Becoming Jewish: The Challenges, Rewards, and Paths to Conversion

Becoming Jewish: The Challenges, Rewards, and Paths to Conversion

3.0 2
by Steven Carr Rabbi Reuben, Jennifer S. Hanin

View All Available Formats & Editions

Becoming Jewish is the first all-inclusive, step-by-step guide to converting to Judaism. Steven Carr Reuben, a highly respected rabbi, and Jennifer S. Hanin, a convert to the faith, lead readers through the conversion process, providing the right mix of advice, resources and humor for the journey.
Jews-to-be often find the steps to Judaism foreign, complex, and


Becoming Jewish is the first all-inclusive, step-by-step guide to converting to Judaism. Steven Carr Reuben, a highly respected rabbi, and Jennifer S. Hanin, a convert to the faith, lead readers through the conversion process, providing the right mix of advice, resources and humor for the journey.
Jews-to-be often find the steps to Judaism foreign, complex, and mysterious. From learning an ancient language, to entering the mikvah (ritual bath), to choosing a Hebrew name, to circumcision, to appearing before a bet din (Jewish court), becoming a Jew is anything but quick and easy. In this engaging and accessible guide, Reuben and Hanin offer practical wisdom for every step of conversion, including:
·telling family and friends
·selecting a denomination
·choosing a rabbi
·understanding Jewish rituals
·celebrating Jewish holidays
·putting aside childhood holidays
·keeping ties to the past
·advice on weddings, raising kids, and more

Throughout, the authors focus on developing a healthy spiritual life, while helping readers understand what it means to be Jewish, absorb Jewish teachings, and live a Jewish life.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Conversion to Judaism usually occurs when a non-Jewish person falls in love with a Jew and the two determine that a common religious faith will make for a happier marriage. Co-author Hanin took a different route. She was already married to a Jew and was the mother of three-year old twins when she became friendly with a Jewish woman, attended her synagogue, and found there a sense of warmth that led to her conversion. Deciding to write about her experience, Hanin met Reuben, a Reconstructionist rabbi, who shared her views. The result of their collaboration is this wise and edifying guidebook to the process by which someone chooses to become a Jew. The authors spell out not only the steps to be taken, but also provide a wealth of information about Jewish traditions, practices, and customs. Their topics include: choosing a rabbi and a Jewish denomination; dealing with family and friends; observing the holidays; facing the religious court (Bet Din); raising children; anti-Semitism; and more. This second aspect of the presentation is so enlightening that all readers -- non-Jews and Jews, who can learn some unfamiliar aspects of their own religion – will find the book highly instructive. (Oct.)
Today, there’s general agreement at least that conversion to Judaism is possible, even if there’s still plenty of disagreement among authorities across the religious spectrum about what constitutes an acceptable conversion. Reconstructionist Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben and Jennifer S. Hanin don’t want anyone to let that get them down on their way to joining the tribe, so their cheery guidebook, Becoming Jewish: The Challenges, Rewards, and Paths to Conversion (Rowman & Littlefield, September) shepherds eager aspirants onward with sections like “Facing the Bet Din: Don’t Sweat It.” Most remarkably, this has got to be the only book ever co-written by an ordained rabbi published with a foreword by the incomparable Bob Saget.
Converting to Judaism is a long, involved process. This guide by a Reconstructionist rabbi and a freelance writer, who converted herself, is a welcome resource. The authors explain details such as finding the right denomination, choosing a rabbi, selecting a Hebrew name, and the need to learn Hebrew. They also discuss Jewish culture and beliefs, holidays, and traditions. Chapters on telling family and friends about the decision to convert, raising Jewish children, Kabbalah, anti-Semitism, and Israel help those converting understand important issues. There is also more doctrinaire information about facing the Bet Din (rabbinic court) and going to the Mikvah (ritual bath). Written in a casual, friendly style with good humor and warmth, this accessible guide will help anyone considering conversion to Judaism.
Jewish Book World
Becoming Jewish is the proverbial treasure trove of information about converting to Judaism, with facts, fables, and foibles all rolled into one well-written, well-conceived book. The two authors, one a rabbi, one a convert, write smoothly together, blending their viewpoints and deftly piggybacking on each other’s thoughts and feelings. A wealth of material covers everything from shopping for a rabbi, understanding Jewish values, learning about Jewish ideas on believing vs. belonging, studying Hebrew, honoring Shabbat, and celebrating the holidays at home to facing the Mikvah and the Bet Din. It also touches on issues related to raising Jewish children and brings to life the great love of the Jewish people for Israel and, especially, Jerusalem.

Meaningful anecdotes about Hanin’s conversion process and the new ways she learned to relate not only to Judaism but to a world that now looked different to her are sprinkled throughout the book and add a grace note of personal warmth to an already welcoming set of concepts. The book is well-organized and easy to follow. Reuben, a Reconstructionist rabbi, artfully explains the differences among the Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox movements and his own, honoring each in its own right and also mentioning trans-denominational Jewish organizations.

Appendices explain the syllabi of typical conversion courses, and a glossary provides definitions of common Jewish terms, including tzedakah, Talmud, and sufganiyot. A resources section helps encourage Jewish activism by listing online Jewish magazines, such as Jewcy, museums of Jewish history and Israel-centered think tanks. Appendices, glossary, index, resources.

Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles
An insistent lightheartedness and more than a few comic moments enliven Becoming Jewish.... Jewish readers will be surprised and enlightened by some of the details of the conversion process....Reuben and Hanin describe the conversion process with both sweep and precision....I expect that more than a few copies of Becoming Jewish will be purchased by Jews and handed to non-Jews in order to open a conversation about conversion. Indeed, it seems that the authors expected and intended the book to serve that function. But I am also convinced that the Jewish men and women who open and read the book will connect with traditions that they have forgotten or perhaps never knew at all. In that sense, the book offers a path into Judaism for both the Jew by birth and the Jew by choice.
AJL Newsletter
Becoming Jewish is a practical guide for those who are considering conversion to Judaism. It places a particular emphasis on contemporary American Jewish culture but also describes the historic religious tradition. The authors show great sensitivity to the concerns and questions of converts and provide helpful advice in meeting such a challenging life change. Topics include, among others, American Jewish denominations, finding a rabbi, learning Hebrew, telling family and friends, conversion study programs, facing the bet din, marriage and family, kabbalah, anti-Semitism, and Israel. The folksy, familiar style is easy to read.
Noa Tishby
Becoming Jewish deeply enriches the journey of anyone converting to Judaism but does so in a gutsy and refreshing way. I highly recommend it to those exploring paths to Judaism, those who are simply curious about the meaning of Judaism, those close to anyone becoming Jewish or those concerned with the future of the Jewish State: Israel.
Leonard Felder
Reading this book is like having a relaxed conversation with a great friend who is willing to explain the real truth of what it means to become Jewish and to walk you through it with calmness and clarity. What a gift to be able to take such a complicated topic and make it accessible and manageable not only for new Jews but also for longtime members of the tribe.
Ron Wolfson
Easily accessible, hip, and funny, Becoming Jewish is an excellent introduction and a warm welcome to Judaism. Highly recommended!
Rabbi Denise L. Eger
I highly recommend Becoming Jewish. It is a clear and concise discussion for anyone considering becoming part of the Jewish people. This is the book to consult and it will answer many questions for the spiritual journey.
Rabbi Zoë Klein
Written with clarity, wisdom, sunshine and heart, Becoming Jewish is an essential mentor for anyone embracing the Jewish family or exploring meaning and faith. A treasure trove for the soul.
Rabbi Steven Z. Leder
At a time when outreach has never mattered more, a sensitive, thoughtful and eminently practical guide for those seeking to join the Jewish people.
Matt Miller
In a world filled with spiritual seekers, Becoming Jewish is an easy-going, accessible and warm hearted guide that offers insider tips while giving converts a license to laugh along the way. The authors’ witty approach helps converts synthesize a religion shrouded in secrecy with expressions, gestures, practices, customs, rituals and a language that dates back over 4,000 years.
Asaf Romirowsky
With the growing debate about the connection between Jewish identity and Israel, Becoming Jewish serves as a useful reminder to all those who question the two and why it is so critical to see Judaism and Israel in tandem through the lens of conversation.
Aaron Eitan Meyer
Throughout history, many Jews have pondered what it means to be Jewish, an identity that combines religion, ethnicity, culture, history, language and other complex factors. In considering what it means to become Jewish, and why one would make that choice, the authors shed insight not only into the conversion process, but Jewish identity itself. I highly recommend Becoming Jewish for both reasons.
William C. Daroff
We learn in Becoming Jewish that converts to Judaism are to be treated as though they were at Mount Sinai with all of Israel when Moses received God's laws. But, becoming a 'Jew by Choice' is not as simple an undertaking as imagining oneself in the desert sprinting away from Pharaoh. Becoming Jewish masterfully guides the interested would-be convert through the myriad of complicated issues and choices that they will confront.
Rabbi Naomi Levy
Becoming Jewish is a must read for anyone who is considering adopting the Jewish faith. Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben and Jennifer S. Hanin, herself a Jew by choice, have created a spectacular work that provides a clear, accessible and reader-friendly approach to those seeking to choose Judaism as their way of life. Becoming Jewish offers a path full of wisdom that will be invaluable to anyone setting out on a Jewish journey.
Rabbi Klein
Written with clarity, wisdom, sunshine and heart, Becoming Jewish is an essential mentor for anyone embracing the Jewish family or exploring meaning and faith. A treasure trove for the soul.
Library Journal
There is a long-standing tradition that, given the oppression that Jews have often faced, rabbis should make every effort to discourage would-be converts. Reuben (senior rabbi, Kehillat Israel Reconstructionist Congregation) and freelance writer Hanin, a convert to Judaism, by contrast, explain to the curious what conversion is apt to be like and address questions and issues that are likely to arise (Hebrew, Shabbat, kosher, Kabbalah, Israel, differing denominations). They instruct the reader on Judaism's this-world focus and its status as a religion that emphasizes belonging over belief and the value of every person. VERDICT Short chapters and a simple style make this an excellent choice for interested readers and perhaps the first book any rabbi ought to hand a would-be convert. With a foreword by actor and comedian Bob Saget.

Product Details

Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
Publication date:
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
6.30(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.10(d)

Read an Excerpt

Becoming Jewish

The Challenges, Rewards, and Paths to Conversion


Copyright © 2011 Steven Carr Reuben and Jennifer S. Hanin
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-4422-0848-3

Chapter One

Finding New Meaning

Attending synagogue is not that much different from attending mass. Except that instead of counting bald heads most Sundays with my grade school friends, now I thank God for kippot (yarmulkes). I can safely say that I never experience dome-inspired boredom since becoming Jewish. In fact, instead of staving off yawns, creating a mental to-do list, or playing mindless games, now I am surrounded by a philosophy that I embrace and a culture I enjoy, not to mention a sea of colors and patterns.

Jest aside, it's not the kippot that drove me to Judaism (although I'm all for it from a fashion perspective) but my childhood beliefs that no longer felt true to me. And I am not alone. There are many reasons to convert to Judaism. Just ask any of the two-hundred-thousand-plus Jews by choice in America. But there is one universal truth binding anyone reading Becoming Jewish—the search for new meaning. Finding new meaning will become evident as you explore the multifaceted aspects of what it means to become Jewish, including family, religion, halachah (Jewish law), culture, history, community, and so much more. (Jennifer Hanin)

The path to Judaism is rewarding but by no means easy. While achieving your conversion isn't as gut-wrenching as auditioning for American Idol (though the bimah may feel every bit like a stage), it does require discipline and dedication, especially if your rabbi requires you to learn Hebrew. Like running a marathon, training and preparation help you avoid potholes that some on the same path report. For instance, have you ever worried whether you would retain enough to pass a final? Ever flown overseas and felt pressure to speak the language? Ever had the hand-wringing experience of wondering whether a group of coworkers or in-laws accept you? Ever wonder if your loved ones will alienate you for your newfound belief? Ever fear the day when fellow Jews expect you to eat gefilte fish? That begins to sum up the challenges you face when converting to Judaism. But don't worry. This book can help you overcome all of these unknowns and more by guiding you step-by-step through the process. And about the gefilte fish? Get a dog.


For Jennifer, making the transition from Catholic to Jew wasn't so hard. In fact, there are many similarities. The pope wears a yarmulke. There's lots of guilt. Family is a central focus. Food—lots of food—we're not saying it's good food, but there's plenty of it. Confession is present, but much more efficient; instead of going weekly, now it's annually—Yom Kippur. A good part of the formality feels familiar. Jennifer once asked her Catholic friend Beth what it was like attending synagogue with her Jewish husband; she replied, "It's just like a really upbeat mass minus Jesus." Beth couldn't have been more right.

A good way to approach converting is like anything else. Be prepared. Start by making room for all the new material your rabbi will ask you to cover. You'll also want to keep a journal, notebook, or personal computer handy to jot down thoughts or questions that arise throughout your conversion. Dedicating a file drawer plus a shelf or two for all the new books and articles you will read is highly recommended. This will keep you organized and acquaint you with Judaism and its rich history. Soon you will not only have the beginnings of what will be your Jewish library but also that of your future generations to come.

We had a significant number of Jews in my Masonic lodge, and I started talking to them about what Judaism meant for them, how they experienced it growing up, and how it dealt with many of the fundamental problems I had with Christianity. And it really felt more like home. I mean if you go back and look at most Christian hymnals, the music, the service, and the entire ritual is kind of a downer. Temple isn't like that. Bringing out the Torah feels like a celebration. One quote that has always stuck with me is a line delivered by Salma Hayek's character, Serendipity, in the movie Dogma (1999): "I have issues with anyone who treats faith as a burden instead of a blessing. You people don't celebrate your faith, you mourn it." (Chris, thirty-three, IT director)


A descendant of an Israelite? A nationality? An ethnicity? A descendant of Jacob? A fan of Adam Sandler? A person claiming cultural or ancestral connection to Jewish People? Yes to all—but don't forget converts. Jewish converts have made far-reaching contributions to Judaism. Take Ruth, for example. She is one of the most well-known and well-respected converts and holds a high place in Jewish literature as the grandmother of King David, the most famous Jewish king (see page 124).

Likewise, the father of the most famous sage of the Talmud, Rabbi Akiva, converted. Some well-known converts from outside the Mediterranean include Khazars, Edomites, and Ethiopians, as well as many Arabs, particularly those in Yemen. Today, converting still puts you in a well-respected pool of people. Converts to Judaism in recent years include celebrities such as Elizabeth Banks, Isla Fisher, Ivanka Trump, Kate Capshaw, Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor, and Sammy Davis Jr., as well as news personalities such as Campbell Brown, John King, Connie Chung, Mary Hart, dr. Laura Schlesinger, and many others. Madonna? Hmmm ... (see chapter 15).

In the past, halachah (Jewish law) defined a Jew as a person born of a Jewish mother. That has since changed, and those who convert and promise to believe in the most central belief of Judaism—God is one—can ultimately choose to be Jewish. This central belief is the Shema. Similar to Arabic, Farsi, and too many other languages to list, we read the Shema and any other prayers, songs, or texts in Hebrew from right to left:


There are a few other promises you will need to make as a convert, such as raising your children Jewish, obeying God's commandments (for example, honoring the Sabbath), and giving tzedakah (charity), but for the most part the key adherence is the belief that God is one. In fact, the first four commandments focus on this very theme: "Have no other gods before me" (see page 28). This alone validates the notion that God is one (not many). Besides using the word Adonai in place of the word God, some go as far as to print G-d to show respect and avoid taking God's name in vain. Spotting the words Adonai, G-d, or the Shema puts you a few steps ahead of most when entering shul (Yiddish for "synagogue" or "temple") for the first time.


Most have heard Jews referred to as the "Jewish People," the "People of Israel," or the "Children of Israel," and possibly even have heard a reference to the "tribe." All indicate a unique identity and the notion of belonging to a group (see chapter 2). So just why is culture so important? Well, we would have to roll the history books back over four thousand years to show you a definitive pattern. But outside of visiting the nearest Holocaust museum (see Resources), the answer is simple. Groups all over the world have persecuted Jews for thousands of years, long before the Holocaust, a tragedy that is memorialized in museums worldwide of the lost hopes and dreams of six million Jews, as well as five million non-Jews, at the hands of the Nazis.

Continued persecution of Jews for centuries called for drastic measures. Emphasis on marrying fellow Jews, keeping kosher (see page 122), and observing the Sabbath and a host of High Holy days and other holidays kept Jews in close proximity with other Jews, which incidentally helped preserve the bloodline. As our society became more mobile, organizations like the Anti-defamation League gained prominence and lawmakers passed antidiscrimination laws. These events changed the face of Jewish families worldwide, making it more the norm to intermarry with non-Jews.

Reflecting upon my background as an adult, I recognize that I was fortunate enough to grow up in a very Jewish community and my best friends were all Jewish. My parents were divorced, and my family life was splintered, so I spent much of my time with my Jewish friends. My best friend for years during my adolescence was Rebecca, who came from a devout Jewish family. I spent much of my time with her, and I recall every Friday her family observed the tradition of family Shabbat dinners. She would reluctantly participate, and I would join them regularly, as she and I were inseparable. For Rebecca, it was a dreaded ritual; however, for me it was a welcomed sense of family, a sense of tradition and belonging, and I always appreciated how her family welcomed me to be a part of it. (Renee, thirty-five, real-estate agent)


Marriage, raising children, and finding the right philosophy are some of the top reasons people give for converting to Judaism. Matzah ball soup is another. But while some rabbis (Reconstructionist or Reform) will marry interfaith couples, others (Conservative or Orthodox) won't. Many synagogues will not consider a couple Jewish if the non-Jewish partner does not convert. Chances are if you have decided to marry a Jew, you'll want to discuss your options regarding religion up front. disagreeing on religion has not only put nations at war but also divided many would-be couples.

So what are your options? The easiest and perhaps emptiest choice is no religion whatsoever. Another choice is opting for one partner's religion over the other. There is a high probability if your partner grew up in an observant Jewish home, he will want you to convert. Some couples may opt for a slightly different but somewhat familiar experience and choose the mystical arm of Judaism—Kabbalah—or a philosophical religion like Buddhism. But the majority will vie for Judaism because it has such strong cultural ties to Jewish identity. That is just how powerful the Jewish community is for those who hold fond memories of their family's observance.

Many of the rules that I learned in Christianity, especially those enforced in my family, best fit in two statements: "Treat others the way you want to be treated" and "Life is not meant to be enjoyed, just suffered for the reward after death." While "The Golden Rule" made sense to my young brain, I couldn't believe that the gift of life was off limits to those who wish to live joyfully and responsibly. I also didn't feel the need for any go-between in my relationship to the creative and moral force called God. Jesus may have been a rabbi in his time, but he was also a child of God like the rest of us. (Judith, sixties, artist)


Eating bagels? Listening to Matisyahu? Shopping at Neiman's or Saks? Not so fast. Think books, and typically classroom participation along with a time commitment that runs as short as eighteen weeks or as long as eighteen months or more. Your rabbi will provide a list of books that cover most of the historical background of Judaism that we will only refer to occasionally in this book.

Think history. You will learn about some of the defining figures in Judaism like Moses, Maimonides, Ruth, david, and Esther, along with geographical markers of importance like Jerusalem, Masada, the West Bank, and the dead Sea. Prepare to learn about the great Jewish-Roman war, the siege of Jerusalem, Jewish slavery in Rome and Egypt, the Holocaust, Israel, the IsraeliPalestinian conflict, tzedakah (charity), halachah, observance, chavurot (fellowship), social justice, tikkun olam (repairing the world), and much more.

Some say this is a big commitment, and they are correct. But some things in life are only worthwhile once much effort is put forth. Conversion is among them. The satisfaction that new Jews report after conversion completely outweighs the time they spent prepping for it. Many describe it as an extraordinary experience of personal and spiritual growth. Chances are good that your experience will be equally joyful.

While many people begin by taking a class, the primary experience of becoming Jewish rests upon private study with a rabbi. Candidates who are interested in conversion meet with a rabbi privately outside of class on multiple occasions. The content and duration of these meetings depend on the rabbi's requirements and the student's level of commitment. A student's conversion can only move forward once a rabbi determines that the student is ready to undergo the ritual elements of conversion.

Jewish tradition generally requires mikvah (ritual immersion) for men and women (not together, of course) and circumcision or ritual circumcision (drawing a drop of blood from an already circumcised foreskin) for men. Ouch! But don't let this scare you. Bikini waxing far outweighs any pain men might feel when receiving this ritual. Converts also meet with a bet din, which means "house of law." The bet din is a Jewish court that usually consists of three rabbis who examine the candidate's knowledge of Judaism and reasons for conversion. Keep in mind that not all liberal rabbis require their students to participate in every ritual, but the tendency is to perform all in some form.


For some, choosing a Hebrew name might seem odd. For others, it's no different than when a Catholic chooses a confirmation name, a rapper chooses a street name, or an actor chooses a stage name. But considering that your Hebrew name is essential at three major stages of your life—conversion, marriage, and death—like the American Express black card, it carries clout.

This means you'll want to give careful consideration when choosing your name. The Internet has plenty of sites where you can peruse Hebrew names, learn their meanings, and select one that best fits you as a new Jew. There are no rules for picking names. The only criterion that matters is that you're comfortable with the name you choose. Converts choose names for all types of reasons. Some choose names based on meaning; others choose names based on pronunciation; still others choose names based on how they view themselves.

There's plenty of time to choose your Hebrew name as your rabbi won't ask for it until a few weeks before your class ends; however, the sooner you go down this path the better. Since part of converting means developing a Jewish identity, the sooner you identify with your Hebrew name, the easier the transition will be for you. Chances are good if you determine your Hebrew name early, you will be ahead in the process both emotionally and psychologically. Regardless of the criteria you use or when you choose it, the result should be the same: a name that you're comfortable with and can wear with ease. For instance, male Hebrew names like Moron, Tuwbal, or dudu might not be the wisest choice. One of the quickest ways to find a name that sticks is avoiding those that stink.

While you have less control over last names (remember the movie Meet the Fockers?), you do have final say over the Hebrew first name you select. But while funny in a movie theater or on stage with a stand-up, a comical Hebrew name is something you might not want to wear your entire life. Now, if you feel that expressing a lighter side of your personality is essential, and you're a Star Wars fan and a guy, there's still hope: Yoda is a Hebrew name.

While your Hebrew name won't replace your birth name, it is your official Jewish name. The name you choose will likely only make an appearance at major life events that involve you or your family and possibly on a few related occasions like when your rabbi honors you with an aliyah (reciting a blessing over the Torah). Nonetheless, your Hebrew name defines your Jewish identity, and it should be a source of pride. Since a full Hebrew name includes your parents' names, most converts get "adopted" by the first Jewish family when converting, and their Hebrew parents become Abraham and Sarah.


Excerpted from Becoming Jewish by STEVEN CARR REUBEN JENNIFER S. HANIN Copyright © 2011 by Steven Carr Reuben and Jennifer S. Hanin. Excerpted by permission of ROWMAN & LITTLEFIELD PUBLISHERS, INC.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Steven Carr Reuben is senior rabbi of Kehillat Israel Reconstructionist Congregation in California, the largest Reconstructionist congregation in the world. He is an avid speaker, author of numerous books, including There's an Easter Egg on Your Seder Plate: Surviving Your Child's Interfaith Marriage, articles, and blog videos on interfaith issues online and in publications ranging from USA Today to The New York Post. He lives in Pacific Palisades, California.

Jennifer S. Hanin is a freelance writer, author, blogger, and a convert to Judaism. She is the author of What to Do When You Can't Get Pregnant and lives in southern California.

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Write a Review

and post it to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews >

Becoming Jewish: The Challenges, Rewards, and Paths to Conversion 3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book was very informative while also being well written. I would highly recommend it.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Listen my mom is mad too but she says we can still be frineds i dont know what ur moms like but mabe u colud ask her if we can still be frineds hope this gets thro but if she is looking at everything she will read this if you let us be frineds you can start to bulid the trust between you and scarlett again im sorry that i have offended you and i beg your forgivnes please still let us be friends. :(