Tuesday, December 24, 2013

The Strength of the Convert

I'm normally all doom and gloom (or so I'm perceived), but do you realize how amazing you are? Really. You. Well... Convert You and Conversion Candidate You. I'm sure the rest of you are amazing too, but we'll discuss it some other time.

Converts are such a great strength to our community, and it should appreciate you. There is dispute over how many times the Torah says that you should love the ger, but 36 is a frequently cited number. Why should the Jewish community love you? (Of course, not all reasons will apply to all people.)


  • Well, for one, you're really good looking.
  • You bring much-needed genetic diversity, especially to the Ashkenazi community.
  • You're often young, and many communities need youth.
  • You bring variety to the shidduch process.
  • You inspire born-Jews to embrace their heritage and see that it has meaning in the modern world.
  • You challenge born-Jews to make the same choice and commitment you made.
  • You reassure frum-from-birth Jews of the value of Torah because (presumably reasonable) people do choose this path without being born into it.
  • You have incredible strength to have chosen this path and stuck with it. Do you realize how much strength that required? Very little is beyond your strength to overcome.
  • If you left the faith of your family, that shows such inner strength, conviction, and fortitude. It takes a lot to leave what is comfortable and what people you love say is "right," in order to find the truth. 
  • Sometimes it takes the same amount of effort and strength when you leave an atheist or secular agnostic background. It is perhaps more humbling to be seen as someone who has "regressed to superstition."
  • Speaking of, you know a thing or two about humility and how to eat humble pie gracefully. 
  • You have a stiff neck thanks to plenty of exercise.
  • You might just raise the next generation to reject "Jewish time" and actually arrive when the invitation says.
  • You bring necessary experience and perspective to the table. Torah discussions are very boring if each person has had the same experience and the same exposure (all wholesome, of course). Some groups may find that to be a worthy goal, but I do not. I think the sufferings, the joy, the relationships we've had all shed fresh light on eternal concepts and help deepen the discussion for everyone so that the Torah can be applied to new experiences. All can be for the good.
  • You bring a perspective of the non-Jewish world that the Jewish community needs.
  • You (but not me) bring a spiritualism and energy to our community and help people realize that a personal relationship with Gd is (the? a?) goal. 
  • You know how wine and cheese should taste and that is helping raise the taste/availability standards in the kosher community. 
  • You know that a restaurant is supposed to please the customer, and that is starting to change too. Though slower.
  • You probably brought us sushi, and I thank you for that with all my heart.
  • You are the closest many Jews will ever get to being a "light to the nations." You may be the only orthodox Jew that your friends or relatives ever meet. That is a tremendous privilege (though it may sometimes feel like a burden).
  • You are probably one of the most committed people in your community, disproportionately volunteering for the community and serving on boards.
  • You have a special role in Gd's plan for the world. Yes, you.
  • You were called, and you answered. 
  • You overcame the doubt, the opposition, the fears, and you have grown in ways many people can only imagine.

You're awesome. Now go get yourself a cookie. You deserve it.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Things Rabbis Are NOT

We've discussed briefly before how a rabbi, scary though he may seem, is a normal person with dreams, faults, anxieties, and other responsibilities. His job responsibilities may be less than clear: What is the Proper Role of a Congregational Rabbi?

But what is he NOT?
  • He's not your friend, sadly. He might become your friend over time, but a conversion candidate needs to always treat a rabbi like you would treat your boss.
  • He's not your confidant. See above. 
  • He may not seem friendly. He might even be unfriendly or temperamental. He may even be a Diva with a capital D.
  • He's not your therapist. He probably has no psychology training.
  • He may not be a good listener.
  • He's probably not a doctor, so make sure you get a doctor's input so he can make better halachic rulings about your health.
  • He may be too busy to answer your questions. After all, unless you're a member, you don't pay his salary. Unless you're engaged to the shul President's child; then you'll get plenty of time.
  • Hopefully he is knowledgeable, but there are no guarantees.
  • If he's unknowledgeable on a topic, he may refuse to admit that and give you rulings that you know have no connection to reality or logic (pets come to mind). Ask someone else, even if you have to go to social media. Don't just take a ruling you know is uninformed.
  • He will most likely not be knowledgeable about the conversion process or conversion-specific halachic questions. 
  • He may not be rational, sane, or mentally stable. Again, there are no guarantees in life.
  • He may not be encouraging, kind, or welcoming. He's got stuff to do and people to see.
  • He may not be the best leader you need for your strengths and weaknesses.
  • He may have no concept of the struggles you face or how this process complicates your life.
  • He may have no understanding of how a halachic ruling may impact your relationship with your non-Jewish family. 
  • He may not appear compassionate or kind.
  • He may be judgmental about the choices you've made and make.
  • He may not like you as a person. He doesn't have to in order to do his job. You might not like him either.

All of these things sound so negative, I know. But when I learned (most of) these lessons, I found it really freeing. At least 90% of the bad interactions in my life have nothing to do with me and everything to do with that person's perspective or emotional state. Those things are out of my control, but I can control how I react to them. And that is the secret for how I maintain(ed) my sanity.

I became very gun-shy of rabbis. But then I moved to NY and befriended many rabbis and rabbis-in-training and realized they're just human beings. Some are awesome, some are ok, and some are best avoided. In the shul and community, the community rabbi is doing his job. It's a job, much like any other, influenced by politics and finances and time restraints. He probably also has a family and hobbies and likes to nap occasionally. So cut the rabbis a little slack sometimes. But also recognize when a rabbi is toxic for you and move on to Plan B. 

You can survive a bad rabbi relationship. Sometimes you have to suffer through it, but sometimes you can find a new rabbi. Try to avoid the nuclear option, though I know first-hand that is survivable too.

Even when you feel the most powerless, you still have control over some parts of the conversion process, such as how you react and who you spend your time with. Make healthy choices.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Interested in a Conversion-Specific Trip to Israel?

I have been asked to share an upcoming trip to Israel that is specifically for converts and conversion candidates. I can't vouch for the trip or the people involved because I don't know them (but I received nothing for posting this opportunity). The idea is great, and many conversion candidates have mentioned wanting an opportunity like this, so I wanted to pass it along.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Need a Siddur for Your Tablet or Phone?

Rusty Brick, the foremost developer of Jewish apps (they're the first company I remember on the market!), is having a sale on its apps for your tablets and phones. These Android and iOS apps are half off the normal price until Tuesday night, according to an email I received last night from their mailing list. According to the blog on their website, the sale started on Thursday and ended yesterday, but I didn't hear anything about that. I used to have an old free version, the Siddur Lite, which I don't believe exists anymore. Since it was Hebrew-only, I didn't use it much. 

Little did I know how much the Siddur app has progressed! (They do have other apps available.) Last year, a Jewish Press writer named it the must-have Jewish app. As someone who carries a siddur every day, I plan to experiment using the app instead. A lighter purse is always welcome! It also includes zmanim (halachic times), Jewish date reminders to prevent you from forgetting your own birthday, a minyan database, a tefillin mirror, and a prayer compass. Not bad for one app! That would replace at least 3 apps I currently use.

Normally the siddur app is $10, but it's reduced to $5. You can purchase an English translation in-app for $9. (There is also a Chabad expansion you can purchase in-app.) I wasn't going to buy it because I have an aversion to paying for apps. I'm just cheap and have been operating on a restricted budget for several years now. However, a reviewer in the App Store convinced me to pay for the app: support Jewish developers and we will get more (and better!) Jewish resources. I can't argue with that logic, plus the benefit of not carrying a physical siddur.

You can download the apps by choosing your operating system from the Rusty Brick website.

Did you buy one of Rusty Brick's apps? What did you think? How would you improve them? 

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!