So you want to become Jewish?

Well, you're not alone. While there are about 5.6 million Jews in America (representing roughly 1.5% of the population), over 200,000 of them are converts. But before you choose to join the party, consider this: converting from one religion to another is always a big step, but converting to Judaism is different; you're not joining a religion, you're joining a culture. Because of the history of anti-Semitism, the Jewish community is a tight-knit group, connected on many levels above and beyond the technicalities of religious beliefs and practices. So read below, and learn all there is to becoming a FOWA (Friend of Woody Allen). One last thing: conversion is a serious thing, and even though we've woven in some witty asides in this article, you should approach this matter with the level of seriousness befitting a spiritual conversion.


Sound like a stupid piece of advice? Well it's not. There are many good reasons to become Jewish, but those reasons do NOT include:
  1. To spite your parents.
  2. Because you're bored.
  3. Why not?

The most common reasons people give for converting include:

  1. "I am converting because I am marrying a Jew."
  2. "I find the spiritual beliefs and cultural characteristics of Judaism profoundly appealing."
  3. "I wish to give my children a clear religious identity."

So how can you be sure that you want to convert? One word: research. Read as many books about the Jewish faith as possible, and try to get a sense of whether Jewish values and beliefs resonate with your own. You can find a comprehensive list of books about the Jewish faith at Some of the most basic foundations of the Jewish religion are the belief in one God who is kind and loving, that people always have free will, and (this one is a biggie) that Jesus Christ was not the messiah. Instead, Jews believe that the messiah has not yet come (with the possible exception of Barbra Streisand). These are some of the religious foundations, but there are also many cultural foundations to Judaism, most prominently a huge importance placed on the values of family and education. As you are probably aware, Judaism is more than a religion, it's a culture.

Of course, Judaism is a religion, and we think now is a good time to explain some basic religious terms:


"Service" is the generic term used to refer to a prayer ceremony held in a synagogue. A religious Jew attends a service every Friday night (or Saturday morning). It's analogous to going to church on Sunday; Friday night services occur every week, no matter what. The period of sundown to sundown from Friday night to Saturday night is called the "Sabbath." All services (indeed, all Jewish holidays) officially begin at sundown. Why? Because according to the Torah (see below), God first created the dark, and then the light. Evening came before morning, so the first "day" actually occurs at night. Cool, eh?


Now, the Sabbath is the Jewish day of rest, celebrating the day God rested after creating the world. If you are very religious, you too will rest during this period. This means not doing any work (no matter what your deadlines at your job are) and not using any electricity (you have to walk everywhere, keep the lights off, etc). On Friday nights as the sun sets, Jews have a special dinner (fancy plates, home-cooked meal, the works). Candles are lit, special Sabbath bread (called "challah") is eaten, and wine is drunk (with each of these actions receiving a Hebrew prayer first). Then you eat.


See? We told you we'd get back to this one. In Judaism, the Torah contains the Holy Scriptures. This is all shorthand for "the first five books of the Bible," Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. Every word from these five books is written in Hebrew on a scroll made out of lambskin. The Torah is always written by hand, and it takes one year to read it (a little bit is read every week). On the last day of the reading, there is a huge celebration (a Jewish holiday called "Simchat Torah"), and then the rabbi starts reading it all over again. No one is allowed to touch the Torah with his or her hand (to help read it, you use a pointer called a "yad"), and if it touches the ground, it must be buried just as a person would be. That's how holy the Torah is.


There are also other services that Jews attend on holidays. Some of the most important holidays are:

Rosh Hashanah: Celebrating the first day of the Jewish New Year (usually occurs in late September or early October).

Yom Kippur: Repenting for your sins of the past year by fasting for 24 hours (usually occurs 9 days after Rosh Hashanah). This is the most important holiday in Judaism. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are collectively called the "High Holidays."

Pesach: Often referred to as Passover, the remembering of the time when Moses liberated the Hebrew slaves and led them out of Egypt to the area which would become Israel (usually occurs in early April).

But knowledge of basic terms does not a Jew make: before you can convert, you're gonna have to prove to the rabbi that you know what you're doing, and that you really want to convert. Reading books, attending lectures, and speaking with Jewish friends is a nice way to start. Also try going to a service at a synagogue or participating in a Sabbath dinner, to watch some hard-core Jews in action.