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.