Wandering Jew-ish? Traveling Kosher!

I’ve got some trips coming up down to the lower 48 and while I’ve written before about the logistics of backcountry camping kosher, I thought it might be good to write about traveling while observant, for those who might be new to it.

Kosher travel really begins when we begin planning our trip, specifically the times and dates of flights or travel times for a roadtrip.  Shabbos and holidays always need to be planned around and it’s important to make sure there is some padding of time just to be sure.  I’ve read so many “horror” stories of Orthodox Jews needing to spend the Sabbath in airports or getting stuck in one way or another.  Be sure to check with your own friendly Orthodox Rabbi, but for most, this means making sure that you will not need to be traveling at all near candle lighting time and that any flight after the Sabbath departs well after the end of the Sabbath, havdalah.  Whenever possible, I like to arrive a day or two before Shabbos so I have time to settle in, get my bearings, and find kosher food.  It’s often good to take into account potential flight delays or, if it’s a roadtrip, any driving delays due to traffic, weather, or car issues.

Which brings us to the other two big challenges, kosher food and lodging within walking distance of an Orthodox Synagogue.

There seems to be a great fear among some Jews born Orthodox that there is nothing to eat in a city if that city has no kosher pizza place.  I’m happy to say that most major cities have a lot to offer.  Doing a quick search on Chabad.org’s website for local Chabad organizations can often get you in touch with what is kosher locally.  They will sometimes have a separate webpage on the local Chabad house’s website with local kosher resources or sometimes you can email or call them.  In smaller cities, they may also be the only Orthodox Synagogue for Shabbos as well and often can help you find accommodations nearby.  In larger cities, you can often search for a local Va’ad or Beit Din (Rabbinical Court) and they may have links to kosher websites and some large cities even have their own kosher certification programs.  In addition, doing a web search for “Orthodox Jewish Synagogues in (city name)” can often help you find their Synagogue’s website, which will often have visitor information.

It’s important to reach out to whatever community that you will be visiting for Shabbos early.  They may be able to recommend hotels in or near the eruv or Synagogue and sometimes they can set up hosting for you for either meals or a place to stay as well.  Be prepared to give them some kind of references, usually your local Orthodox Rabbi.  After all, you’d want to check up on a complete stranger before inviting them into your home, wouldn’t you?  Also, keep in mind that Orthodox Jews are a tight-knit community.  Be on your best behavior as a guest and if you are not yet halakhically Jewish, be careful not to do anything that you wouldn’t be allowed to do in your home Synagogue, like accepting an aliyah.  If you are set up with hosts for meals or a place to stay, be sure to bring a hostess gift and thank you card so that you’ll be welcomed back!

If you’re on your own for accommodations, don’t fret.  Recently, our family has had really good luck finding airbnb’s in areas where there are no hotels in or near an eruv.  This can be a particularly good option for families.  Just last year we ended up staying in a very charming Airbnb in Seattle’s Seward Park neighborhood.  The couple that hosted us were non-observant Jews who already knew all the ins and outs of Sabbath observance and were familiar with many of the people who hosted us for meals.  They were SO nice and we felt at home and were just a short walk from the Synagogue.  This winter, we’re renting a whole house near a Synagogue we’re visiting.  Of course, you generally cannot expect a kosher kitchen in these, so plan accordingly.

Which brings us to kosher food!

Some larger cities have kosher restaurants and you can often find what their kosher certifications are online as well as if they are cholov yisroel, if that’s a concern for you.  Local Synagogue and Beit Din websites may also list the best grocery stores to go to locally for kosher food or if there are completely kosher grocery stores.  In a pinch, whole foods market, costco, and trader joe’s are generally great for finding a lot of kosher items and even in the smallest supermarkets, you can generally find snacks that are OU certified, although meat and cheese may be a challenge.  I’ve found having a sense of adventure and some flexibility often helps.

If you’re traveling with a family or are completely on your own for Shabbos meals, it can be really helpful to pack some of your own food and utensils.  My mother in law always travels with a hot plate that she can use to cook with, a small frying pan, a small pot, and a few utensils, including a paring knife in her checked luggage.  I know other people who like to travel with an instant pot, which allows them to saute, steam, slow cook, or pressure cook foods.  Bringing your own kosher appliance with you means not having to rely on as much kosher food being available because you can easily cook fresh vegetables.  It’s always a good idea to have a box of matzah or bring your own challah if you don’t have anyone to host you for meals.

Besides just planning travel and seeing if hosting is available, the Sabbath also has other specific special concerns for travelers.  It’s good to bring tea lights for candle lighting and to find kosher grape juice or wine for kiddush and havdalah.  In addition, it’s important to know if there is an eruv (if you hold by them) and if it is up before carrying as well as to know if your hotel has electronic locks you’ll need to work around.  Some people tape the locks so that they don’t engage and just trust that their belongings will be safe while others work it out with the hotel staff to let them in their room so that they don’t need to use the keycard.  Be sure to check for local candle lighting times, which may be very different from your own.  Hebcal and Chabad are good resources as is the local Orthodox Synagogue.

If you’re new to traveling Orthodox, this might all sound a bit overwhelming, but I’ve found that traveling this way is often a lot more of a “real” experience of a place than when I traveled before.  Sabbath observance and keeping kosher often nudge me to interact more with the local community than I might otherwise.  Sharing the Sabbath with local families helps me really get more of a feel for a place than I would if I just stuck with the tourist sights.  Over time, I begin to feel more like I’m part of the bigger Jewish family and sometimes, I even have names I can now bring up in “Jewish geography” conversations.  I’ve met some of the most wonderful people and I’ve been grateful for what I’ve learned from them and from their communities.

It’s more than worth a few extra logistics.

Now, traveling to the North Slope for work?  That’s turning out to be a whole other adventure, but I plan on posting about that separately since most people don’t need to stress about candle lighting times when the sun never comes up!

 

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.

Don’t Lose What Makes You, YOU! Advice for Orthodox Jewish Converts and Baleei Teshuva!

The times that I have fallen in love, I’ve had a tendency to lose myself in the man I’ve fallen in love with.  It’s a pleasant kind of loss of identity and it happens slowly, subtly until I realize that I suddenly have new habits, preferences, and tastes.  Similarly, over the years, I have watched those newly in love with Judaism lose some of themselves as they took on observance.  I’ve even been that person myself (usually when I write any conversion tips, it’s so others can learn from my own mistakes!).  It’s one of the side effects of one of those early stages of love, the heady infatuation part.

The problem with this often comes later, when reality sets in, both in love and observance.

In love, after the glow wore off, I’d find that I really didn’t like that food I’d been trying to like because he liked it or that hobby that he really enjoyed.  Then, I would have to be honest with myself and him and find my own preferences again.  Mr. Safek LOVES tabletop roleplaying games.  For those unfamiliar with these, they can be very involved, with complicated math to tell you whether or not you’ve killed whatever monster has “appeared” and backstories written for your character, down to painted figurines.  He revels in all this, completely geeking out.  Initially, when we got together, I tried to be all about it, too.  I painted figures for him and went with him to games and tried to be interested.  Once the glow of just doing something with him subsided, though, to a more normal level, I realized…I really find this kind of gaming rather tedious and boring.  I’d rather be reading a book or knitting!

In Judaism, this often takes on the form of a person who previously wasn’t observant suddenly taking on very strict observance or very specific customs and throwing away things like their favorite clothes, music, movies, or hobbies because they simply aren’t “Jewish enough.”  At first, anything Jewish is automatically better, more authentic, and more worthy of time and energy, but after the initial excitement of “being Orthodox” wears off and the day to day reality of Orthodoxy sets in, this can become a problem.

Observance is essentially a collection of habits that are based in Torah and combine to form an Orthodox or frum life.  Given this, tossing out everything you were before you decided to become religious works about as well in the long term as going off to a spa for three weeks to lose weight.  Sure, as long as you exist in this different world away from your “normal” life, you’ll eat healthy, exercise, and have all these great healthy habits, but what about when you return home?  Similarly, the challenge for both converts and BT’s (Jews who weren’t raised Orthodox, but later take on observance) is to find a way to integrate these new habits into their life.  Throwing away everything that made you who you are and simply taking on the persona of what you think is the ideal Orthodox Jew very rarely works long term.  What happens when the only choice you think you have is to either never enjoy the things you once did or go completely and utterly off the derech?  (OTD – giving up observance, going off the “path”)

This is partially why everyone encourages converts to take on observance slowly and to be moderate in their observance, but beyond that, I think it takes learning how you can still do many of the activities and pursue many of the interests you had before you came to Orthodox Judaism, but within the confines of Jewish law.  In this way, it’s less a question of “either or.”

In some ways, many converts have an easier time grasping this than born Jews becoming religious because we already have to find creative halakhic ways to navigate things like holidays with our non-Jewish family or eating with non-Jewish family.  We’re used to having to find some kind of middle ground between our pasts and our presents that is still allowed by Torah since there is a major mitzvah to honor one’s parents and in most cases our parents aren’t converting with us.  I’ve often seen more tension when a child of secular parents decides to become religious because there can be more pressure on the parents to accommodate their child’s new observance.

I’ve had a few interests or hobbies that I just couldn’t find a way to fit into an Orthodox lifestyle, but, by in large, with the help of Rabbis, I’ve been able to integrate most of who I was into who I am.  I take an aerial yoga class, something I came to enjoy during our break from our conversion process.  These classes involve a really wonderful mix of flexibility, strength, and endurance and I find them fun as well.  As we returned to our conversion process, I had already been sidelined from my classes with some minor health issues I was working through, but I was a little sad about the idea that I wouldn’t be able to take them back up again.

That’s when it finally occurred to me to ask a Rabbi if there might be a way for me to do these classes, but not violate Torah laws.  We looked at who takes the classes, whether there are windows in the building men could look through, what clothing do I need to wear to be able to do the activity and how could that be made modest?  What kind of music do we work out to?  I found tznius workout skirts with built-in leggings and undershirts and tops as well as headcoverings that don’t slip even when I’m upside down.  The classes are almost always all women, but there are windows, so we sided on the side of greater modesty and I avoid the kinds of classes that would have immodest positions and any classes that could work in any of the spiritual aspects of yoga versus the fitness parts.  I’ve been back for three weeks so far and while I might not be the most fashionable looking woman there, I’m very glad to be able to be there and without compromising following Torah.

This is just one example and after a while, it becomes fun to look for ways to do things in a way that is consistent with Torah law and then check with a Rabbi to see if I’m on the right track, like a puzzle to solve.  We’ve done this with camping trips, with my upcoming work trip to the North Slope, and with our hobbies and the kids’ public schooling.  Sometimes, the answer is, “No, there just isn’t a way to make that work with Torah law,” but more often than not, it’s more about how we do something than if we do it all.  By making old interests and hobbies as well as time spent with non-Jewish friends a priority even if it involves some creative problem solving, our family feels more cohesive in our observance and more positive.

It might not fit with a more stringent view of Orthodoxy, but it’s a balance that is approved by my Rabbi, fits within halakhah, and allows me to be me and an Orthodox Jew.  I make time for hobbies I enjoyed long before conversion ever entered my mind and I find new insights in many of them from my Jewish studies.

I think it’s important, for long term success, to be able to form a Judaism that enhances one’s life rather than reduces it to a long list of “don’ts” and where there is a will, there is often a halakhic way to find compromises that allow for a kosher life that is sustainable and full of joy.

Judaic Studies…in Alaska (or how to teach your children when you live very remote from Day Schools!)

Next year, Hashem willing, our children will be in Orthodox day schools.  This is a requirement for most converts because we may not be able to teach our children everything they need to know when it comes to Judaism.  Most day schools are simply private schools that follow a “dual curriculum.”  Students spend roughly half their day on secular studies, which is all the stuff that public school children study and then the other half is spent on Judaic studies, where they work heavily on learning to read and understand Hebrew as well as learning all that they need to know to live an Orthodox Jewish life.

Our children were in day school when we lived in Florida, but they’ve now been out 5 years here in Alaska, so we have a LOT of catching up to do to smooth their transition back in.  I’m fairly sure that no matter how hard we work now, there’s going to be some bumps when they move back into that environment, particularly for our son who will be starting Yeshiva (high school boy’s school).  Another challenge is that we live where we live, a hour behind even Pacific time and far from any large Jewish community, so resources are a challenge to find.

But…Alaskans are resourceful by nature, so resources I have found.

An average day for us begins like anyone else’s.  We go to work and the children go to public school.  After a full day of public school, they come home and begin their homework from that day.  When I come home, I move from being a network engineer to being a homeschooling teacher.  If I’m very lucky, I have a cup of tea to soften that change!  After I’ve checked in with the kids on their secular homework, I make us some dinner and we all eat, then it’s on to Judaic studies.  I use a mix of different things.  The basics is covered by an online program for Jewish homeschoolers called Melamed Academy.  We also looked at Nigri International Jewish Online School and really liked their program, but it didn’t work out for our timezone.  Melamed Academy is mostly self-study, so it can be done at any time, so that’s what we went with.

I supplement with materials from chinuch.org.  It’s primarily a website in which Jewish educators share materials, but anyone can create an account and download educational materials for free.  I find extra vocabulary lists, study sheets, and parsha study sheets there.  In addition, high on my mind is that my son will need to prepare for Gemara study.  To that end, he has an additional study session weekly with his Zaide.  I found study guides at Boniyach.com for them to try out.  They have programs for boys from elementary school on that help ease them into Mishnah and then Gemara study and I’m hopeful that they will be helpful in their studies.  My daughter also spends a few hours every Sunday at our local Chabad House’s Hebrew school.

We try to wrap all this up by 9pm at night so that everyone can get to bed and sleep since my day begins at 4:30am, when I get up to get ready for work at 6am.

I’m very proud of the way the kids have adjusted to this schedule and their enthusiasm for their Judaic studies.  They also seem to work through their secular homework quicker because they are eager to move on to their other lessons.  I’m very fortunate that they’re both eager learners, even if it means I have to work to keep up!  We’re at a holiday lull in Judaic studies, but I’m using the time to organize materials for after the holidays when we begin the Torah over again.  I often learn alongside the children, having to study myself to help teach them.

Will it be enough to ease the transition?  I’m pretty sure there will still be some big gaps for both of them and we’ll have to help them handle being behind.  Both of them are very good students at school and won’t be used to being the kid who is behind, which is more what I worry about than them catching up.  We talk about not comparing themselves to others and also focusing on how far they have come and how proud we are of them.

I love how our days are full of Torah, even if it means my nights are sometimes a bit too short and I definitely look forward to my Shabbos shluf (nap)!

Tools for Converts or BT’s – Bullet Journaling

If you’re in the process of conversion or even if you’re just looking to grow and add observance and study, there can be a lot to keep track of.  Classes, books to read, prayers to remember to say…it can be a lot.

Over the years, I’ve tried several different systems to keep our family on track.  I’ve mastered a google calendar and I’ve worked with different planners, but the most powerful and flexible tool I’ve found for tracking all these different things has been a bullet journal.  If you’re unfamiliar with bullet journaling, it’s a very simple paper system that can track tasks, habits, and dates and all you need is a pen and a small notebook.  I won’t go into all the ins and outs of bullet journaling itself and I’m instead going to focus on how it is particularly useful for tracking things pertaining to Orthodox Jewish observance and conversion study, but a great place to begin if you’re completely new to it is bullet journal’s official website.

I do use my bullet journal to track important dates, but where I find it most powerful is in tracking tasks and habits.  Often, I need to remember to make phone calls or send emails or bring some piece of documentation.  My task tracker is very helpful for helping me keep track of those things in one place.  You can google for a task key and use whatever symbols work for you, but this is an example of a simple daily task list that someone else made.  Mine is a bit too personal to share!

bujutasks

My task list isn’t quite this pretty and is a lot more colorful, but it is filled with anything I need to remember or do on a given day.  I use different symbols for appointments and tasks or things I just need to remember and then I can carry those forward or mark them off as they’re done.  That is helpful, but the next section is where I really find the power in my bullet journal.

I use habit tracker pages to track those recurring things that I’m trying to do every day.  It can be something as simple as remembering to wash and daven morning blessings.  These are those recurring habits that begin to form an observant life and for me, tracking them, can be really helpful to keep me on track as I slowly add to my daily observance.

This is an example of someone else’s habit tracker.  Mine, again, is a little too personal for comfort to share.
bujuhabit

In my case, my habits revolve around prayers I want to say, washing netilyas yadiim, giving tzedekah, reading and study, along with a few other personal habits I want to cultivate.  Since I check my bullet journal a couple of times a day, it’s a great reminder!

The final thing about bullet journaling that I wanted to share is how you can use it to track longer term goals.  I’ve created a spread to track my progress on the 101 Goals in 1001 Days.  As part of that challenge, I have goals that I want to do daily, weekly, monthly, annually, and even just once.  That can be a lot to try to keep track of!  This is part of what I’ve come up with to help myself.

IMG_2267

This one is actually mine and that’s the first of 7 pages dedicated to those 101 Goals.  Mine may not be as pretty or perfect as some of the other bullet journals out there, but I primarily keep it for myself, to help me not get lost in all the things that I should be working on, whether it’s adding Hebrew vocabulary, giving tzedakah (charity), or keeping track of appointments and making phone calls.

If you’re drowning in tasks and having trouble keeping on track, why not give it a try?

A Good Shabbos to everyone and may you have a peaceful and meaningful Shabbos!