Sunday, December 1, 2013

Exposing the Emotional Abuse of Conversion Candidates

This Tuesday, I'm giving my very first lecture: Light in the Darkness: Emotional Abuse in the Conversion Process. I need your help: what do you wish people knew about the conversion process, specifically the potential for emotional abuse?

My own conversion process is linked to Chanukah because I got "the call" eruv Shabbat Chanukah (late Friday afternoon) 2 years ago. I was so depressed by my situation and had lost hope. I was sure that the bullies would win and that I'd be converting until I was 30. (I was 27 at the time.) My roommate assured me that the time of Chanukah would bring light for me, and she was so very right. I saw the light at the end of the tunnel, even though the conversion couldn't be finalized for several more weeks because of holiday travel.


Though emotional abuse is hard to define, it seems like "you know it when you see it." However, I found a passable definition for emotional abuse on Wikipedia: "Form of abuse characterized by a person subjecting or exposing another to behavior that may result in psychological trauma, including anxiety, chronic depression, or post-traumatic stress disorder. Such abuse is often associated with situations of power imbalance, such as abusive relationships, bullying, and abuse in the workplace."

Do you think that accurately reflects the emotional abuse that happens in the community? What do you think is the cause and how can we cure it? 

I think the problem is best summed up by something I wrote almost 3 years ago when I faced my own brick wall: The Monster that Orthodox Conversion Has Become (wow, that post needs an update!)
The world Jewish community and Jewish politics have caused a "frummer than you" approach to conversion where the meaner, harder, and more demoralizing [beit din] is considered to be giving a "superior" conversion that no one will question. In essence, if you're willing to suffer actual emotional abuse, you REALLY must have been sincere!

25 comments:

  1. I do believe that the definition you quote above is accurate. The emotional abuse in the conversion process is insidious, you don't notice it until it has built up to the point of anxiety and depression. Or at least, that has been my experience. This is then followed by general frustration, anger, and feeling like you have no control over your future. I believe that the process could be improved with a more organized approach. This would involve clear, concrete goals (for knowledge and practice) for a start. I also believe that the whole "the frummer the better" approach is a terrible approach because it forces people into molds that their identities are not ready for. This whole process is about forming a new identity that aligns with both a religion and an ethnicity, that kind of process cannot happen in 1-2 years or even 3. I believe the very beginnings of that identity can occur in 1-2 years and it's important to finalize a conversion when this identity is a new/enjoyable experience. That way, when the doubts/questions/ugly things in Judaism surface/come (which they do) that identity is firm and you are experiencing the same ebbs and flows that any other practicing Jew occasionally struggles with. When you have to confront those things AND know that you're not good enough *yet* in the eyes of a BD, it's crushing to work through those thoughts and feelings. BD's need to have more faith in the people who choose to go down this path. Give people the benefit of the doubt, there will always be bad eggs no matter how long or involved this process becomes. Converts are supposed to be treated kindly and supported, the conversion process and common attitudes towards converts show the opposite. I believe that I am doing the right thing for me by converting, I love SO much about Judaism, but some days the weight of the conversion process is crushing (mentally and emotionally).

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    1. Conversion 2.0 (orthodox) was January 12, 2012.

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  3. After 3 years of hard work and countless tears, last year I gave up on my Orthodox Conversion. I'd moved, put my children in Orthodox day school, learned Hebrew, covered my hair, I was cooking kosher and constantly studying. I even traveled to Israel to study for a while. At every turn, I did everything I was asked to...and more.

    However, no matter what my family and I did, the bar kept getting raised higher and the dates for our BD meetings would get pushed back. We were lied to at times and misled at others, constantly being put through ordeals in order to "prove" our sincerity and constantly this was justified with stories of converts who had fallen "off the derech" in one way or another. We were supposed to believe that it was their fault that we were made to suffer longer.

    Finally, I found myself alone on Pesach, in tears at another holiday where my family was excluded and somehow not good enough to be invited to join in celebrations. The latest ordeal we were faced with was accepting that our children could be sent away if they weren't frum enough, shipped off to private school at the command of our Rabbi, something no born Jew would have to agree to unless they wanted to.

    I realized we'd never be fully accepted. We'd always have to be frummer than the person next door or risk having our conversions questioned. We'd always be judged to a different standard than other Jews. We'd always live in fear of losing our halakhic status, even for things that born Jews are free to do, free to make mistakes.

    We decided we'd had enough tears. Our children were not a sacrifice we were willing to make. I took off my sheitel and we ended the process. Life since then hasn't been easy. At each turn, we're unsure of who we are anymore. We aren't halakhically Jewish, but we also aren't really fully goyim, either. We celebrate the Jewish holidays alone. We tried a Reform Synagogue and it just didn't fit. We all miss being Orthodox, but not the mindgames that we had to endure.

    If we could complete the conversion without all the head games and then be allowed to simply be Orthodox, like any other Orthodox family...I'd go back in a heartbeat...but that just isn't possible. Not now anyway.

    My family suffered so much...just because we sincerely wanted to be Jews. My children, husband, and I have all shed tears and felt the pain. Now we just focus on healing and taking care of each other and we wait for the day this process is cleaned up and hope that there will be a time we can start again, minus the abuse.

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    1. Hi,

      I so much feel for you. I am in a similar situation (minus family), waiting years and years to hear more than "well, we'll see" from the orthodox rabbi, never being invited, never "good enough" to participate in anything. I have given up on orthodox conversion now and am pursuing a liberal conversion even though I also do not feel at home in this community. But I want to have something more than "well, I am not really Jewish, but I celebrate Jewish holidays." Even if I know that in the eyes of orthodox Jews I will not be Jewish, in the eyes of many Jews I will be and that is legitimation enough for me to raise my (future) kids Jewishly. I'm not saying this way is for everyone, but it has brought me greater peace of mind already even though my conversion is not finished yet.

      I wish you strength and may better times come when you can pursue your dreams the way you want to.
      wk

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    2. Orthodox Jews are not the official spokespeople for Judaism, although many think that they are. If you study the biblical sources relating to conversion you will find that the typical Orthodox way really has little to do with what Hashem has expressed about conversion, as well as how conversions were handled throughout most of Jewish history. Orthodox Jews are not the ones you need to worry about impressing. Better to worry about what Hashem expects of you.

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  4. I am sorry to read how you and your family were treated. I do not know what beit din and rabbi was overseeing this process. I can tell you that as an observant Jew I am quite embarrassed by the behavior of some groups. So-called "Orthodox" Judaism is so splintered among the various groups that I can barely recognize it. You and your family would probably be happier if you pursued conversion through modern orthodoxy rather than those groups still stuck in 18th century eastern Europe. Good luck!

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  5. Things to share with people interested in conversion? I think the most important thing to share is that there are different types of conversions, and so long as they are done in accordance with Halacha, then they are valid in the eyes of Hashem and THAT is what matters. It is worth noting that extra stringency and mind games that many Beis Dins employ are NOT from halacha.

    This is a very good article worth reading. It is long, but worth one's time. It is written by an Orthodox Rabbi in Manhattan, although, I hear that the Orthodox community does not recognize his conversions anymore. http://www.jewishideas.org/min-hamuvhar/conversion-judaism-halakha-hashkafa-and-histori

    My wife and I spend a couple of years and thousands of dollars with an Orthodox conversion program. It was horrible. Anything and everything was a test, and questions were seen as indicators of our commitment. How can one learn if they are not comfortable asking questions? The issue that finalized our decision to abandon the Orthodox conversion was when we expressed anxiety over wanting children and running out of fertile years while getting no feedback as to how our studies are going and how long to expect it to take. The answer was simply it takes as long as it takes, and if we weren't willing to potentially miss out on the opportunity to have children then we were not serious about converting. Rather that sitting down to talk to us about our anxiety it was made black and white; "get over it or leave the program." We wanted to discuss it, perhaps gain insight into the source of our anxiety, etc. but the rabbis on the Beis Din would not return our calls or written correspondence. Our sponsor rabbi, an Untra Orthodox rabbi who we studied with regularly, also tried to speak to the Beis Din rabbis on our behalf, but they refused him as well. Finally one of the teachers from the program said bluntly that they don't want to talk to you, they just want to see if you'll come back. We didn't, and we never looked back.

    We joined a Conservative conversion program, and successfully completed it. Although our religious philosophy more closely resembles Orthodoxy, we are more than very satisfied with the Conservative congregation we belong to. And frankly, I lost all respect for the Orthodox "leaders" in my city, and for Beis Din's that operate like them.

    A side story that I would like to share has to do with money; conversions for sale. I have seen too many people get quick and easy Orthodox conversions even though they were and are non-observant because they are filthy rich. I was at an event where one of those Beis Din rabbi's who refused to return my phone calls was attending, as well as a successful Orthodox convert who didn't observe before conversion, and still doesn't after conversion. She is, however, worth tens if not hundreds of millions of dollar. As she walked into the room the rabbi ran to greet her and welcome her to the event, etc. It was pathetic. It seems to me that if one is rich enough there are a whole separate set of rules.

    I have no doubt that by leaving the Orthodox community we made the right choice for us, for our children (yes, we are now parents) and we feel very close to Hashem.

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  6. "Do you think that accurately reflects the emotional abuse that happens in the community? What do you think is the cause and how can we cure it? "

    I forgot to address this in my previous post.

    Yes, "emotional abuse" is a good choice of words.

    The cause? Many Beis Dins are pressured into behaving the way they do by the Rabanut in Israel who will put their rabinic reputations and their Beis Dins into question if they do things other ways. The Rabanut may not say out right to abuse the poor people, but some take the requirement to be really strict to the extreme. Arrogance and ignorance on the part of the Beis Din rabbis are also factors in their behavior. And some people are also just natural bullies and who abuse their power for their own twisted reasons.

    The cure? Speaking out, especially by religious leaders. Educating potential converts of what Halacha really says about conversion. And as for Beis Dins that are just over the top abusive, shaming would be appropriate.

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    1. What is appropriate is for all of the sweet, righteous people on this site to start acting with strength and confidence and to truly be "Israel." The Hebrew definition of "Israel" is one who struggles and fights with God/Power/Injustice. He/She is active, a fighter, someone willing to "Cross over."
      In practice this means that we should not be passive and come as beggars to the shuls. Instead, we come "from strength to strength." We do not need them. They need us. They do not judge us, we judge them. Walk into the shul and offer to teach them a class! And we need to say that to them very loudly and strongly. To the point, with or without the shul, we quickly should learn and master the basic books of Judaism and Hebrew. Study them as if it was for the most important exam of your life. Know the laws of Geirut better than them! Know Judaism and Jewish History better than them! Then have fun !!! Say the Shema and Amidah every day at their appropriate times. Start celebrating Shabbot at your house. Invite friends over. Make sure that you have prepared quick little five minute talks about the Torah portion and Derech Eretz (Being kind, having common courtesy), have a huge amount of geshmach (delicious) food, some Vodka, and lots of songs like the ones that Chabad sing at their tables. If you do this every week and keep on learning and davening (praying) you will be Israel. Then, sooner or later, the courts will recognize you because you will already have done what you need to do. To be blunt, the Beis Din bullies you because you are acting like wimps and like passive people who really don't belong in the Hebrew Israel religion. If you are this interested in Yiddishkeit it is because you already have a Yiddishe Neshama ( a Jewish Soul) and that means that you are a spiritual Giant among men descended from the righteous remnant of those who stated at Mount Sinai, "We will do and we will hear.". Judaism is for winners, for people willing to argue and fight and "make their own souls" like Avraham, Jacob, Sarah, Moshe; even like wily, political Joseph.
      Ask yourself, what would Isiah,Jeremiah or Rabbi Hillel, have done if they saw such disgusting, cruel and idolatrous behavior by the Beis Dins and their associated Rabbis? Do you think they would have sealed their lips, resigned to their fate, and limped off to the Judean Hills to sob and tend to their wounds?
      No, they would have strived to become leaders in a place where there are no leaders.
      There is a very large group of people who have done this and are doing it right now. We are doing it with the advice and help of real Rabbis (who might not live in our own community) and Sadekeem that love the fact that we are "choosing life," and choosing Torah.
      If you need help getting started, please feel free to contact us. We will give you all of the materials and teach you Hebrew for free. There is no application form or fee.
      Bekavod veheem ahavah cheenam, (with respect and with unconditional love)







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  7. I do wish people would name names of the abusive rabbis and bet-dins. There are people who care, and who would attempt to help.

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    1. If people did, I might not be able to publish the comment. I am hesitant to publish any names or organizations if I can't personally verify the information.

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  8. This...http://kolbishaerva.wordpress.com/2013/05/01/three-men-and-a-mikvah-part-1/

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    1. Thanks for sharing this! I have never heard of such a thing happening, how awful!

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  9. Does anyone go through a "normal" respectful conversion process anymore? I'd like to hear about it if anyone has a good story to share about a recent conversion. When I was studying for orthodox conversion back in 2003, I had the most amazing, challenging yet inspirational experience thanks to the awesome Rabbi I was privileged to learn from. I hate to think that such experiences no longer exist. I hate to think of Rabbi's doing their best to hurt people. You've got to be kidding me. That's more than disappointing. People aren't suppose to get a bad taste in their mouth when they think about Rabbi's. Rabbis' going out of their way to hurt people who are coming to them for guidance? Really? Oh no, what's next?

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    1. That is an excellent question! While I don't think everyone would say they went through "emotional abuse," I would say the overwhelming majority would say they experienced rudeness, arbitrariness, or a disregard for their emotions at one or more points. Based on what I hear from others, I would say that a majority of people (whether that's a big majority or not, I don't know) would say that the conversion process wasn't "inspirational" or "amazing." I don't even think they would go as far as to say "pleasant." But I don't think even the emotional abuse is intended to be abusive in the great majority of cases. However, that's a longer discussion than I can type right now! I'll think about your question for a bit and try to write a full post on it because I think it's important to discuss.

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    2. Our second go at conversion was actually quite pleasant and a wonderful experience. We learned lots, we asked lots of questions, and we were never made to feel that our devotion was being questioned simply because we had questions or doubts throughout the process. A conversion is a radical change in ones identity. How could one go through that without questioning all kinds of things along the way? Our rabbi knew we were committed because he took the time and made the effort to get to know us, not because he used arbitrary tests. We were able to learn so much because we were in an environment where we could be open and honest about our experience as we went through it. The Beis Din was down to earth (for the most part) and made the entire thing feel like a process, not a test. The mikva felt like a rebirth, not a reward. The community was so welcoming. It was a remarkable experience. A polar opposite to our first experience.

      Rest assured, Anonymous, there are still respectful people doing conversions, but one's access to them probably depends on where one lives. Fortunately I live in a place that has options. I only wish I had the wisdom to fully explore the options from the get go. Instead my first choice was to go with what I believed was the strictest conversion because I assumed it would be the most widely accepted. I have since learned that no matter how one converts there will always be people who will cast a doubt and reject the conversion. If the conversion is done in accordance with halacha then that is all that really matters. Everything else is just bias and ignorance.

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    3. My conversion experience was normal and respectful, but I underwent a Conservative conversion, and my impression is that a lot of the worst abuses that often come up here are much rarer in heterodox circles because the power dynamic isn't nearly as lopsided as it is when one is dealing with the current Orthodox conversion system. It's somewhat ironic that the very thing some people attempted to hold over my head when I decided against an Orthodox conversion (namely, "Well, then, some people will never consider you Jewish!") has proven to be quite liberating in this regard, in that I wasn't under pressure to knuckle down and just accept whatever someone told me or conform to arbitrary standards within my community that had nothing to do with halacha and everything to do with conforming at all costs because failure to do so might cost me years in postponements by my beit din or even the entire conversion.

      That being said, my rabbi had handled conversions before, he was familiar with some of the common issues, and he took the time to get to know me well enough to know where I was in good shape, Jewishly-speaking, and where I needed to be pushed beyond my comfort zone. I actually do think that generally speaking, heterodox rabbis tend to be better at handling this stuff because they see more converts- my impression (which may or may not be accurate) is that a lot of Orthodox rabbis really don't understand how to handle converts or deal with issues that are specific to people who have converted or are in the process of converting and, in some unfortunate cases, don't particularly care to learn how to better address these situations. The same goes for the batei din in question. And in a lot of communities, other converts, if there are any, are hesitant to step forward and offer encouragement, assistance or advice for fear of highlighting their own status as a convert, which may not be advisable, depending on the community in question.

      I'm sure there are Orthodox rabbis and batei din out there who are kind, helpful and sympathetic to conversion candidates, but as the Israeli rabbinate gets increasingly crazy with their own demands and continues to revoke conversions in contravention of halacha, diaspora rabbis and batei din are increasingly paranoid about ensuring that their conversion candidates are as committed as possible, will never slip up or go off the derech, et cetera. I find the whole thing very depressing, and I can't help but wonder how many potentially great Jews leave the process entirely because of these abuses (and, similarly, how many end up abandoning Orthodoxy in favor of other denominations). I think in this instance, the cadre of rabbis and batei din who insist on ever-increasing stringency in conversion requirements are actually doing the Orthodox community a real disservice.

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  10. On the whole, my conversion process was not traumatic in the ways that I have heard from other converts. However, the clear imbalance of power, the fact that information is often hidden or not clearly communicated, and the reality that no court, no matter how sympathetic can really understand things from the perspective of the convert, makes this situation difficult even in the best of times. I know that I came off lightly in many ways. I didn't have aggressive questioning at Biet Din meetings, I wasn't forced to constantly defend my commitment to Judaism, and my converting rabbi was allowed to speak to my preparation and commitment so the actual biet din meetings were short and pleasant. Still, the process took nearly two years, delays were inevitable and often not explained, and at one point the entire process was nearly derailed when I planned on moving to a nearby community (and almost bought a house) and the court "decided" that if this happened, I'd have to start over with a new Biet Din. For the MOST part I don't think the abuses are intentional. I think that communication is lacking, and that the Biet Din is not sensitive to the needs of the convert, or what, exactly is at stake emotionally (and financially). However the perfect power that the local Biet Din, and the perfect monopoly of power that exists, allows those who have this tendency to be deliberately abusive to converts out of a sense of moral superiority, or keeping the faith "pure".

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  11. My spouse had 2 conversions -- Reform and traditional -- both were lovely in their own ways. Both rabbis were supportive, informative, and amazingly kind. When he tried an Orthodox conversion, it was costly--in terms of time and money. I was only too delighted when he abandoned this line of inquiry. I was just appalled at the abuse.

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  12. Scary stuff. I met with the Rabbi who will oversea my conversion a couple of weeks ago. I asked him outright about emotional abuse and who to turn to in case of need.

    He replied it doesnt happen ( ha ha ) in his Beth Din and if I become aware of it to speak up.

    I have no problem doing that ( am a forensic psychologist ) and if I do see patterns forming I will do something about it, even at the cost of not being able to complete my conversion.

    My view is, one day they will stand before HaShem and HE can deal with them

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  13. I am a mature Canadian woman adding my two cents...

    It seems to me that as long as Orthodox conversions remain unstructured and therefore highly subjective in nature, there will be room for mishaps and hurt feelings. Add to the mix the fact that the Rabbis are trying to imposed black and white halacha onto people who are going through a very emotionally and spiritually challenging time in their lives and you have a formula for inconsistency and potential disaster.

    I myself have been on this road for over two years, and I have yet to finalise who my sponsoring Rabbi will be. The fault lies not in the Rabbis themselves, as I refuse to settle for less than anyone who is both emotionally AND intellectually intelligent, and who is willing to acknowledge the high price I paid to follow this path. ALONE, I might add. The fault, in my experience, often lies in the words and behavior of people within the community who feels entitled to "add their two cents" or lead you on a confusing path, all with the goal of "testing" your ccommitment to the process. I call them Self Appointed Gatekeepers. These are the people who will outright lie to you about what to expect during a conversion, will play social head games with you, publicly humiliate you, then purposely ignore you. They might even be your teachers, as they were mine. With time I learnt to recognise such people, and to let their unwelcome advise and behavior slide off me like water off a ducks back. Of course I shed many tears until I developed the strength and wisdom to do so. I see their lips flapping, but I no longer hear what they are saying. lol!

    The mistakes that I have made in my journey which led to a great deal of emotional pain (Abuse? you decide!) were times where I let others guide me against my better instincts and judgement. My advise: above all, HONOR YOURSELF. As Steve Jobs says, you will never regret following your heart, as conversion is a matter of the heart, and hence the soul. How can we ever expect others, particularly MALE Rabbis, however well intentioned, to understand the tenderness and vulnerability of a woman's heart as she undergoes this metamorphosis? By his very nature, as a man, he cannot. I say, as a daughter of HaShem, recognise his limitations and move on. :-)

    I wonder how often people here who have shared their heartbraking stories ever got down on their knees and prayed to HaShem to open doors that were closed or to make straight their winding path? To trust in man alone to faciliate your conversion is to negate the very reason why anyone genuinely wants to convert in the first place. Would HaShem call you to this path to then abandon you? Surely not.

    Is it not because you love HaShem, above all else wish to live by His precepts, and intend to spend the rest of your life striving after Him? THAT is sincerity. And NO ONE can take that away from you, not even your local Beit Din. So if your goals in conversion are to please HaShem by "coming home", then trust he will give you the strength to overcome the inadequacies of the feeble men who oversee the process. And if you dont have the strength to forgive, to get back up on your feet again, then pray and ask for it! Trust me, it will come :-)

    And if you hail from a Christian background, then rest on the words of that unnamable Jew who once said ...

    "Forgive them Father, for they know not what they do."

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  14. "Do you think that accurately reflects the emotional abuse that happens in the community? What do you think is the cause and how can we cure it?"

    I think (speaking/writing as a convert myself) how one defines an "occurrence of emotional abuse" depends upon the person's perspective and level of maturity at the time of the occurrence. People who go through the conversion process are generally more idealistic in their approach to Judaism, and have expectations and the desire to be accepted in the community that they have now become a part of. These factors tend to lead to an greater emotional vulnerability (and self-consciousness/self-focus), especially when others are less than sensitive to their need for acceptance.

    As to the cause? Not sure, since every situation is different. As for the cure? A person should start with themselves, by not looking to others for affirmation or acceptance, not only within the religious community, but outside it as well. Instead, the focus should be to develop one's potential.


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  15. I converted over 8 years ago and was emotionally abused by my rabbi. He made promises he didn't keep, he came on to me and accused me of coming on to him and told his wife that, then changed his mind about helping me, then ignored me, then felt guilty and sent me to the bet din and I converted. He tried to make me think I was crazy and at one point demanded I enter into deep psychotherapy before I converted. I refused and he kept telling me I needed therapy (he has since fallen off the derech but goes to therapy himself). After converting. I married what I thought was a nice man (short engagement of course) who turned out to be emotionally abusive as well but I didn't know it was emotional abuse until I read Lisa Twerski's book, "Confused, Am I Being Abused." In that book she discusses the emotional abuse in orthodox jewish marriages and the head games these men play with their wives. I finally divorced my husband (escaped) after six years of misery and had to wait 9 months for my get. No one could or would help me because my ex convinced some people in the community that I was CRAZY. And I did act crazy because emotional abuse makes you a wreck. It has been almost two years since the split from my ex and I am still suffering. Therapists tell me they can't believe I survived and still have some love left in my heart. When calls are made to the community about me for a shidduch now, they are told I have deep emotional problems. People in my community think I am off and I guess they are right. I was "off" when I destroyed my previous, what I consider "healthy" life to convert and enter into the sick communities. And they are sick. Let's face it. We are in EXILE and Jews can convince themselves all day long that they are doing well but the painful exile is apparent for all to see. At least it is for me. My only point here is to tell you, YOU THE POTENTIAL CONVERT that if you are suffering now, during the process, GET USED TO IT. It is the Jewish existence now and until Mashiach comes. And it is getting worse. At the end of the day, if you survive, you will end up with iron clad emuna. True bitachon. Hashem saved me, time and time again and He will save you too. Cry out with all your heart and soul!!! It is your only hope.

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    1. Ugh...this makes me so sad :( But I'm so happy that you have such a good attitude and have come so far. Your points are insightful and well-taken. I'll have to check out that book for adding to my book recommendations! Be strong :)

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