like it. What matters is whether you’re actually eating a mixture of milk and meat, not that you’re eating something that tastes like a mixture of milk and meat.

I’m not eager to find the kosher equivalent to ham or pork chops, but that’s because I never liked those anyway…

Oh, and I will say it helps that I’ve discovered all kinds of yummy foods since I’ve been keeping kosher (my mom’s not that great a cook- as one example, I discovered that garlic came in forms other than garlic powder or garlic salt after I went away to college). That makes it much easier to keep kosher- it’s easy to give up ham and scalloped potatoes with bacon that I never really liked in favor of yummy kosher food that I do like.

No. Converts are just as Jewish as born Jews, and the child of a female convert is Jewish. In fact, if a pregnant woman converts to Judaism, her child is Jewish once it is born. At my Bet Din, I had to go in front of the rabbis second, because the other person converting that day was a pregnant woman, and my rabbi told me they always let the pregnant women go first, just in case they pop, so the child will be Jewish. Though if a woman converts to Judaism, any of her children born before she converted are still non-Jewish.

(Just for the sake of completeness- if I adopted children, they wouldn’t automatically be Jewish, unless their birth mother was Jewish- they would have to convert)

Well, except that Orthodox Judaism doesn’t recognize Conservative or Reform conversions as valid, but that’s a separate issue. So when I have children, the Conservative and Reform movements will say they are Jewish by birth, but the Orthodox will not.

What you’re thinking of is the matrilineality of Judaism- if your mother is Jewish, you’re Jewish. But it doesn’t matter if your mother was born Jewish or was a convert.

I have heard that there’s more pressure on female non-Jews dating male Jews to convert than there is on male non-Jews dating female Jews, but I don’t know that for sure. Mr. Neville’s family always knew I was interested in Judaism and in converting, so I didn’t get to see what it might have been like if I hadn’t. I also know that 90+% of converts to Judaism in the US are female.

I’m Jewish by faith, sort of Jewish by culture (in the way that anyone adopts parts of their spouse’s culture), and not Jewish by ethnic group.

I’ve never run into a prejudice against converts, male or female. But remember- I can pass for Jewish by birth, so nobody knows I’m a convert unless I tell them, and I probably wouldn’t tell them if they obviously had negative opinions of converts. There’s quite a bit of material in the Jewish literature (especially Maimonides) that is supportive of converts, so any Jew who has a negative opinion of converts is going against the grain of Jewish thought.

Sorry I didn’t answer this earlier- I was rushing, because I was getting ready to have dinner before going to Rosh Hashanah evening services.

Of course I do. I have moments when I’m afraid that the fundie Christians are right, and everybody but them is damned to hell.

But then I realize that: a)I’d be damned anyway, because I can’t believe in Christianity, and b)if God really were that petty, to condemn someone for not believing something they tried to make themselves believe but couldn’t, I’d join Der Trihs in spitting in his face before I went to hell. I think God wants religious diversity- if God wanted everyone to be the same religion, God could have made it that way, but that’s not the way it is.

And then I’m glad that Judaism says God cares more about what you do than what you believe, and that questioning your faith is considered normal and even praiseworthy in Judaism.

That is interesting…I never heard that before.

Given that the premise of Judiasm is that they are gods chosen people decended from Abraham are there some jews who do not accept converts?

Are converts expected to learn Hebrew? I’m teaching at an Orthodox Jewish school, and half of the students’ day is spent in Judaic studies, including Hebrew from Kindergarten on. I’m astonished at how much there is to know - not just the scriptures (Torah), but the classic commentaries (Talmud), the laws (Halacha?), and the social ethics.

Jews would go extinct if they had the kind of anti-intellectual bend to their culture that we do!

Also, you mentioned the mikvah and that the Orthodox women submerse themselves in it after their periods. I take it that Conservative women don’t? Do Conservative Jews wrangle of the idea of niddah (ritual uncleanliness of women during and after their period)? Are there any strictures on what you can wear? I’m only now getting used to the Orthodox women covering their hair completely or wearing a shtetl (wig), and I’m still griping about having to wear a skirt every day to school.

Something to understand about Judaism: Jews are not biblical or even Torah literalists. Judaism is like Catholicism in that way- we don’t have the doctrine of sola scriptura, but we say that you have to study what later rabbis have written about the scriptures to really understand them.

Later Jewish writings are very supportive of converts. Maimonides says that you are commanded to honor your parents, but not to love them- but you are commanded to love a convert. Maimonides has a very high status in Jewish law, so any Jew who doesn’t accept converts is going against Jewish law.

Not really. We’re only expected to know enough to be able to follow along at services. I’m definitely not fluent in Hebrew- I can sort of follow along at most services, but I don’t know what a lot of the words mean. A lot of born Jews are in the same boat, though.

I am considering taking a Hebrew class through my synagogue, though- I would like to know more Hebrew than I do.

Most don’t.

No. I don’t wear skirts every day, and I don’t cover my hair or wear a wig. Sometimes when I’m having a bad hair day I wish I did, but I don’t. I’m pretty typical of Conservative Jewish women that way (or else they have really nice wigs, and I haven’t noticed that they’re wearing wigs).

If Conservatives have strictures on what you can wear, it’s usually only in the synagogue. Men are required to wear head coverings in the synagogue, but not at other times, for example. At my wedding, I had to wear a dress that covered my shoulders, and the rabbi said he didn’t allow “too much cleavage or thighage on the bimah” at his synagogue. The standards do vary from rabbi to rabbi.

For those unfamiliar with Maimonides AKA Rabbi Abraham Moses Ben Maimon AKA Rambam, he’s the Cecil Adams of Jewish law.

L’Shanah Tovah, Anne et al. Great thread!

So what would be involved in a conversion to Orthodox Judaism? What would you have to do to make your children Orthodox Jews by birth?

IIRC The difference between an Orthodox and a Conservative conversion is a promises to carryu out all the activities demanded by Jewish Law. Without this promise, some Orthodox Jews will not consider the convert Jewish. In order for Anne or any kids she will have to be considered Jewish by these people, she would have to undergo a second conversion by an Orthodox rabbi or Orthodox approve Conservative rabbi.

Please note that this is an objection to what details are necessary in a conversion. Orthodox Jews consider converts to be fully and equally Jewish so long as their conversion includes a promise to fulfill the mitzvot.