Friday, January 13, 2012

After Conversion, What Do You Do Now?

A very wise rabbi once told me that a common problem with converts is that they fail to realize "there's no there there."

The day of your conversion isn't really a destination. I've spent well over a year thinking about that phrase, trying to decide how I interpret it. I think I like the journey metaphor.

Conversion day is like a mile-marker. I don't think we expect kids to feel any different once they are b'nei mitzvot, so why are converts supposed to suddenly feel different? 

Of course, everyone asks b'nei mitzvot, newly-married couples, and converts the exact same question: "So...do you feel any different?" I don't know why we keep asking, since we generally expect the answer to be no. If someone actually responded, "I feel like a whole new person!" we would either assume that they're joking or that they have very unreasonable expectations about life being suddenly new and shiny and different.

Or maybe there's an even better analogy! It's like being on a diet and reaching your goal weight. You've reached your goal, but now you have to maintain it. You have to keep exercising, eating the right foods, and combating the negative self-images we develop. It's not easy, and the major "reward" we were working for over such a long time has come and gone. The question becomes: what is your new goal? Running a 5k? Doing 100 push-ups in a row? Or maybe even doing a triathalon?? 

Once you reach the mikvah, what becomes your new goal? Yeah yeah, "being a good Yid." Don't give that answer because that is an objective, which is achieved through smaller goals. Your goals lead to your objective. Without goals to motivate you and mark your progress, your objective remains undefined and without the steps to get there.

How do you achieve your objectives? You make a SMART goal.
  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Attainable
  • Realistic
  • Timely [With a time frame to complete it]


What say you, general public?

38 comments:

  1. I can easily see how there would be a bit of a "let down" actually, after conversion. I've heard of it happen often after any major milestone, like a graduation or wedding. You spend so much time and effort working toward a goal. You focus all of your energy on that goal. Then...you reach it. You dip in the mikvah and you are Jewish!

    So...what about the next day? What about the day after that? What NOW?

    I remind myself that the learning I am doing for my conversion is only the beginning. My conversion day is just the pre-test for a course I'll be studying for the rest of my life. Even more, after I convert, I'll be a Jew...who is 30-some years behind in learning.

    I think it's good to celebrate the milestones. I try to celebrate even the little steps forward I make because life is more about "doing" than "achieving." The "doing" is what we spend most of our time in.

    The people who successfully train for and finish marathons aren't the ones who only think about making it to the finish line. They're the ones who think about the running they are doing at mile 5...the finish line...and their next race after this one. :)

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  2. A person may feel the same, but some folks may look at that person with different eyes. All of a suddden the person is regarded as a member of the club, that they "belong". Now they officially recognize you as a Jew, whereas before they were like a litle mixed about you, perhaps you belong and perhaps you don't, outsider vs. insider.

    I was wondering: who are your conversion/sponsoring Rabbis, which shuls do you go to? Perhaps you could write a post about this if it's not too private. Some of us here may be interested in perhaps learning with the Rabbis you learn with. Thank you.

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  3. One idea I recently heard is to keep a Gratitude Journal - every day write down one thing that happened that you are grateful for. There are also a lot of goals you can set for Torah learning. I know you have that 4-volume work on the Melachos of Shabbos, maybe try to read a set number of pages every day. I also think it's very important that every Jew should read through Nach (Neviim and Kesuvim/the Prophets and the Writings). I think if you read 2 chapters a day, you finish in a little over a year. I personally recommend "The Living Nach" series. I think a Jew should be able to say he's read the whole Bible. It's a shame that so many Orthodox Jews couldn't tell you whether the Book of Joel is in Tanach or in the New Testament.*

    Oh, and once again, Mazal Tov on completing your conversion!

    *The book of Joel (Yoel) is in Tanach - it's one of the Trei Asar (The book of Twelve Prophets).

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  4. Anonymous:I'm sorry, but I don't discuss my beit din, my rabbis, or where I live. However, I can still answer your question: I didn't learn with a rabbi. I am entirely self-taught, minus some clarification questions to friends and rabbis or seeking a ruling from a rabbi (just as most born Jews would approach an issue). However, even batei din that require a formal learning process generally don't require a candidate to learn from a rabbi. Any knowledgeable member of the community (ideally, someone of the same gender) can teach a conversion candidate. The only qualification, in my opinion, is that the mentor have the humility to say "I don't know" or "I'm not sure," rather than passing off uncertain answers as gospel truth. So you could learn from that guy who's always first to shul every morning, the lady who lives next door, your friend's parent. Don't worry so much about WHO to learn from, just keep learning, especially through experience. Theoretical knowledge can really hold you back in Judaism when it hasn't been applied practically. (In other words, you can memorize Shmirath Shabbath, but that won't help you in the first month or two of observing Shabbat. You'll still be lost. You just have to do it, and then look back on what went well and what didn't, and get advice tailored to your specific life and habits.)

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  5. I think what Redacted said was perfect: celebrate the milestone and then continue to strive and learn more. Afterall, one thing that all derechs of Judaism believe, whether you're Sephardi, Chassidic, Litvisch or any other group, is that we should continually strive to better ourselves and refine our middot and avodat Hashem.

    Also, while I can't speak for b'nei mitzvot or newly married couples, I definitely felt different coming out of the mikveh. I attribute it to a variety of reasons but you'll see what I mean when your day comes.

    Be sure to celebrate it with your friends and family if possible and enjoy the feeling...the hard work will come later when the yetzer hara starts to get involved and you have the "let down" (G-d forbid) that Redacted was talking about. That is when the real work begins.

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  6. Gary: I would caution you about saying things like, "I definitely felt different coming out of the mikveh. I attribute it to a variety of reasons ***but you'll see what I mean when your day comes.***" I'll preface my following comments with the fact that my mikvah was yesterday.

    I know dozens of converts, and I've read/followed many more. I know that a majority of converts (including myself both times, so far) don't really feel different coming out of the mikvah. This kind of comment presumes that something must be wrong with your conversion if you didn't feel different. Maybe you're not spiritual enough or maybe you had the wrong intentions. Let me tell you my theory: I don't feel any different because I am who I always was. My conversion just means that the community recognizes me for who I have always been: a Jew. So while I am not different, the difference is in how others in the community perceive me. I think comments like that are a leading cause of post-mikvah let-down and depression. It's a worm that wiggles its way into your mind, that doubt. The yetzer hara uses those kind of comments to make us doubt that maybe we were wrong, maybe we shouldn't be here, maybe there's something wrong with us that made the conversion "not stick." So I cannot support such statements being made on my blog. They are unproductive and at least somewhat condescending.

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    1. First off: Mazal Tov!

      Secondly, my apologies for coming off as condescending that was not my intention. I appreciate your point about the yetzer hara using those comments to make us doubt ourselves; I was merely trying to be encouraging but I see now that my words could plant doubts in people's minds.

      May you go from strength to strength and Shabbat Shalom.

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    2. Gary, I'm sorry you stepped into a pet peeve :) Thank you for your well-wishes!

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    3. Mazal tov!!!!!

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    4. The difference is only in how the community perceives you? That really doesn't make sense. You weren't Jewish before, you are Jewish now. You almost make it seem like the mikvah process is done for show and community approval....care to explain?

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    5. Any comment that ends "...care to explain?" sounds like trolling and douchebaggery. Your question is just intended to start a fight.

      It is a widely-discussed idea of the Sages that converts are born with a Jewish soul, which must be "recognized" as existing by the rabbis and community. Also, that is how I described MY experience (and the experience of many others), not as some doctrinal position. Good grief. We're a legalistic society and religion, and much depends on community recognition. This is not a revolutionary idea, and you chose to take the most ridiculous and unfavorable interpretation possible.

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    6. I apologize. I was not looking to start a fight at all. I actually tagged on the "care to explain" because I was seriously interested in hearing your response. I'm not familiar with what the Sages have said about converts and so I asked what I thought was a legitimate question. No offense meant and I apologize. I appreciate your response.

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    7. Ugh, I'm sorry I jumped on you then. I was trolled through email with hateful language on the same question, so I thought it was one of them trying to bring the hate into the public sphere.

      So to treat your question seriously, as I said, it was a description of my experience, not a doctrinal position. And it is disputed, but there are many opinions that converts are born with a Jewish soul. The idea is that only someone with a Jewish soul could make it through the process without being discouraged, so the process could be intended, theoretically, as a means to "recognize" those with the right soul. Most will at least say there is a "Jewish spark" in the soul that has a similar effect.

      But the main point is this: not everyone has a life-changing moment in the mikvah. As a friend joked, "I was changed when I went to the mikvah. I went in warm and dry and came out wet and cold." For some, it's a great spiritual moment, but for others, they remember choking on the water, having chlorine sting their eyes for hours afterwards, or the embarrassment of not being warned that the rabbis would watch the immersion (with appropriate modesty accommodations, but it's still a shocker if you don't know it's coming!).

      That doesn't change that the mikvah is necessary and SHOULD BE necessary. It's a clear, defining moment. Like I said, we're a legalistic religion. And if nothing else, something as clear as the mikvah allows us to know exactly WHEN a person becomes "Jewish" so that we can determine the status of children born afterwards or when the person is "ok" for dating and marriage. Psychologically, there are those who say it's important as a kind of "re-birth" in womb-like surroundings. After the mikvah, we have to change our perspective about ourselves, finally being able to say, "I'm a Jew" and being able to take the next step in life, whatever that is. If nothing else, we must remember that, Jewish soul or not, the mitzvot aren't binding on us until after the mikvah. We must change our perspective in the mikvah, since conversion candidates often become frustrated, thinking that their mitzvot "don't matter" or that they're "playing Jewish." That can be very frustrating, and the mikvah provides a clear distinction for how we should relate to the mitzvot.

      On the other hand, there definitely IS a difference in how the community perceives you afterwards. I think we all experience it (or notice it) to differing levels, but now we are full participants in the community, especially if we're now date-able. It could even be as subtle as a new admiration or respect. There's also the more public difference that show that the community sees us differently: we can receive an aliyah, we can be dated, we can cook foods for our friends. Even close friends may subconsciously view you differently. It's not necessarily a positive or negative change (though it can be in individual circumstances), but it's a change that can be very noticeable.

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  7. I think I might disagree with you a little bit; I almost never do, so forgive me. I am expecting that I will feel different after the mikvah - not shiny, happy, everything's-a-basket-of-puppies different - but it should be a deeply spiritual and profound experience (IY"H).  That should change you, yes?

    I do agree that you are not then just done.  (Hurrah!  I'm official, now I can just coast. No more pesky book learnin' fer me.) 

    Sir Winston Churchhill's famous quote comes to mind: "Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. but it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning..."

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    1. I'm totally fine with substantive disagreement :) I agree that should change you, but I think it's rarely so immediate. I think that it hits you much later, and when you least expect it. It could be years!

      BTW, I am SO adopting your "everythings-a-basket-full-o-puppies" statement.

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  8. Btw, I also just wanted to say that I enjoy reading your blog and hope that you'll continue to write such great posts.

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  9. So you went "both times" to the mikvah, that means you converted Orthodox, finished? Conversion 2.o is complete now too? This would be worthy of a separate post on the blog. Mazal tov!

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  10. I agree with the sentiment. I was at a joint conversion class that has converts from Recontsructionist, Reform and Conservative movements. I am converting Conservative and we plan on keeping and are mostly keeping a Conservodox esque home. So there are often views presented that do not mesh with my own, which is okay, everyones path to HaShem is sacred, in my own opinion. There was a Reform Rabbi that said he doesn't tell converts when they are ready. When you feel Jewish you are ready. I turned to my friend and said well take me to the mikveh!

    The first time I felt Jewish was when I was walking and saw a beautiful sunset behind a tree- the tree looked like it was on fire! My first instinct was to utter a berakhah. I said it in Hebrew for what I knew and the rest in English, then laughed out loud. Surely I looked crazy laughing in the middle of a busy sidewalk. However, I realized all my fears about ever truly being and feeling Jewish were unfounded and that feeling has really left since.

    I don't think the Mikveh, while a beautiful ritual, will change that feeling. I am excited for it but it does not magically transform me into a Jew.

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  11. Anonymous asking about my conversion: Yes, it was done yesterday. I wasn't sure if/when/how I wanted to reveal it on the blog. If I do write about it, I don't expect it to be for at least a week or so. I think I should take some time to let things "sink in" and give me some space to consider the experience objectively. But it was wonderful and went well, BH!

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  12. Congratulations!!! Mazal tov!

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  13. B"H

    Mazal tov Kochava! Welcome to the tribe. Will you or have you considered attending seminary now that you're Gerus is complete?

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    1. I consider attending seminary, but I don't see it being in the cards now or in the near future. Perhaps never.

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    2. Why not?

      Somewhat curious as to why you never did consider going to Seminary.

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  14. You did it! Amen, selah! (AutoCorrect just changed that last word to "delay", which is usually the case).

    Today is the first day of the rest of your life. Onward!
    --Curmudge

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  15. Congrats!!! : D Whoopee!!! Looking forward to your next post on the mikve, as all your new posts.

    If you have any time after that, could you write a post about Jews entering churches? I have heard that this is not permitted in Orthodox communities (although I also heard that an Orthodox rabbi caused a stir for joining President Obama an interfaith service in a church). Must an Orthodox conversion candidate promise and be willing to not attend friend or family weddings and funerals, if they're held in a church? Could he/she be part of a wedding party? Must he/she never again enter a church to see art?

    Again I wish you well and congrats

    BB

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    1. BB, that is the sort of question best asked face-to-face of a sympathetic, sensitive, qualified LOR (Local Orthodox Rabbi). Although the general rule may be indisputably true, the circumstances may be important. The applied answer may differ among individuals and situations. This is true for any sensitive halachic questions.

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  16. Whoa, Nelly! You can't just slip this dunky-dunky-mikvah news in the comments section!!! I might have missed it!

    Mazel tov, Kochava! I'm so excited for you! We want details! Lots of details!

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  17. When my brother got smicha, his beit din had a conversion to complete afterwards. He was told that if he wanted to wait, he was welcome to join the beit din and the woman who was converting for pizza.

    So I guess in deepest Brooklyn, one should go to pizza after mikva...

    Mazal tov.

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  18. congratulations!
    -Katherine

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  19. @Brother Ira: "join..the woman who was converting for pizza."
    I could understand converting for chinese on Christmas...

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  20. About visiting a chuch - even in Orthodoxy there are disputes over this, especially with respect to family events. IME the less familiar the person you ask is with converts, the more certain the response will be that it is totally forbidden. This is even true of rabbis.

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  21. Mazel tov!!! :D

    One of my favorite quotes from a song is from Green Day. "Every new beginning comes from some other beginning's end." It's seems particularly true in this case.

    Congratulations and toda raba on your new beginning!

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  22. "Once you reach the mikvah, what becomes your new goal?"

    Chuppah?

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  23. Thank you for sharing so much of your journey with others. It is encouraging and educational for those of us in a similar place.

    Mazal tov!

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  24. Skylar, mazel tov on officially becoming an Orthodox Jew. I imagine in your case, the answer would probably be more akin to "start really living life" since it seems like in many ways (from your blog entries) you've been in sort of a holding pattern until your conversion went through. Apart from that though, I think you learn to start really seeing yourself as officially Jewish, incontrovertibly so, and beyond that, just continue learning and continue to grow in your Jewish identity. That's my only real goal once I reach the mikvah, because really, what else is there? Continual growth is, to me, an integral part of what it means to be Jewish. I don't expect to feel somehow transformed by my dip, but I hope that my overall trajectory will be that of growth and learning.

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  25. What do you do now? That's easy - live your life. If conversion was such a fun journey, why end it? Just keep preparing for the conversion without converting to perpetuate the experience. So mazel tov on your halachic conversion, and go and live your life - kosher.

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  26. I felt different after my Conversion/Affirmation (Patrilineal Jew), like it was now legitimate for me to cover my head and to wear a Magen David around my neck without hiding it under my clothes. I was finally 'Halachakly correct' and felt like a weight had been lifted off my shoulder. It didn't change my inner self because I was raised Jewish but it validated me in my community which had a huge impact on my observance. I felt like I was really part of the Tribe. ☺

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  27. Your blog is great!
    I converted many years ago, and , i was so excited , so full of energy and joy,that i was a complete different human being, I started jumping and dancing like crazy,talking to Hashem. it was most probably one of the happiest days in my life comparable to some degree to other milestones,like when having the kids, getting married
    and yes, After conversion I started learning much much more ,i had the incredible zchus to spend learning in yeshivah and kollel for 6 years,
    conversion is not the end, it should be the beginning of a personal relationship with Hashem, therefore just as we have to eat and drink to survive, we have to feed our neshama with learning nigle and I find chassidus incredible to establish a meaningful and real connection with Hashem,and not be just a technical jew

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