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.

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.

Trust, Sukkos, and Snow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

3 Day Yom Tovs!

I’m not sure, but I think my first year observing Jewish holidays was one that had several 3 day Yom Tovs in it.  If not, then it was at least when I was still very shaky in observing them.  This oddity happens when a 2 day Yom Tov (holiday) falls either right before or right after Shabbos, which makes it kind of like you have 3 days in which you are restricted in what you can do and how you can do it.  In particular, this often plays out in how you cook because you can’t technically cook on Shabbos and you can’t cook food on a Yom Tov that isn’t meant to be eaten on Shabbos.  The rest of the rules around cooking on Yom Tovs are easier than those on Shabbos, but it all boils (or in this case…maybe it doesn’t!) down to having to plan ahead for three days worth of meals unless you’re lucky enough to be invited out.

Our family rarely is so fortunate, due to a few different issues around conversion candidates and holidays, but this year we are fortunate enough that our Synagogue is hosting several meals, so most of what I need to be concerned with is keeping everyone full for breakfast and dinner, with lunch taken care of.

Oh…and did I mention that this must be done in the Shabbat RV 2.0 and that we still do not have a 50 amp circuit installed, so I’m running off an extension cord that runs across the parking lot into the RV?  Life is full of adventures!

What this comes down to is that I will have 1 crockpot available for all my warming needs.  I’m planning a few meaty meals of chicken in the crockpot, both of which I will prep in crockpot bags tonight or tomorrow night and then swap in and out of the crockpot as needed.  I can just leave the crock pot on over the Yom Tovs and swap the liner in and out.  Beyond that?  Fruits so that we can say the shehechyanu blessing for something new, some salads that contain many of the traditional fruits and vegetables of the holiday, and of course, apple cake, apples, challah, and honey!  In fact, as I look at that list…maybe I don’t even need so much?

If there is one thing that spending so much time in the Shabbat RV 2.0 has taught me, it’s that we really don’t always need all the things we think we need.  All summer long, we did fine with cold salads and simple food.  We slept just fine without our big comfy beds.  We actually enjoyed time spent in the park or walking Sam or just playing games.  Now that winter is almost upon us, we’re finding the RV cozier than we had thought it would be and a simple crockpot of warm food and snuggly blankets really make things comfortable.  While it’s nice to have more space and comforts, it really is amazing how little we really need.

Occasionally we daydream about living someplace where you can count on kosher hamburger being available one week to the next or where kosher hot dog buns are a possibility, but for now, we simply work around whatever challenges we find and we still are able to find the joy in simple things, like a sunny Shabbos afternoon and walk with the smell of wood fires on the wind.  I hope we can hang on to that spirit of adventure and gratitude even when we live someplace where “doing frum” is a bit easier.

Until then, we’re really looking forward to celebrating Rosh Hashanah in our own unique way.

And yeah, the picture for this post is one of my favorite crock pot chicken recipes, chicken and 40 cloves of garlic.  I’ll be making it again for the holidays!  Just be sure to sub in your favorite pareve margarine where needed.

The Long Arctic Rest

The mountains exhale into the chilly morning air
long breaths of mist
ancient rocky shoulders relaxing
summer’s rush fading into memory

The geese have flown and the swans follow
following the sun’s steady retreat
they seek warmer skies
leaving us to slow into fall

The summer rush ebbs, a tide receding
those of us who stay slow our steps
the bears begin to yawn
the time of slumber is near

All around time slows
the darkness sleeps in, lazy to leave
the sun has little energy to rise far
plodding slowly along the horizon

The arctic returns to peace
the sounds of birds quieted
the absences folding into silence
as nature prepares for her long rest

The arctic begins to light her Shabbos candles
flickering colors, lights in the sky
she prepares for a long season of rest
her voice quieted in hushed prayer

The View Of Virginia From Alaska

The Sabbath still ends pretty late up here.  Havdalah was at 11:35 last night and we weren’t done until later.  There were a lot of visitors this weekend and things ran a little late.  By chance, we opted to drive home after havdalah, to sleep in our own beds instead of the RV.  I came home, bleary-eyed and tired and I logged on to my computer to stay awake until Mr. Safek arrived with the RV, to help him unload it.

I blinked, not quite believing what I was seeing, reports of Nazis marching, with lit torches on a college campus in Virginia.  Reports of clashes with counter-protestors that turned bloody, and reports of death at the hands of a terrorist who drove through a crowd of people.

It’s important to note the context in which this news came to me.

Our Chabad House hosts many visitors in summer and this weekend we had not only several families from NY and New Jersey, but also a large, rambunctious camp group of college boys.  This group spent more time at the Synagogue than most camp groups that come through, so we spent more time with these boys than many of the other groups.  For many of them, this trip was their first deep interaction with Judaism, particularly Orthodox Judaism.  Many were wearing kippahs and tzitzits for the first time, proud to show them.  They sang and danced and were loud and lively, with a youthful enthusiasm and idealism.  They had been camping all over Alaska and told us stories of using an icy cold glacial river as a mikvah, of climbing mountains while singing Jewish songs.  They stayed clear across town in a hostel in a kind of run down part of town, walking the whole way for services, tzitzits out and kippahs showing the whole way, unafraid.

Their unofficial theme was, “Jews Take Alaska!”

We laughed and explained that they were a little late.  Our Mayor is Jewish and Jews have been a part of Alaskan history since it was recorded, coming here first with the fur trade before gold or oil was ever discovered.  These boys, rough around the edges as they might be, represented hope, idealism, and pride and their presence challenged us to keep up.  They came from college campuses not unlike the one in Virginia.  As we waited for Havdalah, I sat and listened to them talk with our Rabbi about the possibility of starting Jewish clubs at their campuses or what the clubs were already doing, their fears about being “too pushy” or “too religious,” but also their obvious desire to bring back a little of what they’d experienced here in the mountains with all this inspiration.

As I drove back home last night on the highway, in the opposite lanes, I saw a police car stopped with flashing lights, I looked over and saw a moose that had been killed on the road, fresh blood spread across the roadway, it’s body torn as I looked away I felt a growing unease after the easy lightheartedness of the weekend, but I tried to brush it away.  Moose are killed on the roads up here, but something about this moose and the timing had me feeling on edge.

It wasn’t long after that I opened up my computer and read about the protests in Charlottesville.

I saw pictures of men who looked like me or my family and who were younger than I am, carrying torches and yelling hatred about my family.  I saw pictures of violent conflict on our own soil and even pictures of the car plowing through a crowd of people as if they were moose, bodies flying.  It was surreal.  I saw the columned buildings of the college campus in the torchlight and I immediately thought of those boys I’d spent the weekend with, headed back to college campuses this fall.  My mind reeled and I began to think about how I would explain this to my own children.

We are often sheltered from events in the lower 48 here in Alaska, separated by timezones and distance.  I am not naive enough, though, to think that the same hate does not also exist here, in the small communities in the same woods those boys were singing through.  I remembered feeling nervous when I saw that they were walking through the less desirable parts of town visibly Jewish and some unease when I realized they would have also been doing this in some of the more remote areas, places where people who seek to avoid the mainstream go and where the beliefs and ideas that made them feel the need to separate from the rest of the world are allowed to fester.  There are compounds built in the woods up here where all different kinds of armed people who believe this world is headed in the wrong direction wait.

This is all just 2 weeks or so after our own Rabbi counseled us to have our son wear a baseball cap when he can, to cover his kippah, and for him to tuck in his tzitzits, telling us that another boy in the Synagogue had been the target of racist graffiti on his school notebooks, swastikas scrawled across his notebooks as a threat…in elementary school.

Most converts are asked by the Beit Din (Rabbinical Court) that converts them why they would want to join the Jewish people and subject themselves to anti-semitism.  My answer will be an easy one.  We already are effected by it.  Already, those who would hate Jews hate us.  They make no distinctions for my husband’s murky halakhic status or my own lack of any Jewish status.  To them, we are Jews and to them, I am even worse than a born Jew because I once was like them, fully white, and chose to cleave to a people I was not born to.  If we chose not to convert, it wouldn’t stop people from hating us, but it would cut us off from support and inclusion in a community that understands what it is to be the target of such malice.

The contrast between the day of Shabbos and the night after was a stark reminder of the world we live in now, where hate has become more openly expressed again.  I don’t doubt that it’s always been there, but now we see them march with no masks over their faces.  However, we also see hope in young men who also no longer want to hide their Jewishness.

I can’t help but wonder where this conflict will all end and worry over my children.  There is no mountain far enough to shelter us from such a storm.

 

I Woke Before the Dawn Today

The sun’s long reign has all but ended
the day dawns later
dark, rainy, a chilly pricking at my face
the clouds are low
the mountains hidden

The sun was arrogant
stealing away the night
overreaching, grasping too far
now, the night spies her chance
she begins to push him to retreat

Creation senses the impending victory
bears scrambling to eat their fill
animals preparing for their long flights south
saying their goodbyes to the midnight sun
humans trying to deny the inevitable

The time for lighting candles first inches closer
then moves in leaps
the neverending Sabbath becomes more sensible
then diminishes
we must rush to be ready

Now is a time for preparing
for last moments with the sun
for doing what has been put off
the list grows long
Fall looms near