Since Judaism isn’t a proselytizing religion, and doesn’t seek to convert people who aren’t Jewish, many people ask, “Can you convert to Judaism?” The answer is absolutely yes.
If you’ve been thinking about converting to Judaism, I hope that sharing my experience and the experiences of others might be beneficial on your journey.
There can be so much lead-up and preparation to choosing a Jewish life, and yet it is often just the (“official”) beginning of our Jewish journeys. The week before my beit din—a rabbinical court that oversees a person’s conversion to Judaism—I remember meeting with my guide rabbi in a state of panic over not being ready and not “knowing enough.” I was self-conscious that I had to do everything perfectly and correctly since I was often the only Asian American Jew-to-be in the room.
My beit din was seven years ago, and there are still times when I feel self-conscious or that I don’t know enough. Other Jews by choice and Jews of color have helped me navigate what it means to practice Judaism in a way that feels whole. For me, it has meant bringing in elements of my Japanese American heritage as well as elements I am passionate about such as design, cooking, storytelling and rituals around self-care.
My story is just one story. I hope you see a piece of your story, or feel inspired by the stories of people who have gone through conversion. I hope they help you create a Judaism that you feel you can bring your entire being to for all the years to come.
*The terms Jew by choice or convert are used interchangeably with the knowledge that one or both of these terms can be fraught for many and not feel resonant. The English language, while at times beautifully descriptive can also be simultaneously limiting.
Still have questions about conversion? 18Doors can help you find a rabbi in your area here.
“My first few years of being a Jew were a blur of pregnancies, babies and the deep isolation of being a stay-at-home mother.”
When I completed my conversion I was 22 years old, a newlywed and seven months pregnant with my first child. I was so enormous and buoyant I could barely stay under the waters of the mikveh long enough for a kosher immersion. My spouse was not, and is still not Jewish, but was committed to creating a Jewish home with me and raising Jewish children together. Unfortunately, it took several years for us to find our way to a Jewish life that felt comfortable and meaningful.
My first few years of being a Jew were a blur of pregnancies, babies and the deep isolation of being a stay-at-home mother. It was difficult living away from friends and family with a spouse working extremely long hours. I was too overwhelmed and anxious to visit synagogues, let alone seek membership at one.
Navigating Shabbat, holidays, keeping kosher and other observances that I had found so meaningful while studying for conversion felt daunting. I suffered from severe postpartum depression after my first two babies and my imagined inadequacies as a Jew were just one more thing for me to feel guilty about. The deep connection I had felt throughout my conversion studies could barely break through my numbness and exhaustion. I made feeble efforts to create a solitary Jewish home, but it was not until my oldest child was in preschool that we became part of a synagogue community and our family finally began to live the Jewish life I had dreamt of.
In the years since I went to the mikveh, we have moved from Albany to Long Island and back again. We added three children to our family. My spouse came out as a transgender woman and began her transition, which prompted me to be more open about my own queer identity. I finally started my career and went back to school for my Master’s degree.
Today, our kids go to a Jewish day school and we are members of a warm and accepting synagogue where I serve on the board of the religious school. We are beginning to plan our eldest child’s bat mitzvah. My life looks nothing like what I envisioned when I started out on this path, but there is not much I would change.
Ada Centonze (she/her) is a queer Jew by choice from upstate New York.
“Judaism was a major catalyst in instilling a sense of personal pride my bisexual identity.”
Two things happened almost immediately after my conversion: I was propelled into being a Jewish professional and I was empowered to embrace my identity as a bisexual man. Just three months into being a Jew, I was accepted into the URJ’s JewV’Nation Fellowship—Jews of Color Cohort, during which I met an incredible and diverse group of Black and Brown Jews. This helped validate my identity as a Black/multiracial Jew who often finds himself in majority-white spaces. It also introduced me to some of the most brilliant and motivated Jewish souls I’ve ever met.
Just a few months later, I worked for the URJ as a writer/editor, which gave me the opportunity to share my story, experiences, feelings and ideas, as well as elevate the voices of other Jews on the margins. I now work at Keshet as the communications manager, which has allowed me to both grow as a communications professional and take my mission of storytelling—and story-sharing—to a new level.
Judaism was a major catalyst in instilling a sense of personal pride my bisexual identity. The religious environments I grew up in enforced the idea that my bisexuality was something to be ashamed of, something that needed to be prayed away.
When I was in college and flirting with the idea of becoming a Jew, I met queer Jews during Friday night Shabbat services at Miami University Hillel, and it was made clear that connecting with the Divine and honoring my attractions did not have to be at odds with one another. I would later meet lots of other queer Jews during my time at the URJ, and obviously lots more in my role at Keshet. I find it amusing—and uplifting—to know that I took something weaponized against me (religion) and am now using it as a source of pride.
C.E. “Chaim Ezra” Harrison (he/him) is a Black/multiracial Jew by choice and Communications Manager at Keshet. He lives in the Detroit area with his wife Christy.
“Together, we started to grow our observance as a couple.”
The months and first few years that followed my beit din and mikvah (a Jewish ritual bath that people immerse in when converting) were marked by a deepening of my Jewish life, and an explosion of Jewish learning. Two months after I completed my conversion, I moved to Massachusetts to start college and decided to enroll in a Jewish Studies course to continue my learning. That one class turned into a second major over the next four years, accompanied by a job teaching at a Hebrew school, joining a new synagogue closer to school and two trips to Israel.
While in college, I also met my partner. While she was not Jewish at the time, I brought her to Shabbat services—and she was hooked. “How often can we go?” she asked after we returned to campus. I smiled and said, “Three times a day, if you really want!” Together, we started to grow our observance as a couple. We began hosting Shabbat dinners and even a Passover seder for friends in our college apartment, and became more involved in synagogue life. We also deepened our practice of kashrut and Shabbat.
A few summers later, I enrolled in a beit midrash program at the Jewish Theological Seminary to experience a more traditional style of Jewish learning. The first time I opened up the Talmud and struggled through a daf (a page of Talmud, ancient Jewish scripture), I wanted to cry. Here again on the page was the same feeling of homecoming I had experienced when I first encountered Judaism, only more strongly: Layers and centuries of serious argument, combined with both a loving familiarity with text and a deep sense of awe.
Text study was the hardest thing I had ever done—I had only begun learning Hebrew three years earlier. How was I going to stumble through Aramaic? I ended up falling in love with it, and the struggle became a humbling and nourishing spiritual practice. Within a year, my partner had undergone her own mikvah, and we were engaged. We planned a move to Jerusalem so that I could attend a yeshiva program and study full-time. Within a few short years of my beit din, my Jewish life was richer than I could have ever imagined.
Rabbi Margo Hughes-Robinson (she/her) converted to Judaism over a decade ago, and has lived and worked in Jewish communities in Israel, France, Latin America and the U.S.
“[Converting] gave me the confidence to fully step into my role as a Jew and to own and be in charge of my narrative and experience within Judaism.”
In some ways, life was very much the same as it was before I converted. I still felt self-conscious when I didn’t know all of the right words to the blessings in services. I still had to look to my Hebrew-speaking, Israeli-born husband to help with some of the Hanukkah blessings. And I still felt nervous about how to handle Christmas and Easter with my mom.
That was five years ago and I find that every year, there is something new to navigate with a holiday, whether how to properly celebrate Christmas with my mom when we couldn’t visit her because we had a baby girl born three days prior, or how to get everyone on board with Thanksgivukkah when the holidays all overlapped.
In other ways, converting changed my life more than I could have imagined. It gave me the confidence to fully step into my role as a Jew and to own and be in charge of my narrative and experience within Judaism. I previously felt like I had been “tagging along” with my husband, his family and his traditions.
I started learning more about the origins of each and every holiday, as my daughter and I looked through her monthly PJ Library books. I joined a Modern Jewish Baking Facebook group at the start of the pandemic with an old sorority sister who is also Jewish, and learned how to make challah and babka. I cooked more Jewish dishes from scratch than even my husband had eaten before. I felt more ownership over the Judaica we had in our house, and the usage of it.
I also started practicing Shabbat more consistently, and introduced new traditions and rituals to my family that were unique to us and to my relationship with Judaism. I started sharing more about my previous or current struggles in my Jewish journey with friends on social media. I started to share more family recipes, and even led virtual challah-baking for friends—Jewish or not—all across the country.
Five years later I still feel like I am constantly learning more about Judaism and how it fits into our life. It’s a relationship that is a living, breathing and ever-evolving journey, and with it comes new babies and new seasons of life.
Molly Laufer (she/her) is a full-time freelance marketing consultant, a mother of two girls, and a U.S. Navy veteran. She is a Jew by choice who converted after 13 years of living Jew-ishly and jokes that unlike the common assumption of Judaism rejecting you, she rejected conversion three times before finding the right time and place and community.
“I reflected on the life ahead of me—of my future family, of the history I was now connected to, of the spiritual depths I had yet to experience.”
My conversion ceremony was one of the most beautiful and emotional moments I’ve ever experienced. The days and hours leading up to my immersion in the mikveh were filled with reflection. I reflected on the parts of myself and my past I wanted to let go of once I entered the water. I reflected on the life ahead of me—of my future family, of the history I was now connected to, of the spiritual depths I had yet to experience.
I thought about the power of choosing my Hebrew name Tikvah Shalom, “Hope” and “Peace,” two words that represent what Judaism has given me. It was all so meaningful because after the ceremony those wouldn’t just be ideas—they would be my life. And in many ways this has been the case. It marked for me this moment of making official what I’d felt in my heart and soul for so long.
Tani Prell (she/her) is the Chicago director of 18Doors working to foster interfaith inclusion. She wrote a story about her identity and celebrating Loving Day for 18Doors titled, Loving my Mixed Self.
“One of the things I continuously struggle with is how to honor my ethnic identity and background with the religion that I chose and love.”
The following is an excerpt from, “The Beauty of the Ofrenda, the Wisdom of Kaddish,” which was first published in the Tri-Faith Initiative, was republished by Jewtina y Co. and is reprinted here with permission.
When I came out of the mikvah over seven years ago, I joked to someone that I was now a “super-minority” as a Hispanic-Filipino Jewish woman. As naïve as it seems, at the time I didn’t think about how I would juggle my ethnic identity with my new religion; I simply thought everything would fall into place. That was very much not the case and to this day, one of the things I continuously struggle with is how to honor my ethnic identity and background with the religion that I chose and love.
Being able to teach about Día de los Muertos in a Jewish religious school helps me to honor my ethnic heritage and background in a way that intertwines with my Judaism. I didn’t become a brand-new person when I came out of the mikvah, but I didn’t come out as the same person either. I am fully embracing my super-minority status and I like to think that my grandma would be proud.
Anjelica N. Ruiz (she/her) is the Director of Libraries and Archives at Temple Emanu-El, where she also teaches Judaica to fourth graders on Sunday mornings. She is an alum of the Union for Reform Judaism’s JewV’Nation Fellowship in the 2018 Jews of Color cohort and recently completed Bend The Arc’s Selah Fellowship as part of Cohort 16.