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    Conversions in Australia

    sydney beis bes beth dinThe Sydney Beth Din, established under the auspices of the British chief Rabbi in about 1876 and re-organised with greater independence in 1905, handle conversions for the whole of Australia and New Zealand with the exception of Melbourne, which has its own Beth Din.

    It accepts 30-50 conversion applications per year. Some arise out of an ideological attraction to Judaism but many have a previous involvement with Jewish life, e.g. a Reform convert or their son or daughter who asks for their Jewish status to be “regularised”, the child of a Jewish father but non-Jewish mother who has discovered that they are not halachically Jewish, or a person with Jewish ancestry who seeks to return to their Jewish roots.

    A uniquely Australian phenomenon is to find individuals whose family has lived in Australia for generations but uncover evidence that an ancestor was a Jewish convict transported to Australia as long ago as the late 18th century and who now wish to resume the Jewish identity that was hidden or abandoned.

    Until the reorganisation of the Beth Din in 1905 conversion applications had to be submitted to the Chief Rabbi in London for approval. If approved, the candidate underwent immersion in Sydney – sometimes at a quiet spot in Sydney Harbour or occasionally in a private mikvah maintained by a pious family. There was no official community mikvah until the late 1920s or early 1930s.

    Even when the Beth Din was permitted to make its own decisions about accepting converts, a lay committee carried out interviews and investigated the background of the candidate until in the early 1940s the then rabbi of the Great Synagogue refused to work with the lay committee, which was subsequently disbanded.

    Members of the Beth Din thereafter undertook all steps necessary to consider and handle applications, though Sydney, like all Batei Din, faced the problem of converts who later drifted away from Judaism and in some cases resumed their former religion. As most Australian Jews were not strictly orthodox, the converts who joined the community often tended to emulate the Jews they saw around them, though others maintained a high level of religious observance and some became religious officials and even rabbis.

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