Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Happy Chanukah!

Tonight is the first night of Chanukah. Fry up your latkes, gather your sufganiot, and spin that dreidel! 

My Chanukah is off to an inauspicious start. As I wrote earlier, I had the great zchus (LOLZ) to attend Hackathonukah on Sunday. Keeping with the Hanukkah theme, we had all kinds of fried goodies: latkes, jelly donuts, and falafel. Have you ever confused a pile of sufganiyot with hamburger buns? Because I have:

...But my first jelly doughnut of the season was suspiciously missing a "bellybutton." Sure enough, I picked the sufganiyah with no jelly. 

This doesn't bode well for my Chanukah.

Monday, December 15, 2014

A New Approach to Shidduchim

Are you single and living in the NYC area? Do you know someone else who fits the bill? Check out the new dating group Dvash (Honey)! It's shidduchim for singles by singles.

Love Jewish learning, want to meet new people of the other gender, and want to avoid a meatmarket atmosphere? You'll love it! Events are held in Lawrence, NY (the Five Towns), but singles are coming from all over the NYC area.

We have two large problems (in my opinion) preventing dates: 1) judgments that "older singles" must have something wrong with them or they wouldn't be single and 2) places for men and women to meet naturally and get to know each other. 

This group hopefully solves both of those problems. Single people founded and run the group, and they are sensitive to the subtle and not-so-subtle judgments from many "shidduchim" speakers and try to prevent it. They also provide a situation, a shiur, that most members of the orthodox world can agree is an acceptable place for men and women to be in the same room together and speaking to each other. (Sad, huh? But you have to work with what you've got.) I don't know whether men and women sit together, but the shiur is intended to be interactive and there is plenty of opportunity to speak with others informally and as part of the shiur's dialogue. And after the shiur, singles are free to continue those conversations elsewhere. 

Most importantly, this isn't small talk; this is discussion on deep issues that touch each of us. What better way to get a "feel" of the personality of the people you meet? 

You can read more about "The Sweet Approach of Dvash" in the Five Towns Jewish Times.

Gdwilling, this initiative will spread to other communities in the near future, but visitors to NYC are always welcome to attend! 

Do you care about this work? Support it! Dvash is running a fundraiser to create a website and other media that will spread the word about Dvash and keep singles up-to-date on the latest events. The organization is run by singles with dayjobs, so your support is necessary to help make Dvash strong and effective! 

Help create a new approach to shidduchim. Help Dvash create a website!

Sunday, December 14, 2014

The Surprising Importance of Hackathonukah...To Me, at Least

A hackathon is almost the last place I would expect to be today. I'm not a programmer or coder or anything else technical. But I'm a lawyer for new businesses, and that means I work with programmers and coders. So I figured I should know something about what they do and how they create the products I help them sell. So...enter the idea to learn about hackathons. I even learned that I could participate in one because I can do design and planning. Unfortunately, I'm shomer Shabbos, and that stopped my dream before it began. 

And that struck a nerve that continues to hurt, long after I've converted. I don't mind the restrictions of Shabbat. I don't mind the kashrut restrictions (most of the time). But what still hurts is feeling cut off from so many great opportunities because they only happen on Shabbat. Athletic events, alumni events, concerts, parades, sales, Masonry (yes, I'm female, and I was a Freemason for a year), even my high school reunion. All non-starters. 

I get very frustrated being forced to give up parts of my life for orthodoxy that I don't "have" to give up. I could do these things (or at least most of them), if it weren't for scheduling issues. Such a stupid, simple problem to fix, but I can't because that's how American society functions and the assumptions it makes about audiences.

This is the only major thing I miss from my pre-Jewish life. I'm not sure whether it's better or worse now that I live in NYC, which has exponentially more events I can't attend, but does occasionally have Shabbat-friendly events. So much knowledge and experience is at my fingertips, but remains just out of reach. So frustrating. 

But because of Hackathonukah, I feel kinda normal (even though I only took a class and will view the demos, not participating on a team - hacking hardware was a harder fit for my mad skillz). I've learned so much about my clients and about our ever-changing technology from the class I took and from watching the hackers work. I'm getting to participate in an opportunity I wouldn't otherwise be able to, thanks to two brothers who were also frustrated by the lack of Shabbat-friendly hackathons. More importantly, the people who are actually hackers have the opportunity for a fun, immersive professional development experience. And we get the opportunity to benefit from the creative work of Shabbat-observant Jews that might not otherwise exist. Win-win-win, right?

Kol hakavod to Donny and Oren Kanner for unleashing a pool of underutilized potential. Light is increasing all the time, thank Gd.

The best thing about this has been learning that I used to be a coder back in middle school (who knew Geocities was so useful??), and I've seen that programming isn't the terrifying foreign language I thought it was. It's within reach, and now I'm motivated to learn more so I can actually hack at Hackathonukah 2015!

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Remember to Add the (Other) Prayer for Rain to Your Amidah

You probably remember that we added "mashiv ha-ru'ah u-morid ha-geshem" ("cause the wind to blow and the rain to fall") to the second blessing of the Amidah back on Shemini Atzeret. 

But did you remember to add the other prayer for rain last week? I apologize; I would have reminded you, but my computer's been in the shop for a week. But the magical Mac is back, and so am I! 

Which Date?
This change to the Shemoneh Esrei is actually one of the ones I remember best because it seems so strange that we add it on the night of December 4th (5th in a secular leap year). It's a random date, long after we're already praying for that rain in Israel, and it's measured by the civil calendar instead of the Hebrew one. Weird city, right?

This prayer is linked to the autumn equinox, which we recognize with our English calendars but not the Hebrew one. December 4th is apparently 60 days after the autumnal equinox ("equal night," if that helps you remember!). But which autumnal equinox? There is tekufat Tishrei (halachic autumn) and the one on the secular calendar. The Hebrew date for autumn changes each year, but the secular calendar gives us a steady date every year. However, in the year 2100, we'll move a day forward, to December 5 (and 6th in leap years). You learn something new every day! Chabad has an article with the detailed date calculations historically and today, if that floats your boat.

Why the Date Separation?
Let's get historical! There was a break between praising Hashem for rain and asking for rain in order to let pilgrims travel home safely from the High Holydays in Jerusalem. Rain was pretty inconvenient for traveling in those days. Accordingly, in Israel, the prayer is added according to the Hebrew calendar, the 7th of Cheshvan (sources are in the Talmud tractate Taanit.). I didn't know that, and you can read more about why the diaspora developed a different date on the Chabad website

It's important to remember that we still measure the rainy season based on Israeli agricultural needs. Despite discussions about adjusting the prayers to the location of the davener, the same schedule of rain prayers are recited even in the high summer of the Southern Hemisphere. If your community/country needs rain, there is a prayer that can be added to the service elsewhere, and you can always add your own request for rain (or anything else) during the personal petition part of the Amidah. (That's during the prayer Shema Koleinu, the prayer for the acceptance of prayer.)

Funnily enough, the Talmud discusses that the prayer for rain should actually be earlier that Shemini Atzeret: at the beginning of Sukkot. But why pray for rain right before you're going to spend a week sleeping and eating outside in your hut? We have an obligation to be in the sukkah, so why pray for something that would prevent us from fulfilling that obligation? Though perhaps we should be thankful if it rains since Israel needs all the rain it can get. (Avoiding a cold and inconvenient sukkah is just a bonus, of course - heresy!)

Why Two Prayers?
But the fact that we pray for rain twice continued to bug me, so I looked into it. Solely for your benefit, of course.

The first prayer for rain is actually a praise for rain: “He causes the wind to blow and the rain to fall.” It's in the second blessing, known as Gevurot (Strengths/Powers), which is about the powers of Gd; not least of which is raising the dead. Apparently Sephardim have a different and longer version of this bracha. Intellectually, I know that the first three brachot of the Amidah are restricted to praises of Gd, not supplications, but when you call something "the prayer for rain," your brain makes assumptions.

The second prayer for rain is in "the Blessing of the Years." This is the actual request for rain. That makes sense since it's a prayer for a bountiful harvest. 

Removing the Prayers Each Spring
Thankfully, both prayers end at the same time: erev Pesach (the day before Passover).

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Can I Work on Chanukah?

Yep! No yom tov restrictions on Hannukah.

Chanukah 2014 starts on the evening of Tuesday, December 16, and ends on Wednesday, December 24.

It's a rabbinic holiday that came later in our history, so there can't be a prohibition on work. You can fry food, go to the office for a full day's work, turn the lights on and off like a madman, and even do your laundry. And yes, even though sunset happens early in the day, you can wait until you come home from work to light the menorah. 

However, there is a custom for women to not "work" for the first half hour that the Hanukah candles burn (the minimum length of time the candles have to burn - be careful with the cheap candles!). In this case, "not work" basically means, "Mom, sit down and take a load off. You work so hard. Take a break from dishes and paperwork and enjoy the beauty of the chanukiah." 

Honestly, anyone who wants to have a half-hour meditation break over the candles is welcome to do so. Sounds like a great custom to me!

The only caution: don't "use" the candles. Make sure there is another source of light present. You don't want the Chanukah candles to be the only fire/light source in a room to guide your way, read by, light a cigarette on, whatever. Their sole purpose is to "publicize the miracle" of the oil not running out in the Beis HaMikdash. We'll talk more about lighting the candles soon.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Another Round of Orthodox Women Talk Is Up!

You can find the latest Orthodox Women Talk roundtable over at This Way to Eden.

The question for today is...
Reader writes: I‘d love to hear something regarding your favorite way to infuse your lives with Judaism. (Kosher food, Tznius, Shabbat…etc..)

Not surprisingly, I seem to be the person way out in left field on this one. Negative Nancy strikes again! Oh well. 

Sunday, November 9, 2014

The RCA Conversion Ombudsman Shouldn't Just Be for Women

In the wake of the Freundel scandal, the Rabbinical Council of America announced several measures it will take, including appointing a female ombudsman (or group of ombudsmen) to be available for complaints from female conversion candidates. Honestly, I was surprised. It's a great idea, and I'm glad they came to this realization even before the recommendation panel was established. It speaks well of the RCA's seriousness and that they're addressing this in a practical way (and that they've probably got a smart lawyer involved).

Here is the original announcement:
"The RCA and the Beth Din of America have agreed that every Beit Din assembled under their Geirus Protocol and Standards (GPS) will appoint a woman (or group of women) to serve as ombudsman to receive any concerns of female candidates to conversion. The name of this person will be provided to all conversion candidates at the beginning of the conversion process. Prospective converts will be assured that their standing in the conversion process will not be compromised by communicating with the ombudsman, and that any such communications will remain confidential to the extent possible."

But what's an ombudsman, you might ask. I heard that funny word for the first time when my mother became disabled from a stroke, and encountered it again as she was re-diagnosed with breast cancer and eventually passed away one year ago. Merriam-Webster defines it as "a person (such as a government official or an employee) who investigates complaints and tries to deal with problems fairly." 

I encountered it in hospitals and nursing homes, places where people are vulnerable in the most physical ways. A complaint taken seriously could literally save lives and prevent elder abuse, whether sexual, financial, or just power-tripping. But apparently it's also in government offices and educational facilities: other places where there is a pronounced power dynamic. I would bet that ombudsmen also sort through a lot of delusions, vengeance, and misunderstandings, but the job is still one of the most important resources we can give vulnerable people. It's a no-brainer that the conversion process should have one (or three). They're proven to be effective for sorting out real v. imaginary problems, handling those problems, improving trust in the system, and leveling the playing field in an uneven power dynamic. 

But should it be limited to female conversion candidates? No way. Should it be limited to only conversion candidates? No, when the situation is still conversion-related.

An ombudsman, in order to be effective and helpful, needs to be available to all conversion candidates and for any convert who has been threatened with inappropriate behavior because of their conversion. Freundel's actions weren't just sexual, and we will do our community a disservice if we pretend these changes are a direct response to Freundel's actions. The issue is that people complained about Freundel (and who knows who else - I know at least one other beit din had complaints because I was approached for my experiences there...by Freundel), and either nothing happened, nothing standardized happened, or nothing productive happened. Some complaints appear to have been ignored, and others were handled off-the-cuff by people with (thankfully for them?) no experience in these kinds of complaints.

Sexual innuendo (or action, chas v'shalom) isn't the most common complaint of conversion candidates. It's about financial misrepresentations, inappropriate financial requests, exercising power for the sake of having power over another's life, and other arbitrary actions that make conversion candidates' lives more difficult than necessary.

It's because you can get kicked out of a beit din without knowing why and with no ability to appeal.

It's because a beit din can hold you to a halachic standard higher than the community standard (that is also an accepted halachic position), simply because they can. What if the conversion candidate believes that is not the halacha? Should she play along (lie), and then follow the community standard after conversion? Ex. television, some tznius standards, cholov yisroel, or wearing a black hat. Experience tells me that the serious candidates get disgusted and leave (and usually convert conservative), while the people who are less serious are the ones willing "to put up with it for a year or two."

It's because a beit din can delay your conversion for a year because they told you move within walking distance of your shul, and when you moved in 1.1 miles away, they said they couldn't work with you until you lived within 1 mile of the shul. So you have to wait until your lease expires.

It's because you can be in the conversion process for 3, 4, 5, 10 years (yes, 10 years), and feel totally powerless to control your life. 

And who knows what else? 

Men and women have an equal need for an ombudsman, even though women are more likely to use it. Women are the overwhelming majority of conversion candidates, so that's a statistical reality, but they're also the gender more vulnerable to abuse in a system populated entirely by men in a power role. That's not good or bad; that's being realistic.

An ombudsman and the RCA need to be more involved to prevent arbitrary wielding of power either because it's nice to have control over someone else's life when you feel like you don't have any control in your own life or because conversion candidates are the weak gazelles who don't know who to turn to. Whether it is intentional or unintentional, there are abuses in the system, and we need a way to deal with them. We're pushing away good people who are destined to be Jews for all the wrong reasons.

Rabbi Pruzansky believes that conversion candidates already have an ombudsman: their sponsoring rabbi. But not everyone has a sponsoring rabbi (I didn't). And neither is it a given that there is trust or even a basic relationship. And while he knows that the local rabbi has no connection to the beit din, that is not something the conversion candidate knows. Also...sometimes the local rabbi is the problem, as it was in my own case, when I was kicked out of a beit din with no ability to appeal or know why. 

Let's review why conversion candidates are the canary in the coal mine of orthodoxy:
From a blog post from January 2013: "A Rabbi Asked Me Inappropriate Questions" Is a Red Flag...But You Probably Can't Do Anything About It If You Want a Conversion (funny how this post didn't get any traction then but has had over 3,000 hits in the last 3 weeks!)

The truth is that conversion candidates are the easiest people in our community to abuse, whether for the sake of rabbinic politics, something illegal, or something exploitative. In my opinion, there are four major reasons for this:
  • A candidate may be uncertain that conduct violates the Torah (or other Jews may assume the candidate has misunderstood the alleged behavior, thereby rationalizing it away)
  • Candidates usually lack people to turn to in the community when things go poorly (especially if the rabbi is well-liked)
  • They lack access to the people they could complain to, and 
  • A conversion candidate knows that the rabbi holds his or her future in his hands. He is the gatekeeper to the candidate's hopes and dreams for the future.
Rationalizations run rampant:
  • "I'm sure you just misunderstood him."
  • "He would never do that!"
  • "Why should I believe you when I've known him for five years?"
  • "Maybe she's making it up because he didn't recommend her to the beit din."
  • "But how can I help?! I have no influence over him!"
  • "The rabbi can ruin everything, so I can't make him angry. Maybe it'll stop/never happen again."
  • Or worst: no one seeing or hearing anything at all because the candidate is the Child Who Is Afraid to Ask.

Seems pretty relevant today, right? Except that people were complaining and not getting anywhere. Hell, the person who investigated my situation was Freundel himself! That's a screwed-up complaint investigation process if you ask me.

I had been blogging here for 2.5 years before I wrote that. Why on earth would I have waited so long to share this serious problem? Because I had finished converting with another RCA beit din and had gotten married two months earlier. I finally had the "freedom" to speak up, without worrying about sabotaging my conversion or my shidduch prospects. (Though I suppose someone could negate my conversion - just try making me get a geirus l'chumrah!) Even then, I had to ask my husband's permission and make him realize that speaking out on these issues could one day affect our (currently non-existent) children. Baruch Hashem, he saw the importance of sharing it.

Likewise, I was told not to share the fact that I was kicked out of a beit din and not allowed to know why or to appeal. For my own good and the good of my future children, you understand. People wouldn't understand and would make the wrong assumptions about me. I honestly think the men who gave me that advice meant it kindly and to protect me from yentas, but it was still bad advice. Because it isn't talked about, no one knows there is a problem. Only last July did I finally decide to come out of that closet: What If You're Rejected by or Kicked Out of a Beit Din? (though I had shared it individually in many conversations and thus knew people usually didn't scream "burn the witch...I mean apikores!").

I was the oddity who had connections to other orthodox Jews through the internet, and they were my cavalry. I had also been blogging here for about six months, and that gave me access to a lot of people who might not otherwise have taken me seriously. Obviously I cared about Judaism, and they could even see I was knowledgable. Who else has those resources and street cred? Very few. Who or what can a conversion candidate turn to?

Another example:
If a person is in the conversion process for more than 3 years, we need a second opinion, and the ombudsman can alert the RCA to that need. Is it a personal problem with a rabbi in the process? Is there a disagreement over what standard the candidate should be held to in an area of halacha? Is this a family and the family members should be converted as they become ready (like the celebrated The Mountain Family)? Should the candidate be cut loose? What on earth is going on there?? Obviously something is up and needs to be reassessed. And if the candidate is just taking a long time (for whatever reason: whether health, family, financial, education, housing situation, etc), at least we will have an outside verification that the system is working like it should and that both sides understand what the delay is. Rabbis are funny about assuming that the conversion candidate knows what the problem is. The rabbi may have even said it, but it got lost in an emotional conversation or was said off-hand. Let's make sure everyone is on the same page.

What about after the conversion process?
In the Freundel case, there have been accusations of inappropriate requests for monetary donations, complete with insinuations that such support would be necessary for him to continue to vouch for their conversions. It's not a problem for a rabbi to ask a convert for money for whatever cause; it's a problem when only converts are asked or asked for larger amounts because they have a "special relationship" with the rabbi. That's just good fundraising, right? That person owes you on some level, and it's your fundraiser duty to recognize that and use it for the greater good. But from the other person's perspective, that can feel like exploitation and an implicit threat to his or her conversion. It's tricky, and we need to recognize that.

It's past time for ombudsmen in the conversion process, but not in the limited role the RCA has initially announced. I hope they realize that female conversion candidates aren't the only vulnerable people in this situation and that sexual situations are not the only threat.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Join Me for a Live Radio Broadcast TODAY!

I just got word that I'll be a replacement guest on the first episode of Rabbi Eliyahu Fink's new radio show! Please pray for me that I avoid an attack of my Foot in Mouth Disease.

Join us at 1pm Eastern time or you can listen to the archived version later! Listen at http://nachumsegal.com/

The topic is what the conversion process should look like and if Bethany Mandel's Convert's Bill of Rights accurately represents the experience of conversion candidates today.

(Again, I'm sending this from my phone while traveling, so I apologize for the briefness or any typos.)

UPDATE: Here is a direct link to the archived podcast.

Rabbi Pruzansky's Blog Post Told in Memes

I have not been as vocal as I should have been about the conversion/exploitation of women balagan lately. I can blame starting my own law firm, and that's part of it, but it's all so complex, and I didn't know what I could add to the conversation. A fire has finally been lit under me, but I'm traveling, so I hope to publish something longer soon. In the meantime, my phone can provide a short post that sums up the most-shared article I've seen on these issues: a blog post by Rabbi Pruzansky announcing why he's stepping down from heading the Bergen County, NJ, conversion program: http://rabbipruzansky.com/2014/10/30/stepping-down/

I'd make that a pretty link, but my phone and I are having technological difficulties. 

Let me sum up that blog post for you: 

And then the overwhelming public reaction: 

I'll highlight some of the issues without going too in-depth right now:

Sexism: Don't worry your pretty little head, girls, we rabbis know best. If you feel that you were exploited, manipulated, or sexually harassed and you don't live in DC, then you're probably just over-sensitive or whiney and wanting a quickie conversion. Tough luck, honey.

More sexism: even talking publicly to women about these issues is a good enough reason to drop your mic and walk off the stage. Sure, oppose women as "quasi-rabbinical figures," but sitting on a committee that will make recommendations (no guarantee the RCA will actually accept those recommendations) is too much. We can't let women tell rabbis what to do, no way no how, even when they're just making non-binding recommendations.

Women can't change conversion halacha: besides the fact that many of the examples the rabbi shares about conversion are not halacha (one year minimum process, for example), he totally misses the fact that this committee will have almost nothing (if anything) to do with halacha. It's about derech eretz. But derech eretz is self-evident, just like abusive behavior, right? If that were true, someone forgot to tell newlyweds. Men and women generally have trouble communicating even in the best of circumstances, much less in such an unequal power dynamic as orthodox conversion. 

Total disregard for conversion candidate emotions: the Mikvah isn't what makes this rabbi uncomfortable, it's the hatafat dam brit (circumcision part of conversion). You know what's wrong there? He only mentions HIS reaction to it, not how the person feels. That's hella disconnected from the reality of conversion candidates. 

Nationality analogy: sure, America makes you live here for five years before letting you become a citizen. Did you know that during those five years, you can't work, send your kids to school, or date? Oh wait, they don't. Your life is not on hold according to the whim of one human being with no oversight. (I used to think there is oversight, but now I know better.)

Hm, that turned out a lot longer than expected. My thumbs hurt.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

UPDATED: Need Some New Dance Moves for Simchat Torah?

I know, you've already mastered all the smooth moves you need for a Jewish event: you can dance in a circle both clockwise and counterclockwise! But maybe you want to switch it up, or maybe the dance circle is moving too painfully slow and you're tired of stepping on other people's toes.

Or maybe you have a different problem. Maybe you're the person who runs away or who tries to fade into the wallpaper when dancing is involved. Perhaps this video is even more important for you... for when people peer pressure you into dancing or just outright drag you into the dancing area.

There's a YouTube video for everything.

Her best advice? "Have a dancing face. Put some attitude into it!"

My only criticism? There were so many great cheesy dance moves left out!  You can't leave out the Roxbury or the Sprinkler or the Cabbage Patch. But I admit that the video would never end if we included them all.

So rather than do that last-minute cleaning or cooking, I want you to turn up the music and get funky instead. You need the practice so that you can bring it on Friday.

What's your favorite cheesy dance move? Mine is the buttfloss dance. And yes, that is actually a video of me. Shameful, I know.

Unbeknownst to me, my friend Reina posted 5 MORE Simchas Torah dance moves for you! She's a dancer and dance teacher, so you should probably take her advice!