How Do Jewish Conversions Work?

It'll take a minimum of one year.

(RNS) Jewish conversion seems to be all over the media lately. In the third season of the Netflix series “Orange Is the New Black,” Litchfield prison inmate Cindy Hayes wants to convert to Judaism, a journey that begins because pre-packaged kosher meals taste better than regular prison food. After reading up on Judaism to perfect her scam, she decides she really likes Judaism, and asks the prison’s rent-a-rabbi for permission to convert. She is rejected several times but finally gets approval after a heartfelt plea.

Cindy isn’t the only Jewish convert in the spotlight; Chicago Rabbi Capers Funnye, a cousin of Michelle Obama, was recently named head of a black rabbi group, the International Israelite Board of Rabbis.

Meanwhile, Jewish conversion is also at the center of a heated debate in Israel right now. Israel’s Chief Rabbinate has strict policies on what constitutes a legitimate conversion, policies that have recently come up against pushes for reform.

What does converting to Judaism actually entail? Here’s what you need to know:

Q: Do you really have to ask a rabbi multiple times for a conversion?

A: Judaism welcomes converts but doesn’t encourage proselytizing. According to tradition, a rabbi will turn a potential convert away three times before allowing him or her to begin the conversion process. The basic idea is that an observant Jewish lifestyle is a lot to take on, so when would-be converts ask multiple times, it shows their determination to make that commitment.

Also, as a historically persecuted group, Jews initially turn away potential converts in part to reflect on whether they’re willing to deal with anti-Semitism. As the Talmud puts it, the first thing to ask a potential convert is, “‘Why did you come to convert? Do you know that Israel at this time is afflicted, oppressed, downtrodden, and rejected, and that tribulations are visited upon them?” Not exactly an advertisement. That said, while all Jewish denominations don’t actively proselytize, some no longer first turn converts away.

Q: How long does it take to become Jewish?

A: Even conversion candidates themselves don’t always know. A recent survey of 439 Orthodox converts found that, for the majority, the most frustrating part of the conversion process was not having a clear timeline.

In general, regardless of Jewish denomination, a minimum of a year is required so the potential convert can experience a full cycle of Jewish holidays. During that time, conversion candidates study the Hebrew alphabet, Jewish law and the basic tenets of the faith until the rabbi mentoring them thinks they’re ready. But when the rabbi gives approval, the process still isn’t over. For a Conservative or Orthodox conversion, the potential convert then has to go to a beit din.

Q: A beit din? What’s that?

A: A beit din is a three-person Jewish court. The members of a beit din are usually rabbis but can also be laymen educated in Jewish law. They question conversion candidates until they have confidence in the person’s genuine desire to convert and level of Jewish knowledge. A Reform conversion does not always require a beit din, and leaves that decision and others to the discretion of the rabbi.

Q: OK, but isn’t there something about submerging in a pool?

A: Once the convert has gotten a beit din’s approval, the final step of the conversion process is submerging the entire body three times in a mikvah, a Jewish ritual bath, and reciting two blessings. A mikvah has to be either a natural body of water, such as a lake, or a special man-made pool. There are all kinds of nitty-gritty specifications for how to construct a mikvah, but the main thing is that it has to contain a certain amount of water directly from a natural source, such as rain. Many Jewish communities build their own mikvahs for the purpose of conversion and purification rituals.

Q: What’s the fuss over conversions in Israel right now?

A: First off, though the Israeli Chief Rabbinate recognizes multiple kinds of conversions abroad, within Israel it only recognizes Orthodox conversions. This has long been a source of contention, and a study released in 2014 showed that 64 percent of the Israeli electorate would like to see that policy changed. But a hot-button issue right now is expanding access to Orthodox conversions in Israel. In November 2014, the Cabinet voted to let various local Orthodox rabbis oversee conversions along with the four courts run by the Chief Rabbinate. The decision was meant to make Orthodox conversions more readily available, especially for immigrants who came to Israel under the Right of Return but couldn’t prove their Jewish ancestry. But on July 5, the Israeli Cabinet repealed the decision, putting conversions back at the forefront of Israeli politics.

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