How does a person convert to Orthodox Judaism and how should we treat people in our community who wish to convert to Judaism? To what extent should we welcome them/discourage them?
These are not easy questions and I don't believe that there is only one way to address them. However, I do understand that they are questions that members in our community talk about and would like direction on. First and foremost, we should treat every human being with total respect and kindness as each person whether they choose to convert to Judaism or not are created in God's image and we are morally obligated to treat them with sensitivity and kindness.
To what extent should we welcome people in to our community who wish to convert? That is a hard one to answer. We have a tradition of discouraging potential converts at the early stages. We need to point out to them (not that it isn't obvious) that being Jewish isn't easy. Apart from the myriad of laws to keep, throughout history Antisemitism has been the hardest thing for us Jews to live with. Whether that Antisemitism is openly displayed or whether it is done in a more veiled manner.
Secondly, we should try and turn them down when they show a desire or interest in conversion. My style has always been to be polite but at the same time not too engaging until the individual, couple or family has proven themselves that they are in this for the long haul. Once that has been established I will decide whether I will take on a candidate for sponsoring. I will do thorough background checks on individuals as it is important to know who you are about to invest so much time in to. Then I will review with them just how difficult it is to convert and how much will be expected of them. Converting to Judaism is not just passing a few courses in college, rather it is a complete transformation of the individual which requires great dedication and commitment.
When I have accepted candidates, I will invite them to my house for Shabbat meals. Once I have decided that they are ready, I ask a few other community members to invite them for Shabbat meals. When I get a sense that a candidate is ready, I will bring them to the Vaad for the first time. Being ready is a loose term but basically the fundamental prerequisites would be living in the community, keeping Shabbat (while breaking Shabbat once) and keeping kosher. Then the Rabbis will ask questions of the candidate. If they are satisfied the candidate will be accepted as an official candidate of the Vaad.
Once a candidate is accepted by the Vaad, the candidates can send their children to the Jewish schools, at that stage I will let the hospitality committee know that such candidates can be invited by the broader community for Shabbat and Yom Tov meals.
I remember last Pesach, being surprised when I was trying to organize meals for people in the conversion program that certain families would not entertain such candidates because they had not converted yet. The families were referring to a halacha that only Jews can be invited for Yom Tov meals. While it is true that a convert only becomes halachically Jewish at the end of the process, they require firsthand knowledge of Jewish practice. One cannot read about a Seder rather one must experience it to know what it really feels like. This position is supported by many Rabbis today, although it should be noted that other Rabbis hold a more strict application of the halakha.
I noted above that a potential convert is not allowed to keep Shabbat 100%. They must break Shabbat once. That is because Shabbat is a special mitzvah just for the Jewish People. It is a special sign between God and us. However, since candidates will one day keep Shabbat fully, we do not wish them to be accustomed to breaking Shabbat many times. So they do something to break Shabbat just once. In the case where Shabbat needs to broken and there is a potential candidate available, they can be asked to assist. However, we cannot and must not treat potential gerim as non-Jews who are there to be Shabbat Goyim. Known colloquially as a Shabbas goy. If one knows that they need assistance on Shabbat to do prohibited work, they must make arrangements before Shabbat with a non-Jew and not someone who is in the process of converting.
There are many books and subjects that a potential convert needs to study. They need to know the fundamentals of keeping a kosher home, the laws of Shabbat and Yom Tov, Family purity laws, knowledge of the Holidays and a degree of fluency of Hebrew reading. However, as I have said earlier, it isn't just about passing courses. There needs to be understanding of the sponsoring rabbi and the other Rabbis of the Vaad that such a candidate is ready. As such conversion times vary from case to case. But roughly it should take around two years for most candidates to complete an Orthodox conversion.