These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

[Alumni Post] Let’s Talk About Orthodox Conversion

Posted on May 12, 2015 by Rebekah Thornhill

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“This post first appeared on JOFA’s The Torch blog.”

I completed my Orthodox conversion with the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) in 2011. My process was an incredibly positive and meaningful experience. I learned the laws of kashrut, Shabbat, prayer, blessings, and how to live an observant lifestyle, formed lasting relationships that continue to benefit me personally and professionally, and became part of a committed, strong community. That said, I think I was very fortunate. If I hadn’t been a student at NYU, if my friend hadn’t been going through the process already and hadn’t connected me to Rabbi Sarna and Rabbi Smokler and their wives, if I didn’t already live in a Jewish community, I don’t know where I would have begun. I knew I wanted to join the Jewish people but I did not know how, who to turn to, how long it might take, what exactly I needed to learn and do. As I began the process, some of those things revealed themselves. But I never knew exactly how long the process might take and the lingering question, “Am I doing this right?” never stopped gnawing at me.

What I’ve come to realize since then is that conversion in the United States is overwhelmingly a women’s issue. Sponsoring rabbis report that a significant majority of conversion candidates are in fact women. Recently, I sat in a room with ten other converts to discuss our experience with converting through the RCA. I couldn’t help noticing that all present were women, with a man at the head of the table. His co-facilitator was a woman and both acknowledged the imbalance. I appreciate the efforts of the RCA to assemble a diverse committee to take stock of their process and to involve those directly affected. I am hoping this is a step in the right direction.

Lack of clarity around the conversion process and the exclusion of female leadership from the process motivated me in October to try to start an Orthodox Converts Network. Through this network, which I’m building with my friend and fellow convert, Jenna Englender, we hope to do four key things:

  1. Provide and publicize resources – they’re out there! Conversion candidates just have to know where to look to find them, and community leaders and educators should be able to better point prospective converts in the right direction. We aim to make book lists, curricula, meet-ups, and learning opportunities more accessible.
  2. Mentor conversion candidates – many converts have reported wishing there was someone to encourage them throughout the process who knew what they were going through because they had gone through it themselves. We hope to help make those connections.
  3. Work with communal leadership – we intend to work within existing frameworks to create change and improve the process. This means demanding that the bright, pious, and learned female leaders within the Orthodox community (of which there is no shortage!) be invited to play a more significant role in the leadership and direction of the conversion process. Since we’ve established that more women undergo conversion than men and given that the power dynamic created by a primarily male-run process has led to problematic outcomes, this is necessary.
  4. Meet regularly – quarterly meetings will feature guest speakers, panels, activities, votes on action items, and discussion of hot-button issues.

There are already several other learning circles, meet-ups, support groups, blogs, and individuals with similar ideas doing wonderful work for conversion advocacy. However, our goal with the Orthodox Converts Network is to consolidate resources, foster connections and unite these efforts into a voice that can advocate within the Orthodox community for a more transparent and compassionate conversion process. So far, we have had two meetings, which we hope to continue, and want to encourage converts or conversion candidates to be in touch with us with feedback about the process. We look forward to building and growing this initiative together.

Rebekah can be reached at