To the Edge of the World

Tomorrow I board my flight to Kuparuk, to spend a week in one of the most remote, most extreme parts of the world.  I will most likely be the furthest north person celebrating Shabbos in the world this week, in a land where the sun will not rise for months.  I’ve consulted my Rav about the various laws for lighting there and he’s instructed me to follow lighting times for Fairbanks, the closest location that still has a sunrise and sunset.

The only way to work my way out of the darkness is to travel deeper into it.

In contrast, in just a couple of weeks after this trip to the extreme north, my family and I will be traveling south to scout out what we hope will be our new community, down in the “lower 48,” as Alaskans call the rest of the United States.  My trip flight north will only be a couple of hours shorter than our flight south, but to me, it’s a journey to two extremes.  One is a world set so far apart from Jewish community, where everyone around me will be working 12 hour shifts for 2 weeks straight before they fly out for 2 weeks off work.  There, not only is there no sunlight to mark Shabbos by, but no Sabbath for the regular workers there.

In my Tanya class each week, our teacher uses light as a metaphor for how G-dliness filters through the different worlds to our own.  It’s a very powerful metaphor for me, living where I do.  Winter light in Anchorage is weak in its strength.  In color, it is whiter than light elsewhere or at other times.  It is thin light, beautifully clear for photographs, but not warming. Further north, the light decreases further until there is barely any glow of twilight in the sky and no sunrise or sunset.  The light simply cannot reach those places, hidden by the curve of the earth from its reach.

I think we all sometimes must travel through those dark places, where it is so hard to see Hashem or feel His warmth.  The only difference here is that this distance seems so visual and literal.

By contrast, further south, the light thickens like syrup.  When I visited the south of the US a few weeks ago, the sunlight flowed from the sky like warm honey, thick with warmth.  Plants and animals charge themselves in that glow and it allows things to grow.  That kind of light nourishes everything it touches where the winter light up here simply can’t do much.

There is beauty and meaning in the darkness, though.  There is a value to walking through it and a lot that a person can learn about themselves.  If a person can even find Hashem when that glow is at its faintest, then how can they lose Hashem when it is so much brighter?

As I pack and prepare to fly north, I plan to seek Hashem, even alone in the darkness of a Shabbos spent so far from family or any semblance of Jewishness.  If I can squint my eyes and find the light in that darkness, I will be confident I can find it when we’re moved where there is so much more support for the search.

Parshas Vayishlach – Wrestling with Angels and New Names

In this week’s parsha, Yaakov famously wrestles with Esav’s angel, gaining an injury and the name Israel.  In the Torah, every nation has its own angel watching over it and we’ve already learned that Esav is destined to be a mighty nation in his own right.  The struggle is dramatic and costs Yaakov, injuring his hip from which Jews derive the commandment not to eat the sciatic nerve of animals.

I sometimes wonder what nation I was born to and if I wrestle with the angel of that nation.

Unfortunately, the Torah doesn’t tell us which of the people that it speaks of wandered through Europe later.  It doesn’t say if Esav’s distant descendants later decided to move to England, Ireland, and Alsace, where my ancestors sprang from.  There are some commentaries that seek to explain which modern day people are at least spiritual descendants of which people in the Torah, but beyond Jews and Muslims, it can be tough to trace even one’s spiritual lineage back to the Torah.  There are some interesting ideas that the ten lost tribes of Israel spread out throughout the nations and that those who successfully convert are descended from these, but most Rabbis seem to think that converts are neshamas that were present at Mount Sinai, but for varying reasons, were born into non-Jewish bodies.  The generations before have little meaning beyond creating that vessel.

In many ways, I could picture Esav as the ancestor of the people of my birth.  My ancestors were pretty tough people, surviving conditions in Western Europe and then being bold enough to cross the Atlantic in the hunt for a better life.  There are certainly plenty of hunters and warriors in my family line and I can say that there was little concern with spiritual matters, at least in the generations I’m aware of.  The people I come from are very practical, stoic people who value hard work and independence.  Giving up some of that independence to be part of a religious community is seen more as weakness than admirable and admitting to feeling moved by anything that isn’t concretely visible in this world is far too sentimental for their taste.

They’re a good people in their way and people like those I was born to are the bedrock that helped build this nation.  From them, I learned how to go out into this world and work hard, hunting for what I need.  I doubt any of them would have guessed that I would one day turn those skills to hunting for something more, something intangible.

Like any conversion candidate, there are times I question what I’m doing.  There are moments when I ask myself why I am choosing to make my life harder and why I am working so hard to join a people…that very often doesn’t seem to want me.  It helps that I never quite felt at home among the people I was born to.  I always had too many questions about things that seemed unimportant to them.  I always had my head in the clouds and a yearning that no one else seemed to understand.  Still, I look at the world around me and I can’t help but admit that there are other places I’d probably be more easily accepted, other lives that I could slide into with relative ease compared to this one, where I am constantly called on to prove I should be here.

It’s at those times that I wonder if I’m myself wrestling with the angel of my forebear and I often wonder which of us will ultimately win.  Hashem knows we’re both stubborn.

When Yaakov won the battle with Esav’s angel, he was given a new name that his children would carry through time…Israel.  The Sages say this marked a great spiritual transition for him.  He had attained a higher spiritual level following the struggle, a level which would be necessary for the Jews to survive everything that would come later, from bondage in Egypt to years wandering the desert, to conquering their own land, to the exile.  The struggle with Esav’s angel revealed the inner strength of Yaakov.  He didn’t become a different person, but rather it revealed who he really was.  The Lubavitcher Rebbe said that in exile, Jews must be Yaakov and the nature of Yaakov is to have to hide parts of who we are for survival, but in the time of Moshiach, all Jews will be fully Israel, that is, Jews will be able to reveal fully who they are.

Converts gain a new name at the time of conversion, their Hebrew name.

It’s an interesting task to have to choose a name for yourself.  I remember that my children’s names, both English at their birth and Hebrew as we began this process, came very easily and naturally to me.  Some say that mothers are given divine inspiration when it comes to naming their children and last week’s parsha spoke of Leah and Rachel naming their children.  For me, it was as if once I said their names, those names had always been theirs.  They fit them.  I struggled, though, when it came to my own name.  Should I choose a name that fit who I see myself as or who I wish to become more like?  What should my name sound like?  Converts are urged to choose common Jewish names, names that won’t really stand out much in their community or set them apart.  Being a convert alone sets one apart enough.  Every name I tried, though, just didn’t seem to fit the way my children’s names fit them, but then again, I’d often felt like my English name that I’d had since birth never quite fit.

Over the years, I settled on one that I use and it fits in the way that a shirt that isn’t quite right, but you’ll still wear out fits.  I wonder, though, if I do succeed in wrestling the angel of my ancestors and gain Avraham and Sarah as my spiritual ancestors if that name will come to fit me better and feel more like it is simply who I always was, revealed?

Parshas Chayei Sarah – Big Shoes To Fill

In this week’s parsha, Sarah, the spiritual mother of all Jews and particularly of converts, dies and is the first person to be buried in the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron, the only piece of the land promised to Abraham that he would actually own in his lifetime, but a promise for more.  Rivka is brought to Yitzhak to be his wife and sees him in the field and in what is one of the most romantic passages of Torah, they experience a Hollywood-like moment of “love at first sight.”

There is a Midrash that tells of Yitzhak bringing Rivka into his mother Sarah’s tent, to show her the example of Jewish womanhood that she needs to follow.  We aren’t told much about Rivkah’s upbringing directly in the written Torah, but midrash tells us that her father was a wicked man, even attempting to poison Eliezar.  She wasn’t raised to be what she became, but somehow, she grows to be a young woman thoughtful and kind, bringing not only water for Eliezar, but also his animals.  It seems like Rivka might often have felt out of place in her own family, as if she never quite belonged and longing to be with people she felt more at ease among.  Rivka leaves her own people to travel to meet Yitzhak, leaving her old life behind.

Still, I can’t help but wonder what it must have been like to stand in Sarah’s tent after her recent passing, realizing that you now have to continue what this great woman began.  Sarah was uniquely gifted in prophecy, even more so than Avraham, and was renowned for her beauty.  Even Hashem himself counselled Avraham to listen to his wife.  She bore great influence with him and undoubtedly began to shape the women who looked up to her and follow her example.  Now, though, all those who had come to monotheism through Avraham’s hospitality found Sarah’s tent empty.  It was Rivka’s task to continue to light Shabbos candles and pass on what Sarah had begun to the next generation.

In a way, we’re all Rivka, standing in Sarah’s tent and wondering if we’ll ever measure up to her example.

As a conversion candidate, I definitely have that feeling of joining a people, but without a flesh and blood mother to guide me, slowly raising me and teaching me.  Like Rivka, I’ve had to learn on the job, so to speak, studying the stories of great Jewish women and looking around me for role models.  I have had to find my place in a family that has a long and rich history of tradition as someone brought from outside by a desire to become a part of that tradition.  I stand in Sarah’s tent, hoping that I can do her memory proud, that I can be a suitable descendant of hers in my own home, raising my own children to carry on those traditions and caring for my own family.

I wonder if Rivka ever got nervous hearing of the greatness of her mother in law.  Did she worry that she wouldn’t be worthy of bringing the next generation or did she already have a quiet confidence within her?  Did she simply accept this mission as what she was born to do, without fear she’d fail?

Parshas Lech Lecha – Go!

This week’s parsha begins the story of Avraham, the father of monotheism and the spiritual father of all Jewish converts.  His story begins with a command that’s familiar:

“Go from your land, from your birthplace and from your father’s house, to the land which I will show you.”

 

In some way or other, we all have to eventually leave what is comfortable and familiar and step into an unknown future.  I’ve heard it said that Avraham was the first Jewish convert and this makes perfect sense.  He didn’t grow up with monotheism around him.  He grew up in a family of idolaters in a community where idolatry was normal.

If he’d grown up today, it’s likely his father might have sold iphones and kept up with the Kardashians or simply been someone who idolized money or power.  After all, not all idols are made of stone or wood.

It would have been easy for Avraham to simply follow along.  He could have stayed where he grew up and simply blended in with everyone else.  Instead, he was called upon to leave everything behind and begin a new life, one that was foreign to him both physically and spiritually.  He had to leave what he’d known.

When you study Torah, you quickly learn that the Torah wastes no words.  If something is repeated, it’s for a deeper reason.  Here, we see the Torah basically say that Avraham is commanded by Hashem to go in three different ways.  It would have been clear enough to list any one of them.  Instead, he’s told to leave his “land,” his “birthplace,” and his “father’s” house.  Odds are, during that time period, all three of these could be the same physical location, so it’s obvious that this must mean three different things in some other way.

Chabad.org has a article explaining these 3 different journeys in depth:

This is the deeper significance of the words “your land, your birthplace and your father’s house” in G‑d’s call to Abraham. Eretz, the Hebrew word for land and earth, is etymologically related to the word ratzon–will and desire; so your land also translates as your natural desires. Your birthplace–moladtecha–is a reference to the influence of home and society. And beit avicha, your father’s house, refers to man as a mature and rational being, forging his mind-set, character and behavior with the transcendent objectivity of the intellect. (In the terminology of Kabbalah and Chassidism, the intellect is referred to as the father within man, since it is the progenitor of, and authority over, his feelings and behavior patterns.)

Avraham was being called upon to do a lot more than just make a physical move, more than just relocating his wife and household to a new place.  He was being called upon to go and leave behind.  His journey is even beyond just leaving behind his father’s ways or the culture he was born into.  His ultimate journey was to travel beyond the finite, human ability to understand and perceive the world and to glimpse beyond it to Hashem’s will.  Essentially, he was being asked to do more than just reject idolatry and believe in one G-d alone…he’d already done that before the command to Go came to him.

He’s being told that it’s time for him to transcend his own nature, his habits, and even his rational self.  This makes sense when you recall that the culmination of this journey is the akeida, where he sets aside his rationality in favor of pure faith and binds his only son for sacrifice at Hashem’s command.  Everything we learn about Avraham as we follow his journey up to that point contradicts the binding of Isaac.  We see him yearn for a child.  We see him agonize over sending the wicked Ishmael away.  We see his kindness and generosity towards strangers and we see him plead for the lives of Sodom and Gomorrah.  We learn that Avraham is a kind, generous, righteous man.  And yet, in the face of all this evidence that the akeida is exactly the sort of thing a man like Avraham would never do, would outright refuse to do and argue with Hashem over…he obeys without doubt, certain that Hashem has a plan and will cause everything to turn out for the good.

It’s precisely because an act like sacrificing his own son is so opposite what we learn about Avraham’s character that it is so powerful, but on deeper reading, it seems like the changes that Avraham needed to make to reach that point spiritually began with the command to GO.

I think the reason why Avraham’s journey has resonated through three different faiths for thousands of years is because we each have a similar journey.  Some of us are called to travel further than others, but we all must go and leave behind some aspect of ourselves to continue to grow and move forward.  We can all relate to that idea that we often do have to leave behind what is familiar and comfortable to become the people we are meant to be.  For Orthodox Jewish converts the journey is so similar to our spiritual father’s, even if we are never to reach such spiritual heights.  We’re still called upon to move beyond the spiritual place we were born to in a radical way.  It’s easy to see the families, faiths, and cultures we leave behind, but often harder to see the ways in which we also have to transcend parts of ourselves as well, our very nature, our habits, and even at times, our rational selves.

In ways large and small, we all make leaps of faith into an unknown future.  Could Avraham have known with absolute surety that Hashem would keep his promises?  Did he sometimes worry he’d lost his mind or way when the commands he received didn’t seem to make rational sense?  Were there moments during the long walk up Mount Moriah with Isaac where his heart was troubled and he simply prayed that Hashem would find a way to save his son?  Did he look back with regret when he left his homeland and the family he grew up with or did he walk on, confident and certain?

I can bet that there are stories in Midrash that answer many of these questions that I have yet to learn, but for now, I find the Avraham in my mind is often a reflection of where I am in my faith.  When I am wavering, afraid that my trust is misplaced and I’m making a huge mistake for my family, Avraham is a man who worries and prays a lot, silent prayers as he follows Hashem’s commands.  He lifts the knife reluctantly, fervently praying for Hashem to stop his hand.  When I’m full of faith and feeling strong myself, the Avraham I see is certain and confident and he never loses any sleep with doubts.

What is important, I think, is that both my Avrahams keep going forward, in the direction Hashem has commanded them.  Their bravery and faith may be rattled, but their commitment and obedience is not.

For now, I suppose that is enough to keep me going on my own journey, following Avraham’s footsteps through the snow.

 

 

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.

Conversion Advice – You’ve Gotta Love BOTH

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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