One of the things most critical to the success of any convert is finding a community where you can fit in and have the support needed to keep growing and observing. It’s so critical that most reputable Orthodox Beis Dins (Rabbinical Courts) simply won’t convert you unless and until you have found that community and are fitting in well. It’s not that they specifically want you to have to pack up and move a long distance, but that they don’t want to set any convert up for failure and being an Orthodox Jew isn’t something any of us can do all alone. We need a community around us, both to pray with and to live with, to have friendships, to learn those little details of observance, to be inspired and supported, and to inspire and support others. To be an Orthodox Jew is to be part of a big, loud, closeknit extended family that argues with each other and loves each other, even while they argue.
For most Americans, this is so different than the ideal of the nuclear family as this contained unit off on its own. Most of us don’t live among our extended family and our lives aren’t intertwined with others in that way.
I think the best description of what it’s like to live in a Jewish community that I’ve seen that is easily found in popular culture actually doesn’t depict a Jewish family or community at all. I watched My Big Fat Greek Wedding years ago and it struck me how much the warmth and closeness of the family depicted in the movie reminded me of Orthodox Jews. There was the sound level, which is often high due to all the lively children and lively adults. There was the food, which was as central to the culture there as Jewish foods are to Jews. There was faith being a thread that ran through their cultural identity, which it does even for secular Jews. There was also the arguing, the quirks, and that bond of love under it all. It was all there, just with a different religion and language.
Unless you’re lucky enough to already live in a fully functioning Orthodox Jewish community, part of the conversion process is also choosing a community. This is something that Orthodox Jews who’ve moved are all too familiar with and something that my family is going through now.
It’s a lot like dating. Everyone has different priorities and needs for what they want in a relationship or a community. Everyone has hopes and dreams. Then, there is the reality, where you realize that no match is going to fit absolutely every criteria and you must decide what your priorities are. The community with the perfect schools for your kids may be one where you’ll struggle to afford a home. The community where home prices are low may also have crime. The community where there are pretty good home prices and decent schools may not have many shul options. Of course, making aliyah (moving to Israel) is often an option, but then there are other compromises you need to consider.
There is also the excitement, too, like dating.
I look online at different communities and imagine our lives there. What will it be like to go to a kosher restaurant again and just sit down and order food? I wonder if the women will play games again on Shabbos afternoons? Will the kids make friends easily there? Will I make new friends easily? Will it be easy for my husband to get to minyan? I go steady with one community for a while, even looking on zillow at houses near the shul that looks good. Then, I find something that might be a dealbreaker, something that would work great for another family but just doesn’t fit ours, and I’m back dating again, looking for that perfect match.
This is where having already Jewish friends is important for a conversion candidate. My Jewish friends, like any good Jewish friends, suggest matches for me. They introduce me to people who already live in the communities I’m considering. Like any good family, we love to help others find their happiness, to find that just right fit and then celebrate with them. I get emails of phone numbers and school websites, personal stories from people who’ve gone here or there or sent their kids. Through Jewish geography, I am sent connections to this person’s third cousin they may only have seen at a wedding or two, but who is automatically willing to take my call and talk with me about all the details of where they live and the school their children go to, simply because of a connection as thin as a fishing line.
We’re so blessed to have friends like these and connections that not every family converting has.
We’re also blessed to have careers that we can move well. That leaves us to carefully consider each community that we come across, trying to find that match. What kind of Jews do we want to be? What flavor of Orthodox Judaism appeals most to us? What are our highest priorities in a community? In Jewish schools for the kids? In a shul?
In short, we sit and try to decide what kind of Jewish life we want to build for our family and where best that could happen, the future as wide open as a mountain range in Alaska.