Converting to Orthodox Judaism Is a Lot. Here’s How 3 Women Did It.


In the middle of a blizzard on the Upper East Side, Chaviva Gordon-Bennett dipped her feet into a ritual bath located in the basement of a building adjacent to her synagogue. A female attendant watched as she descended into the heated water, her terry cloth robe still tied around her waist. Three rabbis stood off to the side of the room, their backs to Gordon-Bennett as she dunked her head under water.

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“Kosher!” the woman called out as she emerged.

The rabbis took this as their cue to leave. Gordon-Bennett disrobed, handed the soaked garment to the attendant, and dunked twice more.

Gordon-Bennett was officially an Orthodox Jew. The ritual bath—known as a mikvah—marked the culmination of her religious conversion. It was a process that began years earlier, as a self-described “bible-belt, middle class, white Christian” at University of Nebraska taking a class on world religions. By senior year, Gordon-Bennett had converted to Reform Judaism. But after visiting an Orthodox synagogue for Passover two years later, she says, “I knew [Reform] wasn’t going to be enough for me.”

Dressed and dried after the mikvah, Gordon-Bennett met the Rabbis in the waiting room, still reeling from the gravity of what had just transpired. The Rabbis handed her a piece of candy—a reward and another test. Before eating it, she would need to say the specific blessing for candy, in Hebrew. (Orthodox Jews say a blessing over every food they eat.) “I was like, oh my god, I’m going to mess this up,” she recalls.

Converting to Orthodox Judaism is an intense and rigorous process. It involves intimate rituals, intimidating religious authorities, profound emotional transformation, and a fair amount of anxiety. It’s a process that has reportedly been undertaken by model Karlie Kloss in advance of her engagement last month to Josh Kushner, the venture capitalist and brother to White House advisor Jared Kushner. It’s a process Ivanka Trump underwent before marrying Jared. It’s also a deeply transformative process few people will tell you they regret.

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“It’s been such a great life decision for me,” Trump told Vogue in 2015. “I am very modern, but I’m also a very traditional person, and I think that’s an interesting juxtaposition in how I was raised as well. I really find that with Judaism, it creates an amazing blueprint for family connectivity.”

Jared and Ivanka are now famous for bringing Orthodoxy to the White House. The couple’s Friday night and Saturday day activities are closely tracked by the political press, as religious laws dictate that Orthodox Jews refrain from using cell phones (among other things) on Shabbat, the day of rest. To date, Karlie and Josh’s lifestyle has been less scrutinized, though fans may have noticed Karlie has stopped posting to Instagram on Saturdays.

It’s a deeply transformative process few people will tell you they regret.

The laws of Orthodox conversion are deceptively simple: ensure that a prospective convert is sincere in his or her desire to accept and follow all the laws of the Torah — the Hebrew bible — as interpreted by Orthodox Judaism. But because this is a subjective assessment, the application of the law varies among Rabbinical courts that oversee these conversions. As with most things, privileged converts are often spared some length, confusion and uncertainty the process can entail. But, in any case, the rules of conversion illustrate the seriousness and intensity of adherence to tradition within the Orthodox community. For Orthodox families like mine and the Kushners, marriage to a non-Jew—even a 6-year girlfriend like Karlie—is out of the question. Women and men who marry into the Orthodox Jewish faith are required to convert—and both genders follow an identical process. For any convert, it’s a spiritual, intense, and private process, one that involves hours of study, impromptu quizzes and, in some cases, a substantial amount of money.


Part 1: Find your Rabbis.

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Men and women who want to convert to Orthodoxy often start by meeting with a local rabbi who introduces them to a member of a Beis Din, a rabbinical court consisting of three rabbis who are considered an authority on conversions. This trio of rabbis—like the ones who oversaw Gordon-Bennett’s dunking ritual—control the religious education of converts and are the gatekeepers of the mikvah date, which can take years to procure. Each rabbi has their own theological and political nuances, and the question of who can oversee conversions is taken seriously by Orthodox Jews and closely watched by the Supreme Rabbinical Court in Israel.

When Gordon-Bennett initially began her search for a Beis Din, she was opposed to what she terms “the system.” She was studying for a masters in Judaic studies at the time, and her Rabbi offered to find her an independent, customized council. But as she did more research, she ultimately decided to abide by the system, in the hopes it would help her kids be accepted by the community.

After applying with one of the world’s largest organizations of Orthodox Rabbis, she was called in for an interview. Once she and her boyfriend arrived, they were put in separate rooms and interrogated. The boyfriend was asked why he would date someone who wasn’t Jewish. Gordon-Bennett was asked why she would date a Jew when she wasn’t yet Jewish. In the end, the rabbis were impressed by her passion and knowledge of Judaism, and set her conversion date for the following month — a much quicker process than most converts enjoy.


Part 2: Do your learning.

For most potential converts, the next step is the learning material. Converts are required to learn all of Jewish law, Jewish history and Jewish philosophy. This can mean formal classes, one-on-one tutoring sessions, or weeks of self-study.

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Orthodox convert Jen Lyons’ learning experience was practically academic. “[My conversion Rabbi] had me write a dissertation,” she says. “He sent me literally a book of questions and I had to answer them to the best of my ability.” Questions like, Why do you want to be Jewish? What happened with the diaspora, and can you explain that? “You could answer in a sentence or you could answer in three pages. I opted for the latter,” she says with a laugh. “So I had to write this giant novel, I think mine was over 100 pages.”

This is not to say the learning is tedious. “I liked the learning aspects of it,” Sara says Eidelshtein. Raised by a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother, Eidelshtein learned in high school that the Orthodox community would not consider her Jewish. (Orthodox Judaism maintains that Judaism is passed down through the mother, not the father.) Looking for a spiritual experience, she decided to pursue an Orthodox conversion. “I thought it was very intellectual,” she recalls. “It wasn’t just like voodoo, it was logical. And it spoke to my brain and made sense.”


Part 3: Wait.

Next, the potential convert waits for the rabbinical court to approve their conversion proceedings and set a mikvah date. Approval means that the Beis Din believes you have completed your learning. Like grad school, the learning process is punctuated by in-person examinations that might resemble a thesis defense. But, unlike grad school, there is no set schedule for examination. After ten months of learning and waiting, Eidelshtein’s conversion was finally booked for the day after her high school graduation, which had fallen on a Saturday Shabbat. “I was like, if I convert before that, then I can’t go to my high school graduation,” says Eidelshtein.

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Living an Orthodox Jewish lifestyle is hard. Rabbis repeatedly test converts to give them a way out.

For Lyons, who was raised Catholic, the wait was the worst part of the conversion process. She waited 6 months for Beis Din’s approval—not so bad, considering some converts have to wait years. “They kept pushing me off, which is really annoying,” says Lyons. “But nobody told me that they’re supposed to do that.”

Remember Charlotte York on Sex and the City, trying to convert for Harry and being turned away by Upper East Side rabbis? This was played as a joke, but it pointed to an integral aspect of the conversion process: The learning is drawn out in order to make sure converts are in it for real, and not just going through with the process to satisfy a traditionalist would-be husband or in-laws. Living an Orthodox Jewish lifestyle is hard. Rabbis repeatedly test converts to give them a way out.


Part 4: Get through your mikvah.

It’s tempting for converts to think that once the conversion is approved and the mikvah is scheduled, they’re in the clear. But last-minute interrogations may await. The day of Lyons’ conversion, her Beis Din demanded to know, again, why she wanted to convert and threatened to withhold her conversion paperwork for another year. After Lyons burst into tears, the rabbis allowed the conversion to proceed.

As Edelshtein sat in the waiting room before her mikvah, her Beis Din asked Eidelshtein a series of questions on Judaism and Jewish practice, which she expected. Then the Rabbis turned to her mother, interrogating her about why she had married Eidelshtein’s father, knowing that their union would create non-Jewish children. “They made her feel really terrible and I felt so bad for bringing her,” says Eidelshtein.

Then there is the mikvah itself, which involves getting naked within proximity to the same religious authorities who were just quizzing you about philosophy — and who are not allowed to look.

Lyons arrived at her mikvah to find a sheet with a hole cut out hanging over the bath. The Rabbis explained that they would stand in the doorway so as to only see her head through the hole before she went underwater. After she submerged three times and turned to leave the water, the mikvah attendant held up Lyons’ towel, covering her own face to ensure she wouldn’t accidentally glance at Lyons’ body. “I thought that was cute,” says Lyons. “Not that I would’ve cared.”


Part 4.5: The money stuff.

At some point in this process, the question of money may arise. Although many people convert to Orthodox Judaism cost-free, others recall being surprised by fees and donations. Eidelshtein went through what she terms a “sketchy” process in which she paid $2,000 under the table for her conversion. Gordon-Bennett’s conversion was relatively cheap—she donated $180 to her training rabbi’s discretionary fund, and then paid a one-time $100 “mitzvah” fee to the Manhattan Beis Din—but she says she has heard of conversions costing upwards of $6,000.

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Still, all the women I spoke to were overwhelmingly positive about the experience. Despite some discomfort and difficulties, Gordon-Bennett and Lyons have no regrets about their decision, and both are married with kids, raising their families in vibrant Orthodox communities. Eidelshtein is no longer a practicing religious Jew, but she has no regrets about going through with the process. “I still believe in all the Jewish values and all of the amazing concepts that are Jewish concepts that I learned and all the kabbalistic concepts,” she says. “It’s hard for me to let go of those things.”

The upside to all the work is the feeling of a weight off your shoulders once it’s done. “It was anticlimactic actually,” says Lyons. “It’s like passing final exams, It’s just a relief.”


Part 5: Plan the wedding.

Compared to conversion, wedding planning might feel easy. The learning doesn’t stop: Orthodox fiancées will learn, like all Orthodox women do before marriage, the laws of family purity, or Taharat HaMishpacha. But, family purity laws aside, planning an Orthodox wedding is like any typical American wedding, with a few key differences.

For one thing, the florist is important: they will play a key role in designing the chuppah. And there is an extra ceremony to prepare for called a bedeken, in which the bride greets guests from her seat on a chair, culminating in the groom dancing into the room escorted by friends and family, and placing the veil over the bride’s face. (As with other kinds of weddings, dance lessons are available.) As for party favors, there will probably be none—except for an elaborate, monogrammed prayerbook to say grace after the wedding dinner.



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