Monday, August 26, 2013

Meeting with a Beit Din: What If You "Go Blank"?

So...you finally got a meeting with a conversion beit din! Mazal tov! 

Now the fear really sets in. You know you'll be asked questions about your Jewish lifestyle and knowledge, and you know that you know a lot. Your local rabbi knows you know a lot or he wouldn't be approving you for this next step. It feels like, for the first time, everyone is behind you and wants you to succeed. 

This is when your mind will become your own worst enemy. You become convinced that you're not ready, you're going to fail yourself and your rabbi, and you'll set your conversion back years.

...Or maybe that's just how I think. 

Anecdotally, people consistently mention a similar fear of "messing up" questions. Here's the secret everyone messes up something. Inevitably, it is something inconsequential and something you know as well as the back of your hand. Normally, each person remembers one specific "duhhhhr" moment, but there's no limit to how much nervousness can derail you. 

So now that I've convinced you you're going to screw up in their beit din meeting, let me reassure you. Don't worry, these feelings are normal. I'd be more worried if you felt like you passed with flying colors. 

We're human; we get nervous. Rabbis are also human, and they see enough conversion candidates to know that some flub-ups are normal. What they look for is how you flub up. Your body language gives away a lot of information when you have an answer on the tip of your tongue. On the other hand, if you give a wrong answer cooly and calmly, that tells the rabbis something very different. If you look clueless, it probably means you didn't even see the question being asked. 

The information a rabbi can collect from your mistakes is invaluable. And it's generally for your well-being (it should always be for your well-being, but we know better that there are mean and/or incompetent rabbis in this world). The idea behind a halachic questioning is to probe your knowledge until you run out of information. They keep asking questions on a topic until they reach the limits of your knowledge. That's an excellent way to get a rough estimate of your strengths and weaknesses. 

So don't fear the question you don't know, whether you honestly don't know or whether it's on the tip of your tongue. It's really not a big deal at the end of the day, no matter how crushing it may feel at the time.

Take a deep breathe. Relax. You'll laugh about this later. (And if you're like me, you'll completely forget what it was about! I guess I could search the blog to figure it out, but nah...retroactive ignorance is bliss.)

13 comments:

  1. This is so different from my beit din experience. (Maybe because I'm not Orthodox?) It wasn't a "quiz" about knowledge and facts - my rabbi had made sure I was well-educated on all that beforehand, and I guess didn't need to test me on that in this context. It was questions that didn't have a "right" answer, questions that would give them an understanding of where I've come from, who I am, why I took this journey and where I am on it now, and my intentions for the future. I got questions about my relationship with God, how I connect to the state of Israel as a Jew-by-choice, what I find most challenging on this path, how I plan to live out my Jewishness in my home and everyday life, etc. There was nothing I could "flub up" unless my heart wasn't in the right place. (Such as: "I don't really plan to 'be Jewish' outside of synagogue" or "I don't really care about Israel, it's irrelevant to me.")

    I was still utterly terrified, of course, but that was about feeling vulnerable in exposing my journey to this beit din - what would they think of it? would they think I had come far enough? would they think I'm immature in my development of my Jewish identity and think my intention is sweet but I have far to go? What if they don't think I'm good enough to be part of the Jewish people? What if I disappoint my rabbi by a lack of depth in my response, and I admire my rabbi SO much! etc.

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  2. you should read the rambam about a slave that jumps into the mikvah and shots out leshem ben chorin that becomes Jewish in spite of the fact that the beit din nor his owner wants him to be Jewish

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  3. There are different styles of Beit Dins. It is important to align oneself with a Beit Din one can trust and relate to. The experience my wife and I had when we went before the Beit Din for conversion was overwhelmingly positive. While I'm sure there were "test" questions thrown in, it didn't feel as much like a test as it did a conversation. The Rabbi who lead our program was part of the Beit Din so he introduced us to the others. He knew us quite well from the classes he taught and the services we attended together so having him there made us feel comfortable in the Beit Din setting. We shmoozed about halacha, Jewish philosophy, our level of observance and where we would like to get to with our observance, etc.

    Clearly they had to get a feeling that we were genuine or else they would not have gone through with the conversion. However, what I appreciated was that they the entire experience (from classes to Beit Din) felt more like a process rather than an examination. By the time we got to the Beit Din our Rabbi already had a relationship with us and knew our sincerity. There were no games. No hidden tests along the way that we were aware of. But I know this is not always the case.

    Before affiliating ourselves with this Beit Din we were involved with another and it was a horrible experience. Anything and everything felt like a test of our true commitment. They would say and do rude and nasty things just to see if we were committed enough to stick with it despite that. We got to the point where we were afraid to ask questions because they made us feel that certain questions might indicate that we were not "committed enough." Being scared to ask questions is no way to learn. After a couple of years (and a lot of $$) we realized that the type of Judaism these particular Rabbis were selling was not a type of Judaism we wanted to be a part of. And yes, they were 'selling' it as really wealthy candidates did not have to go through the scrutiny we did.

    If one finds them self in that situation, hopefully you are living in a place where there are other options. It is worth investigating a Beit Din before getting involved. Try to speak to people who have gone through conversions with them and find out what they are all about.

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  4. I went through an Ortho beis din and I got every single one of their questions right. Instead of taking me to the mikvah, they sent me to a different Ortho beis din who they thought was a much better option for me perhaps because it's more well known and they did not let me go through the first beis din. These are all Ortho Beis dins with good reputation, recognized in Israel. Mikvah day is supposed to take place very soon if all goes well and there's a mikvah date set already.

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  5. This is an informative blog by which I have got that info which I really wanted to get. leib tropper

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  6. I have a question: you mentioned in a previous post about going to the mikvah and the difference btw ortho and non-ortho. when you went to the Ortho mikvah in NY, did the mikvah lady check only your back or both back and front and sat in the room with you while you were preparing? Was there any privacy? Thank you so much.

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    1. I had total privacy during my orthodox mikvah prep. The mikvah lady checked my back for fallen hairs. Now that I'm married, the ladies have only checked my back for hairs, and most will ask if I want them to check my hands and feet. I always say yes, but everyone feels differently. No one has ever checked my front. My *conservative* beit din was the awkward one where the lady (a friend) stayed in the bathroom (it was a regular house-style bathroom) with me for some unknown reason.

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    2. Thank you so much. I had the mikvah date. And things went well. I'm done with the conversion process.

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  7. I had a very similar experience to Rachel and Mike's--my rabbi was a part of my beit din and he told me before hand "it's not a test; it's a schmooze. I wouldn't have suggested the mikvah or convened the beit din if I didn't think you were ready." While it was still nerve-wracking and I still managed to cry, there was something really lovely about sharing my journey with someone I knew very well and two new people who were getting to know me for the first time. And getting joyous hugs from all three of them when I'd emerged from the mikvah as Eliava Zoheret was all the more special.

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  8. My beis din didn't ask me or grilled me about my knowledge of halacha or hashkafah. It looked more like a shmuess between friends, just missing some beers. FYI, my beis din was ultra orthodox, Bnei Brak. So it seems to me, that everything depends on the person and the beis din. There is not one type of orthodox conversion. My wife's conversion was very different than mine.

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  9. Off-topic, I know, but I was delighted to meet you at the shiur (sacred studies class/lecture) last night, and hope we'll see each again at future shiurim.

    Shira Salamone
    http://onthefringe_jewishblog.blogspot.com/

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    1. It was really nice to meet you too! I've always liked your blog! (And it's really clever title!)

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