Conversion marks a profound, deliberate shift in one's state of being. It therefore poses a host of challenges for the prospective convert. Here are just a few of them.
A Jewish way of life is defined by certain values. Though all religious traditions have values, they may not be identical to one another. Jewish values are generally known by their Hebrew names. Some familiar examples include tzedakah (righteousness), hesed (lovingkindness), and shalom (peace). Yirat shamayim (reverence for the sacred) and the belief that all human beings are created b'tzelem elohim (in God's image) are at the core of Judaism. These values and the behaviors they inspire - such as continuous, devoted study of Torah (Jewish tradition) and the observance of traditional Jewish practices (mitzvot) - have long defined the piety of a Jew. A prospective convert studies Jewish values and seeks to incorporate them into his or her worldview.
But this may raise serious doubts: If one wasn't born and raised a Jew, can one in fact adopt Jewish values as one's own? If so, how? Most of us think of ourselves as moral human beings. A prospective Jew by choice might wonder: "Could it be that Jewish morality is different from the moral consciousness I've acquired in the course of my life? What if I have the sense that I already believe in Jewish values, but know them by other names? If I already believe in God, how do I determine if my belief is compatible with Judaism? If I haven't thought much about God, does conversion mean that I must swear allegiance to a God in Whom I am not sure I believe?"
Beyond belief, there are additional challenges. Jews have developed specific modes of worship, life-cycle rituals, and holy days to mark the seasons of the year and recall special moments in Jewish history. Again, a prospective convert may wonder: How can I come to feel comfortable with new holidays? If I grew up observing other, non-Jewish holidays, what do I do with my affection for them? How can I get used to observing Shabbat (on Friday evening and Saturday) and learn to treat Sunday as just another day of the week? If I do not know Hebrew (and few prospective converts do, at least initially), how can I learn to read it, much less to recite prayers written in it? What does it mean to pray in a language I didn't know as a child? Will I be confused and not know how to behave? In which community will I belong, as I face the birth of a child or the death of a loved one?
Judaism, moreover, is not just a religion or a theory of living. The Jews are a people with a unique past, a unique history and civilization. That history can pose among the greatest of quandaries for a prospective Jew by choice: How can I, really, acquire new ancestors? How can I feel myself to be part of a nation I may have known little about for most of my life? And what happens to my "other" ancestors - the ones who weren't Jewish? For that matter, what happens to my non-Jewish family members who may even today be practicing another religion? What should I do, if I have Christian relatives, on December 25th? For that matter - not to compare the two holidays - what will I expect of them on the 25th of Kislev (the first day of Hannukah)? Can a Jew by choice be a fully supported and supportive member of an extended non-Jewish family?
In short - and this is the core question for the prospective convert - How can I possibly be who I have not previously been? How will people relate to me? Will I ever be accepted as a Jew, by Jews as well as by non-Jews? Will I ever feel competent to pass down the Jewish tradition to the next generation? Can it ever really be accomplished?
The answer is that the seemingly impossible is, in fact, achievable. And it can be enormously gratifying. In North America alone, thousands convert to Judaism each year. It used to be that the religious and ethnic identity one acquired at birth and in early life determined one's destiny. No longer. Choosing a religious identity is becoming increasingly common in America and other Western societies. With the increase in socialization between Jews and non-Jews in such societies, more and more non-Jews are learning about and considering embracing Judaism every year. Whether it is to fulfill a personal spiritual search or to create a common religious identity within a family, conversion to Judaism can be the fulfillment of deeply held yearnings.
Of course, it takes time, for conversion is a process more than an event. It takes effort and the willingness to reflect upon and to discuss one's choice with one's family and loved ones.
Most of all, it requires education. It requires courses and books and newspapers and journals. It requires thoughtful analysis and study. It requires a good supportive student/teacher relationship with a rabbi, who can, on the one hand, challenge one to think critically about what one is doing, and, on the other hand, nurture one's evolving Jewish identity.
Also, since Judaism is more than an intellectual or spiritual stance, to become a Jew one must try out Jewish experiences. For this reason, community - a supportive Jewish community that takes Judaism seriously, within which one can grow - is essential.
Consider Shabbat as an example. One may study the theory of Shabbat. One may come to understand how devotion to Shabbat came to be characteristic of observant Jews. But reading about Shabbat is not the same as observing it. One must experience Shabbat - in an observant community - in order to comprehend fully what it might mean to observe it. Only then can one reflect on what it might mean to accept the commitment to celebrate Shabbat - not just once, but throughout one's life.
Becoming a Jew has always been a challenging journey for an individual to take. For this reason the Jewish tradition considers it worthy of great respect and admiration.
Jewish tradition even goes further than this. As Maimonides says in his responsum, it is a mitzvah (commandment) for Jews to love those who've chosen to be Jews. By casting their lot with the God of Israel and the people of Israel, Jews by choice walk in the footsteps of Abraham and Sarah, the first Hebrews. Those heroes of the Jewish people also, for the loftiest of motives, left families and homeland to pursue a vision. They, too, were the children of non-Jewish parents. And they, too, traveled to a distant place - a place not fully revealed to them until they arrived.
-From Embracing Judaism, by Simcha Kling, revised by Carl M. Perkins