Rabbinical vs. Personal Converts to Judaism: What’s the Difference?

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These two types of converts display different profiles and patterns of Jewish engagement, and both differ from the 5.1 million individuals who were born Jewish.

One of the most curious findings that emerged from the 2013 Pew survey of American Jews is the revelation of two types of converts to Judaism, one familiar and the other novel.

Of America’s 5.3 million adult Jews, about 200,000 reported no Jewish parents but nevertheless identified Judaism as their religion or considered themselves Jewish nonetheless. Lacking Jewish parents, these 200,000 must have switched their group identity at some point between childhood and the day of the survey. But, surprisingly, only 80,000 of them affirmatively answered the question about whether they converted. That leaves 120,000 who assumed a Jewish identity without going through a formal conversion ceremony. In short, we have two types of converts: traditional “rabbinic” converts and new-fangled “personal converts,” with the latter more numerous than the former.

These two types of converts display different profiles and patterns of Jewish engagement, and both differ from the 5.1 million individuals who were born Jewish and raised by one or two Jewish parents.

We find notable differences when we compare rabbinic converts with those born Jewish (setting aside the ultra-Orthodox or haredi population).

Significantly, all the survey’s rabbinic converts see Judaism as their religion. In contrast, almost a quarter of born Jews identify as atheists, agnostics and other non-believers. The religious identity of rabbinic converts is no surprise as they were taught and validated as Jewish by rabbis.

In fact, on virtually every measure of Jewish engagement, rabbinic converts outscore non-haredi born Jews. Take Passover Seder attendance: 87 percent vs. 68%. Fasting on Yom Kippur: 70% vs. 53%. In addition, twice as many rabbinic converts light Shabbat candles and belong to a synagogue, and more than twice as many attend a synagogue service at least monthly. They also score higher on attachment to Israel and feeling responsible for Jews in need, as well as feeling that being Jewish is very important to them (66% vs. 43%).

What about the so-called personal converts? How do they stack up? These non-rabbinic converts’ Jewish identity indicators trail those of the born-Jews, but often by small amounts. They’re about half as likely to attend a Seder, fast on Yom Kippur, attend High Holiday services, light Shabbat candles or belong to Jewish organizations. However, in some ways, they match born Jews. Among the indicators with the smallest gaps were the importance of being Jewish, pride in being Jewish, having Jewish friends and attachment to Israel. Most significantly, when they marry Jews, personal choice converts consistently raise their children as Jews, in sharp contrast to marriages between Jews and non-Jews.

Clearly, encouraging rabbinic conversion to Judaism can only benefit Jewish family life and communities.

Funding more rabbis and resources aimed at helping potential converts make the transition to Judaism is an absolute imperative.

But, in the absence of rabbinic conversion, personal choice conversion is a reasonable fallback. Knowing this, Jewish family and friends would do well to encourage their non-Jewish in-laws and friends to consider themselves as Jewish – even without rabbinical involvement.

For Jewish family and communities, rabbinic converts are terrific.

But personal choice converts make a contribution, as well. With 72% of non-Orthodox Jews marrying non- Jews, converting non-Jews – ideally with rabbis and if necessary without – is vital to the Jewish future.

The author is a professor of Jewish social policy at Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion. He will be in Israel next month to take part in the Israel Democracy Institute’s “Who is a Jew: Re-evaluating the Boundaries of Jewish Identity” conference on Thursday, December 1 at IDI. Learn more>>

This article first appeared in The Jerusalem Post.