(Please note that if your mother was Jewish before you were born, whether observant or not, then by Jewish Law you are also Jewish, and you do not need to convert. Please contact an Orthodox Rabbi for guidance.)
So, you want to become Jewish. I applaud your goal.
Becoming Jewish is, as you realize, a significant and life-changing event. It is not a small matter by any means.
But before you start, consider a few things. When a Gentile wants to become Jewish, the Rabbis are required to try to dissuade him. Only the very sincere make it through the entire process. And the process can take a long while. It may not turn out to be easy.
Becoming Jewish means that most of what you were taught about spirituality until now will be irrelevant, and in many cases wrong. You must drop the religious beliefs taught you by whatever other religion(s) you once followed or read about. People sometimes ask me, "Can I convert to Judaism and still believe in Jesus?" The answer is no. This is not something negotiable in Judaism. Jewish doctrine about G-d is core and inviolate. Non-Jewish beliefs about G-d invalidate a conversion (and Jesus is a prime example of a non-Jewish belief about G-d, no matter what anyone tells you). So this could be a major change for anyone contemplating conversion to Judaism. If this is difficult for you, then you should not be considering conversion at all.
You must also accept the fact that it is Hashem's Torah that defines what is right and what is wrong, what is spiritual and what is mundane, what elevates a person and what lowers him. Human beings do not make those determinations, and every such decision that a Rabbi makes is based on Torah precedent, i.e., established Jewish Law.
Your life style will also change, as well as the way you think about many things. Even the meaning of some words will change, especially if you have been Christian: words like "confession," "heaven," "patrilineal descent," "Messiah," "savior," and others.
It also means that your relationships will change. Not all your friends will be happy that you've become Jewish. Worse yet, your family members might disown you, as often happens.
When your parents, your siblings, even your children, sit down to eat a meal, you will often not be allowed to join them. You won't even be able to attend some of their joyous occasions. It is forbidden for a Jew to enter most non-Jewish places of worship. If your own baby sister gets married in a church, you will not be able to attend. If you have non-Jewish children from before you converted, you will not be allowed to attend any occasion they make in a church or any religious gathering. (If this occurs, make sure to consult with an Orthodox Rabbi before making any decision. There may be a solution.) Nor will you be allowed to celebrate Christmas or Hallowe'en, or any other religious holiday except the Jewish holidays.
And you will have to learn many rules. You will have to wear less revealing clothing all year round (which in the summer can make you feel hotter); you will have to be concerned wherever you go about the food you can buy and eat; you will have to make sure that you don't carry anything in your pockets outside your home on the Sabbath, and many other considerations. You will need two sets of dishes, two sets of pots and pans (and at least one more set for Passover), and you will have to keep different types of food separate. You will have to wait six hours after eating meat foods before eating dairy foods. Judaism will guide your steps and your thoughts every moment of your waking life.
As a convert to Judaism, you will be a Jew -- a full-fledged Jew. Think about the word "Jew" for a minute. It's a title we bear proudly, yet it's a word that comes from many mouths as a curse and insult. Of course, that's silly. It's like when a little boy thinks he's insulting a girl by calling her "girl!" Not only is it not an insult, but it should be borne proudly and openly.
When I was thirteen years old, my friend and I were riding our bicycles through the side streets of Brooklyn, New York, when some Gentile boy (a little younger than us, it seemed) yelled at us jeeringly, "Jew!" I turned around and yelled back at him, "Thanks!" My friend almost fell off his bike laughing. I couldn't -- and still can't -- understand the attitude of that kid and people like him. I dress in what is an unmistakably Jewish style. I have noticeable payos (sidelocks, as per the Torah's Commandment in Leviticus 19:27). I'm obviously not trying to hide the fact that I'm Jewish. Did he really think I'm embarrassed to be a Jew?
The answer is probably yes. Granted he was a kid, but it is a very prevalent attitude even among some adult groups. In the minds of many people who wouldn't consider themselves racists or bigots, being a Jew is such a lowly thing that they are sure and positive that we must feel degraded about being Jewish. It doesn't help to explain to them that we are proud of being Jews, because they can't see any reason we should be proud of being Jewish.
These days most people don't say things like that out loud anymore. But racism and anti-Semitism still exist, and Jews still suffer from it -- especially converts. I have a friend who almost lost his job because he was a convert. No, it's not what you think. His boss could never have gotten away with firing him because he had converted to Judaism. What happened was a coworker of his was a born-again Christian who felt that my friend should be punished for leaving Christianity to become Jewish. So he filed an accusation of malfeasance, or some such thing, and had my friend hauled before an inquiry panel, expecting him to defend two years' worth of financial decisions from records and memory. This is no reflection on all Christians today. But bear in mind that there are some Christian groups (mostly fundamentalist Protestant, I am told) that work very heavily on missionizing to Jews, and I imagine that they probably dislike people they consider lapsed Christians.
This story is unusual only in the particulars, I fear. There are people out there (not necessarily religious people) who do not like it when non-Jews become Jews. And some of them may be close to you.
Anti-Semitism should not be considered dead at all. It still shows up in various forms and sizes. It doesn't take a Holocaust to harm Jews. Lately the news has been buzzing with bigotry and racial incidents. Bigoted groups are growing in America. Some even call themselves "churches" and claim non-profit status. Many of these groups target Jews in particular.
When you join the Jews, you become equally responsible, and suffer with us together. When Jews have sinned, sometimes all the Jews take part in the punishment.
So, consider this: Judaism teaches that you do not have to become Jewish to go to heaven. The righteous of all nations merit a share in the eternal World to Come. The basics of it involve keeping the Seven Laws of the Children of Noah.
After the Flood, Hashem the Creator made a covenant, an agreement, with Noah and his children, involving seven commandments, along with details of the laws pertaining to those Seven Commandments. Those who keep the Seven Commandments and their details are Righteous Gentiles according to the Torah. Since they keep the "Seven Commandments of the Children of Noah," they call themselves "Bnei Noah," the Children of Noah. When a Ben Noah lives in Israel, the Torah refers to him as a "Gair Toshav," a resident alien.
You might consider joining a group of Righteous Gentiles. There is a growing movement in the United States and other countries of what is called the Noahide or the Bnai Noah Movement. They have a presence on the Internet as well. You can find out more about them by visiting one of their Yahoo groups, at: Rachav's B'nai Noah Group.
There are many advantages to this approach. As a member of the Bnai Noah (a man would be a ben Noah; a woman would be a bas Noah), you can be righteous and still eat pork. You can drive your car to the movies on the Sabbath; you can dress any way you want, and you won't need two sets of pots, pans, and dishes. If you do any of this after you have become Jewish, you have sinned. And once you have become Jewish, the Torah says you are always Jewish, even if you stop believing.
If this hasn't dissuaded you from converting to Judaism, read on.
Before anything else, I must warn you of this: do not announce or mention your intentions in a public forum over the Internet, such as a bulletin board or email list, or anything like that. If you do, you are likely to get dozens of emails from every sort of crank and idiot that exists on the Internet: from people giving you bad advice to fundamentalist Christians yelling at you for wanting to become Jewish. It isn't worth the annoyance. I've had a number of people write me and tell me of such experiences happening to them, and I fully believe this happens. I have also received similar emails from Christians, just for speaking of such topics on my web site.
And now to the subject at hand.
First of all, be aware that the observance of Judaism is a joyous, fulfilling, and very elevating lifestyle. It is complete, and envelopes a person's entire life. While I described it above in terms of its difficulties, these things are not at all inconvenient to those committed to Torah observance. They are, each and every one of them, an opportunity to fulfill the will of Hashem. A major requirement in Judaism is to fill our lives with joy, to serve Hashem with joy, and to constantly be grateful to Hashem that he gives us what we need to serve Him with joy.
And once you are Jewish, you can merit the highest of rewards in the World to Come.
So, if you are absolutely set on doing this, do it right.
There is only one way to become Jewish. Only one way. There are no improper ways that work. The one way is through an Orthodox-Jewish Beit Din (Court).
To begin, you need to find a Rabbi.
Most Rabbis are not qualified to work with potential converts, and there are some qualified Rabbis who are too busy to do it or are incapable for other reasons. So don't be offended if the Rabbi you call pushes you off with what sounds like an excuse. The excuse may be real.
And when you find a Rabbi that works in conversions, he's not going to make it easy for you, because Jewish Law says he must continue to dissuade you, and he will do so by various means. He may push you off a few times, he may not show up for scheduled meetings; there's no telling what he will do to test your sincerity and perseverance. If you are sincere, don't give up. Keep on politely calling or meeting with the Rabbi, until something happens. The Rabbi is following the Torah's Law, so if you give up you can't blame the Rabbi.
One question often asked me is "Can I become Jewish if I was 'denomination X'?" The answer is "yes." When you become a Jew, you leave behind whatever you were in the past. It does not matter if you or your parents were Hindu, Muslim, any sort of Christian, pagan, atheist, Native-American, Asian, African, French, German, or whatever you may have been. It doesn't even matter if you were an anti-Semite. You shed your past like shedding a skin. As the Talmud says, it is as if you are a newborn.
Another person asked me if she should expect to be punished or chastised for having been a Gentile or a Christian. The answer is a very emphatic NO!
It is important that you understand another fact. If you want to have a proper conversion to Judaism, it must be done through Orthodox Rabbis. By Jewish Law, any conversion done by any other means is invalid. This is no small matter.
According to Jewish Law, there are certain legal criteria for conversion, and there are numerous legal criteria stating who is permitted to convert and who is not. If someone converts outside of the Torah's Laws, he is a convert outside of the Torah's Laws, but the Torah Law itself will not consider him or her a convert to Judaism. The Torah commands us not to change the Laws of the Torah. Whoever changes those Laws, is outside of Torah Law. All the more so, anyone who creates or joins a movement whose very nature denies the eternal nature of the Torah's Laws.
Therefore, it is important to find an Orthodox Rabbi who is willing to help you convert.
There are a number of ways to find a Rabbi. You can start by looking in your local phone book under "clergy," or under "synagogues." If this doesn't help, look for a local Chabad House. Chabad is a world-wide organization dedicated, among other things, to helping Jews find their way back to Judaism. They will also often help potential converts, but they do not seek to do this.
If you cannot find a Rabbi in your phone book, you can also search over the Internet. (See some links below.)
One place to look is at the Union of Orthodox Congregations web site. There you will find a partial list of synagogues throughout the world. Try one near you. Perhaps someone at one of those synagogues can direct you to a Rabbi who can help you.
If you find a Rabbi over the Internet, and you develop an e-mail relationship, do not rely on that alone. It is important to meet your Rabbi face to face. You will also have to begin taking lessons and classes, and slowly start joining a congregation, when your Rabbi tells you it's time to do that. (Read my article, "Your First Visit to a Synagogue.")
You will also need to get involved with an Orthodox-Jewish family, because that is the only possible way to internalize Judaism. Judaism cannot be learned entirely from books, and in was never meant to be. So get yourself invited to homes for the Sabbath. Read my wife's article "The Kindness of Strangers," to learn more about how to do this..
It is impossible to properly fulfill Judaism unless you are part of a Jewish community and congregation. Unless yours is some kind of unusual circumstance (and I can't imagine what sort of circumstances those might be), your Rabbi will insist that you move to a neighborhood with a Jewish presence, where you will have easy access to an Orthodox community, a synagogue, kosher food, Rabbinical advice, and many other necessities of Jewish life.
You will have to study a great deal. And then you will have to study more. And when you have converted, you will have to keep studying constantly. Get used to that, because Torah study is the hinge upon which all of Judaism swings. Judaism demands ongoing and constant study of Torah and all aspects of Judaism. The Study of Torah is in itself one of the Commandments of the Torah, and applies to every Jew: scholar or unlearned. There is, thankfully, no end to Torah study, and one must keep growing and broadening in Torah study for as long as one lives. And your Torah study should not be limited to the abstract. Your Torah study should also have some bearing on your relationship with Hashem, whether it be by enhancing your Love and Fear of Hashem, or by enriching your performance of the Commandments, by improving you relationship with other people, or by improving your self-discipline and devotion to Hashem through the Commandments and Laws, or in any other sense that is related to Judaism. The Torah must be a part of you, move within you, be the one guiding force in your life.
For this to happen, it will always be necessary for you to have a close relationship with an Orthodox Rabbi. The reason for this is not because you are or will be a convert. It is required for every Jew, whether born to it or converted to it.
It will also be necessary to schedule regular study periods. This is also a necessity for every Jew, except for mothers who are overwhelmed with taking care of their children. And even they must study at least a little periodically. It is most preferable to attend regular classes, or to study with a personal study partner. Ideally, you should have a combination of both.
When your Rabbi feels you are ready for conversion, he will test you on the materials he gave you to study. Then he will bring you before a Bais Din (also pronounced Beit Din), that is, a Jewish Court, and set up an appointment schedule. The Rabbi may still try and dissuade you a bit, and the Bais Din certainly will try. When they are satisfied that you should be converted, and that you are sincere, they will set up the actual arrangements. The actual arrangements will also involve going to a mikvah, and for men circumcision as well.
Men who are already circumcised undergo a ceremony known as "Hatafas Dam Bris." This means that a small drop of blood is taken during the Bris ceremony.
There are one or two conversion procedure guides available online. One can be found in the files section of the Orthodox Conversion to Judaism Yahoo list, which is an online support group for Orthodox-Jewish converts and for those seeking to convert to Orthodox Judaism. I strongly recommend joining this group. Among many other good resources, they have a file called "Beis Din Conversion Syllabus." This is the syllabus for the Jewish Court in Sydney, Australia, and will not be precisely the same as the syllabi at all other Jewish Courts, but using this will give you what you need to know.
I also recommend Rabbi Aryeh Moshen's The Gerus Guide. It's a very extensive and detailed step-by-step guide through the entire process that helps you learn just about everything you need to know to convert.
You can also receive a geirut procedure manual from the National Council of Young Israel's Department of Rabbinic Services, by calling 212-929-1525, extension 285. I have not seen this manual, but it is mentioned by the Geirut Commission.
Again, let me remind you that the process of conversion will be a long and difficult one, requiring a great deal of study. You will have to learn to read Hebrew, for one thing. (For an amazing page with many links to Hebrew pages, emails, and online classes, visit the Hebrew Resources website. Also, you can call 1-800-44-Hebrew for free classes in Hebrew. I am told they are very good, and they have an excellent reputation.) There are also a great many good books in English (until you are proficient in Hebrew) to study about Judaism. Unfortunately, there are also many bad books out there. Consult with your Rabbi (or another expert) about each book.
The study of Jewish history is good, but probably not paramount. (Biblical History should be learned, at least the highlights, as some of it is rather basic.) Jewish Law and Ethics is probably the most important study. You should also study the Chumash (the Five Books of Moses) with a good translation, until you have learned Hebrew. A good combination for study is Rabbi Kaplan's The Living Torah (a fairly good translation of the Chumash -- definitely one of the best in existence, maybe even the best) along with a five-volume set called The Midrash Says. (For a store I personally know and trust, visit Tiferes Stam Judaica.)
Above all, one of the most fundamental rules in Judaism is respect and honor for the Rabbis and Halachic authorities. Any book that is not firm in that focus is to be completely rejected. This is a problem with many popular books these days, particularly books by Joseph Telushkin.
It is very important to make sure that the author of any book you read is Orthodox, and that the author represents authentic Halachic Judaism. Books by people like Harold Kushner will send you in the wrong direction. The theology and philosophy of Judaism is equally as important as the fulfillment of the Commandments. Someone who fulfills all the Commandments yet has incorrect beliefs about G-d and mankind, is not fulfilling the Torah and Judaism. This is one reason why so much Torah study is necessary even before you convert.
A large chain of retail stores has the motto:"An educated consumer is our best customer." This is true about Judaism as well. The more you know about Judaism, the better you can fulfill it.
And the better you fulfill it, the more you have fulfilled yourself.
For databases with names of Rabbis and synagogues, try these links at the bottom of my wife's article.