The Painting Cabinets and Hisbodedut

Painting cabinets takes patience.  I know this because this is my first week trying it.  First, there’s the preparation, which I probably should have paid more attention to.  I didn’t sand, but instead went all in with gripper primer.  Quickly, the cabinets that I’d chosen to start with in the Shabbat RV 2.0 began to look “rustic” with bright white brush strokes.  Now, I’m in the midst of a process of applying a coat of paint, then letting them sit 24 hours, then applying another.  I don’t know when it will be enough coats or when it will seem finished.

Painting cabinets might as well be a metaphor for life, really.

Just like painting anything else, I can plan all I want and still things will happen I couldn’t have foreseen.  I’m not completely in control of the process and somewhat at the mercy of the whims of the weather and humidity levels as well as the wind and whatever it might decide to blow onto the fresh paint on the cabinet doors as they dry in the garage.  Then, there’s that bit of fear that comes with the first brush stroke.  What if my plan isn’t really a good one?  I could be making things worse, ruining these cabinets instead of making them better.  What if I chose the wrong paint?  What if I’m really not up for the challenge of this project?

Still, once that first brush stroke carves its way across a cabinet, I’m committed.  I have to see this through to whatever conclusion comes.  Maybe I’ll need to switch to a different color, but for now, I just need to keep applying coats to see how it will turn out.  It will likely take longer than I’d planned.  At a certain point, like with any creative endeavor, I surrender and just let the process carry me along and then, suddenly, painting cabinets becomes relaxing…even meditative.

There is a Jewish tradition of meditation, particularly in Chassidic Judaism, known as Hisbodedut/Hisbodedus.  I’m sure most Rabbis would probably cringe at me comparing this to painting cabinets, but a few of the basic concepts are similar.  The word itself actually refers to seclusion, the act of going off by oneself to think deeply or to clear the mind.

As I painted my cabinets, I began to realize it isn’t often these days that I spend much time alone.  I’m almost always in the company of my family or coworkers or at the very least my dog, Sam.  I don’t even sleep alone, with his furry body nestled against mine.  In the RV with an open can of paint, though, it’s rather a necessity to work alone.  I fell into an unhurried state because hurrying is not exactly productive when dealing with wet paint.  I began to ponder my life and I began, a bit self-consciously at first, to talk to G-d.  I realized I’ve fallen into the habit of reserving prayer only for more formalized blessings and prayers and fallen out of the habit of informal prayer unless I’m kneading challah dough.  I used to be more open, but then, I also used to have a drive to work that I did alone.  It’s tougher to feel like you’re still sane if you’re talking to G-d in the car with other people.

And so, we talked and I painted.

My conversations with G-d have taken many forms during my life.  They were often angry and defiant as a teenager.  When I was particularly angry with Him, like the first time my brother was diagnosed with cancer, I would even talk to Him and angrily tell Him I didn’t believe in Him.  Somehow the irony that I would choose to argue with something and then in the same breath deny its existence was lost on my hurting teenaged brain.  As I grew older, my conversations were more confused than angry.  Now, I still argue at times, but I’ve learned to do so with a bit more respect, at least I hope.  I have more gratitude than complaints most days, but I still take my complaints there, too, but they more become pleas and requests.  I long ago realized that G-d isn’t intimidated by me and mostly what I ask for is the strength and faith to be able to handle whatever it is that I’m going through or I ask to be shown what it is I’m supposed to learn.

Yesterday, I mostly talked about how I really, really want to do what the “right” thing is, but it’s so often hard to see what that “right” thing is.  How do I know for certain that there’s not some reason I was born a non-Jew, something important that G-d needs me to accomplish that I wouldn’t be able to do as Jew?  It could also just as easily be that there was a purpose for which I was born a non-Jew, but was always meant to complete conversion.  And what of my children?  I see their joy in Judaism and I take that as some kind of sign that we’re on the right path, but I accept that I can never really “know.”

It’s a thing of faith.

I believe we’ve picked out the right primer and paint and we’re a few coats in to this process, but I can’t really know in this life if I shouldn’t have chosen something else.  I just have to surrender to the process and trust that if I keep doing my best to apply each coat that anything that needs to change along the way will become apparent in the process.  For now, though, it’s enough to just hold the brush correctly and slowly apply each coat, not knowing if or when the cabinets will be done or if I’ve improved them or damaged them with my painting.

I just ask G-d to keep my hand steady, to give me patience and endurance, and to be with me while I paint.

And yes, there will be before and after pictures…as soon as there is an After!

Menuchah and Watts

Every moment is precious and is the only thing we really have in this life.

I’ve been enjoying my Menuchas Hanefesh studies immensely.  The mindfulness that observance brings to everyday life was a big part of what initially drew me to Judaism and this study only digs deeper into that idea.

Interestingly enough, it also feeds into the work we’re doing with the Shabbat RV!

RV’s are a lot more complicated than we initially thought.  There are several different systems that help power things on the RV itself and banks of batteries that have to be re-charged and not allowed to get too low in charge.  We also have the challenge that, for now, we can only get 12 amps of power from an outlet that the Chabad house is very graciously letting us use.  The RV systems run on 30-50 amps and trying to plug directly into the 12 amp outlet means a breaker trips and we have no power.

To keep it simple, what this means is that we have to be VERY mindful of what power we are using.  We essentially run an extension cord to the RV and only plug in what is absolutely necessary.  We also need to have figured out before Shabbat what we will need to have running and get it all set up before candle lighting because we can’t really interact with any of the systems once Shabbat begins.  Even worse, if anything goes wrong and the breaker trips during Shabbat…that’s it.  No power for anything the rest of Shabbat.

We’re working on a longer term solution and planning to donate a few 50 amp circuits to the Chabad house so that not only can we plug in, but other RV users can also plug in easily.  Then, the Chabad house can charge people to RV camp there for Shabbat, so it could work out really well for us and also help them raise some money in the summers.  For now, though, we have to be mindful of every single amp and watt, which has me doing things like looking up exactly how much energy a crock pot of cholent does use versus how much energy a plata might use.  It’s important to be as efficient as possible and waste nothing.

I’m more used to my house where leaving a light on over Shabbat isn’t a problem at all and having a crockpot running for the last meal is something I don’t even really need to think about.  Now, though, I have to plan meals very carefully and make the most of natural light.  It’s a very interesting mental shift.  Also, living in the RV makes me more aware of exactly what is necessary versus what isn’t.  We don’t have extra space for things we don’t absolutely need and we also have little space for trash to pile up during Shabbat since, without an eruv, we can’t carry a bag of trash to the dumpster until after Shabbat.

It all comes down to being more mindful of exactly what is needed and what we can do without and living in that moment.  There are also wonderful things about being in the RV, too, and focusing on them can really help make the experience better than if I only focus on the challenges.  We’re so close to shul that the kids can stay and play with their friends a while after services.  There’s a wonderful cross-breeze through the RV in the afternoons when it’s warmer.  We’re so close together that having good family time is easier.  Most of all, there is the warmth from knowing that we’re doing what we can to really keep Shabbat.

Just as every watt counts, so does every moment and in every moment I have the choice to draw closer to G-d by my actions or further away.

Reframing Double Standards and Painting Cabinets

Without a doubt, one of the most difficult things about conversion that I’ve had to work on and help my children with is the reality of double standards.  It’s one of those things that I think every Orthodox conversion candidate has to come to a place of acceptance with because it’s not something we can change.

A perfect example was this weekend on Shabbat.  We were camping in our RV and we’re still working out some of the issues there.  As a result, we again had a bit of cold and food in the fridge froze again.  Our spirits were low as we all dressed and headed into shul, but there was the promise of hot coffee, heat, and davening ahead of us.  We knew there was a bar mitzvah this week, so there might even be a bigger kiddush than usual and more kids for our children to spend time with.  The Shabbos day ahead was bright!

And it was for a while.  I feel into the familiar pace of davening and felt that familiar connection.  Until…the seats began filling up with unfamiliar faces.  I was an outsider again among these women, unconstrained by rules of tznius and unfamiliar with the Siddur.  I always try to remind myself when an unknown family comes to our shul for a bar or bat mitzvah that maybe this could be the event that helps bring them to greater observance.  Usually, though, after their simcha, we never see them again.  Still, the Rabbi and Rebbetzin try to make everyone feel welcome and make the event special.

As the speeches wore on, I fell into negative thoughts.  I mourned the fact that my 13 year old doesn’t get to study with a Rabbi as this boy did and that he has no bar mitzvah date ahead of him despite all his hard work studying and learning.  I mourned that I don’t know if my daughter will have a bat mitzvah.  I mourned that the very things that I must do in order to hopefully one day be accepted as a Jew are also the things that separate me from these visiting Jews.

By the time Kiddush rolled around, I was feeling pretty down and not really looking forward to fighting my way through a crowd to wash for hamotzei.  We let the kids stay and went out to the RV to do kiddush ourselves, with frozen tuna salad sandwiches, but it felt better than being so much an outsider there.  A few of the regular attendees echoed our feelings as they left early, too, to do kiddush at home.

I shook off my negativity as the day wore on, reminding myself that these are Jews and it’s wonderful that the bar mitzvah boy worked so hard and that you never know…maybe this experience will stick with him and he’ll come to great observance one day because he and his family and many visitors were welcomed warmly and treated so well.  I should be happy for them because every Jew counts and is important and every little step towards mitzvos is a good thing!

The next day, we went to pick up our daughter from Hebrew school and my heart sank again.  We were waiting with other parents and I was the only woman in a skirt with her hair covered.  Soon, the conversation drifted to the latest and greatest  non-kosher restaurants as the mothers and daughters in yoga pants chatted happily.  I felt again…an outsider and when I saw my daughter, dressed in a very pretty dress with tights and a long sleeved shell, come rushing out to me, I remembered conversations, trying to explain to her why we had to follow one set of rules while others have another and consoling her when Jewish kids had picked on her for her tznius outfits.

As I sat there, my internal dialogue was one reminding me not to compare myself.  The path of a born Jew has never been my path and will never be my path.  Their options aren’t options that are open to me and all I can do is live the path I’ve been given the best way I know how.  Often, this means I’m not invited to social engagements because born Jews feel alienated from me or they know I won’t eat non-kosher food.  Other times, this means I’m excluded because I am not, in fact, Jewish.

The path of the convert is a unique one and requires a lot.  During the conversion process, I think it’s particularly hard because the conversion candidate is often held to a higher standard of observance than the born Jew and yet…we don’t count.  We aren’t celebrated in the same way and often exist on the outskirts of Jewish community.  After conversion, at least there is the halakhic acceptance, but many converts struggle for social acceptance, particularly when they need to hold to a certain level of observance in order to make sure their conversions are never questioned.

And all of this are reminders of why we really do need to move to a bigger Jewish community with more resources for observance.  It’s far easier to fit in when more people are keeping kosher, covering their hair, and dressing tznius.  The level of observance we must adhere to becomes less of an obstacle to connection when it’s more common and it becomes easier for our children to feel accepted as well.

I sometimes wonder what it might be like if we were all born Jewish.  Would I take my heritage for granted, breezing into shul for a simcha, but never really digging deeper into it?  How would I feel about observant Jews?  Would I have found the beauty and richness in Torah that I have as a conversion candidate?  I believe everything happens for a reason and perhaps the reason I wasn’t born Jewish is because I would have given into the temptations of the regular world if it had seemed like an option.  Whatever the reason…this is the path I was chosen to walk and all I can do is walk it in the best way I can.

Having a husband who was raised Orthodox also really helps at times like these.  He can help me better understand some of the complex feelings that born Jews have toward Orthodox Judaism and why things are the way they are for many of them.  I’m sure I’d probably have a very different perspective if I had been born a Jew and I should always judge favorably.

In the meantime, I’ve started painting some of the dark brown cabinets in the Shabbat RV to help brighten at least that corner of my world.  It’s amazing how doing one small thing to make the world a little better can help shift your perspective to a brighter one!

Eruv Shabbos, the World Inhales

It’s so still outside that it’s worth the insomnia that kept me up to see it and, more importantly hear it.  Underneath the stillness, there are birds calling to each other, first just the dark blue jays, so much bigger than the jays I grew up with and missing the white.  They’re as large as crows were growing up with black heads and deep blue bodies and there among the few birds that stay with us all winter.  Joining them are the magpies, always well-dressed in black and white and a little bigger.  I do not hear the iconic speech of ravens, who here are even larger than elsewhere and have distinctive regional dialects.  Smaller birds begin to wake up as the sun slowly rises over snowy mountaintops to the east, jagged dark rock peeking out from behind the frosting.  I can hear a little bit of highway noise in the distance, the only reminder besides my neighbors that I really am still in a city.

For me, there’s always an interesting contradiction in the day before Shabbos evening.  There’s the rushing around, but it’s also as if creation pauses between breaths, inhaling but not yet exhaling until the candles light.

Try it.  When you inhale and hold your breath, you can push yourself to get that last bit of cooking done, to rush through getting the lights turned on or off, your last minute chores checked off, but there’s also so much anticipation to exhale.  Inhaling isn’t nearly as relaxing as that long, slow breath out, the air taking with it everything you’ve held in all week.  For me, Friday day is that held inhale, breathlessly waiting, and Friday night is the long awaited exhalation.


Today, I have slightly less chaos to tame since I’ll be working from home, banished from my office by coworkers who’d rather I not share whatever virus I picked up from my daughter and have kept all week.  Tonight, we have the excitement of our first Shabbos in the new and improved Shabbat RV version 2.0, which is a hulking behemoth.  For now, though, I just sit, listening to the birds and watching the sun paint the sky over the northeastern mountains.

After, candle lighting now isn’t until 9:20pm tonight.  I have time.

Why Begin Again…Up Here?

In the brief break between the Shabbos and last two Yom Tovs of Pesach…I was cooking up a storm.  My husband’s mind, however, was elsewhere.  He’d found IT.  The Shabbat RV 2.0 that he’d been looking for.  And, he needed to wrap things up as much as possible before the Yom Tov began…on what was a major holiday for everyone else around us, Easter Sunday.

To say he was a little stressed is an understatement.

He felt the full weight of his family’s trust on his shoulders as he worked through paperwork and phone calls.  Finally, he called his father for a little financial advice.  This is almost more stressful than everything else combined.  My husband hasn’t always had the warmest relationship with his father and stepmother, but it’s gotten better since I met him.  His father loves him and has a hard time connecting with him since they are both so different.  However, he loves it when my husband asks his advice and he has good experience to draw on when it comes to financial matters, so my husband called him.

Me?  I was juggling 3 things cooking at once and my 11-year-old daughter who was starting to come down with something.  I didn’t have a spare brain cell to process much.

When he hung up the phone and came back to talk to me, I could tell it had been an interesting conversation.  He went through the financial aspects and his plan, which all sounded logical, then he took a deep breath.

“And he wanted to know why we’re doing all this, up here, when there’s no chance of us finishing it up here.”

He didn’t need to explain what “this” was.  You see, Mr. Safek’s father is a happy secular Jew.  He occasionally will attend Synagogue services on major holidays at a Reform Synagogue, but part of the reason he and Mr. Safek’s mother didn’t work out was due to differences in observance.  She always wanted to be more observant and he always wanted to be less.  He’s never quite understood why his son should care what Orthodox Rabbis think of his halakhic status or why we’ve gone through what we’ve gone through trying to change that.

I know that these kind of conversations are difficult for my husband.  No one can make you doubt yourself like a well-meaning parent.  His father knows the pain we’ve gone through, the years of work without a light at the end, and doesn’t want to see us suffer more.  His intentions are kind.  To him, it didn’t make sense to try to observe Shabbat somewhere it is so difficult to do so, particularly when the odds of it resulting in us converting here are low and we’ll probably just have to start over again with a new Rabbi when we move.  However, doubt is a luxury we can’t afford these days, with the price of hope so high.

I tell my husband all the good reasons we have and that we cannot know how this all will play out.  Maybe we can’t convert until we move, as we suspect.  At least by doing things this way, we’ll be more prepared when we do move.  Then, there’s the question…is observance really about conversion?  If we’re only observing mitzvos with some end goal in mind, is that really the point of it all?  Shouldn’t we observe Shabbat…as an example…simply to observe Shabbat?

It’s true, we have no control over the timeline or outcome.  We can’t push or pull this along in any way.  We are at the mercy of the whims of Rabbis and Rabbinical courts.  But…we also have to trust that G-d is in charge above it all and that He will guide us to where we need to be when the time is right.  There is only a tiny fraction of a part of all this that we have any control over…and that’s ourselves.  We can continue to learn and grow in observance and teach our family.  And that’s it.  We can’t know anything beyond that.

Our daughter, sickly as she was getting, had the best response to the news about the Shabbat RV 2.0.  She simply said, “Yay!  No more breaking Shabbos!”

Yes.  And that is why we’re doing this up here, whether it has any chance of bringing a tangible result or not.  It’s because we want to be as close to Shomer Shabbos as we can be in this state and observe as many mitzvos as we can.  The truth is…there is no finish line and this is something we’ll need to work on beyond conversion for the rest of our lives, continuing to grow and learn and do better at observing mitzvos.  There is no time to waste catching up and, one day, somewhere, our halakhic status will also catch up.

Spring and the Sabbath Always Come

It’s sunny and warming up here in the frozen north.  Everywhere I look, the snow is melting and we’re seeing patches of green grass underneath, a glimpse of the world that will be ours in just a week or two if things continue.  The world is waking up here after the long winter and birds like the Siberian Swans are returning from their warmer winter homes.  It won’t be long before the Aspen trees bud and leaves start bursting forth.

Springtime in Alaska is like a Sabbath afternoon, it passes by in an instant and it’s good to pause and enjoy it.

With the longer hours of sunlight, it’s like everything in the natural world around us begins to go in fast-forward.  It’s hard for us humans also not to get caught up in it.  The warm months here are short, essentially ending by the end of July, so we all try to pack as much as possible into them.  There are fish to catch to fill the freezers for winter, veggies to grow while the ground is warm enough, berries to pick, rhubarb to cut, and all those wonderful outdoor activities we enjoy so much.  Hiking and camping become a priority.  There are mountains waiting to be climbed and glaciers waiting to be explored!

For the small community of Orthodox Jews here, though, long hours of summer sun also mean a VERY long Sabbath each week, as if G-d knows we need the longer pause in the midst of all this hectic activity.  We’re forced to slow down and begin the Sabbath sometime before bed Friday night and often we will sleep through the brief break in the sunshine Saturday night, making havdalah before breakfast in the morning.

For our family, this also means we’re looking forward to the Shabbat RV version 2.0.  This time, we’re opting to sell a couple of things and put a down payment down on a loan and buy a RV that will be more comfortable and safer than the first one.  G-d willing, this is also the RV we will take next summer through the Canadian Rockies, across the plains of Canada and down to the lower 48 to our new, bigger Orthodox community in an epic adventure that might have made Moshe Rabbeinu proud.

For now, though, it’s the Shabbat of Chol Hamoed Pesach, a time to slow down in the midst of the flurry of Passover cooking and rest and reflect.  This Passover has been one of the most joyful I can remember for our family…and oddly enough, one of the easiest.  Usually I struggle through craving all different kinds of pasta and bread, but this year, even though we’ve been eating non-gebrokts foods…it FEELS easier.  I am not consumed with what I can’t eat, but rather enjoying trying new recipes and enjoying simpler tastes.

I hope everyone has a restful and meaningful Shabbat.  Here, we will begin the days of Shabbat not starting until after our usual bedtime and also not ending until after and I think this may be the last week we can greet the Shabbos Queen on time rather than early and be awake for her on-time departure rather than wishing her goodbye in the morning.

The DEATH of the Shabbat RV

No, that picture isn’t our RV.  We took the Shabbat RV (version 1.0) into the RV shop to be looked at after the leaks and other problems we experienced trying it out our first Shabbos.  You know it’s never good news when the mechanic calls and says, “We stopped working and need you to come look at something before we go any further.”

So, between work and taking Sam the beastdog to the vet for his annual checkup, we went over to see the damage.

There was WATER standing inside the RV in places under where you couldn’t see.  As in…puddles!  The entire front area where my daughter and I slept was rotten and needing replacement.  There was also black mold there, which is hazardous to breathe.  Even worse, that was only one part of the RV and they hadn’t even begun looking further elsewhere, but they could see signs of surface damage.  The cost to fix all this is more than the Shabbat RV is worth.

I’m not sure if we say Baruch Dayan HaEmes for an RV, but if one did, now would probably be the time.

The good news is that we had only put down the initial payment on it and my husband may be able to talk to the seller and work something out.  He had to have known about the leaks and may want to avoid any potential legal trouble from trying to sell a RV with black mold.  The bad news, of course, is that this may mean we’re without Shabbat accommodations a while longer and those much celebrated Seder invitations…might not work out after all.

My husband’s initial reaction was one of disappointment in many directions.  Disappointment at the RV itself, at the seller, and himself.  He felt responsible for making a bad decision, one that could cost our family.  My reaction was relief.  I am glad we found these problems before anyone got hurt or sick.  What if the rotten part had fallen in with someone there or while we were driving?  What if one of us had developed serious health problems from the mold?  Far better to find out now.  Money is money, but our family’s health and safety are a higher priority.  I also felt calm.  So…this isn’t the plan.  That just means that there is something else that will be and that this was just a necessary step along the way.  B”H for helping us find these issues so soon and for guiding us away from something that could have been dangerous or unhealthy!

I was listening to a podcast while I worked today.  It was not religious but more about generic “spirituality,” but it had a good point that I’ve heard repeated in Chassidus.  The author speaking talked about how often, what seems like a side path or even a wrong turn or dead end is actually an essential part of the journey.  We have had a lot of those, but I firmly believe that they’ve all been essential to prepare us for whatever is next.  Each disappointment was to strengthen us or guide us.  Some taught us important lessons, others pushed us to something better.  None of them were wasted time, even the ones that were a result of our own mistakes.

I remember hearing once, in our brief adventures trying out a Reform shul, a Rabbi there say, “Well, sometimes G-d makes mistakes.”  Besides being a primary reason we decided that the shul wasn’t a good fit for our family, the very idea to me seemed a frightening one.  The very idea that the divine power that creates everything at all times could be mistaken?  That’s almost more chilling to me than the idea of there being nothing else to existence than chance.  I choose to believe that there is a plan and purpose to our lives and that everything is for our good.  I choose to believe that G-d loves us, is benevolent and just, and that nothing and no one is ever a “mistake.”  After all, after everything was created, this being outside of time who could see it all, from beginning to end did say, “It is good.”

And in my own experience, often the worst things that have happened, after enough time, show themselves to be the catalyst for the best.

And a dead RV is hardly the worst that could happen.

So, tonight, it’s taking care of my sickly son who has slept all day with some kind of flu and providing comfort to my disappointed daughter and husband.  Setbacks aside, we still have so much to be grateful for and so much goodness ahead of us.