Ahead of you lies a course of study, whose aim is to increase your Jewish knowledge and open the door to a traditional way of life. Your course of study is overseen by the conversion ulpans (preparatory institutes), which offer you various tracks, and are run by different organizations. Your personal experiential journey is supervised and guided by your ulpan teacher, your adoptive family, your community, and an officer of bet din. Conversion is a process designed to influence your values and your identity, and it is experienced intellectually and emotionally, personally and socially, individually and nationally. Just as swimming cannot be learned in a correspondence course, so too the conversion process cannot be limited to theoretical study of Judaism. The Jewish way of life must be experienced, tasted and lived.
Conversion is a slow gradual process. No one expects you to know all the Jewish laws or to be observant when you first come to open a conversion file. Your courtship with Judaism needs to be a slow and personal process, so that you can have the opportunity to think, to question, to receive answers, to implement what you have learned, and to ponder new questions. The length of the process also allows you to experience most of the special days and periods in the Jewish calendar, all while teachers and others are available to you, to guide you and to help you mold your religious identity.
Study of Judaism
In the period of time prior to your conversion ceremony, you are expected to expand your knowledge of Jewish history, halacha, and Jewish thought, and of important Jewish sites, in order to afford you a greater understanding of and connection to Jewish life.
Tanach: Knowledge of basic Bible stories: Creation, Noach and the flood, our patriarchs and matriarchs, Exodus from Egypt, the giving of the Torah on Sinai, the Ten Commandments and the trek through the desert, the conquest of the Land of Israel, the reign of Saul, David, and Solomon, and basic familiarity with scriptural law and morality, and with the words of the prophets.
History: Familiarity with basic periods and concepts in Jewish history: the Temple, the period of the Mishna and Gemara, the destruction of the Temple and exile, the Return to Zion, Jewish scholarly works in the Middle Ages, Eastern European Jewry, Sephardic Jewry, Zionism, Aliya, the Holocaust and antisemitism, the State of Israel, Israel’s wars, the history of conversion.
Faith: Familiarity and identification with the fundamentals of Jewish faith, particularly the 13 principles of faith formulated by Maimonides : the existence of God, the unity of God (monotheism), the primacy of God (that He preceded all other existence), anthropomorphism (that God is not physical), the creation of the world and man, Divine providence, reward and punishment, the chosenness of the Jewish people, the eternity of the Torah, the singularity of Moshe’s prophecy, the world to come, the Messiah, and redemption.
The Halacha: The different stages in the development of the oral law, including very basic familiarity with key halachic works and their authors (mishna, talmud, rishonim, Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, R. Yosef Karo, Shulchan Aruch).
Way of life: Study of practical law – the order and meaning of the prayers (daily and Shabbat and festivals), familiarity with the synagogue and the laws and customs associated with it – aliyot to the Torah, sefer Torah, tallit, and tefillin, mezuza, and netillat yadayim; fluency in basic tefillot such as Modeh Ani, Shema, and the blessings before and after eating; the laws of kashrut – kosher and non-kosher animals, koshering meat, waiting between meat and milk, keeping a kosher kitchen, buying kosher food, koshering kitchen utensils, kashrut of fruits and vegetables, etc.; halachot of shabbat, including the reasons for Shabbat, the 39 primary prohibitions, secondary prohibitions, muktza, the meals, kiddush and havdala, oneg shabbat, eiruv, the saving of life and medicine on Shabbat, etc.; the laws of the holidays and festivals and the Jewish calendar, Biblical holidays, the historical and agricultural reasons for the festivals, customs, laws and specials foods, prayers and megillot, the fast days and traditional mourning periods.
The Jewish lifecycle, including the ceremonies of brit milah, pidyon haben, Bar and Bat mitzvah, Jewish marriage, burial and mourning.
Family purity, including laws regarding intimacy between a husband and wife and immersion in the mikveh.
Values: charity and acts of kindness, love of one’s fellow man, hospitality, education of children, respect between husband and wife, modesty, sanctity of the land of Israel, Jerusalem and the Bet Hamikdash, love for the convert, and study of Torah.
The conversion ulpan is the place where you will spend many hours studying about Judaism, together with other people who are also interested in converting. The total number of hours that is required for conversion studies is approximately 500. You will be assigned material to read and review occasionally, and tested on your studies. As part of your course of study, there will be tours of historical or religious sites, and other special activities. Approximately 270 conversion ulpans open annually throughout the country. These ulpans do not begin at set times, but rather depend on the need and demand in various regions throughout the country. Classes are generally held in community centers, schools, or synagogues, so that learning conditions are generally comfortable. One or two regular teachers teach each ulpan, and class size ranges between 20-25 people. The language of instruction varies from ulpan to ulpan, depending on demand. Conversion classes are held, on a regular basis, throughout the country, in Hebrew, English, Russian, Spanish, and Amharic.
There are presently in Israel two central bodies, which operate recognized ulpans and work in conjunction with the religious courts that specialize in conversion:
1) Ministry of Education conversion ulpans:
Veteran ulpans, which prepare converts for conversion according to Orthodox doctrine and beliefs. The 500-hour course of study, offered in various languages of instruction, focuses on Tanach, religious faith, holidays and halacha. These ulpanim are funded by the Education Ministry (and by the Jewish Agency in ulpans in religious kibbutzim), with the support of various non-governmental institutions such as Machanayim, Shavei Yisrael, Ohr Torah Stone, etc. Almost all of the participants in these ulpans successfully pass their interview by bet din.
2) Ulpans sponsored by the Institute for Jewish Studies:
These ulpans operate as a government service to the new immigrant, and are financed by the Ministry of Absorption, the office of the Prime Minister, and the Jewish Agency. These courses are not intended only for prospective converts, but rather for any immigrant interested in expanding his knowledge of Judaism. Participants in these classes do not go through any initial screening process and do not from the outset commit themselves to converting. The Institute for Jewish studies opened its doors in 1999, at the recommendation of a committee comprised of Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform representatives. The institute only offers services related to the educational process, while the ultimate decision regarding conversion remains exclusively in the hands of the Orthodox rabbinic court.
The 440-hour study program is taught by a diverse group of teachers, and includes an emphasis on Jewish history, Zionism, and the Holocaust, in addition to tanach, philosophy, and halacha. The institute runs approximately 160 sessions a year (out of which, approximately 50% are for adults, 20% are for soldiers, and the rest are for students and youth) Most of the classes are taught in Russian. At the conclusion of the general course, all those who are interested can receive specialized tutoring and mentoring in preparation for their interview before the religious court for conversion. Many of the candidates who appear before bet din pass the conversion test successfully. One begins one’s course of study in the Institute for Jewish studies before registering in bet din. After approximately three months of study, all students who are interested in converting collectively open conversion files in bet din, with the assistance of their teacher.
The decision regarding which type of ulpan to choose is often based on practical considerations: geographical proximity, language of instruction, or the time of year in which the semester begins. Someone who is still deliberating over his decision to convert, may opt to study in the Jewish Studies
Different Conversion Tracks
Night school – The majority of ulpans conduct their courses at night in order to allow participants to continue their regular activities during the day. The conversion ulpan is 10-16 months long, and meets 2-3 times a week, in the evening and afternoon hours, for 2-3 hours a session.
Kibbutz-ulpans – Certain religious kibbutzim host live-in conversion ulpans, in coordination with the Jewish Agency, for men and women between the ages of 18-30 (or 35) who are Israeli citizens, eligible for Israeli citizenship, or have received permission from the Interior Ministry. The prospective converts live on the kibbutz, and spend half their day learning, and half the day working on the kibbutz. This set-up is appropriate for someone who is seeking the support of a group that lives, works, learns, and prays together, and a close connection to a community, which exemplifies how to lead a full Jewish life.
Ulpan Kibbutz Ein-Hanatziv (near Bet Shaan) – offers a 7-month, French conversion ulpan, beginning about one weeks after Sukkot (October).
Absorption Center Ulpans – target population – Ethiopian immigrants: Some absorption centers run conversion ulpans on their premises, so that immigrants can begin their conversion studies already in their first months in Israel. Those who are interested spend half the day learning Hebrew and half the day learning about Judaism. The course of study is approximately a year, and is supplemented by guided prayer services in the synagogue, communal celebration of festivals, and various activities intended to facilitate physical and spiritual absorption.
Ulpans for high school students – In certain schools in youth villages throughout the country, in both the public and religious sectors, the Jewish Studies Institute offers a course of study, that includes the option to study towards conversion. This program is intended for students in 10th-12th grade, and operates in conjunction with the high school curriculum and summer programs. Students who are interested and whose parents consent (the law requires parental consent for conversion) can continue on the conversion track
SELA – is a program designed for 17-20 year olds, which offers a course of Jewish studies that runs parallel with a Mechina university preparatory program and Hebrew ulpan. The three-month program is run by the Institute for Jewish Studies and the Jewish Agency in absorption centers throughout the country. Those who are interested in continuing their studies and in converting can participate in a five-month program in an absorption center and a one-month program in a religious kibbutz. The young men and women arrive in Israel as tourists and change their status in Israel to that of immigrant after three months. During their period as tourists, the participants are fully supported. Once they have changed their status, the participants contribute to the cost of the program from Government “absorption basket” payments to which they are entitled. The program is conducted in cooperation with the Ministries of Education and Absorption.
A course for soldiers
During the course of their army service, soldiers can participate, if they wish, in one of the following four tracks of study, run under the auspices of the Institute for Jewish studies and Education Corps:
Netiv Course: Aimed at soldiers in the middle or at the end of their service. Soldiers leave their bases for two months and go to live in a Jewish Agency building in Kiryat Moriya in Jerusalem. Classes, including various activities and trips, are taught between 8 AM and 10 PM.
D’vir Course: Aimed at soldiers in the beginning of their army service who come to Israel on a program called NAALEH (Youths before parents), and run in coordination with the administration of Naaleh. The course is a two month course held in the educational base ‘Machveh Alon’ in the North.
Open Course: aimed at soldiers who, for personal or family reasons, cannot dorm in a closed base. This is a three-month 8-5 course, offered in the following bases: Machveh Alon up North, Tzrifin in Central Israel, and Machane Natan in the South.
Beginners Course: Aimed at soldiers who have been in the country already 1-3 years. Classes are given within the framework of a special 4-month training period, which includes a Hebrew ulpan.
Soldiers who are interested in conversion continue their studies for two two-week supplementary courses, given currently in Bet Gesher in Jerusalem, in conjunction with the rabbinate of the Israel Defence Forces. After the completion of these courses, soldiers are referred to the conversion court of the IDF. The military rabbinate also permits private courses of study; male soldiers may study with the chaplain of their unit, while female soldiers may study with a suitable rabbanit, off of the base. If a soldier finishes his army service before the end of the conversion process, he may complete the process in the civilian conversion framework
Adopting a Traditional Lifestyle
By converting to Judaism, one joins the Jewish people and the Jewish religion. This necessarily entails, therefore, the adoption of a traditional Jewish lifestyle. You are expected over the course of your year of study in ulpan to grow accustomed to a way of life, which includes Torah study, prayer (at home and in the synagogue), observance of Shabbat and festivals, and adherence to the laws of kashrut, family purity and tzedaka. This is a period of self examination and an opportunity to consider and decide whether you in fact wish to commit yourself to a Jewish lifestyle.
Your Family’s Role
The people who live with you, whether family members or friends, will naturally have an effect on your ability to adopt a traditional lifestyle so the conversion court will want to meet with them, and will try to gain a sense of the environment in which you live.
The presumption is that it will be far easier for you to refrain from driving on Shabbat and for you to observe the restrictions of kashrut if your partner keeps these same laws. A spouse or family members who live with you will, therefore, be expected to adopt a Jewish lifestyle along with you:
A Jewish partner: A Jewish partner will be asked to join you in your studies in ulpan. If your spouse’s job makes this impossible, or the language of instruction in your ulpan is not one he understands, the court officer will work out an alternate framework of study. The bet din will seek to determine whether your spouse intends to be a partner in the way of life you seek to embrace. This includes synagogue attendance, and a gradual adoption of the laws of Shabbat and kashrut.
A non-Jewish partner: The bet din will refrain from converting a person whose spouse is unwilling to convert, in order to avoid creating a marital relationship which is contrary to halacha, or causing a rift between a married couple. Thus, if your partner is not Jewish, the bet din will accept your conversion only if he converts along with you, and you go through the conversion process as a family.
A convert’s children: If your child is in 1st-10th grade, the bet din will expect you to educate him in the public-religious school system, which has schools in almost every neighborhood and settlement across Israel.
The conversion of a child adopted by Jews: If you wish to convert a child that you adopted abroad, the bet din will want to verify that you intend to raise him to live a traditional Jewish life. The bet din will therefore expect that you yourselves observe Shabbat and the festivals, and the laws of kashrut, that you maintain a connection with a local synagogue, and that you are committed to sending your child in the future to a religious school.
The Role of the Bet Din Officer
The bet din officer is a religious individual who is responsible for establishing a personal connection with conversion candidates. The representative will conduct at least two conversations with you during the course of the year, the details of which he will record in your file. The first conversation will take place when you open a file, and as a precondition to the commencement of the conversion process. The second conversation will take place when you complete your conversion studies, prior to your appearance before bet din. An additional conversation is likely to be conducted during the course of your study. Generally, your meetings with the bet din representative will take place in the bet din, and not in your house. The court officer will maintain contact with your ulpan teachers, monitor your studies and the lifestyle changes you are making, and help you with problems and questions. Upon completion of your course of study, you will submit to the bet din officer a recommendation from your teachers and a report that details the subjects you studied, the activities you participated in, and your grades, and certifies that you have completed your studies.
While the court officer can certainly facilitate your progress in the conversion process, he may also serve as a barrier, if he is of the opinion that you need to study more or implement more lifestyle changes, or that your family has not made the changes that were expected of it. If you wish to appeal the court officer’s decision, you may write a letter to the rabbinical court administration or to the judges. You will find that the bet din is sometimes prepared to find creative solutions to complex situations, even when the court officer was unable to do so.
Your Adoptive Family
Over the course of your year of study towards conversion, you are encouraged to establish ties with religious and traditional families and communities, so that you can see how Judaism is ‘lived’ and how Jewish traditions are put into practice. In addition to serving as a personal example for you, your adoptive family will help you with various practical problems, which will arise over the course of the conversion process. In general, the recommendation of your adoptive family is a precondition for your appearance before bet din. Though your ulpan teachers are usually responsible for assigning you an adoptive family, it is often quite difficult to find a suitable family for each prospective convert. If you have, therefore, any religious acquaintances or relatives (eg. your Jewish partner’s relatives), who are willing to serve as your adoptive family, tell your ulpan teacher about them.
Your adoptive family should ideally live in close proximity, so that you can go to their synagogue with them, talk and advise with them on halachic and ideological issues in a friendly informal atmosphere, and eat over at their house occasionally for Shabbat and festival meals. If there is no appropriate family close by, one may be ‘adopted’ by a family from a different town or city, who will host you occasionally for an entire Shabbat. In order to fulfill the requirements of bet din, you must meet with your family a minimum of three times over the course of a year of study, and obtain from them a letter, certifying that you met with them and recommending that you proceed with the conversion process. The hope is, however, that you and your adoptive family will not limit yourselves to these isolated meetings, but that you will develop a meaningful lasting relationship, which will have influence on your entire year of study, and endure even once you complete your conversion.