Ruth, the heroine of the biblical book that bears her name, was the first convert to Judaism. Painting by James Tissot, ca. 1900
Ruth, the heroine of the biblical book that bears her name, was the first convert to Judaism. Painting by James Tissot, ca. 1900

Why won’t an Orthodox rabbi convert me?

Dear Dawn: I am a man who wants to have an Orthodox conversion. I have taken a yearlong intro to Judaism class at a local Reform synagogue and am taking Hebrew. I read online and study on my own. I asked the local Orthodox rabbi if I could convert with him, and he said they “would not consider a candidate for conversion for the foreseeable future.” I know a woman whose mother was a Conservative convert and she has had a hard time being accepted as Jewish in a Modern Orthodox community. I know there are few Orthodox conversions each year, but if I ever have children, I want to know that their status as Jews will never be challenged. How do I get an Orthodox rabbi to agree to convert me? — I Know What I Want Halachically


Dear I Know: You raise many common and important misunderstandings.

Let’s begin with why you want an Orthodox conversion. You say it is so that your children will never have their Jewish identity questioned. According to traditional halachah (Jewish law), Jewish identity is passed through the mother. If you marry a Jewish woman and have children, they will be considered Jewish by every Jew in the world. Your own status as a Jew will have zero impact on the future of your unborn children.

Many people assume that they want an Orthodox conversion because it will be “authentic.” That is not a good reason to pursue Orthodoxy. Orthodox rabbis are approached daily by people seeking such authenticity, but many of them are unwilling to commit to an Orthodox lifestyle.

A traditional conversion takes two to 10 years to complete because you learn about much more than just the prayers, holidays, practices and Torah. You are expected to live a traditional life to see if that is truly what you want. It means moving to a home within walking distance of the synagogue, attending Shabbat services weekly and avoiding prohibited activities from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday (such as driving, working and turning on the stove). You must discard any clothes that mix linen and wool. No longer will you eat out just anywhere; you will keep kosher at home and frequent only kosher restaurants, of which there are few. You will pray three times a day. You will not touch women who are not members of your family. There are many more laws that you will learn and practice.

It is nearly impossible to learn to live a Jewish life by reading on your own. It is essential that you participate in the life of a synagogue. Initially you will not count in a minyan for prayer, but you must go and learn what it involves.

It is clear from your comment about your Modern Orthodox friend, who feels she is not accepted because her mother was a Conservative convert, that neither of you understand other reasons why she might be having that experience. If your friend truly embraces traditional halachah, then she embraces the necessity of an Orthodox conversion. If she believes that she should be accepted by the Modern Orthodox community based simply on her mother’s status, then she is not accepting traditional teachings and may be in the wrong shul.

If you are still set on an Orthodox conversion, there are several options for you. Attend classes and services at the Orthodox shul. If you go simply as a learner, they will kindly teach you what is going on. You could also attend classes or gatherings at your local Chabad; they are very gracious, and while they don’t typically perform conversions, they do teach anyone who comes to them. Then return to the Orthodox shul.

If you aren’t committed to Orthodoxy, you can choose a Reform or Conservative synagogue to attend, convert there and observe the mitzvot as part of your life.

Ultimately, you are going to have to prove to a rabbinic court that you know what a Jewish life is — whether Reform, Conservative or Orthodox — and are willing to follow it.

Dawn Kepler

Dawn Kepler leads Building Jewish Bridges, a program that embraces Bay Area interfaith families. “Mixed & Matched” offers advice for Jews in interfaith relationships and families. Send letters to dawn@buildingjewishbridges.org.