Snow Instead of Flood and Paddling Your Own Canoe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conversion Advice – You’ve Gotta Love BOTH

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

Jonah – Running from G-d

Every Yom Kippur, we read the story of the prophet Jonah, who was ordered to go to a non-Jewish city called Nineveh to tell them to repent.  The Jews at the time were a mess and Jonah knew that the non-Jews he was going to would indeed repent.  He didn’t want to go, which is why he tried to flee in the opposite direction and wound up swallowed by a big fish until he came around.

I was swallowed by the beautiful wilderness of Alaska, a much more pleasant place to spend my time being stubborn.

It was 2014 and, for a variety of reasons, it seemed like our conversion path had finally hit a dead end.  We consoled ourselves, buying a puppy, which brought some joy back into our home and definitely some liveliness.  The kids needed the distraction and we all needed the love that Sam brought into our lives.  We fled into the mountains whenever we weren’t working, hiking, riding motorcycles, and really exploring.  We drank in the natural beauty around us as an alcoholic does liquor to numb themselves.  I felt cut off from my connection with the Creator, so I sought comfort in the creation.

Alaska, for it’s part, did not disappoint.  It served up regular seasons full of majesty and beauty and experiences beyond the imagination.  I walked on glaciers and climbed mountains.  I interacted with wildlife, holding my breath when an orphaned moose calf had me backed up against our garage.  I was in awe of this place we lived and I set myself to being a proper Alaskan, fishing license and all.

Yet, there was always an ache underneath it all, a tugging.

 

No matter how far off the grid I went, I could not escape Hashem.  No matter how beautiful the creation was, it always silently pointed back to the Creator.  I knew I had unfinished business there and that there was only so long I could drown my sorrows in hiking and watching the northern lights.  It became more and more apparent to my husband and I that eventually, we were going to have to finish what we’d begun and that in the meantime, our children’s Jewish education was suffering and we were making it more and more difficult for them.  We needed to choose…assimilate and disappear completely or give up this fleeing and do whatever needed to be done to finish this process.

I would expect that most callings of any kind are like that or at least they are for me.  Early on, when I was dating Mr. Safek, I often thought it was the wrong thing to do, particularly the more I learned about Judaism and the harm being with a non-Jew could do, dubious halakhic status or not.  Every time I tried to leave, though, I found I couldn’t.  The feeling of not being able to make sense of my life without him was very similar to this.  Our lives just no longer made sense without Judaism in them.  When we finally gave in and came back to the Synagogue, it was less effort than it had been to stay away.  We slid back into an Orthodox life like a tired person finally no longer fighting sleep slips into crisp cotton sheets, the ache easing.  Life early on with Mr. Safek had always been like this, so much easier when I stopped fighting us being together and simply enjoyed our lives together.

The children, too, were happier once we were back.  For all the fun outdoor adventures we’d had, they too had felt the emptiness underneath it all.  Living Orthodox, they admitted how much they had missed all the Shabbat traditions and all the uninterrupted time with us.  They were happy to be learning more again, even if it meant a lot of catching up to do.  My son was eager to wear his kippah to school and soon I again was used to seeing tzitzit strings.

Now that we were determined to do whatever necessary to finish conversion, including moving, the way became easier, the obstacles simply turned to dust.

In retrospect, we needed that time away to heal some of the wounds from when we’d been working on conversion in Florida and to solidify our reasons behind wanting to convert.  We needed to go off and experience life away to really appreciate the choice we were facing.  I suspect that Jonah also needed his time in the fish.  There are times when Hashem has a plan for us that we can’t hide from, but we need a little time to adjust to the idea.  For me, the most comforting thing about Jonah’s story is that when he does come back to his mission, Hashem is there with him.  Hashem rebukes him, but he doesn’t abandon him just because he’s had doubts and tried to avoid his duty.  There is still a close relationship there.  Jonah still matters to Hashem even when Hashem could have just as easily chosen to make another prophet to obey Him.  In fact, Jonah matters so much that Hashem opts instead to instruct him.

On Yom Kippur, may we all find the courage to turn away from our own stubbornness and be welcomed back.

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.