Conversion to Judaism: An interview with Rabbi Maury Kelman

One of the topics that cuts to the heart of the Jewish world today is conversion. For over a decade and a half Rabbi Maury Kelman has been teaching about the issue through his New York based organization Route 613 – Your Route to GeRut.

In an effort to bring his expertise on the subject to a wider audience, has partnered with Route 613 for the 8-part series, Foundations Of Conversion to Judaism, which begins January 7, 2018.In a preview to the online and fully interactive course, we spoke with Rabbi Kelman about some of the issues he will be covering throughout the sessions.

WY: What has stood out most throughout your career teaching about conversion to prospective converts? Why do non-Jews want to convert?Rabbi Kelman: I never cease to be amazed over the number of inspirational people who, on a consistent basis, are interested in converting.  These are people who voluntarily make drastic changes in their lifestyles in order to become part of our people, often sacrificing friends, and even, at times, family members, who can’t accept that this person wants to be Jewish.  They have to go through a long process of study and practice, facing major obstacles, and yet, the majority of those who start our program stick through it, transforming their identities.  These people are so inspiring and I wish more born Jews could see the conversion process, especially the culmination at the mikveh, which is invariably a deeply emotional and moving experience, usually accompanied by many tears of joy over reaching such a momentous occasion of rebirth.There are various reasons why people convert.  The main ones are:  1)Intellectual and spiritual curiosity of religious people seeking out something they have not found in Christianity or other religions and, after searching, believe that Judaism provides the solution to their quest.  2)Social attraction – people who grew up in Jewish neighborhoods with Jewish friends, or became friends with Jews in college or at work, or had employers who were observant, and were attracted by what they saw, especially the emphasis on family and tradition.  This highlights the impact that every Jew, acting as a kiddush Hashem, can have on the people around him.  3)People who are dating someone Jewish (perhaps the most well-known but a minority of the people I’ve dealt with); and 4)Jewish background -there are a significant number of young adults, many with strong Jewish identities, who were active or even leaders of Jewish youth groups, who become more interested in Judaism or go on Birthright and discover that because their mothers were not halachically Jewish, they are not halachically Jewish.At the end of the day, whatever the original motivation may have been for conversion is less important as long as the person converting has come to love Judaism on her own and wants to join the Jewish people because she believes in God and commits to accepting and keeping mitzvot.  For example, I’ve had a number of people who began the process while dating a Jew, then broke up, and continued to study, ultimately converting.

WY: What is the most pressing concern regarding conversion today?

Unfortunately, in the world we live, where people move often, converts are sometimes asked to show a conversion document, which is always a reminder that they are converts, and while practically this may be necessary for certain specific occasions (i.e. marriage), we need to be especially careful with how we treat converts, as dictated by our Torah. Very simply, a convert is a full-fledged Jew, and we should not remind converts that they were not born Jewish, but rather embrace them and be in awe of their journeys and choices.WY: In a nutshell, how has conversion today changed in comparison to 100 years ago, 500 years ago, 1000, years ago?Rabbi Kelman: First of all it’s important to mention that unlike other religions, Judaism says to the world that one does not need to be Jewish to live a good life and be rewarded in the next world, as long as one keeps the basic Noahide laws. That, in and of itself, is a statement declaring that Jews are not in the business of proselytizing.Having said that, there have never been as many converts to Judaism as there are today.  During medieval times and until relatively recently, when Jews were generally  second class citizens in Islamic or Christian societies, the number of converts was very low, which is understandable considering that conversion from Christianity or Islam was, to put it kindly, not exactly encouraged.  It was highly risky to convert, and thus we have relatively little discussion on practical cases of conversion in older halakhic literature.Today both freedom of choice and accessibility to Judaism are more common than they ever were, which has resulted in people interested in converting around the world, including those who claim connection to the Lost Tribes.  While we don’t have statistics from older times, it would be safe to say that we have never had as many individuals converting to Judaism as we have today.