Sunday, June 21, 2015

How to Advocate for Yourself Without Being a Jerk

People tend to fall into two camps: those who don't advocate for themselves and people who are always advocating for themselves. 

As a society, we tend to deride that second group of people. But why? Is their behavior really that annoying or are we jealous? I can't answer that categorically, but in at least some cases, jealousy can be a major factor for those of us in the non-advocating group.

Why should I be forced to advocate for myself? I work hard, I'm honest, I'm doing what I'm supposed to do, and people should react appropriately. Bosses should give me raises without me having to ask, and rabbis should be ready to convert me. Unfortunately, life is rarely that fair or easy. 

I know this, but at the same time, especially because I'm an overly-polite Southerner, it's still hard to act on. I want things to work the way they're supposed to, and I don't want to have to "force" people to do what they should. Sometimes people aren't paying attention. Sometimes they misunderstand what they see. Sometimes it's easier to ignore the good boys and girls when you have troublemakers in the class. I know these things too, but it's still hard for me to speak up for myself. 

But I learned to do it, and I believe it's important for all conversion candidates to advocate for themselves. Everyone, especially baalei teshuva, also need to use these advocacy skills when trying to find appropriate tutors or programs, when shadchans (matchmakers) made ridiculous suggestions, and when people say ignorant things at the Shabbat table. But we'll talk about this specifically in the conversion context. 

The trick is finding an advocacy style that is true to your personality and doesn't make you look like a psycho or a jerk. Sometimes it's a fine balance, and some people are inclined to believe any self-advocacy (especially by women) is inherently aggressive. Advocate too strongly, and you scare people. Let self-advocacy slide, and it takes longer for you to get what you need. You might never get it. I admit that I still err on the side of less advocacy, and that's very influenced by being both Southern and female. It has caused me to have lower wages than male counterparts and to be skipped over for opportunities I deserved both professionally and in my private life. It's hard to act differently than I was raised to act, as a proper and submissive young woman. But I have accomplished a lot from even minimal self-advocacy. I'm always learning and improving, and I'm learning to ask for what I deserve. The problem is convincing myself that I deserve something! "I deserve to convert" is a lot simpler to justify to yourself than "I deserve a raise"! 

Why would you want to advocate for yourself in conversion? Quite frankly, you're the only advocate you've got, and most of the rabbis involved are too removed from your daily existence to really understand where you are Jewishly. You need to keep them updated. And that was my secret: I thought of it as "updating" the rabbis, not pestering them. That simple mental shift completely changed my perspective.

Unfortunately, in conversion, the squeaky wheel gets the grease. It's human nature to run from fire to fire, and I generally don't find it to be blameworthy behavior. I've mentioned several times before that rabbis are human. And most conversion rabbis are not paid for their work. Even the local rabbi, who is paid to be the rabbi of a shul or yeshiva, is not paid for spending time with people who aren't his congregants or students. Synagogue memberships pay the rabbi's salary, and conversion candidates aren't eligible to be members. Therefore, you do not pay his salary, and almost no shuls mandate in a rabbi's contract that conversion candidates are part of his job description. (Sidenote: some shuls do, surprisingly. Ironically, one of my prior shuls did have such a contract clause, even though it was ignored in practice. There is hope out there!)

So what does self-advocacy look like? In most cases, it's phone calls or emails. Just making sure that the rabbis keep you in mind. That way, they know you're moving forward, you can provide proof, you can ask questions that show how thoughtful and clever you are (hopefully). I hate phones, so email was the natural choice for me. A much bolder friend converted with the Israeli rabbinate, and she took her homework to their office every afternoon, and just sat in the waiting room until they accepted her case (they normally don't convert non-citizens). Desperate times call for desperate measures, but stay classy when you have to call in the big guns. Remember that self-advocacy in the conversion context rarely leads to immediate results. You're playing the long game. Steady, consistent advocacy adds up.

A great definition of advocacy is "ask for what you need while respecting the rights of others." In fact, that link is chock full of good info.

Some examples of self-advocacy:
  • Tell your sponsoring or converting rabbis about the new book you read or class you took. Share something you learned from it or whether you enjoyed it.
  • Share your opinions on an event in the Jewish news. It shows you are paying attention to the larger community and affiliating yourself with it. (Assuming they'd agree with your opinion, of course. Don't provoke a political fight. Keep it positive whenever possible.)
  • Ask others to advocate for you by speaking with or writing to a rabbi.
  • Email or mail formal updates on a regular basis, with lists or "proof" if you have it. For example: books read, classes taken, topics studied with tutor, update that you moved into the eruv or got a kosher roommate.
  • Contact the rabbis with a question that shows you're thinking about halacha in a serious way.
  • Share something you learned that you enjoyed. Your passion will shine through.
  • Ask the rabbis what you can do to move things along, and don't accept vague answers. Press for concrete tasks. 
  • Ask for what you can improve or what remains a sticking point. For example: are they concerned about your job or home situation?
  • Ask "what would you do if you were in my place?" You might get some really interesting answers! Or a blank stare of confusion. 
  • Ask for a timeline. It's harder to press for concrete answers here, but don't let them push the question away like it's unimportant.
  • If you have struggles because of the conversion process, share them. And ask for ways to improve the situation. For example: you are engaged and need more than 3 weeks' notice to plan your wedding. Similarly, you need advance notice of when a couple will need to separate for a minimum of 3 months (but also should not be much longer than 3 months because that's cruel) because one of you needs to find a place to live and make concrete arrangements with family or a landlord. Or someone in the community is gossiping about you. Or you have problems finding meals and other community involvement. 
  • If you need paperwork or information, don't let it slip their mind. For example: your child needs to be enrolled at the local Jewish school next month, and you need a letter from the beit din to approve it since you're both not halachically Jewish.
  • If a shadchan (matchmaker) makes stupid requests of you, you should push back to show that the behavior is unacceptable. For example: a black Jew only being set up with other black Jews. Or in my case, shadchans kept setting me up with men who said they hated pets, but the shadchanim (yes, all of them) assumed I would get rid of my 3 pets "for the right guy."
  • If someone says something ignorant at the Shabbos table. For instance: speaking badly about converts or Jews or color or baalei teshuva, making racist comments, or otherwise showing behavior that is unbecoming to a Jew. Whether those situations are applicable to you, it's the right thing to speak up. This is my biggest struggle recently; see all polite Southerner mentions above. But it's even more important if the comment is about your group. Who is better able to correct assumptions than the person being assumed about? 
  • Ask for what you need, whatever that is. Do you need a tutor? A friend? A family to become friends with? Access to free or affordable books? Help applying for a yeshiva or seminary? A contact for hospitality when you go out of town next week? A definite timeline so you can make major school, employment, housing and/or marriage decisions? 
  • Make suggestions. What would you like to see a class or shiur on? Maybe you'd like to organize a book club at the shul? Did you think of a way to make the shul more welcoming to guests? Would you like to volunteer on a committee? Did you find a typo on the beit din's website? 

Unfortunately, I waited too long to start advocating for myself with batei din. I didn't advocate at all with my first beit din: simple updates when I had something worth updating. But considering they kicked me out (and my experiences prior to the kicking out), I probably would have just sped up the kicking of the out. 

I learned my lesson and girded my loins for a tough time with the new beit din. For all I knew, I would be blackballed from any RCA-approved conversion beit din. (Thankfully, that didn't happen!) So when I connected with the new beit din, I took a more active role in my conversion. Being a bibliophile, I emailed a photo of my growing Jewish bookshelves and a list of all the books I'd read to date, updated each month. I asked questions when appropriate. It doesn't sound so impressive now, but I believe it helped. If nothing else, it made me feel proactive. That worked for my personality and style. And by that time, others were advocating for me too (mostly thanks to my work on this blog, which I started when I couldn't find any answers or help in my community or the internet). 

I don't know how much of a squeaky wheel I was for the beit din, but I began to feel like I had a small measure of control in the process. I converted six months later, and I believe my advocacy tactics would have shifted and perhaps increased if the process had been longer. That was the plan, anyway. You have to consistently reevaluate your self-advocacy to determine what the best action is now.

Conversion makes you feel so powerless, and self-advocacy is something still in your control. You're still part of the decision-making process in some way. Do it in a way that is true to you and your personality (and be upbeat about it), and you will usually avoid being seen as a jerk. Maybe you'll be seen as slightly annoying, but it's hard to hate friendly and excited people. 

How do you self-advocate? What could you do better? What was something you accomplished only because you asked for it?

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Updates a Go Go!

Oh gee willikers, guys. There's so much going on. And I can finally share it with you! 

First, let's talk about some personal stuff. I fell off the face of the earth recently, and now I can tell you why: I'm finally pregnant for the first time, and I've been sick as a dog. In fact, I just hit 9 weeks today, and I've already spent this week on bedrest because of an infection. Which reminds me: throw out a prayer for Kochava Yocheved bat Sarah when you get a chance, ok? 

You think you're "late" having kids at 31 in the orthodox community? I knew I was in trouble when it seemed like half my law school had already given birth, since demographics show us to be the latest breeders in American society. I've benefitted from the fact that most of my friends, Jewish and not, have already had children, and I plan to keep exploiting their wisdom. I've struggled for a long time with infertility and polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), and being open about those challenges has been such a blessing to me that it was natural to share my pregnancy in a similar way.

We'll talk a bit more in another post about pregnancy customs in the orthodox world, but one is identical to a secular American custom: not announcing a pregnancy until the second trimester, for fear that one might announce and then have to explain a miscarriage. I disagree with this custom, so I announced at 6 weeks. And so far, it's one of the best decisions I ever made.

Who would disagree with such a reasonable sounding custom? I have seen many women post their pregnancy announcements, followed quickly by statements about how hard it was to be so sick during the first trimester and not be able to tell anyone. If you had the flu, you could tell your coworkers or friends why you cancelled plans or took some time off or became a little scatterbrained. I was immediately sick when I found out at 4.5 weeks, and I cannot imagine not being able to ask for appropriate accommodations. In fact, I had to skip out on bedrest to give a class this morning and had to ask to present sitting down. It wasn't a big deal, and we all had a great bonding moment over it (helps that it was a women's bar association event!). Being able to share my struggles, both physically and emotionally, about becoming a mother has already been invaluable to me. I don't have much experience with kids, and I grew up with an abusive mother. Parenthood has always been a very complicated idea for me, and I'm continually thankful to be reminded that I'm not alone in my struggles and worries and even ambivalence. Gd forbid, if I should miscarry, I'll need the same support and advice. It's not for everyone, but it's for me. It doesn't help that both I and my husband don't have living mothers or any sisters. Facebook and texting has filled the need that most people fill within their families. 

Likewise, I have seen the shame and pain of women who suffered miscarriages and felt they couldn't tell anyone. Of course, I only learned these women's struggles months or years after it happened. Grief is one of the worst things to happen to your work and personal relationships. It changes everything, at least for a while. After my mother died a year and a half ago, I can't imagine if I had to keep it a secret. And we'd been estranged for 15 years! Miscarriage is almost always unavoidable, and talking about it helps remove the stigma from an experience that affects 1 in 4 pregnancies. Making women feel forced to hide it is just plain cruel. And as I said above, if that happens to me, I'll need all the support I can get. 

So yeah. Happy things! Puppies! Glitter! Ice cream! And... 

A New Website!

Second: the cool website stuff! You guys. We're getting a new site! Both this site and my law firm's site are in the process of being rebuilt, so you should see a completely reorganized blog/site (hosted on its very own domain!) in the near future. Web design takes a lot longer than I thought, but it's going to be awesome. If you have suggestions for the new site, please feel free to email them to me at crazyjewishconvert at gmail or post them on the blog's Facebook page

Thank Gd, I got an affordable rate, but it's still a very large expense, and I earn little to no money from this work. In four and a half years, I've earned a little over $200. Needless to say, I'm not doing this for the payday. If you'd like to contribute towards the site redesign, you can click that beautiful little "Donate Here" button in the right sidebar. I can't offer you a tax deduction, unfortunately. But you'll be helping converts and baalei teshuva make a smoother transition into the orthodox community! And to feel not so alone, like I did. 

Friday, May 15, 2015

Phrase of the Day: L'Kavod Shabbat v'Yom Tov

You've probably seen this phrase really often but may not even know it, especially if you don't yet read Hebrew.

Most notably, it has been written on (sewed onto) every challah cover I've ever seen. For example:

So what's it all about?

Meaning & Usage

It means "in honor of/for the honor of Shabbat and holiday." As a grammar nerd, it's interesting to me that yom tov isn't written yomim tovim, the plural. However, each time Shabbat and yom tov fall on the same day (happens pretty often), we make the bracha "has commanded us to light the candles of Shabbat and yom tov." That bracha phraseology may be used at other times during the chag, but none come to mind for me right now. So I think the theory is that the cover is useful for any specific day you might use it, rather than the general idea of Shabbat and holidays throughout the year.

You may often see it shortened to just "Shabbat v'yom tov," as you see on 2 of the 3 challah covers pictures. (Those are 3 of the 4 I own. Why do I need 4? I have no idea, but there was a wedding involved.)

Does it have to be both Shabbat and yom tov to use an item that says L'kvod Shabbat v'yom tov? Nope, it's just a catchall for all the uses you might have. Use it on Shabbat. Use it on yom tov. Use it when they fall together. But don't use it on Pesach. Unless you set one aside for Pesach (hey, that's a great idea for one of those 4...).

How Else Is It Used?

Nearly anything can be done lekavod Shabbat v'yom tov. In fact, the most common place you might hear it spoken is in the grocery store. There are many famous stories about rabbis or other pious people who saved the very best food for Shabbat, even in the poorest of conditions. That idea continues today, and you may overhear people debating whether to buy a nicer version of some food or a new food lakavod Shabbat. This can be done any day of the week, so long as it is set aside for the coming Shabbat.

I would guess that haircuts and buying flowers come in second and third, but it's a dead heat for which one should take which place. If you're going to buy flowers or get a haircut, it's best to do so late in the week (Thursday at the earliest but preferably Friday is what some people say) in order than it can also be in honor of Shabbat, even if you intended to do it anyway. This is particularly relevant to haircuts. 

You should also try to save newly-purchased clothes so you can wear them for the first time on Shabbat, in honor of it. It's hard to wait sometimes (so guilty here), but it's a very common custom and a beautiful idea.

It can really be anything. I know of a working mom who doesn't do much cooking during the week, but always cooks for Shabbat to honor it. Her homecooking is so unusual that she's been able to turn it into something that can bring extra honor to Shabbat and joy to her family.

Do you (or others you know) do anything else l'kavod Shabbat or yom tov?

But How Do You Say It??

The better question is how one pronounces it. I have found three pronunciations (so far): 

L'KaVOD: Luh or Le being the best approximations here for L'

LaKAvud (like "mud")


Do you know a pronunciation I missed? Which one do you use? Where have you seen it written besides on challah covers?

And what special thing will you do to honor Shabbat this week? 

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Can a RCA Convert Become Lubavitch After Conversion?

Yes, yes, and yes. I saw this google search come up and wanted to reassure all of you that your RCA (or IRF or private beit din or whoever) conversion does not tie you to a particular hashkafah (philosophy, approach to Judaism). 

Well, it doesn't have to.

I wrote a while back about the special challenges that face conversion candidates who want to live as Lubavitch chossids. But even in those worst-case-scenario circumstances where you may have to leave your Chabad shul and rabbi until the conversion is over, nothing prevents you from going back once the conversion is over. And most people who leaned that way early in the process do go back after, though I can't say how many stay long-term. I think they needed to go back to see if it really was the place for them, and sometimes it's not. It's tying up loose ends, in a sense. Especially when a short-sighted blanket prohibition on Chabad was part of the conversion. That tactic works just as well with conversion candidates as it does with teenagers.

Why does this work? The RCA does not espouse any particular hashkafa. Remember that the RCA is essentially just a licensing agency that allows independent batei din to use their name and support. Your particular beit din may have a specific hashkafa, such as many of the yeshivish and chassidishe batei din, most (all?) of which are not RCA batei dins. In those cases, you may be expected to toe the line to that particular hashkafah, but that should be a consideration before you sign on with that particular group.

As you go through the RCA process, you can choose to affiliate Polish Ashkenazi, Hungarian Ashkenazi, Yekke, Yeminite, Iraqi Sephardi, Dutch, whatever. Most people don't convert that specifically, sticking to general Ashkenazi or Sephardi designations

What determines your customs? Among other things, the community you convert in, the rabbi(s) you work with, and your personal ethnic history, especially if you have some Jewish ancestry from a particular area. But even if you go general, you will still be a mix and mish-mash of many minhagim because American and Israeli communities (and many communities worldwide) are usually a mish-mash of people from everywhere. And so many intermarriages between different types of Jews have created many families with mixed minhagim. So, at best, you are probably "Ashkenazi by default" if you convert in the United States. You could easily end up "Sephardi by default" in Israel or some other communities. Nothing wrong with it, except from the people who refuse to see the reality that a "community standard" doesn't exist in most places today.

Rather than just focusing on the Lubavitch candidate, let's try some other scenarios. Let's say you convert in Atlanta with the RCA-approved beit din there and you convert through a middle-of-the-road orthodox shul. That doesn't mean that as you learn and grow and move through life that you can't move to the right and become yeshivish or move left. Likewise, if you convert yeshivish, you're not prevented from becoming chassidic later on. Marriage often influences these major shifts, as opposed to the subtler shifts we all have.

Where you are haskhafically when you convert is just one moment in time. Every Jew is (should be) growing, changing, learning all the time, for the rest of your life. We all go through periods of more or less stringent observance. Different things speak to us in different seasons of life or life circumstances. And there will probably be a period or two (or more) of anger and rebellion. Congrats, that means you're really Jewish.

Don't be afraid that your conversion seals in what kind of Jew you'll be for the rest of your life. It doesn't, and it can't. 

Sunday, May 10, 2015

The Rabbis Who Might Be Involved in Your Conversion

Rabbis, rabbis, rabbis, everywhere you look it feels like there's another guy in a beard and a hat (well, maybe not in your community, but you get what I mean). 

Interacting with all of them and coordinating them doesn't just feel like herding cats, it actually is harder than herding cats because cats have less responsibilities and people to answer to. Not to mention, you're usually not allowed to participate financially in the community that pays their salaries. (You can't become a member and pay dues, for example.) You probably rank pretty low on the list of a rabbi's priorities, through no fault of your own. It's not personal; it's just how our community has become structured.

So let's talk about some of the rabbis who might be involved in your process and some of the roles they might play. One rabbi could serve many roles (and often do). Some may live down the street, some may only known on the internet. However you get the help, teaching, and services you need is a good way to get them. Be creative if you need to, but watch out for red flags that might indicate a huckster or someone abusive (emotionally, financially, sexually, or whatever). 

Rabbis are human. Remember that all the time, and you will be slightly less angry or frustrated with your situation. It's almost never personal. If you're in a difficult rabbi relationship, make "rabbis are human" your mantra, and repeat it frequently. As I say in that other post, neither of you has the like the other for you to both do your jobs. You can wish the situation were better, but you have to deal with what you've got.

The Bare Bones: 3 Rabbis

Let's talk about the absolute minimum number of rabbis you'll have to deal with: three. You really only need three rabbis to sit on a beit din, and one of those rabbis can be the rabbi whose community you've been living in, studying with, etc. So even at the bare bones level, you have three very busy people to coordinate. On the bright side, the beit din will do most of its own coordinating. Downside: you have little input in those dates, and you might have to change your schedule to accommodate theirs.

I think it's interesting that we really don't need 3 rabbis to sit on the beit din, as any knowledgeable Jew can as long as there's one rabbi to make sure everything is done correctly. That's just a shift that has occurred over time, but remains the structure of batei din in most non-orthodox Jewish communities.

The Normal 4th and Maybe 5th

Most people will have a fourth rabbi: the sponsoring rabbi, who is usually (but not always) your community rabbi. If your sponsoring rabbi isn't your community rabbi (for example, a tutor or mentor), then you'll also have your community rabbi involved, bringing you to five rabbis.

Beit Din Additions

Regardless of who is the sponsoring and community rabbi(s), you may have a fourth rabbi sitting on your beit din. It happens sometimes,  though I'm not entirely sure why, but people have walked into a beit din meeting and faced four or five rabbis instead of the expected (and stressful enough) three. This is unlikely, but it's something to be aware of, and don't let it worry you. From the people I've known, there doesn't seem to be a consistent factor on the side of the candidate, so I assume it's usually a practical scheduling decision when they're afraid one or more rabbis might not be available to also attend the mikvah. For example, in one case, a rabbi's wife was due to give birth around the expected mikvah date. Or maybe a rabbi had heard of you and was interested in meeting you, which was at least one of those cases.

The Takeaway

You'll most likely have to deal with 4-5 rabbis in the average conversion process. This is assuming you have only one beit din by the time you convert and no one retires or moves away (or gets arrested, of course).

But Wait! There's More Rabbis!

That doesn't mean there aren't other rabbis in your life. Some may not function as rabbis at all: some may just be friends, others might host you for meals a lot, or be the person who introduces you around in shul. There's no shortage of ways that people can help you, especially when those people happen to be rabbis.

You might have a rabbi tutor (or three). Your tutors never have to be a rabbi, unless your beit din requires at least one rabbi tutor. You may have multiple tutors because maybe you spend one semester learning in a group class with one rabbi, then get private tutoring from another, and a third teaches you to read Hebrew (or understand it, if you're more advanced). And maybe one or more of those tutors moves, retires, goes on sabbatical, becomes too expensive for your budget, realigns his priorities, whatever. Most people never get more than one or two tutors (formal or informal), but it's good to know you're not weird if you end up with 5. 

You might also have some specialized rabbis, if you face a particular halachic situation. Some examples: 
  • If you or a family member have a health problem (including mental health issues), you need a rabbi who understands those issues and the halacha that applies to them. Your average rabbi may be helpful at best, but harmful to your health at worst. Don't mess around here. It's a common problem for rabbis to either not know or not admit when they don't understand something well enough to rule on it. If you suspect a ruling is uninformed or ignores your particular circumstances (because your circumstances are always relevant to a halachic ruling, especially in health), move up the ladder to a rabbi who is more familiar with the issue.
  • If you have a pet. Most rabbis are clueless about both pets and how halacha applies to them, and thus, they give completely wrong halachic advice. They may even tell you it's prohibited to own a pet!
  • If you have Jewish roommates while you're not Jewish, you need someone very familiar with the halacha of people who are converting. Your beit din is the best place to start when you have a question like this.
  • If you have any other question that may be different for someone in the conversion process. See above.
  • If you have complicated family issues or like to visit your family often, you need a rabbi who is sensitive to those kinds of family issues and the halachic issues that can arise. You may need a different rabbi depending on whether your family is Jewish or not Jewish because the rulings can come out quite differently, and in my experience, these rabbis (usually kiruv or beit din rabbis) tend to specialize in one circumstance or the other. If you have a mixed family, you may need two rabbis to help with each group.
  • If you're in a romantic relationship with a Jew, you're eventually going to run into a lot of halachic questions. The beit din will usually address them as you go through the process. But speaking practically, a number of people have romantic relationships they never disclose to a beit din. If that's you, find a rabbi you trust, even if that means making a semi-anonymous relationship with a rabbi online.
  • If you work in a job that has halachic issues, you definitely need a rabbi who knows the field and knows Shabbat and yom tov halacha very well. This is especially true if you're a doctor, in medical school or residency, an EMT or other emergency personnel, or other people who tend to be "on call" any day, including Shabbat. If you're not in that lifesaving category, you will probably have to take some time to transition away from working on Shabbat and holidays, and a good rabbi can help you make better choices while in that transitory period. [That goes for students who feel compelled to study on Shabbat too. I survived law school without doing it, so I promise it can be done, and the break can actually make your other studying more effective.] As a sidenote, if you think you've been a victim of employment discrimination at your job or in a hiring decision because of becoming observant, you may want to consult with an employment lawyer. Usually those consultations are free, but you'll want to weigh the chilul Hashem factor and the emotional (and financial) cost of pursuing a claim.

In Conclusion

Rabbis are friends, not food. Wait, wrong cliche. [Finding Nemo, in case you don't know any children of the recent generation.]

I will openly admit I'm gunshy with rabbis, and I usually don't trust them farther than I can throw them. I've had too many bad experiences and seen too many others face similar situations because of my work here. However, the longer I'm around, the more good people I see trying to do the right thing. My heart is thawing towards rabbis, though it probably has a few more years to go. [Ha! We all know lawyers don't have hearts!]

Have situational awareness and pay attention to red flags and your gut instincts when you deal with rabbis in the conversion process, but don't let yourself get too cynical until you have a good reason to be. Look for people who just happen to be rabbis but could be your friends, especially if you're young and can find rabbis or rabbinical students your own age. 

Balancing naïveté, judging people favorably, and trusting the system when the system allows an inappropriate level of power over your life is a tightrope walk. Take it from me. But most people get through just fine, and hopefully that person is you. 

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Happy Lag B'Omer!

I hope you have a fun Lag B'Omer! Break out the BBQ, shave, get a haircut, and don't burn anything down!

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Sign #374 You've "Made It": The Annual Dinner Invitation

You get four invitations to "The Annual Dinner." In one day.

Seven in one week, and I doubt the mail onslaught is over yet. From shuls past and present, Hatzolah, yeshivas, and seminaries.

One is for a shul you've never even belonged to. In fact, you've never even been there. How does that happen?? 

All worthy causes that deserve our support, but I don't have $300-$1,000 for any of you, much less all of you in one week.

You'd think someone on the committee would get the memo and schedule the annual dinner at a different time than everyone else! Alas, we're dealing with Jewish bureaucrazy. That was originally a Freudian slip typo, but then I realized it was true.

Why we have annual dinners in the first place is an excellent question. Should we look to a different model? Probably. Chances that will happen? Very small, but it'll probably be spearheaded by an entrepreneurial new Chabad shaliach, since they have to provide all their own funding. He has little to lose and everything to gain. Disrupt the system, chassid! We need it!

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

UPDATED: The 5 Types of Mentors You Need

I've written several times before about the need for every convert and BT to have a mentor. But really, you need at least five mentors because each will expose you to a different part of the community and to different facets of Jewish life. As a bonus, you see how multiple people handle similar situations and learn traditions and minhagim you'd never learn from a book. 

While I believe that every one of the five is necessary, that doesn't mean you need five separate people. Five would be best because it would give you the most exposure to different ways of doing Jewish, but less will do in a pinch.

Someone at the same life stage. 

I never thought life stages would be so important until I entered the orthodox world. Most people's social lives center around people of a similar life stage. I think this is the most important of the potential mentors you can have because this person provides a model for your life today. 

Here's a list of some of the possible life stages you might be experiencing:
  • Young singles ("young" depends on your community)
  • Older singles (again very community-dependent)
  • Young marrieds (who usually don't have children)
  • Married without children (once you reach the age yentas assume you're having "problems")
  • Married with children (and the different age levels, of course!)
  • Empty-nesters
  • Retirees
Getting matched up with someone (or a couple) at the same stage as you helps you see how you will fit into the community. Without someone at your life stage (and nearish to you in age), it's hard to imagine what someone like you "looks like" as an orthodox person. I think this is the main reason I took such a long time to become orthodox. I was a single college co-ed in a subtropical beach community, and I didn't know anyone who could model what that looks like for an orthodox woman. Nearly everyone I knew was at least 20 years older than me. Most college women are unlikely to take tznius fashion advice from the average mom, and most moms don't have the time or energy to spend on their appearance like a college student does. Nothing is wrong with either; it's just a different stage of life. I didn't believe that until I experienced it myself, even though I'm not a mom yet. 

Someone at a similar stage of life will "get" the challenges and struggles you're dealing with, whether it's dating, kids, or taking care of aging parents. They'll understand the halachic issues your life stage creates, as well as being able to support you emotionally. You'll also be able to be social together, whether that means bars, museums, hiking, or playdates. In short, they'll be someone who can be a real friend to you.

Someone your own age. 

Usually, this will be taken care of by finding someone at your life stage, but not always. For example, you might have a hard time finding someone in your life stage, especially older singles and "older" married couples without children. These groups in particular tend to feel some level of isolation or frustration in the orthodox community. Or maybe you find that the people at your life stage aren't your age. The advice I gave for life stage is the same here: it's about finding people you can model your behavior after. What does an orthodox person your age look like, act like, do? That's not something you'll learn in a halacha book.

A parental-like figure of the same gender. 

A mom-figure or dad-figure is invaluable, so long as you don't get creepy about it. They're not your mom or dad. You're not their responsibility, and they're not a financial resource for you. They're your friend who happens to be a generation or so older than you. There's a different kind of emotional support you get from someone older than you. I've been lucky enough to experience that in my Jewish journey. I already see that in myself and friends, even though we're not exactly parental figures.

In a way, this allows you to see your future in the Jewish community. You'll also get advice from someone who's been around longer than you, both in the Jewish community and alive in general. This person can be an invaluable resource for advice, both practical and social. They'll usually have a good understanding of the community politics and may even be someone who can go to bat for you with rabbis or other leadership. 

I make a caveat for conversion candidates and BTs who are very young. If you're in your college years, I think you should have two older-generation mentors: perhaps an older single or young married in addition to someone your parents' age. You may even want to know both an older single and a young married because you don't know what the next stage of life will be for you. (And having been an older single, it's not a death sentence.)

A family with kids still at home. 

If you have a family or plan to at some point in your life, you should befriend a family with kids still at home. You need to see what Jewish family life looks like day-to-day because the home is the real center of Jewish life. This is where the rubber meets the road of Jewish learning and where you will learn the most if you pay attention. 

If you're retirement age, I think connecting with a younger family is beneficial but not necessary. You'd get all the relevant home-learning you need by befriending a couple of similar age and life stage.

However, the young family is the group who has the least amount of time to deal with another person underfoot. At least, that's how you'll feel. Some family might make you feel that way too, but there's a family out there who will be glad to have you as a guest. Be respectful of their time, but don't be afraid to ask to come over for this or for that. It probably won't occur to them, or they'll think you must be busy. So ask. Worst they say is no, right?

An easy way "in" is to babysit for the family, if you have the time and inclination. However, be careful that you're not exploited or made uncomfortable by this arrangement. You should be paid like any other babysitter, unless you're offering it as a birthday present, other specific gift, or as bartering for tutoring or cooking lessons, whatever. You can offer a reduced rate if you like, but make sure the boundaries don't get too blurred. I have seen several family-candidate relationships sour when the family exploited free babysitting or tried to use the candidate as a convenient Shabbos goy to do things they can't halachically do. One of the stories that made me saddest was a friend who was looking hard for meals one week. Finally, a family she was close to called her up late on Friday, and she thought they were offering a meal. In reality, the eruv was down, and they wanted her to come over and push the stroller to shul. A conversion candidate is trying to live a shomer Shabbat life, so using them as a Shabbos goy is disrespectful of them and of the process itself. It's very difficult to stand up for yourself in these kinds of situations if you encounter them (they are relatively unusual, thankfully), but perhaps mentioning the problem to the local rabbi or another community leader can help address the situation. They could even offer a community class on the laws of "the Shabbos goy," which are actually very complex and interesting (and useful!). However, I dream of the day when a Shabbos goy is only used in an emergency situation, not for someone's personal comfort.

A rabbi or other trusted halachic resource. 

You might find it surprising that I list this last and that it doesn't just say "a rabbi." This mentor could be any of the people listed above. If not, then this person is least likely to be a close personal friend. They'll more likely be a resource rather than a mentor. Nothing wrong with that either. This isn't someone you get halachic rulings from. Most of the time, you don't need a ruling, you just need guidance and it's not complicated.

So how do you find these people?

Don't just walk around asking people to be your mentor. They'll probably get weirded out. You might be able to find one or more of these people online, and I don't discourage that, but ideally, these should all be people you can see face-to-face, even if they're in a community a half-hour or hour away. 

These relationships may be mentorships, but they're really just prioritized friendships. You find people you like, start becoming friends, then prioritize that friendship. Don't let the relationship go cold. Invite them to things. Ask to be invited to other things. Not just Jewish stuff! Keep in touch. Deep relationships are the forte of introverts, so this method works for both introverts and extroverts. So no excuses!

I didn't have ANY of these kinds of people in my life while I was converting excerpt through the internet. You can become orthodox without these people, but it will feel harder and take longer. The education of the everyday is the hardest to learn. That's what I try to do here, but nothing can replace the advice and guidance of people who know you.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Word of the Day: Ulpan

At some point in your orthodox journey, someone is going to suggest you go to ulpan. Another class and another thing to learn? Sounds great, but what's ulpan? 

In short, it means modern Hebrew classes. But it's more than that. It's a particular style of teaching a foreign language through intense immersion and often with a class that may not share any common language other than the one being taught. It almost always refers specifically to teaching Hebrew, but other languages can be taught ulpan-style. As a linguist, the ulpan method is as fascinating to learn about as it is frustrating to experience. Ulpan is being thrown from the frying pan into the fire.  It's as close as an adult can get to learning a language like a child does, in my opinion.

From Day 1, you will ideally be using only Hebrew (with lots of pantomime and hand gestures), though that depends somewhat on the dedication of the teacher and the persuasive skills of the students who want the teacher to speak in English. Depending on the teacher, you may not learn grammer very well, but that's not really the goal. The goal is to get you speaking ASAP: at the bank, at the grocery store, at your kid's parent-teacher conference. It's the most practical approach to language learning you can find.

When taken as part of immigrating to Israel, there are often cultural components to the education, including holidays, etiquette, and slang. It's not just language; it's acculturation. Some have called it brainwashing, to be fair.

Traditionally, ulpan is a common experience that ties together generations of people who made aliyah to Israel. It's a rite of passage that goes back before the country was founded. Many new immigrants, especially those from poorer countries and those rescued from hostile governments, often spend the first several months in an immigrant absorption center, where they spend several hours a day in ulpan. As I understand, attending ulpan is totally voluntary (as is staying in an absorption center), however most olim appear to take advantage of it, especially since the first 5 months (currently) are free. I can't find it on the new Nefesh B'Nefesh website, but I know you used to be able to take an extra 6 months of ulpan at a very reduced rate. 

But five hours a day, 5 days a week, of Hebrew for five months? Your brain might melt. Talk about a bonding experience.

Ulpan outside Israel is often closer to the traditional foreign language class you're used to. For example, in my experience, I attended class once a week for 2.5 hours at a time as a near-total beginner. Homework was assigned between classes, but much of the experience depends on your classmates and their dedication to the immersion method. Learning any foreign language requires a certain degree of willingness to look like an idiot, but ulpan will test your self-esteem's limits. One major advantage to learning in Israel with olim is that everyone already feels like an idiot in public and is therefore highly motivated to improve. Also, it's unlikely that your class can get too off-topic when there is no common language other than Hebrew. The problem is finding ulpanim programs outside Israel. Even in NYC and Los Angeles, that's no easy task. There is Rosetta Stone (which I enjoy and find tracks my ulpan curriculum really well), and there are online teachers available. However, I've heard mixed results from online tutors and tutoring companies. Do your due diligence before hiring a Hebrew teacher!

You can find more about the history and methodology of the ulpan experience available from the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Looking at the larger picture, do you think learning modern Hebrew should be considered a necessary (or even important) part of the convert/BT experience, or should we be focusing our energy on earlier Hebrew and Aramaic for text work? I'm having a hard time answering that question for myself, so I'm curious what all of you think and what your experience has been!

Friday, May 1, 2015

UPDATED: When to Take a Shower Before Shabbat?

"I take a shower on Friday morning, and by the time Shabbat is over, I feel disgusting."

This conversation came up recently, and I realized there had to be a post on it ASAP. As I've mentioned before, I'm OCD (in the real way), and cleanliness is unusually important to me. It broke my heart to hear someone frustrated at feeling "gross" on Shabbat.

Feeling gross is no way to spend Shabbat, and it certainly isn't honoring or enjoying Shabbos! But it doesn't have to be that way!

I naturally fell into the rhythm most of the community practices when it comes to showering for Shabbat, but I realize now that it's not obvious to everyone, especially since America has such a cultural stereotype of the "morning shower." 

The secret is a Friday afternoon shower. Most people can go 36 hours without a shower (unless you're my 2-showers-a-day Dad - to be fair, he works in construction), as opposed to the 48 hours between showers on Friday morning and Sunday morning. So I, like many people, often skip the Friday morning shower and plan to shower Friday afternoon closer to Shabbat. However, you can do two showers in one day (one Friday morning and one Friday afternoon), and I promise that Captain Planet won't hunt you down. But try to be extra efficient with those showers to prevent too much wasted water. #HippiePSA

Personally, I do a grossness assessment Friday morning  to see if I can make it to the afternoon. ("How gross do I feel? Not gross? Awesome." Am I secretly a college frat boy? Perhaps.) However, I'm not tied to the "mornings only" shower routine in the first place. Most of my showers are in the evening anyway, which then puts Shabbat showering right on my schedule.

If your work schedule prevents getting home in time, especially on short winter days, you can still do a quick 5 minute rinse and soap and leave your hair wet. This works better for haircovering women who can hide it away in a tichel. (I have no idea what wet hair under a sheitel would be like, sorry. UPDATE: I'm told it works just fine for my sheitel ladies too.) If you're running particularly late one day, remember that candlelighting time comes 18 minutes before Shabbat starts. It's not good to make a habit of using those minutes for non-Shabbosdik things, but many a good Jew finishes up the cooking or dries their hair during that time if necessary. (#ProTip: remember to not bring in Shabbat yet. As a general rule, men bring it in at a certain point of davening in Kabbalat Shabbat (or when it's time for Shabbat), and women bring it in at candlelighting. For women, you will light candles on time, but have in mind that you aren't yet bringing in Shabbat. In that case, you'd bring it in at the same point in davening or when the clock strikes Shabbat.)

And don't forget: you can shower Saturday night if you want to! 

Yom tov showers are a totally different discussion, but the general principles apply to starting the chag, and they're the whole discussion if your community holds that there is no showering on yom tov at all. The other communities get more complicated...

UPDATE: I completely forgot to mention what happens when there's more than one of you who needs that shower. How do you coordinate multiple showers with roommates, spouses, and/or children? Just like you would with a morning rush on the shower. Stagger, and make sure there's enough time for everyone, which means starting earlier than you think you need to. In my case, that means a shower negotiation with my husband every week hopefully about 2 hours before Shabbat, but usually about 1 hour before:
"Are you showering before Shabbat?"
"Can you do that now because I take longer?"
Crisis managed. 
Most of the time, he's already had his shower, and there's nothing standing between me and the Shabbos Shower except procrastination.

Here's the takeaway: don't let a lack of the "little niceties" of life poison your Shabbat experience. These things aren't petty. If you are genuinely uncomfortable or feel bad in some way, then you're not capable of having a good religious experience unless you can address the issue or your mindset. That's a fact. If something is less than enjoyable for you on Shabbat, ask! Odds are good that there's a way to fix your problem! And if not, you'll at least get a good kvetching and bonding session.