Conversion General CCAR Healing Rituals spirituality

Handwashing Ceremony for Online/ Virtual Conversion

As the COVID-19 pandemic rages on and social distancing remains in effect here in New York City, we are still faced with many rituals we cannot complete in person. One of these rituals is the Beit Din/Immersion process for our conversion students, which we usually would convene at the mikvah. Given that our community had a number of students who were ready to complete their conversion studies, but no solid estimate as to when we could safely return to the mikvah, we wanted to give these students an option to ritualize their conversions virtually. (It should be noted that all of our students will have the opportunity to go to mikvah in the future, should they wish.)  

Clearly, we could conduct the Beit Din via Zoom, but what ritual could we employ to mark the moment?  I had two basic criteria: 1.) The ritual must be comfortably completed while in quarantine. 2) It must incorporate water, thereby echoing the mikvah though not necessarily approximating it. As such, I created this handwashing ceremony to accompany the virtual Beit Din. The bonus with this ritual is that the handwashing blessing can be woven quite seamlessly into these students’ lives going forward. Please feel free to use this ritual and/or adapt as you see fit.

Items needed: 
-Ritual Hand Washer or Pitcher or Cup

  1. Take a moment to consider this water ritual. Think about the waters that have flowed through the history of Judaism, and continue to flow through us still. God created the earth by separating the waters. God remade the Earth with the flood generations later in the time of Noah. God redeemed the Israelites from slavery and ushered them to freedom, as they moved through the parted waters of the Red Sea. Our Patriarchs and Matriarchs often met at the well.  Relationships were initiated by the water, marriages made in its reflection. Isaac dug wells to connect to the memory of his father.  Jacob discovered his inner strength at the well.  It is said that Miriam was accompanied by a well of water, and it is said that water sustained our people through those long days and nights in the desert.  Water renews. Water revives. Water nourishes the body, mind and soul. Today, this water bridges past to present, as you immerse your hands in its flowing stream.

  2. Take the ritual washer in your hands. Think about its significance for this moment, and then reflect on a time when you might use it again.  How are the two connected? How will this washer tell part of your unique Jewish story? 

  3. Fill up the washer with water. (Ensure you have a clean towel nearby).

  4. Close your eyes. Breathe in this moment. Honor the work, the time, and the energy you have expended to reach this milestone. Honor your agency in this process. Recall your journey. Let the memories flood your mind as you think of those who have joined you on this path, those who have supported you, and those who have served as your guides.  Acknowledge them in your heart.

  5. Now, as you prepare to wash, recite these words from Ruth (Ruth 1:16, 17): “Ruth said: Entreat me not to leave you, or to return from following after you.”

  6. Lift up the washer in your right hand.  As you pour from right to left, recite these words (from Ruth) with each pour:

    -Pour 1: “For wherever you go”
    -Pour 2: “I will go”
    -Pour 3: “Wherever you lodge, I will lodge.”

  7. Now move the washer to your left hand.  As you pour from left to right, recite these words (from Ruth) with each pour:

    -Pour 1: “Your people will be my people”
    -Pour 2: “And your God my God.”
    -Pour 3: “Where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried.”

  8. With your hands wet, lift them up and allow the water to drip freely from them. (Our prayer is called “n’tilat yadayim” for the lifting of the hands). One way our handwashing prayer has been interpreted over the years is through the lens of action; we wash to remind ourselves that the work of our hands is essential to the work of repairing the world. Our hands have the power to do good. Our hands have the power to build bridges. Our hands have the power to help and heal and comfort.   

    With your hands raised before you:

    -Reflect on the power and capability of your own hands.  
    -Reflect on your evolving identity and how your Jewish identity will impact the work of your hands.  
    -Reflect on the tradition and heritage you now officially carry.  How will your acceptance of Judaism inform your choices, your priorities, and your perspective?

  9. Recite N’tilat Yadayim:

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה, יְיָ אֱלֹהֵינוּ,
מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם,
אֲשֶׁר קִדְּשָנוּ בְּמִצְוֹתָיו
וְצִוָּנוּ עַל נְטִילַת יָדָיִם.

Baruch ata Adonai, Eloheinu Melech haolam, asher kidshanu b’mitzvotav vitzivanu al n’tilat yadayim.

Blessed are Adonai our God, Sovereign of all, who has sanctified us with Your commandments, and commanded us concerning the washing of the hands.

10.  Dry your hands and rejoice in the moment!

Together we will offer the Shehecheyanu, our prayer of gratitude for having reached this milestone:

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה, יְיָ אֱלֹהֵינוּ,
מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם,
שֶׁהֶחֱיָנוּ וְקִיְּמָנוּ
וְהִגִּיעָנוּ לַזְּמַן הַזֶּה.

Baruch atah, Adonai Eloheinu, Melech haolam, shehecheyanu, v’kiy’manu, v’higiyanu laz’man hazeh.

Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of all, who has kept us alive, sustained us, and brought us to this season.

Rabbi Sara Y. Sapadin
 is a rabbi and mother of four. Sara currently serves Temple Emanu-El in New York City as an associate rabbi. She is a contributor to
 The Sacred Calling: Four Decades of Women in the Rabbinate (CCAR Press). 

Conversion Genealogy

Genes Don’t Constitute the Covenant; People Do

I have never submitted my DNA for analysis of my ethnic identity, and I am determined not to do so. I suspect that the findings would be unsurprising: My family has been traced back to each ancestor’s immigration to the United States from Central and Eastern Europe, all as Jews.

This week, though, we read about an older lineage, dating back to Abraham and Sarah, biblical ancestors whose historicity cannot be attested. For millennia, Jews have seen themselves as descendants of those first men and women who set off from hearth and home to serve one God.[i] We who live the Covenant of Abraham and Sarah today are their descendants, whether or not our genealogy could be traced back to them, and even if such people never lived. The patriarchal/matriarchal “history” is true, whether it happened or not.

I have often pointed to my own skin color and asked, “Does anybody believe that this pigmentation is naturally occurring in the middle east?” My question is as facile as it is rhetorical, and is meant to illustrate that each Jew – including those like me, with a “purely Jewish” known lineage; and those unlike me, people who entered the Covenant in their own lifetimes – enjoys an equal claim as an heir of our Jewish heritage. Even though the origin of skin pigmentations is more complex than I let on,[ii] a careful study of Jewish history indicates periods of significant conversion and/or intermarriage that brought people of diverse origins into the Covenant.[iii]

Modern rabbis face the “Jewish lineage” issue frequently. With some regularity, people present themselves to us as Jews on the basis of a DNA test, despite having never known that some of their ancestors were Jewish. Christians with an ancestor who might have been Jewish at the onset of the Spanish Inquisition may come to us understanding themselves to be conversos, Jews who have merely pretended to be Christians, albeit for five centuries or longer. Others come to us because they have recently learned a previously deep, dark family secret that a grandmother or great—grandmother was Jewish. When the claimed lineage is direct in the maternal line, we may be faced with an assertion that the person is already Jewish, not requiring conversion. Indeed, if that lineage can be proven, some rabbis would agree with that claim.[iv]

American Reform Judaism, from its outset, downplayed Jewish genetics, and even peoplehood, emphasizing religiosity instead. In 1885, our Reform forbears wrote in the Pittsburgh Platform, “We consider ourselves no longer a nation, but a religious community.” As time went on, the matter became more complicated. In 1937, particularly mindful of European persecutions, Reform rabbis wrote in the Columbus Platform: “Living in all parts of the world, Israel has been held together by the ties of a common history, and above all, by a heritage of faith.” They further emphasized, “The non-Jew who accepts our faith is welcomed as a full member of the Jewish community.”

In our own age, too many people, groups, and nations hang on to disappearing notions of their genetic purity. Israel’s nation-state law and the rise of white nationalism in the United States are particularly pernicious examples. Liberal Jews must not participate in racial purity tests, however well intentioned.

Ever eager to work with candidates for conversion, I welcome each one with open arms. When a conversion inquiry comes from a person with a Jewish partner, I do not assume that their motivation for seeking conversion is purely “for the sake of the relationship.” When a person comes with no familial connection to the Jewish community, I am confident that, with time, the ger tzedek, righteous convert, can become an heir to the Jewish heritage no less than those who have been Jewish all their lives. When greeting people who approach my office with claims to Jewish ancestry, but no Jewish upbringing or education, I am eager to help that person explore whether or not Jewish faith and community are right for them.

Then, if and when the time comes, when the person emerges from the mikvah, after a long and comprehensive process, that person is a Jew for all purposes[v] a lineal descendant of Abraham and Sarah.

Rabbi Barry H. Block serves Congregation B’nai Israel in Little Rock, Arkansas, and is a member of the CCAR Board of Trustees.


[i] Abraham and Sarah in Genesis 12, and also Rebekah in Genesis 24 and
[ii] Ann Gibbons, “How Europeans evolved white skin,” Science, April 2, 2015.
[iii] See, for example, the statement in Exodus 12:38 that the Children of Israel left Egyptian bondage with a “mixed multitude;” or modern scholarship, for example: James Xue, Todd Lencz, Ariel Darvasi, Itsik Pe’er, Shai Carmi, “The time and place of European admixture in Ashkenazi Jewish history,” Plos, April 4, 2017.
[iv] Traditionally interpreted Jewish Law, loosely based on Mishnah Kiddush 3:12.
[v] Babylonian Talmud, Yevamot 47b.