My Son and His Passover Sacrifice

One of the things my son was looking forward to most about 8th grade was the Advanced Orchestra trip to Hawaii that the 8th graders in his school take every year.  He had been thrilled when he’d first heard of it during his Junior High orientation and he’d fundraised last year to help send the previous class.  It’s one of the pivotal events of Junior High in his school, something that inspires a lot of kids to stick with Orchestra even as their elective options increase.  For Ian, it was a dream as he’d never been to Hawaii, unlike most Alaskan kids.

This fall, we discovered that the trip had been scheduled over Passover.

His face fell when we got the news of the dates.  Before, we were willing to figure out how to work kosher food, how to adjust travel times around Shabbos, anything so that he could be involved.  With one email confirming the dates were set, his dream was gone.  He smiled bravely to us, but I knew he was heartbroken.  The year went on and he still fundraised so that his classmates could go.  He still practiced the songs they would be playing there along with the orchestra.  He still loved his viola.  I couldn’t have been prouder of him.

This week, his fellow orchestra students are excitedly packing their bags and finalizing their trip plans.  He is helping me clean for Passover.  His classmates are packing sunscreen and talking about swimming with sea turtles.  He is helping me plan Seder menus.

And yet, he remains upbeat, proud, his kippah still on his head at school.

This…this is what it means to be an observant family far from an observant community.  It means living by what you believe even when it’s really hard and my son has really integrated that into himself.  He never once pleaded or bargained with us to make the trip once he found out it was during Passover.  He didn’t complain to his teacher or demand we protest to the school.  Instead, he used it as an opportunity to be a light to his fellow students, to show them that he would stand by his beliefs even when it was hard and that he would still support them even though it might sting.

One fundraiser, he waited tables for a meal he couldn’t eat to raise money for a trip he would never go on.  Later, the parents that sat at his tables came to me to tell me what an amazing young man he is.

I just smiled and said, “I know…we’re very blessed.”

We have promised him, after we settle in our new community, a trip to Israel with us to celebrate all that he has accomplished.  I think it’s time to buy him a travel guide for Israel that he can read over Passover so that he has a picture in his mind of the promised land after all this time in our own desert.

I’m certain that Hashem is also very proud of him.

Purim and Living Between Worlds

This week is one of my favorite Jewish holidays.  One of the very best things about Orthodox Judaism is that there are so many holidays and they’re all so different in their observances and traditions.  Purim is a particularly fun holiday for children, with costumes and candy galore.

This year, though, as we read the Purim story and prepare our treats for friends, I’m already quite a bit down.  Last week was a really rough week for our family and Adar is supposed to be a month in which we are commanded to “increase our joy.”  We did have some very good news last week as well.  We have secured a rental in our new hometown that’s close to shul.  My husband was able to see a good endocrinologist and should be getting a working pump soon, which is something he’d been fighting up here for since last June.  Still, we had some bombshell bad news on our conversion progress and then we’re still struggling to sell our house in a buyer’s market.

It’s hard to feel the kind of increase in joy I feel like I’m supposed to feel this Purim.

Re-reading the story of Purim, this year, I feel more connected to Queen Esther.  She’s the heroine of the tale, the girl who becomes Queen and uses her influence to save the Jewish people.  Yet, even as the story ends, she remains locked in the palace, married to a non-Jew and unable to join her people in their celebrations.  She saves her people, but cannot save herself.  She is trapped, living between two worlds.

Right now, my family and I are very much living between two very different worlds.  On the one side, we have Alaska.  Just yesterday afternoon, we were up in Hatcher Pass spending a bright, sunny afternoon high in the mountains watching snowboarders bravely make their way down snowy peaks.  All around us is a non-Jewish world.  We munched on potato chips because it was about all I could find in the gas station with a kosher symbol.  In the meantime, my husband makes periodic trips down to our new home to work out the logistics of our move.  There he can attend daily minyan and stand next to our childrens’ teachers.  Kosher food is plentiful and less expensive.  There are no mountains and life is far less wild and untamed.

It doesn’t help that we’re feeling less connected to our Jewish community up here.  Now that our Rabbis know that we’ll be starting over again in our new home, they’re no longer meeting with us or teaching us.  There are simply too many other pressing demands on their time.  Our children, now both past the age of bnei mitzvah, likewise are now on their own as well.  To be clear, I’m not blaming our Rabbis for using their time where it will do the most good.  There really just isn’t much we need right now or that they can help us with.  Still, it’s hard not to feel adrift through no one’s fault.

“It’s supposed to snow tomorrow,” my husband says.
“Where?” I ask in response, unsure which place he’s looking at the weather for anymore.

Did Queen Esther look out her window at her people celebrating and yearn to be with them?  Did she have a window that faced them or was her view focused inward on palace courtyards?  Did she live in two places at once or did she ever fully feel at home in the palace?

I know this Adar, I must work harder to increase my joy.  In just about 12 weeks, which isn’t long, I will be flying to a new home and starting a new journey and I’d rather not waste my last weeks here in the mountains in sadness.

May you all have a very Happy Purim and see all the hidden joys in your own lives!

Plot Twist!

This morning, I saw a particularly timely cartoon come across my Facebook feed.

When something goes wrong in your life, just yell, “PLOT TWIST,” and move on!

My life has been full of plot twists.  Interestingly, I’ve always, in the moment, reflected on the fact that bad news, or a major life change, never seems to come in the form I think it will.  Every time I’ve been given news that changed my life’s direction, it’s been on a sunny day.  In the movies, bad news has weather to fit it.  It’s generally raining or gray.  When my mother reached across the table to take my hand and tell me my brother had been diagnosed with cancer the first time, I distinctly remember the sunshine streaming through the windows.  It was like a note out of key.  Here she was, talking about radiation therapy and my brother’s odds and it was a bright sunny Saturday morning.  Similarly, the morning my father called me to tell me my brother had passed from his second battle with cancer, it was a bright morning.  Plot twists in real life aren’t nearly as well scripted as they are in the movies.

Each time I’ve had a major plot twist as well, I’ve never had music come in to warn me or some foreshadowing to let me know how this story would play out.  When I was younger, I didn’t really have a faith to fall back on.  Every big, life changing change hit me with full force and it was hard to trust that any good could come of it.  I was fortunate that my brother passed when I had already begun exploring Judaism.  I had a framework in which to process my grief that most of the rest of my family didn’t have.  I had a hope that in some way, he was in a better place and had completed his work here and that his life and death had an ultimate purpose even if I couldn’t see it with my own eyes.  I found comfort in prayer and in looking for the good he had done in his life.  Most of my family were left without that same comfort and it seemed to me like their grief process was more difficult for it.

Most of the plot twists that have come in my life have been far less serious than losing my brother.  Some have even been comical.  I have noticed, though, that since I began studying Judaism years ago, I have come to handle the plot twists of my life better and better.  I’m sure ageing has some part in it as well, but a big part of it is that I no longer react so much to change, but instead, I wait, knowing that everything will work out for the good in some way if I’m patient enough.  If it hasn’t yet…then we’re not to the end of that plotline yet.  Knowing that there is an author writing the story of my life that cares deeply about each character in it rather than a room full of monkeys typing randomly on typewriters brings me comfort when suddenly there comes a huge shift in the story.

I trust in the Author, that He knows better than I how this story needs to play out.  I just need to play my part the best way I can.

This message was timely for me because we’ve run into a bit of chaos when it comes to our conversion process recently.  There is a lot that we thought was certain that isn’t now and we’re not sure how the story is going to play out.  At worst, we may have to begin our process over again after our move, adding on 1-2 more years in process before we can complete.  For my husband and I, 1-2 more years is little to worry about, but for our children, 1-2 years is a much bigger issue, particularly when it comes to their Jewish education as well as their hopes.

Years ago, such a plot twist this late in the story would have sent me reeling and reacting.  I consider it a sign of great growth that I simply shrugged and said, “It will all work out some way or other, for the best,” and then went back to the work of living each day, davening, volunteering, raising and educating the kids, and preparing for our move.  There is little time to worry about it before Purim, which inevitably leads to the rush of Pesach preparations.  Homework from both the kids’ secular studies and their Orthodox Online Day School studies must still be overseen and done.  Food has to get bought and cooked.  Cleaning has to happen.  Davening, mitzvahs, and tzedekah all still are a higher priority than worrying over things I simply can’t control.  At some point, living as an Orthodox Jew became even more important than the process of becoming one, which I firmly believe will follow if we stay focused on living this life.

So, we check in with our Rabbis periodically to see how things are going and if anything more is needed from us to help the process, but beyond that?  I leave it to above my pay grade except when I’m davening.  I channel all my tears and pleading there, to the only One who ultimately has control of any of it and leave it there.

The rest of the time, I focus on playing my part in this story the very best way I know how and wait for this latest plot twist to work itself out for the good, even if that isn’t the way I would have written the story.

I trust the Author with my life because it’s His life to write.  I’ve just been given the honor and responsibility of living it.

Soon, My Children Will Not Be Mine

Orthodox Jewish conversion has a lot of fascinating quirks that a lot of people aren’t aware of unless they’ve dealt with the process directly.  One of them, which I mentioned in relation to my husband yesterday, is the fact that once you emerge from the Mikvah as an entirely new, Jewish person in the eyes of Jewish law, you also emerge with a new set of parents, Avraham and Sarah.  An interesting twist in this happens when a child converts in that, when it comes to Jewish law and ritual matters…they’re technically no longer their parents’ child anymore, but a child of Avraham and Sarah.  When an entire family converts, this means that, from a halakhic perspective, technically, the parents and the children all suddenly have the same spiritual parents and are also spiritual siblings.

This can lead your mind down some uncomfortable, very West Virginian paths if you let it and it is important to have a Rav that can advise you on things like laws of yichud and such if you have older children and are in this situation, but I think those details are best left to Rabbis who specialize in this particular and peculiar area of Jewish law.  This also applies to non-Jewish children who are adopted by Jewish couples and converted as infants or children, too.

The aspect that I struggled with early on in the conversion process was the idea that my children wouldn’t be prayed for with my name, but Sarah’s.  For some reason, that ached in my heart, that if my children were sick or hurt and needed prayers, they wouldn’t be prayed for as MY children, like any other Jew.  My son wouldn’t be called to Torah as the son of my husband, but as someone else’s son.  I have heard, in passing, that there is such a thing as “halakhic adoption” after conversion, but I also had to face the prospect of this being yet another thing I would have to work through letting go of in order to become a Jew and so…I set to thinking very deeply about it.

Like my husband’s journey to letting go of his attachment to his names, it took years and I can say that it’s only this winter that I’ve finally come to a place where this feels good, not just something that I’ll grit my teeth and make it through, but something I see as a positive good.

Part of it is the growing up my children have done since we began the conversion process.  7 years ago, when we first approached a Rabbi, my daughter was just 5 years old and my son 7.  They were still very much attached to me and needed a lot of care.  Over those 7 years, they’ve grown more and more independent.  My son, in particular, is now a 14-year-old, an adult in Jewish law and more and more, he craves his independence as he becomes his own man.  He needs space from me and our relationship shifts and changes as he grows into being more and more my peer than my child.  My daughter turns 12 next week, which is the age she would have become a bat mitzvah.  There are moments where she is still my baby and then the next, I see glimpses of a beautiful, bright young woman, strong and capable in her own right.

It’s already becoming the time of stepping back and letting go of my children so that they can be the people they were meant to be.

That process is so bittersweet.  I worry over them.  I’m intensely proud of them.  I’m annoyed by them.  I long to just pull them back into my lap and cuddle them.  I even ask them for help, particularly my son with jars I just can’t open.  I love them just as fiercely, but often, it’s appropriate to hold back some so I don’t embarrass them or cross the boundaries they’re beginning to make in their own lives.  They change so quickly and most of the time, I’m clumsily trying to keep up with it all.

A big shift happened this winter when we went to visit a Yeshiva and a boy’s High School with my son.  For years, I’d been resistant to the idea of sending him off to Yeshiva.  It felt like I was abandoning him to others to finish raising.  However, visiting these schools and watching the boys there interact with their Rebbes and seeing my son interact as well, I suddenly realized that this could be something really healthy.  Perhaps boys need to go off into a world of men that aren’t so close to them to be stifling and have more influences than just my husband and I.  I realized that my son could not just survive, but really thrive in this environment.  I also saw that he’d have even more support and guidance than we alone would be able to give him.  I suddenly felt like it was time to open up, let others into his life in a much deeper way, and take steps back of my own.

Up until now, my husband and I have been his coach, calling the plays in his life.  Now, it looks more and more like we need to be on the sidelines, just cheering and supporting him from more of a distance, but still his biggest fans.  He needs new coaches to take him to the next level.

I can think of no better spiritual parents to entrust my precious children to than Avraham and Sarah, the very people who helped to guide so many people of their time to the revolutionary concept of monotheism itself.  I also realize that as a spiritual newborn myself, I’ll need to depend on others now to give my children what I can’t, what I’m still in need of myself.

In my own life, I’ve struggled with the transition with my own parents from child to a sovereign adult.  I can now see more clearly from the other side of the equation just how difficult that transition must have been for them, too.  I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I’ve been asked spiritually to make that transition with my own children in a very literal way at the same time that they’re at the age of adulthood in Jewish law and I really feel blessed by all the lessons there are for me in this.

Sometimes the very things we feel the most initial resistance to are the things we most need, the bitter medicine that is our cure and, it’s absolutely fitting in a Jewish sense that this cure comes before I have to let go of my children in other aspects of our lives together and accept them as the adults they are growing into.

Plus, I can’t imagine that there couldn’t be a blessing from serving as a handmaiden to a woman as righteous and great as Sarah, giving over to her two new Jewish children that, G-d willing, may grow to bring her blessing with their lives.  It’s almost like being a commoner and raising your children to adolescence and the Queen of the realm seeing them and how special they are and how well they were raised and adopting them into her royal family.  It’s bittersweet to let them go, but such pride at seeing them ascend and knowing how much more able they’ll be now to reach their full potential.

So yes, I am letting my children go, but in the end, I realize they were only ever lent to me to care for and always belonged to Hashem.  I was just entrusted with these treasures of His for a time and it has been an honor.  I’m sure I’ll still be needed for many years to come in different ways and I’ll be so happy to step in, but I’m also glad I’m not alone in raising them the rest of the way.

Mother Sarah, I gladly and happily share my children with you and I know that you’ll love and worry over them with me and together we can daven for them.

What greater gift could I ever give them?

The Deepest, Darkest Winter

All things must live in darkness before they are born.  Seeds sprout underground, hidden in the dirt and animals live either in their mother’s wombs or in eggs until they are ready for the world.  Today, the sun doesn’t rise until 9:12am and it will set at 4:16.  Candle lighting time is earlier than that, so we will have to pick the kids up from school halfway through their day so that we can prepare for another Shabbos cuddled up for warmth in the RV.

Spiritually also, we are in winter.  Our sponsoring Rabbi, due to a lot of different commitments, has been unable to meet with us since before the high holidays.  Last weekend, what I had hoped would be a Shabbos of warmth and inspiration was instead an experience of being unwelcome.  Our move looms large in our minds and there are days…I’m just not sure how it’s all going to work out.

There is nothing left but to trust that spring will come in its time and that we will make it through this winter to brighter days.

We take our vitamin D and try to get outside when there is light.  We bundle up and lean on each other.  And we daven.  Only Hashem can bring the light back and only He can prepare us for our new lives.

Shabbos, Cold and Dark

Last Shabbos, I was curled up in my arctic sleeping bag.  Granted, that particular sleeping bag was a little overkill for the night we were having.  The temperature in the RV was only in the 40’s, not below zero.  Still, it was a taste of things to come as we each did what we needed to do to stay warm.  The kids were curled in blankets and jackets and our crockpot dinner was welcome warmth.  Shabbos began early, although not as early as it will.  It was the last Shabbos for a while that the kids were able to do a full day of school.

Cold, like hunger, gnaws at the spirit, with patience wearing thin and small discomforts magnified and yet, there was a pride we all felt and a connection to previous generations of Jews who braved all kinds of discomforts or even danger to keep the Sabbath.  We’re far more fortunate in that there are no dangers for us and even our discomforts are mitigated by modern technology.  There is camping gear here in Alaska that allows people to camp even in the most extreme conditions and we even had a shelter and the ability to have warm food.

I’m preparing for an even darker Shabbos.

In a few weeks, as soon as some equipment arrives, I will need to travel to Kuparuk, an oil drilling camp.  It lies just inland from the arctic ocean, far north of the arctic circle and not far from the northernmost point of Alaska.  Yesterday, I attended a training that is mandatory for anyone going to these kinds of camps where I learned just how extreme an environment it is and about all the dangers and what to do to avoid those dangers.  Each module, essentially, was all about another way to die there.  Polar bears that never hibernate and see humans as food make grizzly bears seem cuddly by comparison.  Cold that can kill in a short period of time if you aren’t prepared for it.  Contagious disease that spreads quickly in confined quarters.  Poisonous gases released from far below the frozen permafrost.  Cold so bitter that machinery stops functioning.  Darkness that lasts months.

I will only be up there for a week or two and the company that has contracted us is providing me kosher food.  I’m working with my local Orthodox Rabbi to work out candle lighting times and I’m taking a coworker with me who I will train to do this work and it’s likely that he’ll handle any future trips like this.  It feels almost like preparing for a week or two on a moon colony.  I will spend a Shabbos or two there, among the oil workers, in a long night that takes months until the first dawn, far from home and family.

Yet, even there, there could be opportunities for connection, for warmth and for Judaism.  Who knows if one of the workers might see my sheitel and casually mention that his mother was Jewish?  Who knows what inspiration might come from spending this time in a place so foreign, so extreme?  At the very least, I am sure I will have some time for uninterrupted reading and davening.  The questions I have are interesting ones that make me wonder about future Jews.  How will space traveling Orthodox Jews handle Shabbos and candle lighting in the constant night of space?

Where there is a will, there is almost always a way.

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.