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.

Judaic Studies…in Alaska (or how to teach your children when you live very remote from Day Schools!)

Next year, Hashem willing, our children will be in Orthodox day schools.  This is a requirement for most converts because we may not be able to teach our children everything they need to know when it comes to Judaism.  Most day schools are simply private schools that follow a “dual curriculum.”  Students spend roughly half their day on secular studies, which is all the stuff that public school children study and then the other half is spent on Judaic studies, where they work heavily on learning to read and understand Hebrew as well as learning all that they need to know to live an Orthodox Jewish life.

Our children were in day school when we lived in Florida, but they’ve now been out 5 years here in Alaska, so we have a LOT of catching up to do to smooth their transition back in.  I’m fairly sure that no matter how hard we work now, there’s going to be some bumps when they move back into that environment, particularly for our son who will be starting Yeshiva (high school boy’s school).  Another challenge is that we live where we live, a hour behind even Pacific time and far from any large Jewish community, so resources are a challenge to find.

But…Alaskans are resourceful by nature, so resources I have found.

An average day for us begins like anyone else’s.  We go to work and the children go to public school.  After a full day of public school, they come home and begin their homework from that day.  When I come home, I move from being a network engineer to being a homeschooling teacher.  If I’m very lucky, I have a cup of tea to soften that change!  After I’ve checked in with the kids on their secular homework, I make us some dinner and we all eat, then it’s on to Judaic studies.  I use a mix of different things.  The basics is covered by an online program for Jewish homeschoolers called Melamed Academy.  We also looked at Nigri International Jewish Online School and really liked their program, but it didn’t work out for our timezone.  Melamed Academy is mostly self-study, so it can be done at any time, so that’s what we went with.

I supplement with materials from chinuch.org.  It’s primarily a website in which Jewish educators share materials, but anyone can create an account and download educational materials for free.  I find extra vocabulary lists, study sheets, and parsha study sheets there.  In addition, high on my mind is that my son will need to prepare for Gemara study.  To that end, he has an additional study session weekly with his Zaide.  I found study guides at Boniyach.com for them to try out.  They have programs for boys from elementary school on that help ease them into Mishnah and then Gemara study and I’m hopeful that they will be helpful in their studies.  My daughter also spends a few hours every Sunday at our local Chabad House’s Hebrew school.

We try to wrap all this up by 9pm at night so that everyone can get to bed and sleep since my day begins at 4:30am, when I get up to get ready for work at 6am.

I’m very proud of the way the kids have adjusted to this schedule and their enthusiasm for their Judaic studies.  They also seem to work through their secular homework quicker because they are eager to move on to their other lessons.  I’m very fortunate that they’re both eager learners, even if it means I have to work to keep up!  We’re at a holiday lull in Judaic studies, but I’m using the time to organize materials for after the holidays when we begin the Torah over again.  I often learn alongside the children, having to study myself to help teach them.

Will it be enough to ease the transition?  I’m pretty sure there will still be some big gaps for both of them and we’ll have to help them handle being behind.  Both of them are very good students at school and won’t be used to being the kid who is behind, which is more what I worry about than them catching up.  We talk about not comparing themselves to others and also focusing on how far they have come and how proud we are of them.

I love how our days are full of Torah, even if it means my nights are sometimes a bit too short and I definitely look forward to my Shabbos shluf (nap)!

What You Get With Waiting

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.

Tools for Converts or BT’s – Bullet Journaling

If you’re in the process of conversion or even if you’re just looking to grow and add observance and study, there can be a lot to keep track of.  Classes, books to read, prayers to remember to say…it can be a lot.

Over the years, I’ve tried several different systems to keep our family on track.  I’ve mastered a google calendar and I’ve worked with different planners, but the most powerful and flexible tool I’ve found for tracking all these different things has been a bullet journal.  If you’re unfamiliar with bullet journaling, it’s a very simple paper system that can track tasks, habits, and dates and all you need is a pen and a small notebook.  I won’t go into all the ins and outs of bullet journaling itself and I’m instead going to focus on how it is particularly useful for tracking things pertaining to Orthodox Jewish observance and conversion study, but a great place to begin if you’re completely new to it is bullet journal’s official website.

I do use my bullet journal to track important dates, but where I find it most powerful is in tracking tasks and habits.  Often, I need to remember to make phone calls or send emails or bring some piece of documentation.  My task tracker is very helpful for helping me keep track of those things in one place.  You can google for a task key and use whatever symbols work for you, but this is an example of a simple daily task list that someone else made.  Mine is a bit too personal to share!

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My task list isn’t quite this pretty and is a lot more colorful, but it is filled with anything I need to remember or do on a given day.  I use different symbols for appointments and tasks or things I just need to remember and then I can carry those forward or mark them off as they’re done.  That is helpful, but the next section is where I really find the power in my bullet journal.

I use habit tracker pages to track those recurring things that I’m trying to do every day.  It can be something as simple as remembering to wash and daven morning blessings.  These are those recurring habits that begin to form an observant life and for me, tracking them, can be really helpful to keep me on track as I slowly add to my daily observance.

This is an example of someone else’s habit tracker.  Mine, again, is a little too personal for comfort to share.
bujuhabit

In my case, my habits revolve around prayers I want to say, washing netilyas yadiim, giving tzedekah, reading and study, along with a few other personal habits I want to cultivate.  Since I check my bullet journal a couple of times a day, it’s a great reminder!

The final thing about bullet journaling that I wanted to share is how you can use it to track longer term goals.  I’ve created a spread to track my progress on the 101 Goals in 1001 Days.  As part of that challenge, I have goals that I want to do daily, weekly, monthly, annually, and even just once.  That can be a lot to try to keep track of!  This is part of what I’ve come up with to help myself.

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This one is actually mine and that’s the first of 7 pages dedicated to those 101 Goals.  Mine may not be as pretty or perfect as some of the other bullet journals out there, but I primarily keep it for myself, to help me not get lost in all the things that I should be working on, whether it’s adding Hebrew vocabulary, giving tzedakah (charity), or keeping track of appointments and making phone calls.

If you’re drowning in tasks and having trouble keeping on track, why not give it a try?

A Good Shabbos to everyone and may you have a peaceful and meaningful Shabbos!

And You Shall Teach Your Son (and Daughter)…For Converts and/or BT’s

One of the things I passionately love about Judaism is the focus it has on lifelong learning, the idea that even if you’ve read the weekly parsha every week for your whole life there is still some little bit of wisdom hidden there for you to dig into.  Or, the idea that there are so many different perspectives to study, even where they conflict and intertwine.  Especially, though, that education is really one of the highest priorities in life, for life.

Jewish education, though, can sometimes be daunting if you’re joining it mid-stream.

There is a steep learning curve for many people joining an Orthodox community.  There is Hebrew to learn, often yiddish jargon to figure out, cultural bits here and there to decipher…it’s a lot to take on.  If you have children, this also means teaching your children as well so that eventually they can integrate into an Orthodox Day School environment.  For conversion candidates, this is most often something they need to do before their family will be considered for conversion and there is usually a stipulation at the time of their conversion that any future children must attend Orthodox Day Schools.

On the surface, this might seem unfair.  My born Jewish friends can send their children to any school they choose and they and their children will be absolutely Jewish, even if they receive little or no Jewish education.  Another way of looking at it, though, is that the Rabbis who oversee conversion what a newly converted Jew to have everything they need to succeed already set up before they convert so that they can successfully make that transition.  For children converting, this means having more than just their parents who may or may not have their own Jewish education there to help them learn what they need to know to be observant.  Being in an Orthodox Day School environment provides them with plenty of role models of what observance looks like and it teaches them things that a convert parent might not be able to.  Essentially, it helps replace Jewish grandparents, aunts, uncles, and all that other extended family that a born Jewish child might have to help teach.

Orthodox Day School is a whole other world from public school.  Most of these schools follow what is known as a “dual curriculum,” which means children spend half of their day in secular studies learning the subjects that their public school peers would be learning in their home language.  The other half of the day is spent on Judaic studies which differs somewhat between what boys and girls learn in some schools.  School often goes a little longer than public schools because there is so much more to cover and optional classes are minimized to make room.  By high school, most boys go to Yeshiva, which is pretty intense.  The most rigorous Yeshivas will have boys studying up to or over 14 hours a day with little time for much else.  Girls high schools are sometimes less intense but still most follow a dual curriculum.

I’ve had my children in day schools for elementary school briefly and now I’m working to prepare them to go back.  Each time, it’s been tough to figure out exactly how best to prepare them to make such a transition, but I have noticed that over the past 5 years or so, there are a lot more and a lot better online resources for Judaic studies for children.  The first time around, we supplemented what we could teach our children with a local private tutor who was warm and wonderful and that seemed to be enough, although my son still struggled a bit to keep up.  In many communities, there are kollel students or even Rabbis who are happy to take on tutoring arrangements for reasonable fees and this can be a good option.

This time around, we’re trying something different and going with an online day school.  These programs are often designed for parents who, for whatever reason, are opting to homeschool their children using a dual curriculum and help fill the need for the Judaic studies portion of the day.  In some cases, you can also purchase a secular studies option as well.  There are various to choose from with some meeting in realtime with a class and a teacher on Skype and others being more independent study.  The one we chose is independent study, mostly because we’re in such an odd timezone and the children will still be putting in a full day at public school as well.  This could really be a great option for other conversion candidates with children as they prepare to move to a day school or for BT’s with children looking to supplement without a day school.

There are also more online and better resources I’ve found for just general Jewish study for children.  In our first years of conversion, my kids watched Shalom Sesame and some videos on Chabad.org and we worked on coloring books for Hebrew.  Now, there are some great cartoons out there that teach Jewish topics in fun ways and finding books and resources online is a lot easier than it was even only 5 years ago.

I’m going to add a section to the conversion resources page for learning for children to kind of gather together some of the resources that have worked well for us in teaching our children far from a large Jewish community.

They say that you can tell what a person values by how they spend their time and money.  By those measurements, it’s pretty clear that education tops the list for most Orthodox Jewish families.  It’s also woven through holiday observance, with specific attention paid to passing on the stories and traditions of Judaism on to younger generations.

I hope, one day, to pass on what I have learned to Jewish grandchildren, although if everything works out well, they’ll probably already know more than I do.  I think this is probably the dream of every BT and convert out there, to have children that surpass us in Jewish education and to watch them find their place among the Jewish people.