Thanksgiving Kosher

Thanksgiving couldn’t be more timely for our family this year.  We’ve gotten so bogged down with so many things and it’s easy to lose sight of being grateful for what we have.  Thanksgiving in Alaska comes during the deepening darkness leading up to the winter solstice, a time that can seem particularly dark even as our neighbors begin to hang their holiday lights.

Our family has a weekly Shabbos table tradition of each of us saying 3 things that we are grateful for from the week we just finished.  Bonus points are given if the person who just answered manages to ask the next person just as they begin to eat a bite of food and sometimes it’s easy to come up with three things and other times it’s a little more challenging.  It always helps us begin our Shabbos meal in the right spirit, though.  In some ways, I feel like Thanksgiving is a great holiday to break up the beginning of winter and remind us of how much we have to be thankful for.

I’ve been particularly in need of a reminder to look more at the positive.  Work has been challenging, the kids have needed a lot of help with school work, I’ve been stressed about getting the house whipped into shape for sale, and I’ve just been kind of down overall, only seeing the challenges and negatives.  As I contemplate sides that go with turkey, I’m also thinking about how I can focus more on all the places we have been so fortunate and deepen my trust that everything is going to work out for the best.

Thanksgiving is an interesting holiday for Orthodox Jews.  Some choose not to celebrate it, seeing it as being more of a Christian or non-Jewish tradition.  Some kosher keeping Jews also don’t eat turkey since there is no tradition of Jews eating the bird in the past and kosher laws can be a little tricky with birds.  Our family still eats turkey and we still celebrate Thanksgiving, albeit with kosher recipes.  When it comes to the meal, the turkey is the star of the show and for us that means a fleishig meal, meaning a meal that has meat in it and therefore no dairy.

In Alaska, that means ordering a kosher turkey (or two) ahead of time at a pretty steep cost and then rejoicing when you’re able to find them.  Our two birds each cost about $60 a piece and weigh in around 12-15 lbs, but they’re all ours and we’re grateful to have them at all.  The rest of the year, the only turkey available to us is frozen ground turkey.

Over the years, I’ve found ways to prepare sides without any dairy or using dairy substitutes.  Mashed potatoes, sweet potato casserole, even the ubiquitous green bean casserole can all be made pareve.  This year, I’m also trying out a pumpkin challah and a pareve pumpkin pie.  There are so many recipes now with so many people cutting dairy from their diet that it’s not hard to pull together a pretty nice Thanksgiving spread.

In many ways, cooking Shabbos each week makes cooking Thanksgiving a lot less daunting.  You become used to pulling together a formal dinner every week, so what’s one more?  Besides, you can COOK on Thanksgiving!!!!  To me, that makes Thanksgiving positively relaxing after all the Yom Tovim of the High Holiday season.  I love having the kids in the kitchen, helping out with their favorite dishes, music playing, and the familiar smells and tastes of my childhood.  With so many other holiday traditions that needed to get the boot when I chose to convert, it’s wonderful to have one holiday that still translates.

At first, I initially wrestled with whether or not we should keep Thanksgiving, since it isn’t really Jewish.  In my mind, though, the more I thought about it, the more I found it fit.  What’s more Jewish than a meal that brings family together to focus on all that Hashem has given them?  We wash our hands and say brachas rather than grace and we bench after the meal (benching is the blessing for after a meal with bread), but the desire to take time out of our busy lives to thank our creator for a successful harvest and all that we’ve been granted, I think, is a deeply human desire.

I hope everyone has a happy Thanksgiving, if you celebrate.  If not, it’s not that long until another warm Shabbos!  This week, with the temperatures outside dipping into the negative F, we’re planning to spend a warm Shabbos at home, resting up to return to the Shabbat RV and the cold next week!

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.

The Simchas Torah that Stole Our Simchas

It’s often when everything seems to be going along just fine with everything coming together when the unexpected happens.  This time, the kids and I were in our truck, waiting for Mr. Safek and Sam the dog to arrive at the Synagogue with the Shabbat RV 2.0.  All our meals were carefully packed up, our clothes, and the kids were very much looking forward to all the festivities of the three day Yom Tov.

And then, as we parked to wait, I looked down at my phone and saw I had a text message from Mr. Safek that made my heart stop just a moment.

“I’m ok, but please call as soon as you’re safe.”

That’s never a good sign.

Our driveway, in what is probably the only real downside of our house, slopes down into our garage.  The RV had been parked facing down this incline, towards the house and Mr. Safek had been packing it up to the road to then join us at the Synagogue.  Unfortunately, as he let up on the brake and stepped on the gas, the RV simply rolled forward instead of the engine engaging to pull the beast backwards.  It rolled in slow motion down the incline…and into the house, shattering the front windshield of the RV.  With not much time left before candle lighting, Mr. Safek had to quickly survey the damage and make a decision.

We were not going to be able to stay in the RV for the 3 day Yom Tov.

So, we had to change plans quickly, rushing to the store to gather some last minute supplies and then home to move everything out of the RV and back into the house as well as prepare to spend the holiday in the house.  The kids were crushed, knowing they would miss out on all the fun planned.  Mr. Safek was upset, feeling like he’d let the family down and worried about the damage to the house and the RV.  I was worried about us having enough food.  I’d planned on us spending at least one meal a day at the Synagogue.  B”H, everyone was ok, but suddenly, things were kind of chaotic.  No dancing, no sushi under the stars, no time spent with our community.

Life just happens sometimes.  As they say, “Man plans, G-d laughs.”

The three day Yom Tov was long, but we did get in a lot of good rest.  Books were read, games played and while a couple of our meals might have been a bit unconventional, no one starved.  We survived and talked about what a funny story this would one day be to tell.  After Shabbos, Mr. Safek discovered that the damage to the house was only a gutter and that our insurance should cover the windshield of the RV, so we’re very fortunate.  Right now, our sukkah is down in pieces, waiting for its new owner to pick it up and I’m busy putting cloves into our esrog and I’m enjoying the post-holiday quiet, a chance to catch my breath before we dive back into work, school, and everything else that was on hold a bit for the holidays.

The esrog smells amazing, mixed with the pungent spice of the cloves and the smell always reminds me of Sukkos all year long, even if our Sukkos this year was a little less joyful than some past.

Holidays aren’t always what we expect them to be and perhaps, in that, too, there’s a lesson.

Simchas Torah From My Side of the Mechitza

I’m about to log off, finish my cooking, and prepare for another 3 day Yom Tov, this time including the holiday of Simchas Torah.  Simcha means joy and this holiday is all about the joy that Jews feel when it comes to the Torah.  Other religions certainly have their holy books, but I’ve never seen quite the affection for them that Jews have for the Torah.  Physically, they treat each Torah scroll as something precious and fragile, clothed in soft, rich velvet and crowned with silver and bells.  They reach out to touch it, kissing their fingers or reach out a prayer book to touch it, considering it too holy for human fingers.  If a Torah scroll is ever dropped, the entire community is commanded to fast.

The Torah is one of the gifts that the Jews believe was uniquely given to us, along with the Sabbath and a few others.  It’s also called a “eitz chaim,” with eitz meaning tree in Hebrew and chaim meaning life.  It’s a tree of life, something to cling to in the stormy lives we live, something solid to live by.  Love of the Torah is encouraged from an early age with even tiny children being brought to kiss the Torah and their first learning of it accompanied by sweets.  When disaster has struck Jewish communities, men have risked their lives to save Torah scrolls, smuggling them out under risk of death.

It’s safe to say that the Torah occupies a unique place in Judaism of joy, love, and reverence.

Simchas Torah is the end of the High Holiday season.  It’s the day we both finish reading the Torah, the 5 books of Moses that are in a Torah scroll and begin right again.  The entire holiday is essentially like a wedding reception, the community celebrating their union with Hashem and the Torah and, like any good wedding reception, there is singing and dancing, with the Torah scrolls brought out of their ark and danced around the Synagogue or, in some places, even out into the street.  It’s a joyful day…except for many women who stare longingly at these celebrations, wishing they, too could join the men and dance with the Torah scroll.

While I’m sympathetic to these women, I’m not among them.

One thing that my long time in conversion has taught me is that we all have different parts to play.  Even after conversion, converts, at least converts today, have a very different set of expectations than born Jews.  I was discussing this with a newer conversion candidate some weeks ago, who was chafing at the inequality she saw.  She realized that while a born Jew can vary in their observance and even simply choose not to observe some mitzvos, that option is not as open to converts.  In our community, the majority of people who attend the Orthodox Chabad Synagogue drive on Shabbos to get there.  Few married women cover their hair.  Most men don’t wear a kippah outside of shul.  Most families eat non-kosher food regularly.  Yet, for a conversion candidate to do any of these would mean they wouldn’t be converted and, after conversion, if a convert decided to make these choices they might have their conversion questioned or they might cause those who were involved in their conversion to be tougher on future conversion candidates.  It’s simply the way things are and I found that being upset about the double standard didn’t help me or my family at all.

Orthodox Judaism is not egalitarian, which is in stark contrast to modern sensibilities.  In the Western world, we’re raised to believe that equality is our birthright and that everyone should be treated exactly the same regardless of their gender or family name.  Orthodox Judaism is more nuanced.  A man may be born a Kohen or Levite and have certain privileges that other Jewish men aren’t born to as well as other restrictions on his life that other Jewish men aren’t constrained by.  Men have different privileges and responsibilities than women.  There is the underlying idea that every human life is equally important and precious, but there is also the idea that what that looks like isn’t always the same.

Among the laws that impact the differences between men and women are the laws that a woman above bat mitzvah age may not sing or dance in front of men, besides very close male relatives.  How strictly that is observed depends a lot on the community.  In actual Orthodox weddings, there is often a separate area for women to dance together, cordoned off with a temporary barrier from the men and I have seen some Synagogues that do something similar for Simchas Torah as well.  To me, having grown used to the idea that some things are not for me as a non-Jew, some things are not for me even after conversion as a convert, the idea that some things are not for me because I am a woman…really isn’t revolutionary.  I am able to watch and enjoy my son and husband dance with the men without envy or jealousy in the same way I can watch my husband wear a tallis without envying him.

I do not need to dance to have joy or to express my joy, but I understand how it can sting to feel excluded from something, particularly when you are coming from a majority culture where exclusion is always seen as a negative thing.

So, as my online world as I scour for last minute recipes becomes filled with women lamenting the inequality of this holiday, I can pause and relate to how they are feeling, but I also realize that I’m not one of them.  I live my life already in a tangle of restrictions and exceptions and I have learned to find joy and fulfillment within that framework.  If I had felt similarly and remained in that place, I probably would not have lasted this long in the conversion process.  Every week, my family, in ways large and small, are excluded and if I dwelled on just that, I would soon be overwhelmed with sadness and frustration.  The same way I choose instead to focus on the joy that still is there in my life even now, I choose to focus on the joy of Simchas Torah, which goes so much further beyond dancing.  There is the joy that of all the nations, the Jews were the ones to accept the Torah and to be given it as a gift.  There is the joy that yet again, we have finished a year long journey through it, reading and studying it and that Jews have been doing this very same thing for thousands of years.  There is the joy of watching new generations encounter the Torah, wrestling with it, and making it their own.

When I think of everything that the Torah represents to Jews throughout the world and generations, as well as to my family, in some ways, I feel more comfortable with just a reverent kiss than with dancing.  There is a joy that is more intimate and personal for me that doesn’t need an audience to be real, that isn’t improved or made greater by any more movement than the movement of my siddur to the Torah and to my lips, as if everything I might have expressed in wild dancing is now concentrated and distilled down into this small act.

And in that act, I am perfectly content and envious of no one.

Trust, Sukkos, and Snow

It’s there, lurking in the forecast for this week and the weekend with cute little gradeschool snowflakes to denote the days it might happen.  Those innocent looking little snowflakes belie the fact that we don’t yet have studded tires on the truck and that we’ll be spending 3 days this week in the Shabbat RV 2.0 with only a few inches of scant insulation between us and the winter weather outside.

And yet, this all makes sense when I look at our Sukkah outside.

Hashem asks us to build a sukkah, a temporary dwelling that must be open to the elements, after Yom Kippur.  We’ve just opened ourselves up and begged Him to forgive us and grant us a shiny new clean slate and He tells us, almost in response, build a sukkah.  Nothing in the Torah or timing of the holidays is a coincidence, so it’s obvious that Yom Kippur and all that atonement has something to do with now building a hut in the yard and dwelling in it.  We’re taught to leave our homes with their thick, sturdy walls and comforts and instead move closer to Hashem, showing our trust in Him by instead eating in a small hut where we can see the stars.

Our sukkah this year is definitely a modest dwelling.  Mr. Safek built it on the smaller of our two decks, just off the dining room.  While it does fit the halakhic requirements of a sukkah, it is small and we have to kind of cram into it.  Instead of the lush palm fronts we used to use in Florida, we have dry bamboo and some pine boughs.  The cold winds that we’ve been having coming down the mountains mean that my husband has already had to re-arrange the roof a few times and there is a decent pile of leaves accumulating in the bottom.

Ours is not the picturesque, beautifully decorated Sukkah I see on pinterest or on my Facebook feed, but we’re grateful to have a sukkah of our own at all.  We also have a esrog all the way from Israel and the arba minum, the collection of branches that my son and husband hold and shake each day even if they’re feeling a bit blue from the chill.  When our newer neighbors ask us what it’s all about, we just reply, “We’re Jewish.”  Over the years, they’ve grown accustomed to that being the explanation for a lot of things that are different about our family and they just take it in stride.

Hashem has just given us a gift on Yom Kippur, a gift we probably didn’t do much to deserve.  He has given us His trust, allowing us to try another year in this world, to see if we can do better at bringing His holiness into the world.  He’s trusted us with His creation and trusted us to be His ambassadors to this world.  He’s wiped our slates clean, all our debts forgiven.  So, when He asks us to build a sukkah, even in Alaska, it seems a small thing to do in return.  We do it with joy, most people decorating their sukkahs and here in Alaska, even Orthodox Jews who do not keep kosher fully or who drive to shul on Shabbos will still build a sukkah.  I actually find this mitzvah more universally kept among Jews here than many other places we’ve lived.  Perhaps Jews in Alaska grasp the idea of trusting Hashem to shelter us in the wilderness on a deeper level?

Wednesday, we will move our now winterized Shabbat RV 2.0 to our Synagogue for the winter.  There will be no more running water and we are limited in what electricity we will have as well.  Each week, I will have to choose between what will get plugged into the extra extension cord for Shabbos.  Will it be the hot water urn, a crockpot, or the small extra heater?  We’ll have one bigger heater for the main compartment, but beyond that, I’ll have to choose whether we need hot drinks, hot food, or hot bodies more.  Right now, we plan to spend one Shabbos per month at home to rest and recuperate, but the rest we hope to spend at the Synagogue, as we did all summer.

It’s a lot about trust, just trusting that our short, dark Shabbos will pass by easily and that we’ll be sheltered and protected by Hashem there just as in our Sukkah.  Perhaps He’ll reward us with some nice views of the aurora borealis or a visit from some moose, which are more numerous in town in the winter as they come down from the mountains to forage for food.

For me, this theme of trust began last year when we came back to our conversion path after our break.  When we came back, I decided that I was ready to do whatever was asked of us rather than trying to resist and push our lives the way I thought they should go.  I was ready to trust and just surrender to this process even if it meant leaving Alaska.  I’d accepted that we were in the wilderness and that we’d have to wander a while, just trusting that Hashem would guide and protect us and lead us to our destination.

Now, as the sun is out less and less and the snowflakes appear in the weather forecast, I’m preparing to trust a little deeper and let go a little more, trusting that we’ll find ways to stay safe and warm for Shabbos just as we find ways to eat in our Sukkah.

 

The Last to Close the Gates of Heaven

A little known fact I learned this Yom Kippur, during Neileh services.  Anchorage, Alaska, is, in fact, the final Orthodox Jewish community to say Neileh, sounding the shofar later than any other community in the world.  As we davened, I couldn’t help but feel a weighty responsibility, as if we were the last to leave a sacred place, entrusted with closing the gate as we left.  We davened as the sun left the mountains, lighting up the aspens, their leaves turned bright yellow with fall and we continued davening into the darkness until it was the proper halakhic time, the last community of Jews on earth to sound the shofar ending Yom Kippur.  In the coming months as our time of sun grows shorter and shorter, Hawaii will take over this honor, becoming the last candle lighting and havdalah of the world, but for Yom Kippur, it was still us.

Alaska is a remarkable place to be an Orthodox Jew and I’m reminded of it again this week.

For work, I need to go and do some work up on the North Slope of Alaska.  I will be traveling to some of the most remote, rugged terrain known to mankind, a place where cowboys from Texas drill oil from the wilderness and where your safety preparations include classes on polar bears.  In the 5 years I’ve worked here, I’ve never had a reason to go there, but now, suddenly I do.  Being Orthodox complicates things somewhat.  I will need to figure out candle lighting times…and when I’m up there…there may not be any sun at all to figure them by.  I will also need to bring my food with me.  Although the cafeterias there apparently have really good food and everything is provided, none of it will be kosher.  I will also need to keep yichud laws in mind as I will be a vast minority there among the men that work there full time for 12 hours a day, 7 days a week.

It’s times like these that having a local Orthodox Rabbi familiar with Alaska is a very handy thing indeed.

While most people would probably groan at the idea of visiting above the arctic circle in November, I’m actually really excited about it.  I’ve never been there and it’s a place that few actually really go.  The reason I am going is to improve the wireless networks there that help the hardy people that live there to work and to pass their off-hours.  When storms hit, these people are often stranded without work to do for days at a time, far from family and friends and cooped up in dormitories.  These networks provide them the ability to Skype with family, to get email with the latest news, and to feel connected to the rest of the world even when there are whiteout conditions and they can’t see past their window.

I’m excited to be able to have another Alaska adventure and also to help more people while I’m here.  I’ll also be training a teammate so that my knowledge of this particular technology will be passed on.