Conversion: Bill of Rights

Dear Rabbi Fried,

A convert in Washington drew up a “bill of rights for Jewish converts”. In this piece, she outlines ten issues which face conversion candidates or those in the process, claiming they are afraid of the rabbis, feel victimized, threatened and judged. I personally think she’s right on and have heard similar claims from women in the process. Are you involved in conversion and what is your opinion on what she claims?


Dear Brittany,

As the chairman of the Dallas Conversion Court (Orthodox), and the author of a comprehensive work on conversion to Judaism, I have given much thought to the questions the woman you mentioned raises. I feel that her claims are honest expressions of her genuine feelings during the conversion process, and reflect the journeys of others with whom she has spoken. Some of her comments are truly thought-provoking points which should awaken any rabbi involved in this process to re-think how our candidates feel during this very difficult and stressful time. A number of points she raises, such as the feeling of persistent limbo, have been on my mind for years and is an on-going discussion between our rabbis and the candidates. I am saddened by the lack of empathy and level of insensitivity which she describes in certain communities and with certain rabbis. I am glad that much of that, as far as I can see, does not exist at that level here in Dallas – or in most places for that matter. That being said, I believe all of us can do better.

As we are limited by space I will address her first point. She complains that during this process the candidates are not told how long it will take, keeping them in a constant state of limbo. She describes the psychological torture of not knowing if it will take days, months or years and nobody to answer that question. This puts lives on hold for dating, marriage, jobs and the like for an indeterminate period of time. 

I, personally, don’t know of any reputable conversion court that keeps its candidates in the dark to the tune of not knowing if it will take “days, months or years”! That is not to say there aren’t some insensitive rabbis out there who may keep them in the dark. We inform a new candidate that the process will probably take around two years, give or take a few months. She claims that a candidate deserves at least a rough estimate, and that we do provide. At the same time, we also explain to the candidates that they will need to have patience and fortitude, because the candidates will nearly always feel they are ready before the court feels the same.

Still, this is a process that does not lend itself to pre-arranged with specific dates of completion. It is not, by its very nature, a simple graduation from a course which grants a diploma upon completion of a fixed course of study. 

This goes to the crux of the process and what conversion is in traditional Jewish thought. What is the conversion process?

It is our belief that when one converts, he or she is not the same person as before, with a commitment to a new belief system. Rather, when a gentile converts to Judaism, they actually become a new person and are endowed with a Jewish soul. For this to happen they not only learn the material necessary to conduct themselves in a new way of life, they need to undergo a complete transformation. They need to become a worthy receptacle to be sanctified with a Jewish soul and become linked to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and thousands of years of Jewish tradition. For this reason, no two people are alike; no two people study at the same rate or can go through this transformation based on a pre-arranged, set time. It needs to be an organic, unpretentious and wholesome process of inner change and is very individualistic. 

That being said, the point is well-taken. The point is not to change the process itself, but to for the rabbis to focus more on communication with the candidates and giving them the opportunity to express their frustrations with the difficulties of being in this state, and providing more helpful and comforting guidance.  


Rabbi Yerachmiel Fried

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