D-Day with the beit din is what every prospective convert simultaneously desires and fears. After months of experiencing not only attending classes, but also hearing people’s stories the level of one’s trust drops to somewhere around zero. You don’t know what is going to happen to you. The meeting can be your last, but it doesn’t have to be. So your hope is still kindling, but even that small flame is unsure whether or not it’s safe enough to take a deeper breath. Your heart sinks as you’re waiting to enter the lion’s den and you know that there are at least three lions waiting there for you.
Throughout the conversion process, prospective converts meet with dayanim, or judges, in a beit din (the religious court). Generally speaking, prospective converts meet with the daiyanim a minimum of three times. There are, of course, exceptions to that “rule” and I know of a few who met with the dayanim double the amount of times, along with someone else who managed to meet with them once – but three is the average amount for those converting through the rabbanut in Israel.
The final meeting in the beit din is one of the most important, and also most nerve-wracking, meetings. In this meeting, prospective converts must speak about how they’ve grown, what they’ve learned, and how committed they are to living a halachically observant life as full-fledged members of the Orthodox Jewish community. Without the beit din’s seal of approval prospective converts cannot get married through the rabbanut, their children will not be considered Jewish if the prospective convert is female and other issues may arise later on in life. That this puts a lot of pressure on everyone going through the conversion process is the understatement of the century.
My final meeting with the beit din was quite emotionally exhausting. A good friend who had been a major support and mentor to me in adopting religious life as a single, modern member of the Jewish community came to support me and stand as witness that I was ready to complete my process. The logistics of that alone were stress-inducing: the beit din was located in another city from my own and she lived in another part of the country entirely. Still, we both made it early (the habits of American-born olim die hard) and had plenty of time to panic about the upcoming meeting, what they may ask, even what they may think about my clothing – I dress modestly, but I’m not in the habit of wearing tights under my skirts. In a last-minute panic, we walked around and searched frantically for a local pharmacy or shop that would have tights for sale. We ended up not finding anything, but the excursion gave me the chance to walk out some of my jitters and we had a giggle about it on the way to the meeting.
I went in first and was joined by one of the rabbis who instructed our conversion classes. I’m forever grateful that he was the rabbi in my meeting, since I was so nervous I couldn’t speak Hebrew if I tried (his mother is a native English-speaker and so he grew up speaking the language as well as Hebrew). We had the usual questions they always asked me: why I wanted to be Jewish, why it wasn’t enough to just be an Israeli citizen, whether I was aware that life as an observant Jew isn’t exactly easy, etc. But there were more advanced questions that made me think hard: biblical history, how I would explain this religious change to my parents, and which prayers we use for life events as well as daily use. The meeting was 45 minutes and I emerged from the room with a bright red face from the stress. My friend went in and chatted with the dayanim for about 10 minutes while I sat down, sipped water, and attempted to calm myself down for whatever came next. I can’t be certain, but I think my friend was also a bit nervous facing the dayanim. For lack of better terminology, it felt an awful lot like being sent to the principal or head master’s office to explain oneself.
They called me back in and I sat between my friend and my rabbi, in front of the dayanim. To be honest, I don’t remember what all was said in my second meeting with them that day, but I do recall when they said, “We’d like to welcome you” and I thought I heard wrong. I looked to my rabbi for confirmation, he gave me an encouraging nod, and all I could think to say was “thank you”. Looking back, it seems strange for me to thank them for recognizing my genuine efforts, but I truly felt thankful. Certainly relieved. I stood up and promised to commit myself to living a halachically observant life, said the shema prayer – which I messed up out of nervousness – and exited the room in complete shock. My friend said the dayanim asked her if I ‘deserved’ to complete my conversion process. I’m still not sure what that question was supposed to mean, though she said I’d certainly earned it with all the effort I’d put into living a fully observant life prior to completing my process.
I was then directed to the secretary’s office to schedule my mikvah appointment. I was still in awe that it was finally over, sure, but I was also back to feeling determined because I knew that I wanted to make my mikvah appointment as quickly as possible. I seized the chance to have my mikvah scheduled for the very next day – which did not please my boss since I ended up missing an entire day of work – but it felt essential to complete my process before anyone decided to change their minds. Would that have happened? Probably not but fears are irrational and after spending so much time worrying over when you’ll ever finish, it’s easy to lose trust. I’d finally achieved something I’d spent over three-and-a-half years working towards and I was not about to take any chances.
I had reached a momentous occasion, but it wasn’t finalized yet without the mikvah ritual. It felt like so much of my life had been on hold through the conversion process: dating, feeling a full member of a community, being able to do things with friends and not feel like someone would suspect me of misbehaving, etc. But I had no idea what changes were coming my way after the mikvah.
When Elisheva told me about her meeting at the final beit din I knew that things may get hard. Still, I knew another person whose meeting consisted of three questions revolving around whether or not she will live a halachically-observant life and explaining the concept of Shabbat. I was therefore aware of the wide discrepancy with which the dayanim approach different candidates so I wasn’t expecting anything. I only made sure that my mind was clear and that I had a good night sleep beforehand.
After mostly sleepless night I got ready to meet the beit din with only one reassuring thought that Elisheva was going to be there with me. The importance of having the one
person whom you fully trust at that point couldn’t be stressed enough. I put on many layers of clothing to make sure that not even an ankle was showing and was boiling most of the time, but I think it was more related to stress than a relatively warm day. Everyone was running late so I sat down in the waiting area and tried not to have a heart attack. I knew that I was capable of answering their questions, but nerves are nerves and when you know that your fate literally rests in the hand of the three rabbis in the room next door, all rationalisation goes out of the window and you even lose track of time.
In contrary to what I heard from others, I was urged to bring Elisheva with me from the beginning of the meeting and she sat there with me throughout without being asked to leave. I didn’t know what I expected, but when we walked in and the dayanim jointly yelled “Hi Esther, how are you?” I panicked. Why were they smiling and why were they nice to me? Since my body reacted in contrary to my emotions I smiled with an even bigger smile and said “Cool, thank G-d, how are you guys?” (It sounded different in Hebrew, but the casual tone was pretty much the same.) You could hear the pin drop. The crickets. Anything. The rabbi who accompanied me said in a loud whisper that I should address the dayanim per “honourable rabbis”. For a moment I thought that I had ended before it began.
They started off with a bunch of similar questions. Why do I bother with being halachically Jewish, if I could just have the citizenship etc. I was trying to maintain the eye contact without losing the train of thought. It wasn’t easy even though only one of them looked very stern and the other two were quite friendly throwing me reassuring looks from their smiling eyes. They asked how much I knew about my name. Well, having spent so much time in the seminary I went through the list of explanations ranging from the Tanach to chassidut. I thought that this was what they wanted. They started moving in their chairs and I stopped mid-sentence not knowing what was happening.
Then one of the dayanim, who sat directly across from me leaned over to the stern-looking one and said that they needed to ask more difficult questions. First I stopped breathing and then I did the opposite to how I felt – I made myself more comfortable in the chair and looked straight at him. “Ok”, I said, “ask.”
They went through nitty-gritty halachic questions related to the minutest activities that one can do. To make sure that I was understood correctly I involuntarily began answering their questions in a manner a kindergarten teacher uses to explain things to the children. I was so stressed that I forgot that they knew all those details. My rabbi quietly told me to relax and stop talking. Then they went on to ask questions from the Torah. Then they asked questions about the chagim. One of them tried misleading me into a different answer which was beyond obvious because the question wasn’t hard. I lost control and said “What Sukkot?! That’s on Rosh Hashana!” He laughed and mentioned that all of them except of the middle one served in the army. I can’t remember why he mentioned that, but he also mentioned that my rabbi had a twin brother (something that I didn’t know) and that he wondered which one was more handsome.
When then started cracking jokes like that I had a feeling that things were going well. In that reasonably pleasant atmosphere the middle rabbi asked me about who my friend was. Confused I asked which friend (obviously he knew who Elisheva was) he had in mind.
“You know, friend.”
“Ermmm, Elisheva?” I attempted solving the mystery while pointing at her.
“No.” He continued “A man friend”.
“There’s only Elisheva.” I answered dumbly at which point I felt the urge to explain our friendship stressing that she was getting married to a man and our relationship was not homosexual in nature. I think that settled the case. They must have figured that I was losing it and asked me to stand up and say that I was going to live a life of Torah and mitzvoth and I said the Shema.
I didn’t know whether my dayanim actually spoke English, because we talked in Hebrew and even despite the fact that I struggled a bit with halachic terminology I wasn’t allowed to switch to English. I think all in all I maybe said two sentences in English when I really couldn’t find words and was ordered to switch back to Hebrew.
That was it. I was then asked to go to the neighbouring office to get the details regarding my mikveh appointment which happened two days later.