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Despite being raised Conservative, it has been my impression that the only conversion that "counts" is an Orthodox one. I suspect this is the case for making aliyah, but under what other circumstances would the validity of one's conversion be called into question? What is the benefit of converting under one denomination or another? If one pursued a Conservative or Reform conversion, would her future children be at a disadvantage in any situation?


EDIT: Thank you, all, for your thoughtful and thorough responses! To me, it is telling that many intuitively picked up on the fact that this question pertains to a family member's interest in marrying a gentile woman. If anyone has further insights, please continue. Thanks.

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Mel, welcome to Mi Yodeya and thank you for bringing this interesting question here. Hope to see you around the site. –  user2110 Mar 1 '13 at 14:00
    
I suppose the question really being asked is if one converts under the non-orthodox, he/she has the best of both worlds. They can then marry Jew (non-orthodox) or Gentile. –  user2800 Jun 19 '13 at 22:39

6 Answers 6

I'm going to more or less echo Kordovero and Double AA, but put it succinctly.

Yes, there is a difference, and it will matter.

Here's why:

If a person converts by any standard that is not universally recognized, then that person will not be regarded as Jewish by those with stricter standards.

Orthodox conversion requires more than Conservative or Reform conversion. It's a simple matter of fact. Israel (so far) only recognizes Orthodox conversion, and only those performed by Orthodox rabbis on a pre-approved list. An unrecognized conversion will significantly impact one's ability to move there, and it may, in fact, make it impossible.

Hence, if a person converts under Reform or Conservative auspices, an Orthodox conversion would be required later if that person were to decide to join an Orthodox congregation or to move to Israel.

Furthermore, for a woman in particular, if her conversion is not recognized, her children will not be regarded as Jewish, either. If there is any desire to enroll the children in a Jewish day school or any inkling that the convert may want her children (or recognition that her children may one day decide) to join an Orthodox community, having a mother who underwent a Conservative or Reform conversion will pose a problem for them.

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"An unrecognized conversion will significantly impact one's ability to move there"; not quite true. The Law of Return recognizes Reform and Conservative conversions as valid. Moving there won't be a problem with any conversion; the problem is getting married/divorced/buried there. –  Curiouser Mar 1 '13 at 16:21
    
Non-Orthodox converts can make aliyah, as long as the conversion did not occur in Israel. aliyahmagazine.com/reform-converts-aliyah-update –  Kordovero Mar 1 '13 at 16:22
    
Note that I did not say Reform or Conservative converts can't make Aliyah. I said unrecognized conversions will have an impact. This includes Orthodox converts whose rabbis were not on the list. –  Seth J Mar 1 '13 at 16:37
    
My answer is shorter than yours. Why is yours more succinct? –  Double AA Jun 19 '13 at 20:51
    
@DoubleAA suc·cinct /səkˈsiNGkt/ Adjective (esp. of something written or spoken) Briefly and clearly expressed. IMHO, your answer is confusing and does not make clear what the issues are or why a person should care. The "succinct" part is the sentence immediately following my introduction: "Yes, there is a difference, and it will matter." –  Seth J Jun 19 '13 at 21:03

Conversion to any religion is a personal decision, and I believe the decision to convert should not be made for economic or social reasons. While it is true that Orthodox conversion smooths over a lot of issues related to living in Israel, not all Orthodox conversions are accepted by the Orthodox rabbinate there. They, too, are concerned about the motivation of the convert, and would not be impressed by someone who converted Orthdoox thinking only about whether converting one way has more advantage over another.

I converted first with the Conservative movement, and then, two years later, "upgraded" to Orthodox having decided the year before that my Conservative conversion probably wasn't valid.

I believe that a decision to convert through a particular denomination must be made on the movement's spiritual values. I considered the following:

I visited Reform and Conservative shuls and was active in a Conservative shul. But since I rejected Christianity for its lack of authenticity with respect to the Bible, I found that only Orthoodoxy had the authenticity I desired. As I wrote in a 1980 article (see my profile which has a link to my conversion story), I was impressed that Orthdoxy did not pick and choose from the commandments in the Torah.

I was also put off with the practice of some Conservative Jews that I knew of, to celebrate Shabbos by going out to a non-Kosher restaurant before running to the Temple's 7:30 Friday night service, rather than being with family at home, learning Torah with your children, praying to G-d at home and in the synagogue, and having 25 hours away from the computer, phones, work, etc. As the new Israeli Knesset member, Dr. Ruth Calderon, said abut the lack of study of Jewish texts, no one took away our Jewish heritage, people willingly gave it up.

If you want a reason that is somewhat objective, consider that a recent demographic study by Antony Gordon and Richard Horowitz showed that 100 Orthodox Jews will have 434 Jewish great-grandchildren; 100 Conservative will have 29 Jewish great grandchildren; and 100 Reform Jews will only have 10 Jewish great-grandchildren. If the religion is important enough for you to convert, Jewish continuity shuld be important, too.

One might argue that Othodoxy is behind the times on women's and gay rights. On the first point I would suggest more study. On gay rights, that will really come down to how you perceive the divinity of the Bible.

No one can tell you which way to convert. You have to look into your heart. For me, after I understood the differences, there was no choice.

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@DoubleAA: Thanks. While I don't think an objective answer is appropriate, I still took your criticism to heart and explained my thinking. See my massive changes. –  Bruce James Mar 3 '13 at 3:54

"I suspect this is the case for making aliyah, but under what other circumstances would the validity of one's conversion be called into question?"

1) If she converts Conservative, then only Conservative and Reform Jews will recognize her or her children as Jews (I could talk about why, but that's best left for another question). If she makes aliyah (which is possible, I believe, even with a Conservative conversion), her children will not be able to get married in Israel unless they convert Orthodox, because marriage can only occur through the (Orthodox) rabbinate.

2) If she or her children or other descendents ever decide they want to become Orthodox (a fairly frequent occurrence for Conservative Jews, and bound to become more common as the share of the Jewish population that is Orthodox continues to rise), then they will have to convert.

3) If she or her children visit or spend time in an area where the only Jewish presence is Orthodox (as with much of Israel, and many out of the way places with Chabad houses), or foreign countries (such as in Europe) where Reform or Conservative never caught on, then they will not be able to fully participate in Jewish life. They could attend services or events, I suppose, but would not be able to be counted in a minyan, receive an aliyah, or officially join the shul.

"What is the benefit of converting under one denomination or another?"

1) Converting Conservative is a fairly long process, which often takes about a year and involves learning Hebrew, attending weekly services, observing kashrut and shabbat to Conservative standards (the official standards, not the norms that most Conservative Jews actually practice). In practice, she has to be much more observant than the rest of the congregation, perhaps even the rabbi. She has to confirm that this is a lifelong commitment that she will not neglect or cast off if she divorces or never marries him.

2) Converting Orthodox can take about the same amount of time, and involves the same requirements, but with some additional ones (expectations for kashrut, shabbat and taharat mispachah are somewhat more strict, and she will probably be expected to cover her hair after getting married.) The advantage is that virtually everyone in the whole world will accept her, her children and all her descendants as Jewish. She will also be less likely to be expected to be more observant than the other people in her congregation or community (except potentially in the case of a congregation where women don't cover her hair, as discussed in another Mi Yodea question).

3) To convert Orthodox, her born-Jewish spouse-to-be will need to become observant enough for her to convert (especially in terms of kashrut and shabbat), and he has to be willing to follow the rules of taharat mishpacha. He will need to be willing to join an Orthodox shul. This could be a benefit or disadvantage, depending on your perspective. (See the book DoubleLife by Harold and Gayle Berman for one very interesting and moving account of a family becoming Orthodox together.)

4) An advantage of converting Orthodox (even though it is somewhat more difficult), is that Orthodox Judaism "works." Most Orthodox Jews grow up, stay observant, get married to other Jews, and have Jewish children. The sad truth is that non-Orthodox Jews have extremely high intermarriage rates, and are much less likely to get married at all (and when they do, it tends to be in their 30s). See this summary of a recent population study (see websites such as simpletoremember.com as well).

http://www.thejewishweek.com/news/new-york-news/sweeping-changes-ny-jewry-seen-first-decade-survey

5) Another advantage of converting Orthodox is that Orthodoxy is a "big tent," with a wide range of viewpoints and practices. The non-Orthodox tend to think of the Orthodox as fanatical or right-wing, but in truth there is a huge amount of diversity, and there are many liberal and lenient Orthodox Jews. Two exit polls even found that a majority of Orthodox Jews voted for Obama in 2012. Orthodox Jews, both men and women, are found in virtually every profession.

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All of this true, but I can't agree that this sort of analysis des anyone any good. –  Bruce James Mar 3 '13 at 3:58

An Orthodox conversion will be accepted by virtually everybody, as explained by DoubleAA. Non-Orthodox movements will tend to accept each others' conversions if they include all the ritual components, but Orthodox rabbis won't. So if your family wants to maximize acceptance and minimize challenges to the status of her and her future children, that's the safest way to go.

Given that analysis, one might wonder why anyone converts through other movements. I've seen a few reasons at play, the largest of which is that you aren't just accepting torah and joining a religion and a people, but you are also joining a local community. The convert must be comfortable with his rabbi (with whom he will have many deep, personal conversations) and with the congregation he will join. There are many factors that can affect one's choice of congregation and rabbi (beyond the scope of this question).

Another factor that can bear on the decision is family considerations. In the case brought in the question, the would-be convert is joining a Conservative family (who presumably belong to a Conservative synagogue). In addition to the community aspect, she may want to align her practice with that of her future family. While Conservative Judaism is a halachic movement, they understand some things differently from how the Orthodox understand them, and those differences could be enough to preclude an Orthodox conversion. (Of course, CYLOR.)

Finally, sometimes conversion is a gradual process. I've met people who converted first through one movement that they thought was right, then later changed to another and converted again. People are not static, and people coming in from the outside don't always "get it" all in one shot.

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There are also people who are interested in converting in order to join a particular community or family and specifically not interested in aspects of conversion that Orthodox or Conservative authorities consider essential to the act of conversion. In particular, many people who want to gain the label "Jew" arn't also interested in considering themselves bound by Halacha. For them, there is no motivation to consider an Orthodox (or, I think, a Conservative) conversion. They may prefer to be recognized as Jews by those groups, but that's inherently inconsistent with their religious intentions. –  Isaac Moses Mar 1 '13 at 16:42
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@IsaacMoses, good point. Bascially, if you can't truthfully answer "yes" when asked if you accept the yoke of the mitzvot, then you can't convert in a way that halachic movements/individuals will accept. –  Monica Cellio Mar 1 '13 at 16:52

The issue here is essentially one of lowest common denominator. A conversion will only be accepted by Group X if they think that Group Y, who oversaw the conversion, did so appropriately and successfully, following all the relevant laws as understood by Group X. Otherwise, Group X will continue to view the potential convert as a gentile with all that entails.

So if she wants the most groups to recognize the conversion, she would have to have it performed by individuals with the most requirements, which in this case is broadly speaking the Orthodox movement. If she chooses not to take that path, she should know that most if not all Orthodox congregations will continue to view her, and through matrilineal descent, her children as complete gentiles. There isn't anything wrong with that per se, it's just a consequence she ought to be aware of.

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If you'll allow me to make a personal plea: I know this is a touchy point among the various denominations (how I dislike that word), but when it comes to issues of Jewish identity, it is just so important to maintain a unified family, nation and people. With whatever it is that divides us, we can always all know that we're in it together as one. May the day never ever come where large groups of Jews would have to be separated from the people at large for possessing debatable lineage. –  Double AA Mar 1 '13 at 10:02
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Well said! Modern Orthodox rabbi Joshua Maroof has written a series of blog posts in which he advocates "eliminating denominations," in part for the reasons you mention, and responds to objections to his proposal. –  Kordovero Mar 1 '13 at 15:43
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I agree with Double AA and Kordovero. The use of denominations within Judaism is not useful. It has always bothered me that many seem unable to just say "I am a Jew" and must add an adjective, saying, "I am a Reform Jew", or "I am an Orthodox Jew", almost as if it is an excuse for the observance or non-observance of a particular mitzvah. Regardless of level of personal observance of mitzvahs, regardless of affiliation (or even unaffiliated) we are all still Jews. We are too small numerically to survive a split as Christianity went through in the 1500's. –  Dennis Mar 1 '13 at 16:26

True conversion involves reenacting the process Jews went through at mount sinai which was accepting the torah in all its details. If you leave out one detail, then you have not completed the process and the spiritual "upgrades" and "connections" do not occur and you remain a non-Jew. However a Jew who does not keep the laws, is still a Jew since his ancestors went through the process at Sinai and the connections, etc. are already there.

heard from Rabbi Dovid Orlofsky

It's not really a question of denomination but more a question of accepting the observance of the torah law in all its details. This is demanded only from the authentic orthodox rabbis. If one cannot accept the halacha in all its details, then he's far better off keeping the 7 noahide laws since a non-Jew who guards the Sabbath, according to the talmud, incurs severe punishments from above. If he's doing it just for the marriage then it's definitely not a valid conversion.

see also this link by Rabbi Zev Leff, a highly respected Rabbi in Israel http://www.rabbileff.net/shiurim/ask/index.htm Question No. 1035 Category Kashrus (Kosher Laws) Date Posted 18 Sep 2005 The Question There is a girl who has had a conservative conversion and is now working toward her orthodox conversion. She keeps mostly all of the mitzvot and keeps a kosher kitchen with dishes that she bought after her conservative conversion. The question is 1) Is food that she cooks by turning on the burner herself and using only kosher ingridients and utensils considered kosher? 2) If the food itslef is not considered kosher would the pots and pans be kosher for use by a jew or for use by her once she has completed her conversion. Thank You! —Anonymous HIS ANSWER IS RECORDED BELOW: http://www.rabbileff.net/shiurim/answers/1000-1249/1035.mp3

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"If you leave out one detail" Even korban? –  Double AA Mar 1 '13 at 9:42
    
yes. if it were possible in our time. –  ray Mar 1 '13 at 11:12
    
Please forgive my bluntness. Your first part of the answer is unclear, and the last part is irrelevant. You make some good points, but this does not really give a clear answer to the question. –  Seth J Mar 1 '13 at 15:53
    
@SethJ listen to the recording by Rabbi Leff and you'll see what he thinks of conservative conversion. this was a big part of the question. –  ray Mar 10 '13 at 10:58
    
@R.S. Pretty sure if you don't bring a korban you are still pretty much a Jew, just you can't deal with Kodshim. I don't know the Mikdash's existence is relevant though to the requirement of bringing the Korban. –  Double AA May 3 '13 at 18:03

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