I had the great pleasure to spend Shabbat this week in Venice, CA. I know nothing about the area, except that I'm pretty sure it was the Venice Boardwalk in the move Son in Law. (Pauly Shore movie from 1993...pure comedic gold!)
I attended the Shul on the Beach (officially known as the Pacific Jewish Center), and I have to say I loved it! I'm a "small community" fan, and I was shocked to find a small community within the borders of Los Angeles! If you don't already know, LA is home to the third largest Jewish community in the world! (Behind Israel and New York City.) My little brain was overwhelmed. All the Jewish resources I could ever need...while still having the small community feel?? I think Rabbi Fink tried to tell me that once, but I would have never believed him! The only "downside" of this community for most Jews is the lack of an eruv. Having lived without an eruv before, it's really not that hard, and people blow the lack of an eruv entirely out of proportion.
However, the theme of this Shabbat seemed to be that in no way do I look like a convert. As a representative exchange: "How long have you been orthodox? I mean, clearly, you've always been Jewish [Insert the truth here] But you look so Jewish!" Of course, all converts dream of "passing." AKA, at least not standing out like a sore thumb. I've written about this before (You Know You've Made It When Someone Mistakes You for a Born Jew), and I have a future post running around in my head, but it still gives me a little happy feeling to think that I must be doing something "right." If nothing else, at least I don't make myself look like an idiot!
Along the lines of that example conversation, I had one of the most interesting conversations I've ever had. With about 10 teenagers. Trust me, no beit din could be more frightening than standing in front of that many teenagers with the questions coming in rapid-fire succession. On the bright side, these teens showed me that the parents in Venice are raising their kids right. They were Jewishly passionate, interested, and knowledgeable. The conversation started simply enough with the rapid-fire: what's your name, where do you live, how old are you, why are you staying in our community, who do you know here? I could hardly tell you any of the details of the whole experience, it was all so fast yet covered so much ground!
Somehow I needed to explain that I'm a convert. I think it was a question about whether I'd always been frum. And boy, defying the laws of sound wavelengths, the questions doubled in speed! (Plus the requisite "But you look so Jewish!" Complete with the addition from someone else, "That's not supposed to be a compliment!" hahaha! Apparently I also look only 19!) But the questions were great! I get questions all the time from people about my past and my conversion process(es), and you can tell that some people are just asking out of politeness or a detached interest, but without really being that interested in the conversation. These guys had such passion! And they were so proud of being raised frum, while having a mature appreciation for how this big of a change (and even differentiating the changes of my first conversion-becoming "Jewish"-and now this conversion-"becoming frum") can really affect my relationships. Like most people, they were most interested in how my relationships with other people have changed and the actual conversion process itself.
On my side, I was most impressed with how they struggle with being bound by halacha while still wanting to be respectful of non-orthodox relatives and friends. It seems like many "adults" in the orthodox world could use a class in respect from these guys!
Probably the best question (and one that so many people forget to ask!) was "So when in the conversion process does a person actually become Jewish?" Despite having such a short time together (we were just picking up a coat, after all!), I feel like I gave a full-fledged lecture on Being a Convert. And from the expressions on their faces, you could see the pride growing on their faces to hear that someone had found real meaning in their way of life. I can't imagine a time in our lives when the secular world is more tempting than in the teenage years. It seemed like these kids (I call everyone kids, I'm not suggesting anything here!) had really spent time thinking about these issues and, at least from my perspective, we had one of the best conversations I've had in months (despite the anxiety-causing set-up!). And there are few things as blush-causing as hearing "Thank you! You're an inspiration!" being shouted out the door after you!
The take away? If you're proud of your Jewishness and your community, your kids are listening. Oh, and Venice is amazing. I'd live there in a heartbeat.