In the seven weeks leading up to the Festival of Shavuot (May 24-25), we count each night in anticipation of the revelation of Torah at Sinai, where we recommit ourselves to Jewish tradition, God, and the Jewish people. It is a time I imagine that local mikvahs (ritual baths) see an increase in visitors as the numbers of conversions are completed during this time.
Why? On a practical level, many people who have been studying for a year often complete their period of study toward the end of the academic cycle, which ends in May or June. But there is something more than that. I believe that rabbis, in concert with their conversion students, see Shavuot as the perfect moment in the calendar for conversion because it celebrates not only embracing Jewish tradition, but also embracing Ruth, the heroine associated with the holiday and often seen as the original Jew by Choice.
As a congregational rabbi I am blessed to be able to spend time engaging in sacred journeys with individuals seeking to convert to Judaism. I have worked with people of all backgrounds — single and coupled; male and female; gay and straight; young and old; black and white. I have worked with women while they were in their final months of pregnancies and I have overseen conversions of infants, born into or adopted by families who want to traditionally affirm their children’s place among the Jewish people.
Aside from the academic study that the student (and if relevant, his or her partner) must go through, we have many individual meetings over the course of our time together to reflect on their spiritual and religious growth, they participate actively in Shabbat services, they take classes at the synagogue, and they become a part of our synagogue community. That includes interacting with others and understanding that Jewish life is not just a Shabbat activity, nor is it something that can only be learned in the classroom, but rather, it is a holistic experience, lived every day. Of course, after this process, when the individual is ready and has demonstrated a commitment to living a Jewish life and being a part of the Jewish people, there are the practical moments of conversion, including circumcision/hatafat dam brit (drawing a drop of blood) for a man, and a presence in front of a bet din and immersion in the mikvah for both men and women.
Often, though not always, I am approached by an individual for conversion who is in love with someone raised in the Jewish faith. If it seems a person wishes to convert simply for the marriage, then we could have a longer conversation because no one — not the born Jew, the Jew by choice, or the two as a couple — will be happy. But in every process I have been a part of where marriage is a component of the process, it is never the sole component or motivation. Adults in the 21st century are people who make their own decisions. No one is going to go through this process “simply” for someone else. They are doing it because they believe there is something deeply meaningful about Judaism and the way it can help guide a life. Let us embrace those who want to convert, not question their motivations or genuineness.
Over my years in the rabbinate I have ushered many individuals through conversion. The impact that it has on them is just the tip of the iceberg; as I see how it impacts their families and, of course, the larger Jewish community. I think of the woman who converted with me, a mother of three (who were converted at birth). She has turned her home kosher and is a Torah reader at her synagogue. There is the man who converted and is looking for even more ways to increase participation for people his age in synagogue life; or the woman who is engaged to be married and converted and has since started leading Friday night services. Each of these examples indicates that converts don’t only benefit from the Jewish community. Rather, we gain from them.
The final moment before the individual immerses in the mikvah is one of the most powerful moments for me. I ask them a number of questions, affirming their faith, commitment, and desire to live a Jewish life. Questions surrounding commitment to education, observance, affiliation, tzedakah and the like, are asked. But the final question is the most powerful. As the men or women who, by their own free will, are about to enter the waters and re-emerge as a Jew, I ask, “Are you prepared to tie your destiny to the destiny of the Jewish people?” As they answer in the affirmative, I often feel overwhelmed with emotion.
My experience has led me to believe that embracing, supporting, and encouraging those who want to be a part of the people of Israel is not only permitted, but is a mitzvah. This Shavuot as we think about who stood at Sinai, may our community continue to merit being joined by people who embrace our tradition, community, and people.
Rabbi Rachel Ain is spiritual leader of the Sutton Place Synagogue in Manhattan.