Thursday, September 6, 2018

Pick Up the Orthodox Union's Magazine this Chag for Stories on Conversion!

Going mainstream, y'all. Before digging into the details, I just want to say it's nice to see conversion as the cover story in something as mainstream as the free magazine you pick up in shul to read when you need a break from davening on the chagim (I've heard people read them at home too, but I've seen a lot of magazine reading in shul on Yom Kippur...)

Settle in for a short novel. Let's discuss this.

If the synagogue you're attending is a member of the Orthodox Union, you should find these magazines out on tables in the foyer or otherwise stashed somewhere nearby. 

It's funny how much of the "debate" I've seen has been about the choice to use the phrase "Jews by Choice" on the cover. It's such a polarizing term, usually one associated with non-orthodox spaces. The converts I've met seem to either love or hate the phrase, with few in the middle. Personally, I hate the phrase, but I also think there are worse things to call us. A friend summed it up well by sharing that she heard a story that Rebbi Nachman described converts as being "vomited out." That's an accurate statement, at least in my case. Choice? I mean, sorta. But it sure didn't feel like a choice because I felt so compelled. 

As you might expect from a mainstream source intended to be light-but-uplighting reading during the holidays, this isn't hard-hitting journalism and exposés. I get that. 

This is the human interest portion of our tour: profiles of different converts and their experiences.

There is one amazing quote I really enjoyed: "Secondly, Stein would also like others to understand that she didn't simply crawl out from under a rock when she became Jewish; she had been a worthwhile person in her non-Jewish life, with valuable experiences and knowledge. And now that's she's frum, she's well-educated in Judaism and doesn't need to be shown the basics. 'I've been frum for thirty years,' Stein says. 'I know how to check lettuce [for bugs]! Yet some folks still think I need to be instructed.' " 

The same person also has a very problematic quote. I totally get what she was trying to say, but I think the nuance will be lost on most of the people who read this: "Stein's oldest children are already of marriageable age, and she finds that the shidduchim suggested to them are often other geirim. 'Why should my children marry a ger?' she says indignantly. 'My children are frum from birth! Why should they have to be subjected to the same outsider status that I experienced!' " I get her point. I really do. (Assuming she actually does mean it in the "judging favorably" way I'm thinking.) Shadchanim have a tendency to not understand or like anything outside the box, and to throw anyone outside the box at other outside-the-box people without actually caring what those differences are. You're different, they're different, I'm sure you'll be very happy together even if those differences are completely unrelated. Some even think they're being kind: "I like feeling understood, so I should set you up with someone I think will understand you." When the only factor being considered is that one, somewhat random quality like conversion or BT status, race, ethnicity, national origin. In short, many shadchanim are simply not good at their jobs, even when they're not being motivated by overt prejudice (as some certainly are, especially when conversion, BTs, or race are involved). We want to be seen as complete individuals and matched that way. Too many matches are just plain lazy and thoughtless, if not cruel. 

Super important issues glanced over but at least they were mentioned? Racism, anti-immigrant sentiment, lack of family support that most members of the community can count on, being cast out of your family of birth. I can't say I know a lot, but I know more of some of these stories in the article, and this was soooooooooooooo watered down. Whether that was a choice of the interviewee (which is absolutely understandable and legitimate), the interviewer, or an editor, I don't know. And of course, happy endings for everyone!!1! 

The thing that really got to me about this article is the lingering feeling that it was written solely to "real Jews" who are interested in converts and find them fascinating and exotic. I felt like the article was written about me to introduce me to people, not with the understanding that I too am part of the audience. The lumping together of BTs and converts (which is appropriate in many instances in conversation) made me feel like this article was written solely for FFB people. It's a little thing, and something I'm sure the author didn't intend, but the tone of the article made me feel like an outsider, not an insider. 

Article 2: Loving the Convert by Rabbi Yona Reiss, A Big Deal in the conversion world

This article will probably be shocking reading to many of you, and particularly to many who are not connected to conversion. The whole first half is a laundry list of the limitations on converts, which are a bit hard to swallow in our American meritocracy, and they were presented like everyone already knows about them. For example, he mentions a ruling that says "a convert can even be appointed rabbi of a synagogue if the community members all agree upon accepting him to serve in that position." Even? I feel like a lot of people will read that sentence and be very confused: halachic sources say a convert CAN'T be a rabbi of a shul?? After speaking with a lot of FFBs over the years, people have no idea that this is out there, that converts can't be placed in positions of "authority." And they get pretty angry when they find out! (I'm always so relieved and thankful when they get angry.) That when Yeshiva University's rabbinical school opened, there had to be a ruling to allow converts (men only, of course) to enroll. Because if they aren't allowed to be a rabbi, how could we let them study rabbinics? It was eventually decided they could enroll because converts as rabbis can be teachers. (Of course I can't find a source for that at the moment, but if you know one, please drop it in the comments below!) 

It also details how most believe converts can be Presidents of a shul, so long as he cannot make unilateral decisions without the Board's approval. Most people don't realize this ruling/debate is the one that leads to why women "can" or "can't" be shul Presidents, which is most famous as a ban on female Presidents in the Young Israel organization of synagogues. Because if a male convert can't, then surely a woman can't! Of course, there's a lot more that can be said on these issues, but that's above my paygrade unless it's a Shabbos afternoon and there's wine and snacks involved.

Just reading the first two pages of this article set my heart racing with anxiety, thinking of all the self-appointed conversion experts we're all going to have to face in our communities now, empowered with this knowledge that converts aren't allowed to do a bunch of things, even though they can't remember exactly what but it's definitely something they need to make sure they tell you about. I'm not kidding; I'm taking deep breaths over here to calm myself. Knowledge is sometimes not power; half-knowledge is often used to oppress and intimidate.

Overall, this article didn't feel very loving. It felt like "love gerim, you're commanded to. But these are all the ways you're required to make them feel less-than. But they're very special people." That's not the author's fault, but I feel like the halachic system should have handled this better over time because many feel like the result of prejudice rather than something Hashem commanded. I get kind of hung up on "There shall be one Torah and one law for you" (Numbers 15:16). 


One very astute statement that was too underplayed by the author: "Ultimately, the trajectory of  a convert [toward more or less observance], like that of each member of the Jewish nation, can go in either direction, but much depends on the love and support he or she receives from the community.  On some level, 'it takes a village' to raise up a convert."

What it should have said: Bad treatment by the community is the number one NUMBER ONE NUMBER ONE reason converts go off the derech. I have met so many people who felt forced out of the community because of cruel and/or indifferent treatment, especially in the areas of racism and shidduchim. Sometimes loving Gd isn't enough. You cannot be orthodox without a community, and too many people have moved too many times and still came up short. Anyone who says "it should be enough to love Gd! Suck it up! Get your priorities in order!" is almost certainly part of the problem.

Article 3: Up Close with Abby Lerner, National Director of Conversion Services for the RCA's conversion system, by Yehudit Garmaise

Lerner is the newly-hired ombudsman-like person for RCA conversion in America. If you have any questions about a questionable situation or behavior you encounter, please contact her at the contact info on this page. I don't know how effective this position can be given that it also has a power-dynamic issue, but it's certainly better than the nothing we had before, and I believe they mean well and are trying their best.

Honestly, I really like this article overall. It was the most practical, down-to-earth, and honest piece of the three. I recognized myself several times in the article, and I think many of you will too. Is it perfect? No, but it's a very good introduction to several pain points that the average community member should consider, and it gave some actual tips like stop talking if you find yourself wanting to say, "What interested you in Judaism?"

Thing briefly mentioned that I think should have been made more explicit for the readers: the fact that many "geirim" should also qualify as "baalei teshuva" and have never affiliated as anything but Jewish. If a THIRD of those approaching the batei din have Jewish roots (a statistic she mentions), then we need to recognize that maybe there are subgroups of converts that have different needs. I suspect most of that third are patrilineal Jews. She goes into more depth about Hispanic converts who may be descended from Marranos, and while that's a "sexy" topic people like hearing about, we really need to recognize the BT-converts differently. (I am not one of those, so that's not me being biased in favor of the "specialness" of my own experience.)

A Bigger Problem Oversimplified

A larger issue that popped up repeatedly and is not as simple as presented: Stop pestering converts. Love them (what does that even mean? There's a question they should have considered in depth). Here are two quotes to show what I mean:

"A convert is Jewish now and part of the community. Treat them as Jews and love them as anyone else" - Rabbi Appel in Article #1.

Describing how a convert described the inappropriate questions people asked, Rabbi Reiss says, "This is not acceptable, either on an individual level or a communal level." He also says, "It is important to underscore that one who has undergone a valid conversion procedure is every bit as Jewish as one who was born Jewish. One of the key discomfitures that converts face is being questioned about the validity of their conversion." Then it goes into detail about that questioning, meaning when they're maternal descendants try to get married, etc. [Most of us are more immediately annoyed by the questioning now, over Shabbat tables and shul membership applications.]

But these quotes are completely missing the point. Every person at a Shabbos table who questioned my conversion has always defended themselves with the assertion that they "need" to know whether my conversion was kosher or not. They certainly won't bother me about it again once they know I'm "legit." It's just a one-time ask! Multiplied by a few hundred nosy nellies. In theory, the question would be fine if it came from people who actually need to know my status: the mesader kedushin, a mohel, for example. Others can be discussed on a case by case basis, but really very, very few people have any need to know my halachic status, much less who the rabbis were or especially to demand to see the paperwork.

A current example many converts are struggling with in online groups: when shuls ask for proof of conversion to verify it before allowing a convert to become a member and have the privilege of forking over $1-2k. Schools too. Every American shul and Jewish school I know takes a born Jew at their word that they're halachically Jewish when they check the right box on the form. If I check the "convert" or "child of a female convert" box, I have to prove it, and they'll probably call the rabbis to verify I didn't fake the document or something. Because someone's cousin's brother's wife knew a guy who did. Until and unless my born Jewish husband is asked for his proof of Jewishness, I'm not providing mine. If born Jews are taken at their word, converts should be too. Until the random guy who just showed up one morning isn't given an aliyah without his Jewishness being confirmed (which is actually a halachic issue if he's not halachically Jewish), then there's no need for mine to be verified. Every shul I've ever attended has (rightfully) offered any visiting man an aliyah, without even knowing his name or why he's in shul that day. If they can make that guy feel welcome and like a valued part of the community, they can do the same for me.

This is all a much larger issue that we can discuss at another time since this post is already a novel, but the point needed to be raised. They should have said, "you don't have the right to ask someone their status. Full stop. Those who have the right to ask that are few and far between, and it's almost certainly not you." Instead, this feels like permission to say, "Well, this only applies to 'valid' converts, so I need to verify they're legitimate." Too many people feel it is not only their right, but their obligation, to verify our status. And that is wrong. So wrong. And it drives people off the derech. Given the stories I've heard, I don't blame them one bit. 

Monday, August 13, 2018

"Oh, You've Got All Those Days Off!"

Ah...the fall chagim. When everyone (including you) eventually starts to get tired of hearing, "it's a holiday again." This is especially problematic in the school and workplace. 

When you become an orthodox Jew, you suddenly have a lot of holidays. Holidays that involve you not working, not driving, not answering your phone or emails, not coming to class, not coming to the office for the important meeting. 

And it gets awkward.

(It can get just as awkward with Shabbat, but the holidays are more likely to conflict with secular schedules. Everything said here can be applied to Shabbat as well. I once had to reschedule a Saturday exam, and the administrator actually said to me, "We have lots of Jewish students and no one has ever asked for an accommodation." As though I were making it up. I went on to make many problems for that administrator, and she eventually stopped being visibly annoyed. I later learned this helped smooth the path for a later student, so I'm slightly less bitter about it.)

Funnily enough, I've found that, in general, it's less awkward when your co-workers/teachers/whoever aren't Jewish and are clueless. When it's all new to them, it's interesting and exciting, and they have no preconceived notions about it. They have lots of questions! The trouble comes when someone else has an opinion about the holidays or too many holidays happen in a row (like in the fall). It can even make some Jewish friends or colleagues defensive, afraid that you're judging them for not celebrating the holiday like you do. (Hopefully you aren't judging them for that! a) it's not your place and b) if you wish they were different, wishing they were different is the worst way to go about inspiring a change.) 

But either way, your holiday schedule is almost certainly going to inconvenience you professionally sooner or later. And it will certainly inconvenience others around you too. This is most strongly felt during the fall chagim: Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot. By the time you reach Sukkos, someone will say, "Ok, Rosh Hashanna and Yom Kippur are printed on my calendar. Are you just trying to get more days off?? What do you mean you have two more sets of holidays off?? You just had off several days!" 

If my math is right (Hebrew calendars and my brain don't always get along), you would need seven business days off in September 2018, spread over four instances. That's a LOT, from an employer's (and client's and teacher's) standpoint. In colleges, you could literally miss a once a week class for an entire month - I've done it. More than once. It is rightfully stressful to have to request those days off for many employees and students, especially in a society that doesn't understand having religious days totally removed from everyday life.

And inevitably, someone will comment about how relaxed or lucky or jerkish you are to "have all those days off." Like they're a vacation. 

Oh ho ho. Little do they know. As you've probably figured out by now, Shabbat and holidays can be relaxing, but often aren't. And even the relaxing ones aren't relaxing in a vacation sense. There's getting up early to go to synagogue (no sleeping in!), davening for a few hours, getting lunch put together (especially if there are guests), entertaining guests, more davening, maybe a class or even more davening, dinner, entertaining the dinner guests if you have them. Yes, all these things are nice, but I would never compare them to sitting on a beach in Tahiti with a daiquiri.

But your colleagues (and potentially even clients) will.

They (usually) just don't have a frame of reference for such a highly ritualized, communal religion. And assume that you probably do catch-up work in the evenings and get out of the work that went on while you were gone.

And they'll wonder why you're so stressed out when you come back to the office. They won't understand all the enormous prep that goes into making a holiday, the stress of putting your outside life on hold (and many of us mentally never fully do), getting through the holiday itself, then the enormous cleanup, go back to work, catch up on work while also doing the new work coming in, and knowing you're going to have to repeat the whole thing next week. It can be incredibly stressful, and your colleagues may be (understandably) annoyed with your special circumstances while simultaneously annoyed that you don't seem to be appreciating all the "vacation" you're getting at the inconvenience to others.

But vacation days. Oh, vacation days. Those days you're using up to take off work for your holidays (if you even get vacation days in this insane American workforce). That's right. Especially if you're a student, you may not have thought about this. Many (most?) of my friends use up almost all their vacation days, and sometimes even a sick day or two, to take off work for the chagim throughout the year. They literally don't get a vacation, especially in a year like this, when almost all the chagim are business days. Their coworkers conveniently tend not to notice that part. And it's not healthy either that so many people in our community don't get proper vacations to sit back from their work, a very necessary mental health and productivity need. I think this is a big factor in the high rates of entrepreneurship we see in our community, as well as businesses that target within the orthodox community. It makes it a lot more likely that your time off work won't inconvenience your clientele and might allow you to take a proper vacation. 

Of course, this is all a worst case scenario view. But if you work outside Jewish communal organizations, you'll probably encounter it at least once or twice. While it's not pleasant, I hope you're remember that their point of view makes perfect sense if you're not familiar with living this kind of ritualized religious life. Be patient and kind and try not to take it personally. If our roles were reversed, I'm sure I'd feel the same way.

And that's this year's Elul message: be patient with the people who are impatient with your never-ending holidays.


Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Word of the Day: Hefker

Hefker is a "term of art" in the Talmud, as we say in the legal world. That means it's a word with a very precise meaning that may not line up exactly with how it's used colloquially; not a word to throw around lightly. You mean exactly what it says. For instance, trespassing has a very precise definition under state laws, as does contract, fee simple, and adverse possession. (But we don't always use it that carefully.) 

For a dry legal term, you'd be surprised how often the word "hefker" comes up in everyday conversation. Really.

Thankfully, hefker is an easy word to pick up. It just means something is ownerless and thus is open to being owned by whoever claims it first. Finders keepers. Whether something is actually "ownerless" is where things get more complicated (but not usually too complicated). 

Just finding something on the ground may not be enough to call something ownerless. You need to consider whether you can find the original owner and how practicable that is. If you find a dollar bill on the ground at the Fourth of July Parade, you can usually assume that dollar is hefker. You don't have an obligation to ask everyone on the street if it's their dollar (but that doesn't mean you can't ask if you have the time and inclination - you just have no obligation to). But if it's $100, maybe you need to make an effort. On the other hand, if you find it on the floor in another person's home, that item is not hefker until proven otherwise. What if you were back at the Fourth of July Parade, and you found an item with a name written on it? Or something unique or nearly-unique?

As you may guess, this is highly fact specific. You have to approach each situation independently. In other words, use your common sense, and if the situation is complicated, ask your local rabbi for guidance. (Of course, time is sometimes of the essence, and you do the best you can with the information you have.)  Once you determine that you can't assume the item is hefker, knowing how much effort and what kinds of effort you need to make to find the owner is a totally different hill of beans. 

Even if you're newer to orthodox speech, you may find this an easy and useful word to add to your vocabulary. Listen closely and see how long it takes for you to hear the word hefker in conversation! 

What's the strangest hefker item you know of? Here, the biggest hefker thing to enter my life would probably be my cat, who was abandoned and came to me as a foster kitten 15 years ago. 

Thursday, July 5, 2018

"Aren't You Hot Wearing All Those Clothes?"

Ah, summer. When perfect strangers start getting very "concerned" about your clothes if you dress in a tznua way ("tznius" is the most common way to say that, but that's technically the wrong grammatical form - it's about time I used it correctly on this blog). This happens to both men and women, though it's much more often aimed at women since people really feel some right to quiz women about what they wear or don't wear...but that's a different discussion. 

Look, it's not easy to dress in a "modest" way in the heat of the summer. (I hate to say "modest" because I wish there was a better word for it. I've seen women cover every inch of skin and not be modest at all, and I've seen women wear average American clothing in a very modest way. I don't mean here to advocate a certain level of clothing for either gender, just speaking about the experience for what is commonly done, whether you personally think that's right or wrong based on halacha or custom.)

But getting back to the subject...

In all honestly, it's not much harder than dressing in less clothing, in my experience. Yes, it's much harder when you start, but I think that's at least as much psychological as physical. You develop a case of the "grass is greener." I'd be so much cooler if I were wearing shorts and a tank top! And then you dwell on how sweaty you are and how hot it is, and the discomfort compounds.

But would you really be that much cooler in a tank top and shorts? Past a certain temperature, probably not. You'd still be hot and sweaty, and any difference is only a matter of degree. You can tie it to the age-old question: would you rather be hot or cold? My stock answer has always been cold, because you can always add more clothes. When you're hot, you eventually run out of things to take off.

Over time, perhaps you adjust physically. I can't be sure of this, but that's been my own experience (and yes, at least part of that is probably changed expectations). I began dressing part-time in skirts and sleeves while living in Charleston, SC...a humid subtropical climate. I went full-time while living in a hot dry climate in northern CA. I've never had a cool summer. But I wasn't cool before switching my clothing either. I worked outdoors in South Carolina, and it was brutal even in shorts. All things considered, I was cooler dressing with skirts and sleeves...because I had an indoor job.

How much time are we spending outside today? How often are we even exposed to hot temperatures in summer? Most of us only go outside between buildings and parked cars. We have air conditioning and heat inside the cars and buildings, and we're exposed to the elements a very short amount of time. That's also a different discussion, but we should be practical about how relevant this question actually is. (A different different discussion would be that most indoor environments, particularly offices, are insanely cold and women usually require jackets or sweaters even in high summer.)

While my experience is that of a woman's, I see similar concerns for men: adding tzitzit under your shirt, which some communities hold must be made of wool, is no joke. Even the cotton or linen tzitzis shirts are still a whole other layer to potentially make you hotter (or think you're hotter). 

For those of you who are outside, as I now am a great deal, I can only tell you figure it out. It's not that bad, considering I'd be hot no matter what I'm wearing. You take common sense precautions that I want everyone to: stay hydrated and know the signs of heat stroke and make sure your loved ones do too. Do the best you can. You're probably going to be sweaty no matter what you do.

Fear of the heat shouldn't hold you back from making clothing changes you want to make. When in doubt, remember the big black robes of the Bedouin! If they can do it in the desert, surely I can wear full-coverage clothes in American suburbia.

So the real question is... 
What's your favorite comeback when the stranger at the post office says, "Aren't you hot in there?" 

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Controversy You Should Understand: The Calls to Boycott Barkan Wine

An interesting controversy has hit the media this week that might be confusing to you, if you're new to the orthodox community. The Israeli wine maker Barkan was outed as moving their Ethiopian-Jewish workers out of the parts of the wine process where they might touch the wine. It turned out this was a requirement of the kashrut agency they recently switched to, in order to appeal to a more chareidi (ultra-orthodox) customer base. And it turned into the latest battleground of the on-going saga of "Who Is Really a Jew?"

If you're new to these parts, there's a whole lot to unpack here.

Being a little glib, I can't help but think of the great name of a Facebook group: There's A Lot To Unpack Here, But We Should Burn The Whole Suitcase Instead. (That group is not for the faint of heart.)

Let's start with the most basic part: kashrut agencies oversee and can investigate everything a company does in order to make sure the product the business makes is kosher, from the ingredients to mechanical processes to financial records. They are a private organization that the wine company hires and must submit to if they want to have the certification. It's take it or leave it.

Since two Jews equals three opinions, there are many holdings on kashrut that can differ from organization to organization. People "hold by" some certifications and call others "unreliable," for any number of reasons. They won't eat or drink most or all of the products certified with an "unreliable" hechsher. (For example, some people might eat pareve items from a particular hechsher but not their meat or dairy items.)

Different communities call different hechsherim "unreliable." There is no central list that you as an individual should adopt. You should ask your local rabbi what is acceptable in your community and follow that. And even that isn't perfect. Some hechshers are perfectly acceptable by the same person in one location and not in another. I know of people who will hold by a certification within the country of origin on vacation but would not hold by it if bought from American shelves. If you want to dig deep into kashrut politics, there are many crazy stories about who will hold by what and where.

Sidenote: To be fair, part of the crazy of kashrut agencies is because their customers can also be a little nutty sometimes. For example, personally, I don't like other people in my house during Pesach because I have heard so many people explain why they don't ever eat out during Pesach...they feel no one will ever meet their standards and sometimes freely offer up examples of homes they felt weren't kosher enough. Whether it's right or wrong, I am very self-conscious of people judging my home during Pesach and prefer to sidestep the issue altogether because I value my mental health and don't need the drama. All this is to say that kashrut as a whole is kind of crazy sometimes and agencies must take customer crazy into account; the problem isn't just the agencies, though the agencies have had some very serious issues both halachically and legally. This policy did not develop in a vacuum. Customer perceptions of Ethiopian Jews (or the agency's assumptions about customer perceptions) were very likely a big factor here. This is almost certainly not a problem with one or two rogue rabbis within the organization.

In order to be "reliable," the customers must trust that the certifying agency can make the company conform to a certain set of halachic standards. Shockingly, this is open to abuse. Many people in the orthodox community are cynical about the kashrut industry and the power it can hold over companies and communities. Extortion, corruption, bribery, internal politics, actual political deals, failing to follow their halachic rulings and allowing treif products into the market, revenge...many accusations start flying when someone brings up an issue with a kashrut agency (*all* kashrut agencies get accused, in my experience). The power dynamics are skewed heavily in favor of the kashrut agency as a general rule. I don't doubt that there are many good people working within kashrut agencies and doing their best, but as a whole, it's hard to deny that kashrut has historically been a "dirty business," as I've heard many describe it.

Now for overseeing wine specifically. Wine is subject to some of the strictest halachic standards in Judaism, and probably the strictest in kashrut. At issue here, non-Jews cannot touch wine, generally interpreted as open wine (I've seen some apply this to closed wine, but that seems uncommon). Once a non-halachic-Jew has touched the wine, it is trief; no good, prohibited, banned. On paper, this also applies to a Jew who doesn't keep Shabbat, but I've seen very few people mention this, much less hold it as the standard for a bottle on a table.

One Barkan employee described his experience allegedly "treifing" up some wine:
“Once I touched the wine, and the [kashrut] supervisor ran over to me and smashed the bottles right in front of me,” one Ethiopian Barkan employee told Kan.

In fact, we created mevushal (cooked) wine precisely to guard against these issues, outside a winery of course. (The most confused I've ever been on Shabbat was at a Chabad shul kiddush where all the wine was non-mevushal. There were 3 conversion candidates present besides myself, plus most of the congregation was not shomer Shabbat. Only allowing mevushal wine seems like it should be par for the course at a Chabad shul, which specializes in reaching out to people who are not currently shomer Shabbat. I was shocked and perplexed, and the wine was treif within two minutes but no one seemed to know or care.) If you're in the process of converting, you need to understand mevushal and non-mevushal wine. If the wine is not mevushal, this is one time you will need to reveal your conversion candidate status somehow so that you don't accidentally treif up the wine. It gets really complicated really fast. Oh btw, this all applies to grape juice too. And is an issue you need to be aware of at every meal and shul kiddush you go to. Super fun, amirite? 


Now to the Ethiopian employees of Barkan. Ethiopian Jews, called Beta Israel, have a fascinating history, and I can only give a very short introduction here. I highly suggest learning more about their history and current circumstances in Israel. This group had been cut off from the rest of the Jewish people for a very long time, until the Israeli government did secret air lifts to save them from religious persecution by the Ethiopian and Sudanese governments and bring them to Israel in the 80s and early 90s. This is an embarrassingly superficial description, since that's not our point here.

No one in religious (or Israeli political) leadership was sure how to confirm whether these people had an unbroken halachically Jewish line, since halachic status is very important in many areas of Jewish law. Many people argued that they should be converted, either because they believed the Ethiopians were not really Jewish at all or that their status was too difficult to determine with certainty (I think the distinction in intent here matters, but some people don't). In the 1970s, the Israeli government, the Chief Sephardi Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, and the Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi Shlomo Goren decided that the Beta Yisrael qualify as Jewish and thus could get Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return, which does not itself require halachic Jewish status. While the two Chief Rabbis ruled that the Ethiopian Jews were halachically Jewish, the Israeli government (which I presume means the Rabbinate?) required many (most?) people to get geirut l'chumrah, a conversion in case of doubt. Aka, just in case. You can read more about geirus l'chumra here. (Spoiler alert: I'm generally not a fan of geirus l'chumrah.)

But lots of Israelis still get all uppity about the Jewishness of Israeli Ethiopians, whether they converted or not. There was and continues to be intense racism against Ethiopian Jews in Israel, and much of it is cloaked under "they're not really Jews anyway, they don't deserve to be in Israel in the first place." Even those who converted

Apparently Eda Haredit, Barkan's new certifying agency, agrees:
“Due to our commitment to wine lovers who also keep kosher, [Eda Haredit] is even more careful about wine production by those whose Jewishness is in doubt,” the group said in a statement.
The Eda Haredit inspector supervising Barkan confirmed to Kan that he does not allow most of the Ethiopian employees to touch the wine, explaining that the private organization “is not willing to accept Ethiopians.”

They do not hold by the Chief Rabbis' rulings and have decided these people's status is uncertain whether or not they converted.

And that is why this story is particularly important for conversion candidates to understand. Whether or not someone thinks of Ethiopian Jews as a whole or individual Ethiopian Jews as converts, this situation shows conversion denial on top of the racism involved (racism and conversion denial often go hand in hand, btw). It's important that so many people are willing to ignore or deny conversions they don't like. The normalization of the idea that some conversions are valid and some aren't even when performed by the same agency, the Rabbinate, is unacceptable on multiple levels. You must understand that no conversion is ever "safe" from questioning by people with bad motives (or simply bad middos). Stop looking for the bulletproof conversion because it doesn't exist, and it never will so long as we accept conversion denial as valid discourse. No one should ever pick and choose conversions to accept. If you want to deny all conversions from a particular beit din, that's a different discussion.

Back to the story. Edah told Barkan that Ethiopian Jews cannot be allowed to touch wine, or else it will become treif. And can you imagine how many ways you might accidentally touch wine or a vessel holding it in a winery?? Barkan began transferring Ethiopian employees to other parts of the business. Some early reports said they were fired, but that doesn't appear to be the case. Barkan went out of its way later to say that the transfers did not harm the employees' livelihood, which was nice of them I guess. 

In the initial story, the CEO of Barkan was recorded discussing this new requirement: 
“I am in a very uncomfortable situation regarding the kashrut,” Barkan CEO Gilles Assouline can be heard explaining to the Ethiopian worker in the recorded phone call obtained by Kan.
“Because of the kashrut, I need to transfer Yair (another Ethiopian worker) to a different work station… so that he won’t be next to the doors touching the filling [containers],” he said.
“Everyone has their values, and I have mine, and you are a Jew, he’s a Jew and I’m a Jew. But, at the end of the day it’s business, and business is business,” Assouline told the worker.
“We can’t leave this market for [rival winery] Teperberg. They are taking over this market and we are going to be in trouble because of it,” he added.
As you can imagine, people are pretty angry about these comments.

The current Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef decried this requirement by Edah as "pure racism." In fact, he sounds pretty woke:
“There is absolutely no explanation for this kind of requirement [to ban Ethiopian Jews], except for pure racism. Ethiopian immigrants are unquestionably Jewish. The real question is whether we can rely on a Kashrut authority which likes to think of itself as being strict, but engages in ‘whitewashing’ and [behavior that amounts to] shedding the blood of other Jews, just because of their skin color.”
(He's not actually woke... he referred to African-Americans as "monkeys" in a sermon back in March and said he was just using a Talmudic term. Maybe he views American non-Jews differently from Israeli Jews?)

I haven't seen a statement by the Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi or the Rabbinate.

My hot take: why the outrage against Barkan? Where's the outrage against Edah HaHaredit? That's the boycott you should be having if you want to boycott something. I may not like what Barkan's CEO said, but he's not wrong: if he wants to stay in business (and keep these employees employed), he feels he needs this certification, and he has to do what the certifying agency tells him even if he disagrees and even if he thinks the request is in violation of halacha. And this is the argument that everyone makes against kashrut agencies when they get all worked up at Shabbat lunch: agencies using their power over companies to make them do things that are questionable morally or ethically or even legally.

Boycotting Barkan doesn't solve the problem. It deflects from the problem and punishes one of the victims of a broken system. (As always, some victims are less sympathetic than others, but I do not doubt that this CEO was pushed against the wall on this issue; if nothing else, it's incredibly inconvenient and costly for him to move the Ethiopian workers and train replacements for them - I think he would have done this long ago if he honestly believed in this ruling. I believe it was only done because of Edah.)

Quickly, Barkan announced that workers would be returned to their jobs. I didn't find anything about whether they would continue to be certified by Eda HaHaredit or whether Eda would change their own policies. So as far I can tell, the problem continues, and we should not be lulled into complacency by such a temporary victory against one business when the agency itself continues to hold businesses to such a policy that is racist and against halacha. 

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Safety Alert! Avoid Rabbi Ephraim Bryks

In the interest of safety, I advise all of you to avoid any contact with Rabbi Ephraim Bryks as part of your conversion. There are reports that he may be trying to work with conversion candidates through his privately-created beit din and even runs a mikvah out of his home. 

Conversion candidates are at an extreme disadvantage in the power dynamics between a rabbi and a layperson even under the best and most honest circumstances, and that leaves a lot of room for charlatans to take advantage. Mr. Bryks has been accused repeatedly and credibly of pedophilia, molestation, and sexual assault and harassment. You can read more here: Malky Wigder Alleges Sexual Harassment by Rabbi Ephraim Bryks

Rabbi Yosef Blau at Yeshivah University is the hands-down expert on sexual abuse allegations in the orthodox community (I've met him and discussed it with him personally, and he does fantastic work for our community) described Mr. Bryks thusly about a decade ago and reconfirmed his assessment recently:
Ephrayim Bryks has become a rabbinic marriage counselor. The term marriage counselor or life coach can be used by anyone. He is not the only “rabbi” suspected of sexual abuse using one of these titles to access vulnerable individuals or couples both here and in Israel. Consulting actual professionals is expensive and unless the community publicly warns against going to these charlatans (often worse) many innocents will continue to be hurt.
I trust Rabbi Blau. And you know I have a hard time trusting rabbis after being let down or actively harmed several times.

And as a general reminder, remember to listen to red flags. If something seems off, it might just be off. Ask someone you trust, and trust your gut. You are in an inherently vulnerable position (whether you're male, female, adult, or child), and that makes you attractive to all the wrong people. Gdwilling you should never face such a person, but you should always be aware of the danger and act accordingly. Be cautious and make people earn your trust. 

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Word of the Day: Melava Malka

Shabbat is over. It's Saturday night, Motzei Shabbat! You've probably eaten 4 meals in the last 25 hours (dinner, maybe breakfast, maybe kiddush at synagogue, lunch, dinner again - we say three meals are halachically required, but your body also counts breakfast and kiddush and any snacks in between.)

You look famished. You should eat some more. After all, with that Shabbos nap, you're going to be awake until 2am anyway. 

No really. 

Eat again. Preferably greasy pizza. But this isn't for your own benefit, you're doing this solely for the sake of heaven. Right? 

Melave Malka means "escorting the Queen," as in escorting out the Shabbos Queen as you would walk a Shabbat guest to the door after lunch. It's intended to extend the Shabbosdik feeling into the less-holy hours that aren't Shabbat and in a way, it also helps you transition back to the rest of the week more smoothly. 

Thankfully, it's a very casual affair, and it may be used as the platform to build a motzei Shabbat social event at your local shul or Jewish organization. 

My research (remembering that I am not very fluent in original texts) seemed unclear what its status is: is it halacha or a very strong custom? Is it a custom that should be treated as halacha? These are thorny questions. My research seemed to suggest that it is a very strong custom that one is encouraged to do. I laughed at this characterization on Halachipedia: "Even though many aren’t careful about it, a Yireh Shamayim (a G-d fearing person) should make an extra effort to keep it." (I'm probably just too jaded for those kinds of statements anymore. #BadMiddos) But everyone agrees that the things actually done at a Meleveh Malkah are custom and widely variable. 

Interestingly, there is no Melaveh Malkah after yom tov (though apparently the Chazon Ish did). I think some people do just out of habit without realizing this, especially the insane pizza store lines after Pesach is over.

There are no rules here; it's all custom and probably a little whatever works for your family that week. And not everyone does it, and even those who do it...don't do it all the time. It may be that a person gets hungry (especially on early winter nights) and just calls dinner or a late-night smoothie run a Melavah malkah even though it isn't eaten with any special intention to be such. Many people simply say they can't stand to eat anymore. They may even be physically uncomfortable. Whether these perspectives is right or wrong depends on your posek, but this is an accurate description of what I've seen people do.

Another interesting side point: in my research for this post, I came across several mentions that it's a common practice to light two candles at this meal to mirror the Shabbos candles. Personally, I've never heard of this, much less seen it done. Your mileage may vary. If I came upon this unawares (aka before today), I would have looked very confused and wondered if I'd wandered into a time machine back to Friday night. 

A common minhag is for the meal to be dairy, and among those who do so, it is a very common thing to eat pizza. Preferably greasy pizza from a pizza shop (an ice cream store will do in a pinch). I don't know how this came to be, but that's what it is. In all honesty, since so many people believe halacha requires all three Shabbos meals to be meat and/or want those meals to be meat, I'm not sure how so many people are capable of eating dairy on a Saturday night, especially the people who hold 5-6 hours between eating meat and dairy. But obviously they make it work, judging by the lines outside pizza shops on Motzei Shabbat. I never was very good at math.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

How I Learn Jewish Songs

If you're at all like me, you spend a lot of time quietly hoping no one will notice that you're not singing along. 


I'm not good at songs. Or singing. But I could be better, and I'm trying. Really only because now I feel an obligation to teach my children to be the little FFBs they are.

My problem is words. I'm not a fast Hebrew reader even when I can move at my own pace, much less with the pressure of a tune or other people to keep up with. Even after about 15 years in the Jewish community, I just don't know that many songs from memory, whether in davening or at the Shabbos table. Sure, I know tunes and can hum along with the best of 'em, and I might know (or think I know) some words here and there. I even know some songs, like Shalom Aleichem (and most songs on the radio), yet cannot sing them unless I'm singing with other people. I literally cannot remember the words except during the act of singing. What's up with that, brain??

But there's hope! I've been using a multimedia approach to tackle songs, ostensibly for the purpose of teaching these songs to my toddler. She rarely sings along, and when she does, she mangles the words as much as I ever have. But she's got time. She'll learn eventually, and I could use the education too.

Here's my approach, and maybe it (or something similar) will help you too.

Step 1: Pick a song. 

Any song. But only one. Pick one you'll use frequently. Personally, I started with Adon Olam and thought that was a great choice. Modeh Ani is a very short and simple one. Shalom Aleichem would be another useful one, as would Eishet Chayil. Learn it well before moving on to another song. The only exception would be realizing mid-learning that you need to learn a holiday song (aka, my last-minute panic at realizing my toddler would now be the youngest talking person at the Pesach seder).

How long does this take? 

Depends on your brain, your consistency, the song, your past experience with the song, and your current exposure to learning the song. In other words, I can't tell you. Modeh Ani took me about 3 days; I knew the words but not the tune. Adon Olam took for about two months; I knew the tune but not the words. Chanting V'Ahavta (from the Shema) has taken at least two months so far because my voice doesn't want to cooperate with the chant. The Four Questions took about two weeks. I'll keep plodding along, adding a new song here and there. We have a lifetime to learn, and this is one of the easier, least pressured, and fun things to learn!

Step 2: Locate a YouTube video of it that works for your brain and learning style and sing along with it 1-3 times a day until you know it really well. 

Especially in the early days, I find only one hearing leaves me feeling like I'd just started getting my feet under me. I usually do at least a second sing-along, but I don't do more than three. We have lives to live. And your brain needs time to process. Come back tomorrow for another round. Feel free to move to one time a day once you feel like you have your sea legs.

I get distracted by music videos and prefer having the words in front of me, with it indicating where they are in the song. I've found two accounts particularly helpful. One is Hebrew-only: Brian Shamash. The other is both transliteration and Hebrew: Prayer-eoke by The YouTube Rabbi (it's kol isha, sung by a woman, if that's something you do).

In the beginning, you may find that you're singing only a word here and there. That's fine. You'll gain a little more each day. You'll be behind the song, you won't hit the notes right, you'll start to say the wrong word. It'll come together. But it may take a while. As I said, I began with Adon Olam, and I used the video for about 6 weeks, maybe a little more.

On Shabbat, sing what you know without the use of YouTube if you're shomer Shabbat. If you don't remember any, that's ok. You can try singing it from written lyrics if that helps. If it's not going to work, skip it. Practicing 6 days a week and not the seventh isn't going to hamper your progress appreciably.

A nota bene: If this is a prayer, sing it as you will sing it in davening. Don't worry about substituting Elokim or Hashem. This is for your education. If this makes you uncomfortable, talk with your rabbi about it. Personally, I cannot learn something with substitutions, and that's even a machloket in my home. My husband is really good with substitutions, so he does them when teaching our toddler something, the Shema for instance. From my perspective, I prefer teaching her exactly as I want her to say it. Anecdotes seem to suggest that this is common and either method works eventually, but I don't understand it. Maybe that's just my brain.

Step 2.5: If you're learning with transliteration, switch to the Hebrew text as soon as you think you can. 

Step 3: ???

Step 4: PROFIT!!1!

Sorry, I couldn't resist. You should know by now that I love memes.


Step 3: Once you know the tune and words well, switch to singing from a written copy.

Find a written copy of the Hebrew text, bookmark it somehow, and keep it handy for your daily practice. I recently discovered book darts and love them!

For all our music practice, I'm really enjoying the book The Complete Jewish Songbook for Children. Obviously, it's intended for children, but I think it's a great resource for anyone. It has transliteration, Hebrew text, and an English translation. (Obviously, take all English translations with a grain of salt, especially when we're talking about poetry.) And it's all in just one spot, which is a real convenience.

I bought it used without the CD, but I think it's worth the full price. I don't say that about many books. Based on how I understood the Amazon reviews, the CD only includes snippets of songs, not the full song. They suggested YouTube anyway, but it sounded like there was a specific account that had made the songs specifically for this book. I haven't located anything like that.

But it's a scary-looking book to me, as a non-musically-inclined person. It's really a book of sheet music. Don't let that stop you.

(You can see my book dart in the first photo.)

It was published by the reform movement, back when it was the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. But I don't think movement affects the content of the book. Some tunes are more used in different movements, but several songs do have different tunes included.

Step 4: Start looking up from the page sometimes.

Not gonna lie, I discovered this step with the "help" of the into-everything toddler. It's kind of like a mini "test" of whether I can remember the next line. I always keep my finger approximately where we are so that I can easily jump back in when I look back at the page.

Step 5: You deserve a cookie!

Because now you know that song well enough to get by in any situation I can think of.

Here are some of the YouTube videos I've used so far:

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

"B'ezrat Hashem"

"B'ezrat Hashem, we'll be there." 

"B'ezrat Hashem, we'll see you over Pesach."

"The party will be on Sunday, b'ezrat Hashem."

Gdwilling. That's all it means. 

Literally defined as "with Gd's help," b'ezrat Hashem is a common phrase sprinkled in conversation. It can technically be used anywhere in the sentence where an interjection would be appropriate. In practice, it's usually said at the beginning and sometimes the end of a sentence. 

It's just as common to hear people say, "Gdwilling" in English. Or not using a phrase like this at all. If you want to add either phrase, feel free to. But also don't feel pressured to. I know I felt pressured to, but I eventually came to really embrace "Gdwilling" as a common feature in my speech for its own sake. If anything, I actually feel like I say it too frequently, which is a different problem. (I hate so much repetition - words quickly lose their meaning if I say them too often in a short period of time and I begin tripping over the sounds. Like saying avocado 15 times in a row. Try it if you don't know what I'm talking about.)

One wrinkle here is seeing Bezrat Hashem in writing. People often write BH or B"H as shorthand for it. Except that those acronyms could just as well mean "Baruch Hashem" (Thank Gd). So you have to use context clues to figure out which one is meant, but neither phrase is integral to understanding the message itself and can be ignored if needed. 

Sunday, May 13, 2018

What Happens at Your First Beit Din Meeting?

Before jumping into the meat of the matter, there's a big question: are you actually meeting with "the beit din" or just the representative of the beit din?

If this is your first meeting, you will almost certainly only meet with one person, the Av Beit Din most likely. And this is what we're going to assume for the purposes of this post. If you meet the full beit din, a first meeting will still look largely like this. You just get the questions from a panel of people instead of one person. (And you'll probably revisit some or all of these questions the first time you meet the full beit din too, especially the background, current situation, and motivation questions.)

You'll probably cover some pretty obvious topics:
  • Your history (general life history)
  • Your current life (schooling, work, living circumstances, maybe romantic relationships, maybe a general discussion about finances and the recognition that orthodoxy can create significant financial/professional demands)
  • Your plans for the future (especially careers and whether they're orthodox-friendly)
  • Why you want to convert
  • Your family situation (how do they feel about this?)
  • Why orthodoxy/this community
  • Where you are religiously (this may include some basic questions)
You should hopefully also get information back from the Av Beit Din:
  • How they run their process
  • Financial expectations (fees, etc)
  • Who will be your contact person
  • When/how often you should be in touch
  • When/how often you should expect to meet
  • What they expect from you
  • Maybe a rough timeline, but don't bet on it and any given will probably be very conservative and feel discouraging
Consider taking notes, because many of us forget everything once we leave the room. The adrenaline wears off, and all we can think is, "wait, what did he say about X?" or "did I remember to ask about Y?"


Ask any questions you're concerned about. Don't be afraid that they're dumb questions or that you'll look dumb for asking. I guarantee they've heard almost everything. "How fast do I need to be able to read Hebrew?" is an excellent question that most people are too afraid to ask. You may be surprised at how low that bar is, which is really comforting for us slow Hebrew readers (I don't know of any beit din that requires reading with comprehension, just being able to pronounce the words from a siddur). Likewise, if you have a learning disability that affects your ability to learn to read Hebrew, talk about it. They might know something or someone who can help. Learning disabilities are common within our dayschools too! They might know something helpful.

If you have any particular concerns, please ask. Common questions include (but are not limited to):

  • How do I cook food at my family's house? Visit them over Shabbat?
  • Can I observe Shabbat fully? (Despite what some people will tell you, this is actually a complicated question that requires a ruling from your rabbi.)
  • How close do I need to live to my synagogue? (The closer you are, generally the more expensive housing is.)
  • What should I do about a specific situation at school/work/with family?
  • Will I still be able to do X (particular sport, hobby, job)?
  • Can I keep my pet? (Please do - you can!!)
  • Can I convert here or will I need to move to another Jewish community?

Before you leave, ask what the next step is. Ask this explicitly and be sure you understand the answer. Ask any follow-up questions you need to understand his answer. If he only gives a vague answer (very common), press for more detail. What can I do between now and our next meeting? Where do you think I should focus? Do you know someone/something that could help me with Z?

Ask who you should contact with follow-up questions and how you should contact them. Do not leave without this information! You will kick yourself later.