Winter Hallel

In darkness, I awaken
the tune of Hallel in my ears
I whisper words of another tune
and greet the dark day

Summer’s light has fled the mountains
flowers bloom no more
only the raven and magpie remain
winter’s sky companions

cold rain falls
snow comes late this year
a reminder of retreating glaciers
the only constant is change

I take my vitamin D
sit in front of happy lights
remembering days without end
when sleeping was harder than waking

Winter has only begun.

Parshas Lech Lecha – Go!

This week’s parsha begins the story of Avraham, the father of monotheism and the spiritual father of all Jewish converts.  His story begins with a command that’s familiar:

“Go from your land, from your birthplace and from your father’s house, to the land which I will show you.”

 

In some way or other, we all have to eventually leave what is comfortable and familiar and step into an unknown future.  I’ve heard it said that Avraham was the first Jewish convert and this makes perfect sense.  He didn’t grow up with monotheism around him.  He grew up in a family of idolaters in a community where idolatry was normal.

If he’d grown up today, it’s likely his father might have sold iphones and kept up with the Kardashians or simply been someone who idolized money or power.  After all, not all idols are made of stone or wood.

It would have been easy for Avraham to simply follow along.  He could have stayed where he grew up and simply blended in with everyone else.  Instead, he was called upon to leave everything behind and begin a new life, one that was foreign to him both physically and spiritually.  He had to leave what he’d known.

When you study Torah, you quickly learn that the Torah wastes no words.  If something is repeated, it’s for a deeper reason.  Here, we see the Torah basically say that Avraham is commanded by Hashem to go in three different ways.  It would have been clear enough to list any one of them.  Instead, he’s told to leave his “land,” his “birthplace,” and his “father’s” house.  Odds are, during that time period, all three of these could be the same physical location, so it’s obvious that this must mean three different things in some other way.

Chabad.org has a article explaining these 3 different journeys in depth:

This is the deeper significance of the words “your land, your birthplace and your father’s house” in G‑d’s call to Abraham. Eretz, the Hebrew word for land and earth, is etymologically related to the word ratzon–will and desire; so your land also translates as your natural desires. Your birthplace–moladtecha–is a reference to the influence of home and society. And beit avicha, your father’s house, refers to man as a mature and rational being, forging his mind-set, character and behavior with the transcendent objectivity of the intellect. (In the terminology of Kabbalah and Chassidism, the intellect is referred to as the father within man, since it is the progenitor of, and authority over, his feelings and behavior patterns.)

Avraham was being called upon to do a lot more than just make a physical move, more than just relocating his wife and household to a new place.  He was being called upon to go and leave behind.  His journey is even beyond just leaving behind his father’s ways or the culture he was born into.  His ultimate journey was to travel beyond the finite, human ability to understand and perceive the world and to glimpse beyond it to Hashem’s will.  Essentially, he was being asked to do more than just reject idolatry and believe in one G-d alone…he’d already done that before the command to Go came to him.

He’s being told that it’s time for him to transcend his own nature, his habits, and even his rational self.  This makes sense when you recall that the culmination of this journey is the akeida, where he sets aside his rationality in favor of pure faith and binds his only son for sacrifice at Hashem’s command.  Everything we learn about Avraham as we follow his journey up to that point contradicts the binding of Isaac.  We see him yearn for a child.  We see him agonize over sending the wicked Ishmael away.  We see his kindness and generosity towards strangers and we see him plead for the lives of Sodom and Gomorrah.  We learn that Avraham is a kind, generous, righteous man.  And yet, in the face of all this evidence that the akeida is exactly the sort of thing a man like Avraham would never do, would outright refuse to do and argue with Hashem over…he obeys without doubt, certain that Hashem has a plan and will cause everything to turn out for the good.

It’s precisely because an act like sacrificing his own son is so opposite what we learn about Avraham’s character that it is so powerful, but on deeper reading, it seems like the changes that Avraham needed to make to reach that point spiritually began with the command to GO.

I think the reason why Avraham’s journey has resonated through three different faiths for thousands of years is because we each have a similar journey.  Some of us are called to travel further than others, but we all must go and leave behind some aspect of ourselves to continue to grow and move forward.  We can all relate to that idea that we often do have to leave behind what is familiar and comfortable to become the people we are meant to be.  For Orthodox Jewish converts the journey is so similar to our spiritual father’s, even if we are never to reach such spiritual heights.  We’re still called upon to move beyond the spiritual place we were born to in a radical way.  It’s easy to see the families, faiths, and cultures we leave behind, but often harder to see the ways in which we also have to transcend parts of ourselves as well, our very nature, our habits, and even at times, our rational selves.

In ways large and small, we all make leaps of faith into an unknown future.  Could Avraham have known with absolute surety that Hashem would keep his promises?  Did he sometimes worry he’d lost his mind or way when the commands he received didn’t seem to make rational sense?  Were there moments during the long walk up Mount Moriah with Isaac where his heart was troubled and he simply prayed that Hashem would find a way to save his son?  Did he look back with regret when he left his homeland and the family he grew up with or did he walk on, confident and certain?

I can bet that there are stories in Midrash that answer many of these questions that I have yet to learn, but for now, I find the Avraham in my mind is often a reflection of where I am in my faith.  When I am wavering, afraid that my trust is misplaced and I’m making a huge mistake for my family, Avraham is a man who worries and prays a lot, silent prayers as he follows Hashem’s commands.  He lifts the knife reluctantly, fervently praying for Hashem to stop his hand.  When I’m full of faith and feeling strong myself, the Avraham I see is certain and confident and he never loses any sleep with doubts.

What is important, I think, is that both my Avrahams keep going forward, in the direction Hashem has commanded them.  Their bravery and faith may be rattled, but their commitment and obedience is not.

For now, I suppose that is enough to keep me going on my own journey, following Avraham’s footsteps through the snow.

 

 

Wandering Jew-ish? Traveling Kosher!

I’ve got some trips coming up down to the lower 48 and while I’ve written before about the logistics of backcountry camping kosher, I thought it might be good to write about traveling while observant, for those who might be new to it.

Kosher travel really begins when we begin planning our trip, specifically the times and dates of flights or travel times for a roadtrip.  Shabbos and holidays always need to be planned around and it’s important to make sure there is some padding of time just to be sure.  I’ve read so many “horror” stories of Orthodox Jews needing to spend the Sabbath in airports or getting stuck in one way or another.  Be sure to check with your own friendly Orthodox Rabbi, but for most, this means making sure that you will not need to be traveling at all near candle lighting time and that any flight after the Sabbath departs well after the end of the Sabbath, havdalah.  Whenever possible, I like to arrive a day or two before Shabbos so I have time to settle in, get my bearings, and find kosher food.  It’s often good to take into account potential flight delays or, if it’s a roadtrip, any driving delays due to traffic, weather, or car issues.

Which brings us to the other two big challenges, kosher food and lodging within walking distance of an Orthodox Synagogue.

There seems to be a great fear among some Jews born Orthodox that there is nothing to eat in a city if that city has no kosher pizza place.  I’m happy to say that most major cities have a lot to offer.  Doing a quick search on Chabad.org’s website for local Chabad organizations can often get you in touch with what is kosher locally.  They will sometimes have a separate webpage on the local Chabad house’s website with local kosher resources or sometimes you can email or call them.  In smaller cities, they may also be the only Orthodox Synagogue for Shabbos as well and often can help you find accommodations nearby.  In larger cities, you can often search for a local Va’ad or Beit Din (Rabbinical Court) and they may have links to kosher websites and some large cities even have their own kosher certification programs.  In addition, doing a web search for “Orthodox Jewish Synagogues in (city name)” can often help you find their Synagogue’s website, which will often have visitor information.

It’s important to reach out to whatever community that you will be visiting for Shabbos early.  They may be able to recommend hotels in or near the eruv or Synagogue and sometimes they can set up hosting for you for either meals or a place to stay as well.  Be prepared to give them some kind of references, usually your local Orthodox Rabbi.  After all, you’d want to check up on a complete stranger before inviting them into your home, wouldn’t you?  Also, keep in mind that Orthodox Jews are a tight-knit community.  Be on your best behavior as a guest and if you are not yet halakhically Jewish, be careful not to do anything that you wouldn’t be allowed to do in your home Synagogue, like accepting an aliyah.  If you are set up with hosts for meals or a place to stay, be sure to bring a hostess gift and thank you card so that you’ll be welcomed back!

If you’re on your own for accommodations, don’t fret.  Recently, our family has had really good luck finding airbnb’s in areas where there are no hotels in or near an eruv.  This can be a particularly good option for families.  Just last year we ended up staying in a very charming Airbnb in Seattle’s Seward Park neighborhood.  The couple that hosted us were non-observant Jews who already knew all the ins and outs of Sabbath observance and were familiar with many of the people who hosted us for meals.  They were SO nice and we felt at home and were just a short walk from the Synagogue.  This winter, we’re renting a whole house near a Synagogue we’re visiting.  Of course, you generally cannot expect a kosher kitchen in these, so plan accordingly.

Which brings us to kosher food!

Some larger cities have kosher restaurants and you can often find what their kosher certifications are online as well as if they are cholov yisroel, if that’s a concern for you.  Local Synagogue and Beit Din websites may also list the best grocery stores to go to locally for kosher food or if there are completely kosher grocery stores.  In a pinch, whole foods market, costco, and trader joe’s are generally great for finding a lot of kosher items and even in the smallest supermarkets, you can generally find snacks that are OU certified, although meat and cheese may be a challenge.  I’ve found having a sense of adventure and some flexibility often helps.

If you’re traveling with a family or are completely on your own for Shabbos meals, it can be really helpful to pack some of your own food and utensils.  My mother in law always travels with a hot plate that she can use to cook with, a small frying pan, a small pot, and a few utensils, including a paring knife in her checked luggage.  I know other people who like to travel with an instant pot, which allows them to saute, steam, slow cook, or pressure cook foods.  Bringing your own kosher appliance with you means not having to rely on as much kosher food being available because you can easily cook fresh vegetables.  It’s always a good idea to have a box of matzah or bring your own challah if you don’t have anyone to host you for meals.

Besides just planning travel and seeing if hosting is available, the Sabbath also has other specific special concerns for travelers.  It’s good to bring tea lights for candle lighting and to find kosher grape juice or wine for kiddush and havdalah.  In addition, it’s important to know if there is an eruv (if you hold by them) and if it is up before carrying as well as to know if your hotel has electronic locks you’ll need to work around.  Some people tape the locks so that they don’t engage and just trust that their belongings will be safe while others work it out with the hotel staff to let them in their room so that they don’t need to use the keycard.  Be sure to check for local candle lighting times, which may be very different from your own.  Hebcal and Chabad are good resources as is the local Orthodox Synagogue.

If you’re new to traveling Orthodox, this might all sound a bit overwhelming, but I’ve found that traveling this way is often a lot more of a “real” experience of a place than when I traveled before.  Sabbath observance and keeping kosher often nudge me to interact more with the local community than I might otherwise.  Sharing the Sabbath with local families helps me really get more of a feel for a place than I would if I just stuck with the tourist sights.  Over time, I begin to feel more like I’m part of the bigger Jewish family and sometimes, I even have names I can now bring up in “Jewish geography” conversations.  I’ve met some of the most wonderful people and I’ve been grateful for what I’ve learned from them and from their communities.

It’s more than worth a few extra logistics.

Now, traveling to the North Slope for work?  That’s turning out to be a whole other adventure, but I plan on posting about that separately since most people don’t need to stress about candle lighting times when the sun never comes up!

 

Snow Instead of Flood and Paddling Your Own Canoe

We spent this past Shabbos in a hotel and wow did that feel positively decadent after so many Shabboses in the Shabbat RV 2.0!  There was unlimited running water, heat, soft comfy beds with all the fixings, like smooth sheets.  We had a mini-fridge I was able to stock with snacks and food and it was all about a block from the Synagogue.  It was a nice treat, to be sure!  It turned out to be great timing for us to be waiting on the windshield repair for the RV, too, because this past weekend we happened to get the first snow of the winter season and it was a little easier to greet it with good cheer when we had a nice warm hotel room to return to.

As we read last week’s parsha about the flood, snow drifted down in front of the shul windows in big, fluffy flakes, thick enough that I couldn’t see the mountains beyond, which have been white now for a few weeks.  It was interesting reading about all the rain when we were experiencing snow and I couldn’t help but feel a pang of early homesickness for Alaska, even though we haven’t left yet.  It’s hard sometimes living with one foot in one world and the other poised to step into the next.

All this talk of building arks had me thinking about something that had come up in an online discussion group for conversion candidates the week before.

A prospective convert was frustrated with her learning, specifically that her sponsoring Rabbi and community didn’t seem to have much in the way of organized learning to help with her conversion process.  I thought back to our process and how we’ve learned along the way and I realized that while we’ve been very fortunate to have wonderful, willing teachers along the way and to find the resources we’ve needed, this has mostly happened because we were already looking for them.  I’ve only heard of a few stories of more organized “conversion classes” and those were mostly in large cities.  Even in those stories, I’ve often heard that the students were disappointed in the class or needed to add in extra resources.  I often think that the sheer amount of information most conversion candidates need to learn should be enough to discourage the insincere, but I’ve also seen that it’s often necessary to be like a hunter when it comes to learning, willing to chase down whatever book or class is needed.

Much of our learning has come through reading lists.  The RCA has a good one for starters and there are a few other recommended reading lists out there.  I also find that asking my Rabbi for recommendations for books on a specific topic is a good idea because sometimes he or the Rebbetzin will have books they like that aren’t on my reading lists that give me a new perspective.  Our bookshelves are filled with books on the three major mitzvahs of kashrus, Shabbos, and Taharas Hamispacha, along with a slew of other Jewish topics.  I’m also always poking around our Synagogue’s library.

From the reading comes questions and from the questions often come the teachers we need.  Asking a friend questions about what I was reading about Taharas Hamispacha led her to suggest we have a chavrusa (kind of like a 2 person study circle) for it.  Asking a Rabbi I knew about some Hebrew words I was struggling with was what sparked his offer to teach me more reading.  Asking questions of one of the teachers in the local day school landed us a recommendation for a tutor for the kids.  Once our community saw that we were already putting in the work to learn, opportunities popped up often.

This is one area of the conversion process that conversion candidates DO have a lot of power to impact their own process.

Much of the process is out of our hands and in Hashem’s hands.  It’s hard to know what a Beis Din is looking for when you speak with them or how they know a candidate is ready.  It’s hard to know what abstract timelines the Rabbis involved may have in their heads and it’s even sometimes tough to know exactly what you should or should not be doing to be making progress.  Still, you can always be learning, especially today with SO many resources available right online (I have a list of learning resources, too).

There really is no reason to be waiting for someone to spoon feed you information.  The worst that happens is you wind up learning something that maybe doesn’t fit with your Rabbi’s particular perspective, in which case, you have an opportunity to ask him for his and for resources that fit with it.  As long as you’re not getting lost in kabbalah, but instead concentrating on the basics of mitzvah observance, it’s tough to go too wrong, particularly if you’re using mainstream orthodox resources like the ones recommended in most conversion groups.  I’ve also found that there are so many layers even to what seems simple that it’s hard to run out of things to study, even when I narrow down my focus to just what is necessary for conversion.

While I do envy the converts I know who have wonderful, warm stories of a sponsoring Rabbi who really took them under their wing and closely guided their learning, I don’t think that’s the majority experience of converts.  I think most of us have to put in our own work and I think most congregational Rabbis already have so much to do in a day it’s a wonder they sleep at all.  There is also something to be said for doing that kind of work yourself.  While I may not have as close a relationship with one Rabbi, I have been gifted with a lot of different teachers each with their own perspective and gifts.  I’ve also come across so much extra knowledge that I might have missed out on if I hadn’t had to go searching myself.  I learned to not be quite so shy about asking questions and networking to find tutors, rather than feeling lost if I didn’t have a good guide.  I was able to learn about the halakhic times for prayer from a very punctual Yekke Rabbi (Yekkes are Jews originally from Germany and as a gross generalization, they’re usually on time and strict about measuring things), Jewish Spirituality from a Lubavitch BT, teshuva from a Yeshivish Rabbi, and a lot of other subjects from the perspectives of Jewish teachers and Rabbis who loved their subjects.

While it is important to attend local classes, I found that doing my own study was just as important, to help add to what I was learning as well as show the Rabbis working with me my commitment to learning.  An Orthodox Jewish life is one of lifelong learning and it’s definitely one area of Orthodox life that is open to conversion candidates even before the mikvah.

There is a tendency in a lot of communities to assume that you have everything you need unless you start asking for it and showing that you are serious.  Many smaller communities have people at various stages of observance and often other people won’t want to make someone uncomfortable by offering them resources they might not want yet.  Passing a book on kosher to someone who is happy with where they are, kashrus-wise, might be seen as rude or judgmental.  I’ve found this is true not only when it comes to learning, but also when it comes to things like local kosher food resources, places to stay for Shabbos, and any number of things.  If I ask questions and show that I’m already putting in the work myself to find what I need, then often offers of help come.

It all starts with paddling our own canoes, even if we’re a little awkward with it and our canoe is leaky.  Then, I find, Hashem does bring what we need to keep on going.

Conversion Advice – You’ve Gotta Love BOTH

I had one reader have a very negative reaction to a writing I did yesterday about the current state of conversion.  Basically, by writing about my experiences and some of the other issues I have known about, this person was discouraged from attempting an Orthodox Jewish conversion herself and her image of the Jewish people was changed.  The words were strong and it made me question if I’d done the right thing writing what I did.  I’m including an excerpt here:

Your article sickened me, I had to stop reading it – I was so horrified by what I read. I have admired your culture and religion for most of my life. I have considered converting, more than once. You have saved me, by writing this, from making a terrible, terrible mistake. I thank you for that. But, I have no tolerance, whatsoever, for “human error” harming good people, who are so very sincere.
Something has, obviously, gone terribly wrong. Or, perhaps, I was wrong all along.
Good luck to you, but this information has left me heartbroken. Not for me, but for you.

There is a concept in Judaism of a “chillul Hashem,” basically, this is the idea that if you as a Jewish person commit an act or speak in a way that brings shame to the Jewish people, it can be serious enough to be an offense against G-d, desecrating His name.  The idea is most often used in reference to causing scandals or spreading gossip, but I began to wonder if I had myself committed a chillul Hashem by being so open about issues with the current process of Orthodox Jewish Conversion.  That was not my intention and I’m still not completely sure.  Sometimes it is important to talk about problems so that we can raise awareness of them and work together to improve them, but maybe a public blog isn’t always the best forum.  I’ll need to think on that one a while and I may or may not remove some posts based on it.

However, another thread in this comment stood out for me and it’s one that I do find often repeated among conversion candidates and is worth talking about.

I often will speak with conversion candidates who are head over heels in love with Judaism the religion, but struggle with the Jewish people and I also meet conversion candidates that really love the Jewish people and living among Jews, but struggle with Judaism as a religion.

One of the complicated things about Orthodox Jewish conversion that I think makes it different from a lot of other religious initiations is that by converting to Judaism, you’re really signing on to both the religion and the people.  There is no way to accept one while rejecting the other and still be successful as a convert.

Part of this is due to the communal nature of Orthodox Jewish observance, which I have written about previously.  At some point, in order to convert, a conversion candidate has to move to a community and live among Jews.  Men need to pray with a minyan 3 times daily and even for women, life kind of revolves around the Jewish community.  Being an Orthodox Jew means spending most of your free time with other Orthodox Jews doing Orthodox Jewish things.  Not feeling love or acceptance either for or towards your fellow Jews can make those hours very long and painful.

While there is a lot of diversity between communities and cultures, there are some generalizations, at least here in the US.  Most Jewish people here have a culture that at times can seem like a loud, boisterous family.  Every Synagogue has its characters, from the gossipy yenta to the guy who sings obnoxiously over the chazzan (prayer leader) to a whole wide variety of people you might not otherwise choose to socialize with.  Now, though, as a convert or conversion candidate, these people are family and you can’t exactly just avoid them.  For people unfamiliar with the culture, I like to use the movie “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” as an imperfect example.  People talk over each other, elbow their way to the kiddush line, and can be very blunt.  At the same time, there is tremendous warmth and I’ve seen Orthodox Jews come together to support a family, with some of the people most generous with their time or resources being those you thought couldn’t stand each other.

Conversion is like dating an entire people with all their strengths and weaknesses, flaws and potential.  You have to get to know them and learn if you can accept them as they are and if they can accept you.  After so many thousands of years, they’re not going to change to please you any more than your spouse could suddenly get rid of every trait that annoys you about them.  For me, that did take some time.  Since my first crush with Judaism was with the religion, it took me a while to reconcile the fact that Jews, as a whole, are not a perfect reflection of the religion they follow.  I had to learn to accept that as humans, they would not always live up to their own ideals, let alone the pedestal I’d set up for them.  Just like I had to learn to love Mr. Safek for who he is instead of expecting him to always be a superhero, even though he might himself want to be a superhero.

And I do deeply love the Jewish people as a nation.  I love the life and warmth and genuine caring I so often see.  I love the stubborn determination, the lively disagreements, and I love Israeli directness.  The more I “date” the Jewish people, the more I begin to see their “negative” traits more as loveable quirks and also as the flip side of the traits I so admire about them.  I’m also just as defensive about them to others as I might be if someone outside the family poked fun at one of my husband’s quirks.  Some jokes are only funny when you’re around all family, you know.

I have also met conversion candidates who already loved the Jewish people, sometimes having grown up among Jews and just really fallen in love with the culture.

Sometimes, though, these conversion candidates struggle with learning to love the religious aspects of Judaism.  Often, they admit that they’d rather not take on observance fully and really just want to be part of the people, but they also want to be fully recognized as part of the Jewish people, with the ability to go to almost any Synagogue and be welcomed as a Jew or go to Israel and register as a Jew.  They may seek out an Orthodox conversion not because they want to live an Orthodox lifestyle after conversion but more because they want the best stamp of approval of their Jewishness they think they can get.

Some eventually do fall in love with Orthodox Judaism, after lots of questions and wrestling and those converts seem to blend seamlessly into the Jewish community while I’m still eyeing the kiddush line with some trepidation.  The ones that do not, though, very often wind up giving up observance not long after conversion, if they make it to conversion and they can cause real issues for others in the process as well as a lot of regret for the Rabbis that helped them.

It’s easy for a potential convert who is drawn to the religion of Judaism to become frustrated with the lapses of actual Jews and it’s easy for a conversion candidate who is drawn to the Jewish nation to be frustrated with the strictness of Orthodox observance or the basic tenets of Jewish faith.  Still, in order to find fulfillment and happiness as an Orthodox Jewish convert, it’s important to learn to love both.

If there’s one thing that history has taught the world, it’s that Jews and Judaism are stubbornly inseparable.  It’s important that a convert feel that’s a good thing.

Don’t Lose What Makes You, YOU! Advice for Orthodox Jewish Converts and Baleei Teshuva!

The times that I have fallen in love, I’ve had a tendency to lose myself in the man I’ve fallen in love with.  It’s a pleasant kind of loss of identity and it happens slowly, subtly until I realize that I suddenly have new habits, preferences, and tastes.  Similarly, over the years, I have watched those newly in love with Judaism lose some of themselves as they took on observance.  I’ve even been that person myself (usually when I write any conversion tips, it’s so others can learn from my own mistakes!).  It’s one of the side effects of one of those early stages of love, the heady infatuation part.

The problem with this often comes later, when reality sets in, both in love and observance.

In love, after the glow wore off, I’d find that I really didn’t like that food I’d been trying to like because he liked it or that hobby that he really enjoyed.  Then, I would have to be honest with myself and him and find my own preferences again.  Mr. Safek LOVES tabletop roleplaying games.  For those unfamiliar with these, they can be very involved, with complicated math to tell you whether or not you’ve killed whatever monster has “appeared” and backstories written for your character, down to painted figurines.  He revels in all this, completely geeking out.  Initially, when we got together, I tried to be all about it, too.  I painted figures for him and went with him to games and tried to be interested.  Once the glow of just doing something with him subsided, though, to a more normal level, I realized…I really find this kind of gaming rather tedious and boring.  I’d rather be reading a book or knitting!

In Judaism, this often takes on the form of a person who previously wasn’t observant suddenly taking on very strict observance or very specific customs and throwing away things like their favorite clothes, music, movies, or hobbies because they simply aren’t “Jewish enough.”  At first, anything Jewish is automatically better, more authentic, and more worthy of time and energy, but after the initial excitement of “being Orthodox” wears off and the day to day reality of Orthodoxy sets in, this can become a problem.

Observance is essentially a collection of habits that are based in Torah and combine to form an Orthodox or frum life.  Given this, tossing out everything you were before you decided to become religious works about as well in the long term as going off to a spa for three weeks to lose weight.  Sure, as long as you exist in this different world away from your “normal” life, you’ll eat healthy, exercise, and have all these great healthy habits, but what about when you return home?  Similarly, the challenge for both converts and BT’s (Jews who weren’t raised Orthodox, but later take on observance) is to find a way to integrate these new habits into their life.  Throwing away everything that made you who you are and simply taking on the persona of what you think is the ideal Orthodox Jew very rarely works long term.  What happens when the only choice you think you have is to either never enjoy the things you once did or go completely and utterly off the derech?  (OTD – giving up observance, going off the “path”)

This is partially why everyone encourages converts to take on observance slowly and to be moderate in their observance, but beyond that, I think it takes learning how you can still do many of the activities and pursue many of the interests you had before you came to Orthodox Judaism, but within the confines of Jewish law.  In this way, it’s less a question of “either or.”

In some ways, many converts have an easier time grasping this than born Jews becoming religious because we already have to find creative halakhic ways to navigate things like holidays with our non-Jewish family or eating with non-Jewish family.  We’re used to having to find some kind of middle ground between our pasts and our presents that is still allowed by Torah since there is a major mitzvah to honor one’s parents and in most cases our parents aren’t converting with us.  I’ve often seen more tension when a child of secular parents decides to become religious because there can be more pressure on the parents to accommodate their child’s new observance.

I’ve had a few interests or hobbies that I just couldn’t find a way to fit into an Orthodox lifestyle, but, by in large, with the help of Rabbis, I’ve been able to integrate most of who I was into who I am.  I take an aerial yoga class, something I came to enjoy during our break from our conversion process.  These classes involve a really wonderful mix of flexibility, strength, and endurance and I find them fun as well.  As we returned to our conversion process, I had already been sidelined from my classes with some minor health issues I was working through, but I was a little sad about the idea that I wouldn’t be able to take them back up again.

That’s when it finally occurred to me to ask a Rabbi if there might be a way for me to do these classes, but not violate Torah laws.  We looked at who takes the classes, whether there are windows in the building men could look through, what clothing do I need to wear to be able to do the activity and how could that be made modest?  What kind of music do we work out to?  I found tznius workout skirts with built-in leggings and undershirts and tops as well as headcoverings that don’t slip even when I’m upside down.  The classes are almost always all women, but there are windows, so we sided on the side of greater modesty and I avoid the kinds of classes that would have immodest positions and any classes that could work in any of the spiritual aspects of yoga versus the fitness parts.  I’ve been back for three weeks so far and while I might not be the most fashionable looking woman there, I’m very glad to be able to be there and without compromising following Torah.

This is just one example and after a while, it becomes fun to look for ways to do things in a way that is consistent with Torah law and then check with a Rabbi to see if I’m on the right track, like a puzzle to solve.  We’ve done this with camping trips, with my upcoming work trip to the North Slope, and with our hobbies and the kids’ public schooling.  Sometimes, the answer is, “No, there just isn’t a way to make that work with Torah law,” but more often than not, it’s more about how we do something than if we do it all.  By making old interests and hobbies as well as time spent with non-Jewish friends a priority even if it involves some creative problem solving, our family feels more cohesive in our observance and more positive.

It might not fit with a more stringent view of Orthodoxy, but it’s a balance that is approved by my Rabbi, fits within halakhah, and allows me to be me and an Orthodox Jew.  I make time for hobbies I enjoyed long before conversion ever entered my mind and I find new insights in many of them from my Jewish studies.

I think it’s important, for long term success, to be able to form a Judaism that enhances one’s life rather than reduces it to a long list of “don’ts” and where there is a will, there is often a halakhic way to find compromises that allow for a kosher life that is sustainable and full of joy.

Discouraging the Convert

My very good friend over at Jewish Thoughts wrote a great blog post today about Orthodox Jewish converts, questioning how the Orthodox community treats them.  After detailing some of the painful things that she has seen with the converts that she knows, she asks some very good questions.

So what exactly should we do?

I’m not asking for us to start encouraging people to convert. That would be forbidden. But I am asking us to look critically at the conversion process and ask ourselves, and our dayanim, if it is really necessary to make it so gruelling and drawn out, and so filled with discouragement and difficulty. Is this really what G-d would want us to do, when the potential convert already has a Jewish neshomo?

As someone who’s been the conversion process for almost 7 years now and who has traveled between different communities as part of that process, this is definitely something I’ve wrestled with.  Conversion wasn’t always the beast it is today.  As little as 20 years ago or less, conversion was a local affair.  Congregational Rabbis were entrusted with teaching converts, ascertaining their readiness for conversion, and then assembling a Beit Din to witness the conversion.  Conversions were rarely questioned after the fact and while converts did encounter stigma and judgment, they did not often have to fear their conversions somehow being revoked after the fact.

There were downsides to this.  Some unscrupulous Rabbis used this system to abuse converts, either extorting them for money or even sexually harassing them.  There were some pretty big public chillul Hashems and scandals.  There were more mundane problems as well in that what a convert needed to know and be committed to doing prior to conversion varied widely.  My mother-in-law, unfortunately, found herself in the position that many converts later did, having thought that she’d had a “kosher” conversion only to find it questioned many years later, after she’d had children, and having to undergo a second conversion and watch her children also suffer.  Without some kind of uniform standards, it was hard for a convert to know if their conversion would be accepted in other places or in years to come.

I’d say that most born Jews who haven’t been privy to the details of a convert’s process lately probably aren’t aware that the system has changed a lot from how it was previously and I think that is a big part of the problem.  Many assume that conversion is simpler or easier than it is or don’t realize the beast it has become.

For this as well as some political reasons that I don’t feel qualified to discuss, there was a narrowing of the conversion process, moving it to more centralized control.  Now, a local congregational Rabbi can sponsor a conversion candidate and a few isolated Rabbis can still handle their own conversions, but by in large it is some form of regional Beit Din that handles most of the conversion process and standards are both more stringent and uniform, although different Beit Dins can still vary on some details.  Even being a sponsoring Rabbi, though, has become more risky in the eyes of Rabbis.  No one wants to help convert insincere converts, who later leave observance for whatever reason.

It’s said that converts should be discouraged and turned away 3 times.  This is taken from the story of Ruth where her mother in law, Naomi, attempts to send her back to her people three times before finally giving in and bringing her with her to Israel.  What this has become in modern times, though, is something else entirely.  In some cases, “discouragement” means that scheduled meetings are missed by the Rabbi or repeatedly rescheduled.  Paperwork is frequently “lost” and has to be filled out multiple times.  It’s not uncommon to have to switch from one Beit Din to another for any number of reasons.  I like to file most of this under “bureaucratic discouragement.”  It’s often hard to be able to tell if this is just inefficiency in a system or if it’s intentional unless you hear of someone else whose meetings are kept and paperwork isn’t lost.  Those who mentor converts tell them to expect it.  Keep multiple copies of paperwork and keep confirming and rescheduling appointments.

Other times it’s more overt.  We were part of one community where the local Rav instructed families not to invite converts in process over for any Yom Tov meals.  This Rabbi also would avoid shaking a male’s hand if he was in the process of conversion, shaking the hand of the man next to him and on the other side of him.  It was his belief that a conversion candidate essentially should be socially shunned until the process was complete, even if that process took years.  B”H, that’s not a majority opinion and we are no longer in that community, but similar social isolation often does happen to converts, even after conversion.  In other communities, the level of stringency of observance required of conversion candidates or converts can actually separate them from their community, where a majority do not hold to the same.  There’s also more mundane social discouragement, like being left out of some Synagogue activities or the intrusive questions at kiddush.

And then there are the mind games that some Rabbis and Beit Dins do play.  I have heard of married couples, questioned separately and told that their spouse has decided not to convert, just to see if they are so committed to conversion that they’ll agree to leave their spouse in order to complete their conversion.  I’ve left a Rabbi’s office in tears myself after a dose of “discouragement,” although he was also very eager to make sure I knew about a fundraiser they were doing as I wiped my tears on the way out.  There are vague answers that leave converts in knots trying to figure out what the “right” thing to do in a halakhic situation is.  There are unclear procedures that leave a conversion candidate never quite sure how to plan.  Do you buy kitchen things you need now, knowing you might have to throw them out at any time because you’re suddenly approved to convert?  On the other hand, it could be years from now, so is it wise to wait?  Do you have another child?  Will you be able to marry in time to have children?  What do you do if a good job in another city comes up?  Moving would mean starting your conversion process all over again.

Even worse, there are many people in this process who were “born Jewish,” but whose halakhic status was later called into question.  My husband is going on his second conversion process now to resolve questions of his halakhic status.  He had a bris, a bar mitzvah, and went to an Orthodox Jewish day school.  For years, he hasn’t been able to have an aliyah, carry a Torah, or be counted in a minyan.  He’s lived for years not knowing if the next time he is again called to the Torah if he’ll be called as his father’s son…or as Avraham’s, his father’s line cut off because of a paperwork error in his mother’s conversion before he was born and another paperwork error in his gerus l’chumrah before his bar mitzvah.

No, I don’t think this is what Torah tells us about converts at all.

The bigger question is what can or should we do about it?  Unfortunately, most of us have very little power to make any change in this system.  Most of us don’t have any influence on how young Rabbis are taught as far as how to handle conversion candidates and I think that it is likely that Rabbis have to learn so much and such a wide breadth of information that little time is spent teaching them how to handle conversion candidates with sensitivity.  There is also the problem that some conversion candidates make it harder for all the other conversion candidates that come after them.  I don’t think I know a single Rabbi that sponsors conversion candidates that doesn’t have some pretty awful horror stories of converts that were far from sincere, who went completely off the derech (gave up observance) quickly after conversion or disappeared from any Jewish community entirely.  There are plenty of good, sincere Rabbis who deeply believe that the sins those converts commit are also on the heads of the Rabbis who helped them convert and they also fear that if they have too many of those “conversion failures” under their name that it will eventually harm the sincere converts that they have helped.

Over the years, I’ve dug at the mess myself and talked with Rabbis who work mentoring converts, Rabbis who work with organizations that help converts in Israel gain recognition of their Jewish status there, and even spoken with a Rabbi who has chosen to do conversions that aren’t accepted by the Israeli Rabbinate because he so objects to the current state of the system.  The conclusion I’ve come to after all this, everything our family has been through, and the years I’ve spent in this is that the problem is just so much bigger than most of us have any power to impact.  It’s one of those world problems that I think only Moshiach might resolve…and that resolution is that there will come a time when converts can no longer be accepted at all and the process will close.

In the meantime, what I think we all can do is do our part to be kind to converts and conversion candidates.  If you have some at your Synagogue, sit next to them.  Talk to them.  Ask if there’s anything you could do to help with their process, like being a chavrusa (study partner) in their learning or helping them find good books for whatever subject they’re working on.  Invite them to your home when you can and include them in Jewish activities.  If you see that they’re being excluded from some Synagogue activities, ask your Rabbi about it.  Sometimes, it’s just a simple oversight and bringing some awareness to it might help them remember to include them.  Speak up if you see the local yenta (gossip) cornering a convert or conversion candidate, asking intrusive questions.

Mostly, whenever you can, just treat them like the fellow Jew that they so very much want to be.

The advice I give to conversion candidates who are grappling with all this is that they have to find a place of acceptance of it all if they’re going to ever find peace and joy in a Jewish life.  There are double standards for converts, even after the mikvah.  There will always be some Jews that won’t accept your conversion, for whatever reason.  There will also be born Jews (mostly secular or really liberal) who simply “don’t believe in conversion” for whom Jewishness is more about race than religion.  There will always be people that look down on converts or exclude them.  The question the conversion candidate needs to answer is…even with that, can they still love Judaism and the Jewish people and find joy and fulfillment living as a convert?  That question wasn’t easy for me to answer for several years, with so much hurt and anger, but eventually, I had to let go of the hurt and anger and find the answer for myself.  My answer was “Yes, yes I can still find the joy and yes I can still love this imperfect, nosey, stubborn, and even sometimes rude people as my own.”  Like I learned to love my husband’s imperfections because they make him uniquely him, I had to come to a similar place with the humanity of my fellow Jews, even where it moved them to be hurtful towards me.  Still, I can definitely understand and empathize with those who made another choice and moved on.

The conversion process and the life that comes after it are not for everyone.  It’s not an easy life, a “fair” life.  It is, however, a life that is really full of amazing opportunities for spiritual growth if you look for them.  I’ve learned more about humility, inner strength, emuna (faith), trust, and any number of things from my conversion process.  I’ve learned to let go and trust Hashem in ways I never thought I could.  I’ve been broken down to the point I was sobbing and wondering if I’d made the biggest mistake of my life, but I’ve also been built back up.  I’ve seen the best and worst sides of Orthodox Judaism, but I’ve also seen the amazing potential of the Jewish people.  In many ways, I think having to go through this has made me more passionate about Judaism than I ever could have been if it simply was my birthright.

It’s definitely not a path for everyone and those who choose to leave conversion are not weak.  In fact, they’re probably just rational, logical people who are making the best choice for themselves in a rough situation.  Perhaps those of us who stay are simply the most stiff-necked among them, the ones who would have fit right in with the unruly group Moshe was guiding through the desert.  Perhaps it now takes an unreasonable process to shape people into a kind of unreasonable faith, to help uncover that Jewish neshama that was unreasonable enough to say that they would accept the Torah even before they read it?

All I know is that it’s my path for as much as I’ve tried to leave it, I’ve always come back.  In that way, it is a lot like the kind of love that makes two people stubbornly stick together against all odds, for a lifetime…or leave their homeland and comfort to be a beggar in a foreign land with their mother in law, like Ruth.  Being a convert means being stubbornly committed to the Jewish people even when they seem least deserving of your love and loyalty, just like a spouse that’s showing you their worst side.

I just often wish that the Jewish people worked harder to also show converts their best side, too.