Conversion Setbacks and Crying in the Rain

I watched a really deep and profound shiur (class) once that said that the tears of a woman are the rain that causes blessings to come from above, that a woman’s tears have great power to soften Hashem and call upon his mercy.

Today, since it is fall and our rainy season, it is a lot like the heavens cry with me, sharing in my sadness.  I try to keep this blog upbeat and hopeful, but sometimes the only appropriate response to life is to cry out to Hashem.

We were given some bad news regarding our conversion process yesterday.  Somewhere, someone who converted that we have never met made some bad choices and now our current Beis Din (Rabbinical Court) is no longer willing to work with us unless we begin our process all over again after we move.  This would mean our son would not be able to attend Yeshiva and would likely put our conversion back 2-3 years.  Our other option is to try to find another Beis Din on the Israeli Rabbinate’s approved list that might be more lenient, even though we haven’t been working with them for years.  Our Rabbi has told us not to lose heart and has some ideas of courts he has worked with before.

It’s hard not to lose heart.  It feels like every time we begin to make progress toward conversion, some major setback happens that tosses us back to square one, like the board game chutes and ladders.  You think you’re near the end, but then a chute comes along and you’re back at the beginning…again.

The major fear that the Beis Din had was my son.  They haven’t spoken to him since he was 8 years old and even then it was very brief.  Their fear is that at 13 now, he will rebel against us and stop observing.  I can understand their concerns, but I wish they would have spoken to my son before making such a determination.

My son is a pretty remarkable 13 year old.

I know most mothers believe that, but my son has been through so much and has such a deep love of Judaism.  He began celebrating Jewish holidays at age 5 and has been raised Jewish since.  His father left his life when he was 6.  When he was little, I remember holding him and explaining to him why he wasn’t allowed up on the bima (place where the Torah is read in a Synagogue) with the other boys toward the end of services or on Simchas Torah.  I comforted him when he was teased in day school for being a goy.  I’ve hugged him when boys came to our Chabad house for their bar mitzvahs and promptly disappeared from observance after, leaving him still waiting for his own.  He now watches boys younger than him casually receive their aliyahs, then leave.

If anyone would have a reason to be bitter about Judaism, it would be my son, but he isn’t.

My son studies Torah every week with his Zaide (grandfather).  He stumbles over Hebrew words, learning to translate them and he is disappointed if he has to miss a week.  He yearns to visit Israel and seriously considers aliyah.  He sees himself as Jewish, just with a small paperwork issue.  He is studying hard, hoping to prepare for Yeshiva, nervous but excited about all he could learn there.  For now, my husband and I have decided it’s best not to tell either child about this setback and hope that we find a resolution before we have to.  They’ve already been through so much and all they really want is just to be fully Jewish.

We’ve given up so much for conversion.  The hope of more children, a real wedding, a bar mitzvah for our son, soon a bat mitzvah for our daughter, and soon Alaska.  As I cry this morning, I beg Hashem…please.  Please don’t ask us to give up my son going to Yeshiva, too.  Please help us convert in time for him to start there and have this one experience on time.  Please.  He’s working so hard and is so devoted to You and to Torah.  Please don’t turn him away.  Please.

And please daven for our family that Hashem should stretch out his hand for us and help us through this.  I know we’ll do another 2 or 3 years or however long it takes, but I don’t know how much more the children can take of this and I worry that the beautiful spark of Judaism in each of them will dim.

Like any Alaskan in the rain, I’m sheltering those tiny sparks as best I can from the rain, trying to shield them from the wind so that they have the chance to grow.

And You Shall Teach Your Son (and Daughter)…For Converts and/or BT’s

One of the things I passionately love about Judaism is the focus it has on lifelong learning, the idea that even if you’ve read the weekly parsha every week for your whole life there is still some little bit of wisdom hidden there for you to dig into.  Or, the idea that there are so many different perspectives to study, even where they conflict and intertwine.  Especially, though, that education is really one of the highest priorities in life, for life.

Jewish education, though, can sometimes be daunting if you’re joining it mid-stream.

There is a steep learning curve for many people joining an Orthodox community.  There is Hebrew to learn, often yiddish jargon to figure out, cultural bits here and there to decipher…it’s a lot to take on.  If you have children, this also means teaching your children as well so that eventually they can integrate into an Orthodox Day School environment.  For conversion candidates, this is most often something they need to do before their family will be considered for conversion and there is usually a stipulation at the time of their conversion that any future children must attend Orthodox Day Schools.

On the surface, this might seem unfair.  My born Jewish friends can send their children to any school they choose and they and their children will be absolutely Jewish, even if they receive little or no Jewish education.  Another way of looking at it, though, is that the Rabbis who oversee conversion what a newly converted Jew to have everything they need to succeed already set up before they convert so that they can successfully make that transition.  For children converting, this means having more than just their parents who may or may not have their own Jewish education there to help them learn what they need to know to be observant.  Being in an Orthodox Day School environment provides them with plenty of role models of what observance looks like and it teaches them things that a convert parent might not be able to.  Essentially, it helps replace Jewish grandparents, aunts, uncles, and all that other extended family that a born Jewish child might have to help teach.

Orthodox Day School is a whole other world from public school.  Most of these schools follow what is known as a “dual curriculum,” which means children spend half of their day in secular studies learning the subjects that their public school peers would be learning in their home language.  The other half of the day is spent on Judaic studies which differs somewhat between what boys and girls learn in some schools.  School often goes a little longer than public schools because there is so much more to cover and optional classes are minimized to make room.  By high school, most boys go to Yeshiva, which is pretty intense.  The most rigorous Yeshivas will have boys studying up to or over 14 hours a day with little time for much else.  Girls high schools are sometimes less intense but still most follow a dual curriculum.

I’ve had my children in day schools for elementary school briefly and now I’m working to prepare them to go back.  Each time, it’s been tough to figure out exactly how best to prepare them to make such a transition, but I have noticed that over the past 5 years or so, there are a lot more and a lot better online resources for Judaic studies for children.  The first time around, we supplemented what we could teach our children with a local private tutor who was warm and wonderful and that seemed to be enough, although my son still struggled a bit to keep up.  In many communities, there are kollel students or even Rabbis who are happy to take on tutoring arrangements for reasonable fees and this can be a good option.

This time around, we’re trying something different and going with an online day school.  These programs are often designed for parents who, for whatever reason, are opting to homeschool their children using a dual curriculum and help fill the need for the Judaic studies portion of the day.  In some cases, you can also purchase a secular studies option as well.  There are various to choose from with some meeting in realtime with a class and a teacher on Skype and others being more independent study.  The one we chose is independent study, mostly because we’re in such an odd timezone and the children will still be putting in a full day at public school as well.  This could really be a great option for other conversion candidates with children as they prepare to move to a day school or for BT’s with children looking to supplement without a day school.

There are also more online and better resources I’ve found for just general Jewish study for children.  In our first years of conversion, my kids watched Shalom Sesame and some videos on Chabad.org and we worked on coloring books for Hebrew.  Now, there are some great cartoons out there that teach Jewish topics in fun ways and finding books and resources online is a lot easier than it was even only 5 years ago.

I’m going to add a section to the conversion resources page for learning for children to kind of gather together some of the resources that have worked well for us in teaching our children far from a large Jewish community.

They say that you can tell what a person values by how they spend their time and money.  By those measurements, it’s pretty clear that education tops the list for most Orthodox Jewish families.  It’s also woven through holiday observance, with specific attention paid to passing on the stories and traditions of Judaism on to younger generations.

I hope, one day, to pass on what I have learned to Jewish grandchildren, although if everything works out well, they’ll probably already know more than I do.  I think this is probably the dream of every BT and convert out there, to have children that surpass us in Jewish education and to watch them find their place among the Jewish people.

Leveling Up

In the past week’s parsha, we read about Moses preparing the Jewish people for their next big challenge…entering the land of Israel and keeping the laws of Torah there.  Over and over, he stresses how much better their lives will be if they follow the commandments and it’s clear from the commentaries that he knew this would be a big challenge for them.

It often happens that whatever I’m reading in my parsha studies each week has some relevance to my life that week and this “pep talk” from Moses came at a time when I’m really working hard to gather information about day schools for our children.  My son will be entering 9th grade and yeshivas (Jewish high schools for boys) are no joke!  I read about students studying for up to 14 hours a day to fit in both their secular studies and Judaic studies.  I read about selective admissions to these private schools with campuses that look  more like colleges than high schools, the students walking with serious faces and dress shirts and suit pants between stone buildings with manicured lawns.  I read about dormitories and talk with my Jewish friends who have sent their children off to yeshiva and I try not to panic.

We are preparing to dwell in a fully functioning Jewish community, similar to the Jews huddled on the bank of the Jordan, looking into Israel and hoping they’re up for the challenge ahead.  Up until now, we’ve been sheltered in the wilderness, where inspiration was easy to see with our own eyes as we stared at mountaintops.  Now, we prepare for the reality of living Jewish, for moving into a city where there will be no view of mountains and we’ll need to look inside for inspiration.

As I read Moses words to the Jewish people, I tried to take heart in them.  They faced their own journey into the unknown and already they’d lost heart and suffered for it.  The generation before them hadn’t been up to the challenge and had succumbed to the sin of the spies and lost their chance to dwell in Israel.  Now, they faced the challenge head-on, listening to Moses as he prepared them for what was to come.

This school year, I’ll be preparing my son for yeshiva and my daughter for day school.  I have them enrolled in an online Torah studies program, but a lot of the work, I’ll need to do myself.  I’ll be trying to teach my son to be more organized, to manage his own schedule, to handle his own laundry…all these things he’ll need when he’s living in a dorm room, even if it’s in the same city as me.  I’ll be preparing my daughter to walk into a classroom unlike her public schools and be successful there.  I’ll be preparing myself to take this next step in letting go of both of them a little more, letting them begin to prepare for adulthood.

As I pour over the websites of schools, I almost worry more about whether I am prepared for this than I do if they will be.  Kids adapt quickly and learn quickly as well.  Already my son corrects my Hebrew and reads faster than my husband, with his sharp eyes easily picking apart Hebrew letters.  As a mother, though, I want to cling to them both a bit longer.  I also wonder if I will send him away to one of these great schools if he will return from break a stranger to me?  Will he still be *my* son if I have sent him off to be partially raised by Rabbis?

And yet, I also recognize the wisdom here.

The truth is…we can’t raise him to be fully an Orthodox Jew on our own.  We don’t have the background or learning ourselves to pass on to him.  He and our daughter need a village around them to help them learn what we are still working to learn ourselves…and beyond.  If my wildest dreams come true, my children WILL be different from me.  They will walk into Jewish communities as adults with a familiarity I’ll never have.  They’ll know things I may never learn.  They will be as much children of the Jewish community as they are mine.

But letting go, even just enough to let my son board at a school in the same city, is bittersweet.  I thought I had more time, that I could jealously keep my children to myself until age 18 rather than have to let go so much so soon.

I have one school year left to prepare them, but is that enough time to prepare me?