Welcome to the Beit Din, the Jewish law court for Reform Judaism in Britain. The Beit Din is rooted in Jewish tradition and halacha (Jewish law) while acknowledging the importance that Reform Judaism has always placed on personal life choices based on commitment and Jewish knowledge.
So whether you have come seeking advice on conversion, or adoption, or a Get (a Jewish divorce) or any other issue concerning Jewish status or other areas of complex Jewish law we hope that you will find us:
Welcoming, compassionate and inclusive, combining modernity with Jewish tradition.
Around 2,000 years ago, a man approached two teachers, seeking to convert to Judaism. This only trouble was, he wanted to be taught all there was to know while he stood on one leg. One teacher, Shammai, chased him away, hitting him with a wooden stick. The other teacher, Hillel, welcomed him and said: “The entire essence of Judaism is that you should not do to others what you would not like done to yourself. The rest is commentary. Now go study!”
We see ourselves more as followers of Hillel than Shammai and want to be helpful if we possibly can, so please don’t hesitate to contact us.
Rabbi Dr Jackie Tabick, Convenor of the Beit Din
What is the Beit Din?
Literally, the Beit Din is a religious law court. The ‘back office’ of our Beit Din arranges the courts, deals with enquiries, ensures that all documentation is available to the individual courts and works with a special group of rabbis called the Standing Committee to discuss individual complex cases. Very importantly, it makes sure that there is a clear record of all decisions that have been taken by the courts over the years. This means that someone say, whose mother converted 30 years ago, can come to the Beit Din office and acquire proof of that conversion.
The back office organises about twelve rabbinic courts each year. Most take place in the Sternberg Centre which also houses our mikveh . However, where there is need, for example a candidate is ill or disabled, a court is arranged at individual synagogues.
Since April 2012, it has been convened by Rabbi Jackie Tabick who previously worked at both West London Synagogue and North West Surrey Synagogue. She was the first woman rabbi to be ordained in Great Britain.
Each individual Beit Din consists of three Reform rabbis. There are no full time professional Dayanim (judges) in our Beit Din. Instead, the court consists of three rabbis, all members of the Assembly of Reform Rabbis, who volunteer their services on a rotating basis. Most of them are currently working as congregational leaders, so they understand the needs and concerns of those who appear before them
In addition, the Convenor attends the court, to take notes, inform the rabbinic panel of the circumstances of the case and to ensure that there is consistency of judgement across the different courts.
Conversion to Judaism
In the Talmud (Pes 87b) one of the ancient sages said: ‘’ Proselytes are beloved by God’ and they are really welcomed by us. Some of the greatest teachers in our history trace their descent from converts including Rabbi Akiva and Meir. And of course, in Jewish tradition the future Messiah will trace their ancestry through Ruth, a convert to Judaism who was the ancestor of no less a person than King David.
Are you thinking about conversion? That’s great, welcome. There are four ingredients for a successful conversion:
- You must become involved in your local Jewish community. It is virtually impossible to be a Jew in isolation. Certainly impossible for a new Jew. You need a community to be with you as you learn, pray and socialise, or if you need help or can offer help to others. Most rabbis like you to have already started coming to services for about three months before they will talk about you becoming Jewish. After all, you must be sure it really is the right step for you to make at this point in your life. You (and your partner if you have one) will be required to attend Shabbat services on a weekly basis and also the major festivals of the year. Unfortunately, if you live far from a community, then it is not possible to convert to Judaism as we are so much a community based religion.
- You need to acquire basic Jewish knowledge. In some communities you can do this in a class, in others through private tuition. The Beit Din requires that you have been in formal tuition for at least a year before you come to a court. In some synagogues, the course can take around 18 months.
- You will need to acquire basic Hebrew skills. It is really useful to be able to read any piece of Hebrew with vowels. Our prayer books have transliteration, but not all prayer books do and if you are abroad, and try to read the transliteration in say a Polish prayer book, you might find that impossible!
You will also be expected to be able:
- To read the main prayers smoothly enough to take part in services,
- To know some of the blessings by heart and
- To have acquired a smattering of Hebrew ritual and community vocabulary.
- You will need to change how you run your home and your daily, weekly and annual routines. Being a Jew does not stop once you leave the synagogue services or classes. Being a Jew does not only happen on Shabbat. You don’t stop being a Jew when you go on holiday. Changing all these aspects of your life takes time, learning, a good sense of humour and commitment. What changes you finally decide to make will of course depend on you, but we hope you will discover the joy that comes with bringing God and Jewish tradition into all aspects of your life.
The cost is variable. You will be required to pay the Beit Din fee, currently in 2015 £300 for an adult. This fee does not cover the full expenditure of running the Beit Din, we are grateful to the Movement for Reform Judaism who contribute to our costs.
In addition, local synagogues make different charges to cover tuition. If you have a Jewish partner, they are expected to join the synagogue.
Please ask carefully about the expenditure before you start the course. Sometimes rabbis have a discretionary fund that can help with some of the costs.
The time can also be variable. The time from when you start going to a local synagogue to your appearance at a Beit Din usually takes about 18 months to two years. But this is a lifetime choice, so we hope you will find the journey enjoyable and fulfilling.
If you have children under the age of 13, they can convert with their converting parent. Depending on circumstances, children between 13 and 16 can also convert with a parent. Young people over the age of 16 should be expected to convert in their own right.
What about circumcision, brit milah? The Beit Din expects that all uncircumcised males over the age of 16 should be circumcised as this is the traditional gateway into the covenant Baby boys under 6 months should be circumcised as well. Our mohalim (the people who carry out circumcisions) are all fully trained and accredited doctors.
The Beit Din accepts physical and psychological reasons that may debar a male adult from seeking circumcision, but we require a letter preferably from one of our mohalim, or a Jewish doctor, explaining the reasons.
Lost conversion documents….don’t panic! We can provide letters that confirm you have been accepted as Jewish by our Beit Din. We cannot provide replacement documents prior to 2012. However, since that date, duplicate certificates have been kept in the office in case of emergencies.
We can also supply letters that can support your application to make aliyah and move to Israel. The Jewish Agency (Sochnut) often want to know what questions you were asked and which rabbis sat on the court. We have ledgers containing that information in full from around 1957 in full and partially before that date.
Caveat: Unfortunately, you have to understand that a conversion held under the auspices of our Beit Din will be recognised by progressive synagogues worldwide, but unfortunately, not by the Orthodox world. If the convert is male and no brit milah is carried out then the conversion may not be recognised by Masorti Judaism in the UK.
Mazel tov. We wish you much joy and happiness with your new child.
Now all the civil legalities have been completed, it would be good to settle your child’s religious identity. Unless you know that your adopted child was born of a Jewish mother, and you have documentary proof to that effect, your child will not be considered to be legally part of the Jewish people unless you confirm their Jewish identity through the Beit Din.
There have been many occasions in the past when adopted children, brought up as part of a Jewish family involved in the community, think themselves to be Jewish, only to find out when they wish to celebrate Bar or Bat Mitzvah or to marry in a synagogue that they first have to convert to Judaism. This can be a terrible shock. It is much better to sort out this issue when the person is young and it is relatively simple.
- The first step is to go see your rabbi who will advise you as to the steps involved.
- You will need to fill out a form given to you by the rabbi. (The Beit Din like all law courts marches to the sound of paper documents rustling in the breeze!)
- The Beit Din does not require the circumcision of a male child between the ages of 6 months and 16 years of age. Though, if you wish the procedure to be carried out, we can recommend a mohel who will be able to help you.
- You will be asked to come to the court with the child and sign a document promising that you intend to bring up the child as a Jew.
- If the child is old enough to be already attending cheder and children’s services and activities, such attendance is expected and the child may be asked to bring along something from cheder so that the rabbis can have a conversation with him. This is not to test him in any way; it is simply part of the Beit Din’s wish to make each child feel that it has been an important day and that the rabbis have taken note of them, and not just their parents.
- After the Beit Din, you will have to take the child into the mikveh. Full instructions will be given by your rabbi or the Beit Din as to how this ritual is carried out.
- When all the formalities have been concluded, your rabbi may want to hold some sort of welcoming ceremony for the child, differing according to the age.
Caveat: As with the conversion of adults, you have to understand that the child’s Jewish status will be recognised by progressive synagogues worldwide, but unfortunately, not by the Orthodox world. If the child is male and no brit milah is carried out then the conversion may not be recognised by Masorti Judaism in the UK.
Brit Milah, Circumcision
Information taken from the web site of Dr Howard Cohen, a member of the Reform & Liberal Association of Mohalim All the members of this association are medically trained practitioners.
Mazel Tov! Congratulations on the birth (or the expected arrival) of your son.
Brit Mila (Covenant of the Word), is a key life cycle observance for a Jewish family. By performing the circumcision we are celebrating and remembering God’s covenant with Abraham and his people.
The Mohel (the ritual circumciser) will gather everyone together and explain the significance of the Brit. The baby will then be carried in to the room by his Kvaterin (or Godmother) and handed to his Kvater (or Godfather), whilst the opening prayers are said. The baby is then passed to the Sandek, who will hold him on his lap whilst the circumcision is performed.
Usually the Sandek has a pillow on his lap, covered by a towel and will sit opposite to the Mohel on two dining room chairs (without arms). A small table next to the chairs for the Mohel’s instruments and the kiddush wine would be useful.
The circumcision usually takes two or three minutes only, including the time to put a small dressing on.
After the circumcision, further prayers are said, including a blessing over wine and the naming of the baby.
Who can do what
The choice of who does what, is that of the baby’s parents. Traditionally, the Sandek is a Jewish male, often a grandfather or uncle of the baby (not the father). The honour should be shared out, if a suitable male has not been a Sandek before, he should be offered the honour before a repeat performance by an experienced holder. (Although many grandfathers will want to hold all of their grandsons).
The Kvater and Kvaterin, are usually a Jewish couple who have not as yet had their own children. Again, grandparents often get in on the act at this point.
An all male affair?
Traditionally, only men attend the ceremony. Reform communities would encourage all to be present regardless of gender, but this would be an individual’s choice. Similarly, mums and dads need to choose if they stay in the room or leave. Most who stay feel that the reality was less distressing than their imagination and were glad that they had stayed.
The baby’s names?
The Hebrew name of the baby will be given at the brit, some thought beforehand would be helpful.
Pros and Cons of neo-natal circumcision.
Circumcision is a straightforward operation undertaken using a well proven and established method. Complication rates are low when compared to other surgical procedures and when they do occur can be sorted out promptly with minimal distress to the child or his parents
In accordance with General Medical Council Guidelines doctors undertaking male circumcisions are now required to gain written consent from the baby’s parents for the procedure. The form confirms that the parents have been informed of the pros and cons of the procedure and appropriate anaesthetic and analgesic methods. Also, that the parents have been made aware of the potential complications of bleeding, infection and a cosmetically unacceptable outcome, including an estimate of their likelihood and consequences.
Below is a summary of the available information of potential complications and their likelihood. The figures are taken from a continuing audit of all circumcisions undertaken by members of the Reform & Liberal Association of Mohalim, these figures are updated annually.
Some bleeding always occurs after circumcision and the mohel will give you clear verbal and written instructions as to when the bleeding may be thought to be excessive. Bleeding of a degree sufficient to need the baby to be seen again in the first 24 hours occurs in between 2 and 3 % of circumcisions that were not stitched at the time of the operation. (14 of 573 (2.4%) in the audit).
Although the wound may occasionally become sticky after circumcision, true infection requiring treatment is rare. One in our audit of 933 circumcisions. You will be told what to watch for.
3. Cosmetic outcome
Circumcision is a cosmetic procedure. Occasionally the final appearance of the penis may give rise to concern. In our audit 1.4% (13 in 933) were felt to be a cause of concern by the participating doctors. Usually these improve over time but occasionally will need to be re-done at a later date, 9 such re-dos out of 933 circumcisions were reported in the audit.
Circumcision is a small operation and what your son needs most after the operation from you are lots of cuddles and tender loving care. Keep him well fed, well winded and all should be well.
Mikveh is the pool or body of ‘living water – mayyim hayyim’ which is used for ritual immersion. Immersion is used for all sorts of reasons as a Jewish ritual, generally to mark cycles and moments of transformation for both men and women. These traditionally include weddings, menstrual cycles, celebrating big festivals and Shabbat as well as conversion.
The words used in Torah for ritual states of purity (tahor) and impurity (tamei) do not imply a positive and negative, or clean and dirty state. Rather immersion in the Bible was very much tied up with participation in the rites of the Temple, which was destroyed in 70CE. They were also, many would argue today, part of an ancient system of sensible public health protection. So immersion today is not about ritual purity, as there is no temple in which to participate (and in the case of menstrual purity Rabbi Meir acknowledges this in the Talmud in Niddah 31b) The living waters of the Mikveh must contain water from a natural source (rain, rivers, lakes, the sea- but not a Dead Sea!) and when one enters one should be as clean and naked as is humanly possible. The Mikveh doesn’t make you clean because you aren’t dirty. We enter in as simple and humble a state as possible, taking time in a private sacred space to mark change and transformation. The Mikveh waters may be viewed as a kind of womb, re-birthing new stages in a person’s life, adding layers to who we already are, or where desired, metaphorically washing away experiences we wish to leave behind.
People are increasingly using the Mikveh to mark a variety of life cycle events, from divorce to recovery from illness, dealing with infertility to marking special birthdays. If you would like to explore creating a liturgy to use in the Mikveh, please get in touch with Rabbi Debbie Young-Somers via the Bet Din office.