Ger Tzadik (Sorta)

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Cascading Conversions: Reform→Conservative→Orthodox

This has been a topic of interest to me since I started studying. A number of the converts I have met in the local and larger community have gone through this kind of process, and was something I had to at least think about before I made big decisions. However, it was never really a realistic option because of my catalyst for this change: My observant girlfriend. The context for others who convert this way often seems to be an existing mixed marriage or relationship, and their arc often traced the above path. Frum Jews have met the people and heard the stories as well, or perhaps read The Bamboo Cradle, which documents a similar experience by a BT couple who had adopted a non-Jewish child.


  1. Family/Couple is confronted with a life event that brings religion to for the forefront.
  2. Family investigates becoming more religious, starting at the most outwardly accepting starting point, Reform.
  3. Family finds something missing that is important to them, but isn’t ready for everything being Orthodox means, so move over to Conservative.
  4. Repeat the above once they find out their conversion isn’t recognized for some important function or reason.
  5. Start working with an Orthodox rabbi.
  6. Decide to be a fully frum family.

I’m oversimplifying of course, and not doing the topic any justice. I bring it up because it has some relevance for my context. On the surface, these thoughts passed through my mind early, before I really knew much about being Orthodox. “Wow, sounds like they put you through the ringer before they convert you as an Orthodox Jew. Could be years. Why not just convert Reform? They're much more welcoming. A Jew is a Jew, right?”

Feel free to laugh at my naiveté. My problem was that I knew enough about Reform to feel like I would be walking into another religion that was not internally consistent, which was a large part of my disillusionment with Catholicism. So even in the back of my mind, I knew that would be a non-starter.

Conservative and Orthodox were unknown quantities though. If not for the fact that I had motivation to start off via Orthodoxy, I might have been lured by the more halachic nature of Conservative Judaism that preserved some of the egalitarian and future-minded ideals that I still hold dear. It’s much more appealing to a learned, secular outsider than the seemingly parochial and patriarchal nature of Orthodoxy.

In the end though, I think I would still have been unhappy after a time if I kept learning. I would want to know more about why the changes in tradition were made after thousands of years, and I would have kept probing. It may have taken years for me to even figure that out for myself however. This is one area that the heavy demands for constant learning pay off quickly. I've learned so much so fast that I came to see the wonderful consistency through the generations that Orthodoxy holds dear. (I've also seen the number of slightly crazy traditions with no good reason, but that's a topic for another post.)

There was also the issue of recognition of my conversion in Israel that I had to consider. Not something I could take lightly since it's not a path I want to close off. In the end, I am happy with my choice, but I recognize it’s not for everyone. Some of these issues will mean nothing to other prospective converts. Others will have their own important issues at driving them along their way in life.

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