Peeking Through the Door

I’m still thinking about what I would like to do with this blog and how it might be useful, but setting that aside for a moment, I do feel like it’s important to give my friends here some updates on where our family is at as far as the conversion process and the big move.  I know I never like big cliffhangers that are never resolved.

Next week, our family is traveling to what we hope will be our new home community, thousands of miles away in the lower 48.  We’ll be staying by a family for Shabbos within the community and visiting several different schools as well as speaking with a realtor while we’re there.  I’m excited and nervous, as if our whole family were going on a first date and hoping to make our best impression as well as hoping that this will be “the one.”  At the same time, there’s the feeling that we need to keep our eyes open even as we listen to our hearts.

From my years talking with converts both in person and online, I know that it’s critical to find a community that is a good fit.  When I’ve talked to converts who have gone OTD (Off the Derech, that is, leaving observance) one of the most repeated explanations was that they never felt accepted and never fully integrated into an Orthodox Jewish community.  Every Jewish community has its own personality and what might be a great fit for one convert could be the worst for another.

We’re looking for a community where people are growing in their Yiddishkeit, where learning is a priority for adults as well as children, and where there is warmth.  Finding a diversity of backgrounds among the community is a definite plus since that tends to make it more likely that we’ll integrate well.  We’re looking for schools that feel like they’ll be a good fit for our children and a welcoming atmosphere and we’re also looking for a place where the average level of observance is close to what is expected of Orthodox converts.  It can be tough to fit in with a community when the level of observance you’re expected to keep is a lot different from what most families are holding by.

It’s a lot like dating again and again, I have to trust that Hashem has a perfect fit for us, somewhere, a community we’ll feel lucky to be a part of and that will feel glad that we’ve joined them as well.  We’re hoping to get off on the right foot by already making introductions with the Rabbis and Principals of the schools we’re visiting and talking with them prior to our visit, letting them know our situation.

And of course, a lot of davening, because ultimately, Hashem is the one making this match, if there will be one.

In the meantime, our sponsoring Rabbi has been working with our Beis Din and that part of our process is moving forward, even without the Shabbat RV as a part of it.  This means some more lonely Shabboses at home and it might possibly mean we move sooner than we’d planned.  Our house is almost ready to go on the market and we’re going through our belongings, deciding what will stay and what we will let go of.  In general, we will be moving as little stuff as possible since it most cases the cost of moving anything this far is more than the object is worth.  Only what has strong sentimental value or would be difficult to replace will come with us.

Wherever we wind up, we will wind up with only the basics…a fresh start in a new home, Hashem willing, as new people.

It definitely is a leap of faith of sorts, selling pretty much everything we own and moving so far, but our family are working together to make this happen in a way that inspires me.  I know our family is special when I see how dedicated our children are to this even though it means leaving friends and Alaska behind.  I know we’ll miss the wilderness, the mountains, the glaciers, but we also all get excited looking at neighborhoods and schools online and imagining all the opportunities this new life might open up for us.  Our children dream of visiting Israel and of reaching the point that they’re teaching us from what they are learning.  I dream of growing in my own learning and deepening my observance of mitzvos.  My husband is just excited to have daily minyans to daven with, rather than being all alone except for Shabbos.  I look forward to a community where I can help out, too, something that helps me feel more connected and useful…needed as I am up here.

For balance, we’re also making sure that some of the things we love are still where we are going.  We’re only looking at communities that have snow and hiking trails within a short drive and where our quirky outdoorsy-ness won’t be too unusual.

Next week, we’ll be peeking at communities and paths we could take next before we take that great leap.  I know we won’t be able to know everything we might want to before we make our decision, but I’m glad we’re taking this trip together to get a taste of what might be our next home…and next big adventure.

Reconsidering The Blog

It’s almost been a year now since I began this blog.  At the time, I began it because I didn’t see a lot of conversion stories being told, at least not being told in detail with all the complexity involved.  I also didn’t see a lot of resources for prospective Orthodox Jewish converts out there beyond what to study and read.  There were so many things we’ve learned over the years in our own process that I wish we’d known years earlier that I thought a blog might be helpful to others starting this path.

I also just needed a place to be able to put words to what we had experienced and are still experiencing, both the highs and the lows.  It’s easy to feel like neither your Jewish nor non-Jewish friends really understand what you’re going through.

I’m beginning to think, though, that my family and I are just such outliers when it comes to conversion that our experiences and any advice we might share…might just be irrelevant to most people.  I do participate in a couple of online groups for Orthodox conversion candidates and there isn’t a ton of discussion there, either, but I do answer questions when they’re asked.

On the whole, for most people, conversion is a much shorter part of their lives, a year or two.  It also seems to be a process which causes them to draw inward rather than reach out.  Maybe they have great support networks and Rabbis that guide them more closely.  Maybe they start the process and decide quickly that it’s not for them or else start it and finish it in a rather linear way.

In any case, I’m finding few people needing to hear what I have to say and I feel mostly like I’m talking to myself.  I suppose that has its own value, but I could always just begin a private journal instead.

With the pace of preparing for our move picking up…I’m considering closing down this blog and simply concentrating on what’s right in front of me with my family and our own conversion process.  I don’t feel like I have any great truths to share or unique insights.

I thank those of you who have been reading for traveling along with me.  I’m still unsure of the final destination, but I have faith that we will finish our conversion process and find the right Jewish community to settle down in.  I have that faith because we’re committed to continuing on, no matter how many times we have to start over and how many twists and turns happen along the way.  We’ll move wherever we need to and just keep moving forward.

I hope everyone has a bright and inspiring Chanukah season!

Chanukah Sameach from Alaska!

It is fitting that the celebration of Chanukah comes so close to the winter solstice, the darkest part of the long dark winter of Alaska.  Chanukah reminds us that we can always add light and the story of Chanukah is one of Jews bravely sticking to their traditions and refusing to assimilate, even when the pressure is high.

My daughter was particularly excited when I came home from work yesterday, bouncing up and down with anticipation and saying, “It’s Chanukah, It’s Chanukah, oh my gosh, it’s Chanukah!!!”  Her face was beaming.  For her and her brother, Chanukah is a welcome break from everything they are deluged with this time of year, being in public school.  This year wasn’t too bad.  There was the Christmas themed field trip my daughter skipped, opting instead to spend the morning at home.  There were a few projects we had to insist that the kids be allowed to make alternate projects for.  There were Christmas themed movie nights and and school parties the kids skipped.  Then there are the Orchestra concerts where they’ll play mostly Christmas music, along with maybe a Chanukah song.

All these are just reminders of why we’re working so hard to move somewhere where there are Jewish schools.

In the midst of all these challenges comes a light, first one candle lit, that grows.  It reminds us that we’re almost through the darkest days of winter and the sun will be returning.  It reminds us of traditions and a link to a people who have certainly clung to their faith in much tougher circumstances.  It also reminds us that Hashem is with those who stubbornly follow Him, even to the point of creating miracles

My latke recipe is out and we have the “Spinagogue” (a kind of dreidel stadium that just came out on kickstarter this year) all set up for play.

May everyone find their little corner of bliss this holiday season!

How a Trip to the Ends of the Earth Helped Me Make Peace with Christmas as a Jew

Last week, I traveled to the north slope of Alaska, about as far north as anyone can go, and I spent almost a week in an oil camp.  This was probably the most unlikely place for an Orthodox conversion candidate.  As part of my work there, I had to walk through every dorm room unless someone was asleep and every office and workspace, so I got to know the camp in a way that few probably do.

It was probably about the most Christian place I’ve ever been to.  The dining halls played Christmas music 24/7 since the camp operates 24/7.  They play it all December and it sometimes becomes a bit much even for them.  In particular, “Merry Christmas Ya’all from Texas” gets stuck in your head in the worst way.  There were Christmas decorations everywhere and I was wished a Merry Christmas by kind and well-meaning people everywhere I went.  I guess it was almost like being at the North Pole!  In their dorm rooms, there were symbols of Christianity, bibles, even magazines for bible study.  The announcement board had various Christian bible studies and even services advertised for Saturday night.  To say I felt a bit out of my element is an understatement.

As I ate my reheated kosher meal with Christmas music playing and everyone around me enjoying fresh non-kosher food, I began to rethink my attitudes toward Christmas and Christianity in general.  Why did I feel such revulsion?  Why was I so defensive, so grumpy?  Was it that I felt like I had to openly reject this in order to protect my Jewishness?  Sure, maybe it was presumptuous for people years ago to ask my kids what Santa was bringing them for Christmas, but I’m sure they meant well.  These were people living their faith just as I try to.  They were earnest in their beliefs and the warmth with which they gave their holiday greetings was sincere.  In such a cold place, I didn’t really stick out as being anything different.  My choice of skirts over pants might have been unusual, but just being female there was already unusual, so it was natural they would assume I was Christian like them.

Just because their beliefs never fit me doesn’t mean I need to have such high walls up against them.  In fact, the fact that I was raised Catholic and never found anything there for me should be enough to tell me that I have nothing to fear from Christmas carols.  If I’m truly happy in Judaism, then why not wish the same for them in their faith?

Inside, I felt some tension ease and I could look at all those old symbols with fresh eyes, realizing that they meant me no harm.  I could smile and wish someone a Merry Christmas, even while letting them know my family and I celebrate Chanukah.  I began to see their confusion for what it was, rather than judgement.  I also found myself looking forward to Chanukah more, where before I’d simply been thinking about all the work for the shul’s annual Chanukah party that was coming up and trying to figure out when I’d find time to make latkes.  It was as if my grinchy attitudes towards my neighbors celebrations had been bleeding over to my own.

It took flying up into the far arctic to melt my heart some to where I no longer felt under attack by Christmas carols and lights, but instead could focus on the joy of my own holiday season and genuinely wish my coworkers, friends, and my non-Jewish family happy holidays of their own.  I stepped off the plane home on Motzei Shabbos with a lighter heart, ready for Chanukah!

In the Darkness of a Blizzard

At the northern edge of humanity
hidden in a polar embrace
forbidden candles flicker and dance
outside wind howls
in the hallway, workers trudge day and night

Inside, there is an island, tiny and fragile
my lips whisper blessings
my cup holds only water, not wine
my table only matzah, not challah
my family far away

I welcome the Shabbos queen
wondering if she’s visited here before
has she seen the unending night?
has she watched out for polar bears?
does she travel this far north?

I say more blessings and curl up in my bed
a small bit of comfort in a small room
a book for company
forbidden candles dying down
prayers for a safe return home on my lips

The Sabbath and I huddle together
strangers in this place
I picture my family, safe and warm
the brighter glow of welcome candles
the Sabbath and I drift off to sleep

To the Edge of the World

Tomorrow I board my flight to Kuparuk, to spend a week in one of the most remote, most extreme parts of the world.  I will most likely be the furthest north person celebrating Shabbos in the world this week, in a land where the sun will not rise for months.  I’ve consulted my Rav about the various laws for lighting there and he’s instructed me to follow lighting times for Fairbanks, the closest location that still has a sunrise and sunset.

The only way to work my way out of the darkness is to travel deeper into it.

In contrast, in just a couple of weeks after this trip to the extreme north, my family and I will be traveling south to scout out what we hope will be our new community, down in the “lower 48,” as Alaskans call the rest of the United States.  My trip flight north will only be a couple of hours shorter than our flight south, but to me, it’s a journey to two extremes.  One is a world set so far apart from Jewish community, where everyone around me will be working 12 hour shifts for 2 weeks straight before they fly out for 2 weeks off work.  There, not only is there no sunlight to mark Shabbos by, but no Sabbath for the regular workers there.

In my Tanya class each week, our teacher uses light as a metaphor for how G-dliness filters through the different worlds to our own.  It’s a very powerful metaphor for me, living where I do.  Winter light in Anchorage is weak in its strength.  In color, it is whiter than light elsewhere or at other times.  It is thin light, beautifully clear for photographs, but not warming. Further north, the light decreases further until there is barely any glow of twilight in the sky and no sunrise or sunset.  The light simply cannot reach those places, hidden by the curve of the earth from its reach.

I think we all sometimes must travel through those dark places, where it is so hard to see Hashem or feel His warmth.  The only difference here is that this distance seems so visual and literal.

By contrast, further south, the light thickens like syrup.  When I visited the south of the US a few weeks ago, the sunlight flowed from the sky like warm honey, thick with warmth.  Plants and animals charge themselves in that glow and it allows things to grow.  That kind of light nourishes everything it touches where the winter light up here simply can’t do much.

There is beauty and meaning in the darkness, though.  There is a value to walking through it and a lot that a person can learn about themselves.  If a person can even find Hashem when that glow is at its faintest, then how can they lose Hashem when it is so much brighter?

As I pack and prepare to fly north, I plan to seek Hashem, even alone in the darkness of a Shabbos spent so far from family or any semblance of Jewishness.  If I can squint my eyes and find the light in that darkness, I will be confident I can find it when we’re moved where there is so much more support for the search.