We had a good meeting with our sponsoring Rabbi last night who reassured us that he still plans on us converting in April 2018. He has plans and is confident that they will work out. So, we have only to trust him and continue doing what we’re doing.
While this has all been playing out, I have been thinking a lot about our process, now entering its 7th year and I’ve been looking at what we have gained by having a longer conversion process than is usual in the US. I think a lot of these benefits could apply to anyone who is going through a long process without a clear timeline to reach any goal, but perhaps they will be of particular comfort to anyone who is going through a prolonged Orthodox Jewish conversion.
My Children Will Be Unlikely to Take Their Judaism For Granted.
In our Chabad house, there are often teenagers who breeze in and out, the girls wearing leggings as pants, the boys casually taking an aliyah, grabbing some kiddush, and then breezing out. For these young people, Judaism is just one small part of who they are and often more of a burden to them than a blessing. Because our children have worked and waited to be Jews for most of their young lives, I have less fear that they will take being Jewish for granted. I can’t guarantee any more than any other parent that my children will always be observant, but I think the odds are probably better because of the process we’ve been through. It’s harder to walk away from something you’ve spent years working hard to earn.
Our Family Knows How to Be Observant
For better or worse, conversion candidates are required to really study the ins and outs of Orthodox Judaism, often in a more structured way than born Jews are given. In some ways, I feel like it might actually be harder for aspiring BT’s to become observant because there is less pressure from outside of them, at least in some of the communities I’ve been a part of. Because kiruv organizations are eager to make sure that newer BT’s feel welcomed, they often don’t tell them what they may be doing “wrong” or don’t feel like they can give too much direction at one time. Since Judaism is not obligated to accept converts and doesn’t seek them, there is no real fear of driving them away to hinder giving them direction when it comes to study or observance or giving them correction.
In many, many ways, this has been a great gift to our family in that we’ve been taught what we need to do in order to take on mitzvos and we were able to learn all that before we were obligated. We got years of practice time. 3 day yom tovim coming up? No worries, we’ve been through them before. Weird kashrus situation? Odds are that I’ve either been through it or I already know who best to ask. My husband who was raised in Orthodox day schools even learned a lot he didn’t know through this process, often when it comes to things that to him were things you “just do.” When I would ask “ok, why?” then we’d find ourselves going down a rabbit hole that led to us both learning a lot more. We wouldn’t have this kind of experience and confidence if we’d converted in just a year and we would have faced having to learn and make mistakes as we went along.
We Know Orthodoxy Is Where We Best Fit
Many converts wander through different streams of Judaism. In most cases, they convert Reform or Conservative and then later pursue an Orthodox conversion, often after they’ve discovered that an Orthodox community is a better fit for them. Sometimes, though, they wander in the other direction, which is more problematic from an Orthodox perspective. Our family has spent time in several different Orthodox communities as well as visited a Conservative community and spent a year in a Reform community. I actually recommend to people interested in conversion that they first visit as many different streams as they can before speaking to any Rabbi about the conversion process so that they can know where they will most likely be happy and only need to convert once. It also helps later no matter which stream of Judaism you choose because in smaller communities, you will often encounter and interact with people from all the major streams and it’s good to understand their perspectives a little better.
Every time we visited a Conservative or Reform Synagogue…it only made us want to go back to an Orthodox Synagogue more. It was like visiting a place that was close enough to home to remind you of home but just different enough to make you miss home. I would guess that Reform or Conservative Jews probably feel similar when they visit an Orthodox Synagogue. We also found that what we believed just fit so much better with Orthodoxy. I really think it’s so much better to take the time to make sure that you’ve found the right fit BEFORE you’ve converted and made a commitment!
In addition, we’ve gotten to experience different Orthodox communities. We’ve been to a more Modern Orthodox shul, a more religious Zionist shul, a Yeshivish shul, and plenty of different Chabad shuls as well as Dati Leumi shuls in Israel and seen how each different flavor has its own distinctive spin on Orthodox Judaism. On the plus side, we’ve found something to admire in all of them and I think we could find a home in almost any of them, except perhaps a really Modern shul. On the downside, I’m not sure I can give up some of the amazing things I’ve found in each of them. I love reading Rav Soloveitchik and Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, but I also enjoy mind blowing Tanya classes, and I really get into studying Mussar. I might not have been exposed to such a wide swath of Orthodox Judaism if we had simply stayed in one community and easily converted there and I feel like I might have missed out.
We’re Past Our Awkward Stage (Ok, Mostly)
All conversion candidates go through awkward stages. I’m sure BT’s also do, but maybe it’s less noticeable to me? I see a conversion candidate struggling to know what they should do in a situation and I try to quietly reach out and help because I know that feeling. There is an initial awkward stage around basic observance, but there are other awkward stages as well. There’s mispronouncing basic Hebrew and Yiddish words, the cringe inducing attempts to shake hands with the opposite sex, figuring out how to dress tznius in a way that is comfortable for you, and then those fits and starts of sometimes going too far in observance too fast. There’s also learning how to navigate Jewish culture and growing in confidence that yes, you belong here.
I could probably tell a dozen embarrassing stories from my own family’s experiences, just off the top of my head.
Our family has been gifted years to work through all this, sheltered from much judgment as we do and we’ll have few people who remember our awkward stages, at least until we hit our next awkward stage. I like to think we’re kind of at the level now of Jewish adolescents, so I’m sure we’ll make some more mistakes at times that will have our friends and family grimacing for us, but I feel like the worst is probably past us.
We’ve Grown Really Close
I beam with pride when people compliment me on our children and how close-knit our family is, but really…a lot of it is a result of how much we’ve been through together. When you can’t be invited for holidays, you spend them together as a family. There have been many times that the only people who really understood what we were going through…were the people living in our house, our family. We have comforted each other, watched out for each other, and learned with each other. My son has helped me with my Hebrew reading when he’s gone past my level in his studies. My daughter and I have stumbled over words together, learning to read at the same time. My husband and I have had to navigate challenges in our marriage that came from the conversion process and find our way through them together.
Yes, my kids are becoming teenagers and sometimes my son rolls his eyes at me, but he’s also such a thoughtful and kind young man. He’s come over and hugged me to cheer me up when he’s seen me looking down and left out at a holiday party. My daughter may be moody sometimes, but she’s also right there to pitch in and help me when I feel overwhelmed preparing for a holiday or Shabbos. Conversion has put our family in a pressure cooker…and we’ve been tenderized by it.
Judaism Is No Longer Something We Do. It’s What We Are
I think this might be the biggest gift a long conversion process will give you. At some point, when we’re talking just to ourselves, we stopped speaking of being Jewish as if it was something that might happen in the future. We stopped mentally cutting ourselves out of the stories in the parsha, reminding ourselves these weren’t our ancestors. My children, when talking, will say something and explain it as, “Well, we’re Jewish, so…” without any equivocation. We’re all aware that we’re halakhically not Jewish, but that difference begins to mean less and less on a daily basis.
At some point, we stopped striving and learning and studying to BECOME Jews and began just learning and observing because we ARE Jews, except for those parts we still need to keep because, technically, we aren’t. I know it might be a little confusing of a line, but I think it’s an important part of becoming a part of the Jewish people that we no longer stumble over the morning blessing where we thank Hashem for not having been born a non-Jew…because I really do feel like I’m just a Jew that needs some paperwork. When I read the parsha, I feel a connection to the Avos and Imas as real as to my blood ancestors and I read those stories as my history, no longer as the history of my husband’s people.
I do think that our family probably could have been ready to convert years ago and it might have saved us some heartache, but I also think that we have grown a lot through having a longer process. If you’re in the process of conversion and it seems like it’s going to take longer than other converts you have known, please do not lose heart. Hashem has a unique process for each of us and it’s hard to know what twists and turns you might encounter along the way. As hard as it is to wait, it may be exactly what is needed to help you reach where you need to be.