Friday, November 18, 2011

Why Batei Din Are Opposed to You Living Long Distances from Synagogue

This is an interesting issue that came up in a comment, and I thought it deserved its own post. 

Why can't you finish a conversion so long as you live a significant walking distance from shul? 

To start, what distance ARE they looking for? Typically, you are alright if you are living "within the eruv," assuming there is an eruv. For practical reasons (government permits and the availability of places to attach the eruv), the eruv may be bigger than the community would like. If you are close to the edges of an eruv, you should check with your rabbi whether that is "close enough" to the synagogue. A good rule of thumb is living within 1 mile of the shul. The "average" person can walk that distance in 12-20 minutes.

The problem is that conversion candidates may own a home or have a cheap (or free) rental arrangement outside that distance. What then? Quite honestly, you will probably have to move, regardless of the inconvenience, lost profits, or increased cost.

If you've faced this situation before, I know where you're coming from. When I became observant, I lived about 4.5 miles from shul, and I walked every other week or so. It took a long time, but I did it, even once in 110 degree heat! However, I was a renter, and I was eager to live closer than that distance! Quite frankly, I was not willing to walk that distance for long or frequently.

And I think that is the gist of most of the arguments: almost no rabbi realistically expects people to maintain the enthusiasm to walk long distances over the long-term. When you know it's short-term (for example, until your lease ends) or you are "fresh" to Judaism, the enthusiasm to walk long distances is still there.

Further discouragements to walking include injuries, sickness, and only mildly "extreme" weather. You are much more likely to walk to shul in the rain when it's 10 minutes than when the walk is 50 minutes. Same with snow and extreme heat. As I said above, I walked 4.5 miles in 110 degree heat in tznius dress (long skirt and long sleeves). For you Celsius users, that's slightly over 43 degrees. I don't recommend it. And all of these weather-related situations could seriously endanger your health. Also, walking distances that far should probably be cleared with your doctor, just as with any exercise regime.

In short, they are afraid you'll convert and then get tired of walking the distances, so you will choose to not attend synagogue services. Since shul attendance on Shabbat is considered an important part of Jewish observance, the rabbis don't want to set you up to fail. The conversion process (and the beit din) should prepare you to live a productive Jewish life, including a commitment to synagogue attendance.

In the long term, you have to consider that you will eventually grow older and may not be physically capable of such long walks. If you're younger than that, long distances are more likely to isolate the parents of young children. It's hard enough to get these parents to do more than the minimum shul observance (even with an eruv) without doubling or tripling the average distance traveled.

[All that said, I know of one case where a beit din required a candidate who moved 1.1 miles from shul to move again "within 1 mile." I think that was more about discouragement than any of the practical rationales we've discussed above.] 

"BUT WAIT," you might say! "I'm different! I'm 22, I'm healthy, I'm a marathoner, I can do this!" In short, too bad. As I have said many times before, we all want to be "the exception to the rule." The rabbis can't know whether you will maintain this enthusiasm for walking three miles two years from now. And quite frankly, history and human nature tells them that you won't. There are also the considerations of weather, children, injuries, sickness, etc.

Of course, these same arguments apply to living in very high floors of apartment buildings. I kid you not, I know people who live(d) on the 14th and 30th floor. Imagine walking that every Shabbat!


  1. My current apartment is 1.5 miles from shul but well within our generous eruv. The walk isn't terrible on a regular basis but it makes getting up earlier on shabbat a requirement, not a whim. We would love to move closer but the rent in this area is astronomical (city prices in a suburb) and our building is one of the *only* pet friendly buildings in our town.

    Thankfully, everyone seems okay with where I am right now because there aren't other options, even stretching my budget to breaking point wouldn't put me anywhere close to being able to rent an apartment closer to shul.

    Sometimes I do think there should be a fund available for conversion candidates who've been formally accepted to begin study by a beit din. It's the first few years of changing your wardrobe/outfitting a temporary kitchen/buying books/paying for holiday food that seem to be horribly expensive but all of those costs eventually level out.

    However, moving into an observant community usually comes with high rent/expensive housing prices because these communities are in high demand for individuals who wish to live this life. I've often thought that when (if) this process ever ends and I ever buy a house, I would like to be able to offer an apartment to any conversion candidates studying at my shul.

    Personally, I would like to see more support for those individuals formally accepted to study and I believe that support is going to have to come from those of us who've been down that road ourselves.

    1. Originally posted: December 9, 2011 at 6:56 AM

      Re: fund for conversion candidates. I don't see it happening. Like ever. There is too much need within the community for people to want to fund Jewish life "outside" it. Sad but true. However, that doesn't foreclose the possibility of batei din and classes becoming more flexible with fees, payment plans, waivers, etc. And there is also the possibility of individuals stepping forward to help other individuals. I suspect that happens more often than is talked about. There is also the little helps, like meals, informal tutoring/mentoring, etc.

    2. Yeah, I don't see a conversion fund, either. Largely because there is no shame in living as a non-Jew, and so converts, while accepted and loved, aren't necessarily encouraged, per se.

  2. You make me so, so glad I am not converting Orthodox.

  3. One quick questions about this, for individuals who have already begun or completed their Orthodox conversion:

    Did you have to move to the community of your sponsoring Rabbi? Or were you able to move into the "nearest eruv," within a mile of your nearest "approved" shul? There are at least 3 eruvs in my area, and I'm currently living reeeeeally close to 1, but will probably be seeking a sponsoring rabbi in another area.


    1. Originally posted: December 9, 2011 at 6:52 AM

      Anna: I'm not sure I understand the question properly. You've got a lot of variables going on there :P Feel free to email me about it if you'd still like to discuss it. My email is on the "About" page.

  4. I live on the 15th floor and it sucks. There is no way around that. But we're not the only ones who have to walk down on Shabbos so that makes it better. I've never ever heard of anyone being unable to convert b/c they lived too high up or because they lived more than a mile. I have friends who walk well over a mile to get to shul every week. Another thing to consider is that women, once they are married and/or have kids, really aren't stressed about getting to shul. Some do, most don't. My Rabbi says taking care of the kids is far more important and his own wife rarely makes it out on Shabbos b/c they have young kids.

    I really think these types of "rules" really are community to community. We have a lot of converts and BTs here so people aren't so uptight about these things.

    1. The rabbi I converted with would not convert candidates unless they lived within the eiruv. So I had to move. And I did, gladly. And even with staying home with young kids...we used to visit other Moms also staying at home and eat at each others' houses. So, I really don't see that changing.

  5. P.s. I really like what Drew had to say. I agree!

    We are converting our entire family so times every expense by 5... we are broke. Like REALLY broke, not the kinds were people think they are broke because they can't afford to buy new shoes this month. We're the kind that can't hardly pay rent. Conversion is financially breaking us, and it's hard not to let that interfere with the process and your morale. I wish so badly that there was a fund for converts b/c they are PLENTY for Jews.

  6. One of the benefits of a liberal conversion (besides, y'know, it fitting with my outlook) is that I'm 'graded' on what I can do right now and the intent to continue to do so. Right now, I've been unemployed for a year and can't leave my current living situation (with a sister and roommate, across town from shul), and my health is in the crapper. So I don't get to shul nearly as often as I want to, but I make it when I can. There is the expectation, both on the part of me and my rabbi, that as soon as I'm able I will move as close to the shul as I can afford to do. I do still have the problem that being so far from a Jewish community is incredibly isolating, especially since I'm single and don't have many friends in the community- even after a year and a half. Part of that is because the Jewish community here is insanely hard to crack into, but I fully admit that it would be easier if I were in their faces all the time. I cannot express how much I look forward to moving, and I really love where I live now.

  7. Lurking Noahide said:

    In my research many of the communities where there are 13 year Jewish schools are fairly expensive places to live.

    I've also noticed often there are multiple schuls serving the same general area of the city not even serving separate 5 mile radii(the distance some websites say is the maximum distance for converstion).

    I don't understand with the large cost of life in New York, why a group of people from New York don't move to somewhere in the Midwestern US and start a new community with Yeshiva restaurants school and everything in a place with affordable housing.

    Why push young people to move there amid all the bad influences rather than improving shiduch with conferences in a centralized cheap location to meet matches instead. Maybe it makes sense to a Rabbi who is wired for New York life, but as someone who grew up in the midwest it makes no sense to questions someone's commitment to Judaism based on not being into sacrificing for big city life and high cost, high stress living.

    I question if getting a large number of people in the same area reduces willingness with sacrifice and compromise the same way online dating has made finding someone willing to settle for less than perfect harder. The large number makes you think there's someone who is exactly what you are looking for you have yet to meet.

    1. Originally posted: December 9, 2011 at 7:11 AM

      Lurking Noachide: You're right, it would be nice to transplant a community. It'd be even nicer to bulk up the small communities we already have. (I, for one, don't understand why people aren't moving to the San Francisco Bay area in droves.) But the communities with that 13 year yeshiva-style school aren't necessarily expensive. NYC is perceived to be expensive, but do people really think about the large number of people who live here under the poverty line?? Somehow, the majority of people living in NYC are not rich by any standard. As for solid Jewish communities, Brooklyn and Queens and several nearby New Jersey communities are priced similarly (or cheaper than) where I formerly lived in Sacramento, CA, and Charleston, SC. The schools are also cheaper because there is more demand. Likewise, the salaries are higher to compensate for the cost of living. And kosher foods are cheaper because most are produced nearby *and* there is high demand. There is no significant transportation cost to factor in. There are also more resources for people struggling financially. In a smaller community, there may be only one tzedakah pot to support the same amount of people that three might in a larger city.

      However, if someone wants a community that is perceived to be "cheaper" overall, Memphis is a great value. St. Louis. Atlanta. Detroit. Minneapolis. Perception is not necessarily reality. But if you want to have Jewish life as a small town, check out Kiryas Joel. It may not be to your taste.

      The larger problem of why people don't leave NY for these areas? Change. People don't like change. And when they've been raised religious within a community, their family is there, their friends are there. They would leave a very tight-knit support group. I, like many converts, am essentially blowing in the wind, so there is nothing to hold me here...or anywhere. That's not the case for the NY/NJ Jews, as a general rule. As someone who will face raising a family without my extended family nearby to help care for my kids, I have a new appreciation for the support I have given up. That childcare cost alone, assuming my hypothetical husband also doesn't have family nearby, could justify staying in a place like NYC if we had family here.

      In other words, there are a lot of factors to consider that could actually make NYC the *cheapest* choice. And not everyone lives on Park Avenue :P

  8. Elle,

    I'm in the same boat as you. House in foreclosure, barely have food on the table, etc. (I've been out of work 3 years and my SO just ran out of his benefits) so we have $400 until one of us gets a job. Luckily only one of us is converting.

    I am very lucky that first of all, the conversion course is only $250 and I am on their payment plan available, but also the instructor of the course did his MA thesis on Jews-by-Choice so he is intensely interested in converts and how to make conversion easier on us. He has contacts among several of the rabbis around here who do discounted (or waived fees) for the beit din. And then the mikvah has a minimum donation of $150. He claimed that within a few years there IS going to be a fund so that finances will never be a burden to one's conversion if that is what one truly wants to do. I don't know how they are going to decide who needs/deserves help. This is in Atlanta, by the way. I travel roughly an hour and 45 minutes to get to class.

    (Also I've posted on this blog before anonymously but figured since I just came out to *all* of my friends as officially pursuing a conversion, I might as well stop posting completely anonymously since everyone took it very well.)

  9. Unless these Rabbi's are claiming to have prophetic visions, it is wrong of them to make assumptions about someones future willingness to walk. Where I live all the shuls are located in wealthy areas (minimum house values well over $1M and minimum condos $650K--and those condos are not big enough for families). Making one live in those areas means, in practical terms, that in order to become Jewish one must be wealthy. (it seems not only Gentiles have that stereo type.) I know observant Jews who have been walking 45mins to an hour each way every week for YEARS. If one is devoted, they will walk.

    1. Posted originally: December 9, 2011 at 6:50 AM

      Joe: I think that's being unrealistic. If you can't live in a community, you can't. That sucks, but it's life. There are other communities where it can work. No one makes you do anything, so there's no sense in getting angry about things that are out of your (and the Jewish community's) control. My guess would be that many of those people moved there before the values went up. I would also guess there are some outlier cheap houses too, but they're hard to find. But once there is a community, it is *really* hard to move it. So housing prices crept up, and people are stuck where they already were. That's happened in many areas.

      No one has to become Jewish. If born Jews take the responsibility on themselves to walk that distance, fine. It's on their head if they commit aveirahs. The convert's aveirahs (and mitzvot) are on the head of his converting rabbis. I don't blame them for being skeptical because you are saying we should assume people will be the outliers. The rabbis have to deal with reality, and that means that no policy or line-drawing will be perfect. So we have to do the best we can with what we have.

  10. "The convert's aveirahs (and mitzvot) are on the head of his converting rabbis."

    Actually, Skylar, there are multiple opinions about this. Because you are writing this blog to educate people about geirut, I feel that I have a responsibility to let people know when an educational blog is not presenting all the facts.

    One opinion, as you pointed out, is that a convert's aveirahs and mitzvot are on the head of his converting rabbi. There are other she'etot, though, that say that a ger is like a 13 year-bar mitzvah boy, the rav/parents do the best they can with education, but ultimately, what the ger/bar mitzvah boy do is up to them--their aveirot are on their own head.

    No Rav could possibly see into the future of every ger. Some gerim that would seem to have it all--passion, knowledge, enthusiasm, and the money to support a Jewish lifestyle--end up dropping off, while others who come from much stickier situations--say, dating a Jew, not much money to live a Jewish lifestyle, trouble learning complicated halachot--stay on track.

    I hope that in the future, you will not only put forth the most chumradik she'eta, but that you'll let people know that there are OTHER opinions out there. Judaism is a religion with a lot of compassion. I wish you let that be known more on your blog.

  11. I heard an opinion from my converting Rav (in Bnei Brak, no less) that once a person truly attaches himself to mitzvot but is not yet Jewish, that there is no turning back for his neshama. The Jewish community would be well inclined to help those who have the mesiras nefesh to become Jewish once they have shown their commitment.

  12. Hi, I have a question. I want to convert (probably Modern Orthodox) and I am finishing up my letter to the Beth Din requesting assistance with conversion (the Rabbis I spoke to referred me to the Beth Din). Before you moved close to the synagogue, did you drive or take public transportation to the shul or did you stay over at someone's house in order to walk to the shul for shabbat? If you drove, did you park at the Shul or two blocks away to be less conspicuous? Thanks