As a society, we tend to deride that second group of people. But why? Is their behavior really that annoying or are we jealous? I can't answer that categorically, but in at least some cases, jealousy can be a major factor for those of us in the non-advocating group.
Why should I be forced to advocate for myself? I work hard, I'm honest, I'm doing what I'm supposed to do, and people should react appropriately. Bosses should give me raises without me having to ask, and rabbis should be ready to convert me. Unfortunately, life is rarely that fair or easy.
I know this, but at the same time, especially because I'm an overly-polite Southerner, it's still hard to act on. I want things to work the way they're supposed to, and I don't want to have to "force" people to do what they should. Sometimes people aren't paying attention. Sometimes they misunderstand what they see. Sometimes it's easier to ignore the good boys and girls when you have troublemakers in the class. I know these things too, but it's still hard for me to speak up for myself.
But I learned to do it, and I believe it's important for all conversion candidates to advocate for themselves. Everyone, especially baalei teshuva, also need to use these advocacy skills when trying to find appropriate tutors or programs, when shadchans (matchmakers) made ridiculous suggestions, and when people say ignorant things at the Shabbat table. But we'll talk about this specifically in the conversion context.
The trick is finding an advocacy style that is true to your personality and doesn't make you look like a psycho or a jerk. Sometimes it's a fine balance, and some people are inclined to believe any self-advocacy (especially by women) is inherently aggressive. Advocate too strongly, and you scare people. Let self-advocacy slide, and it takes longer for you to get what you need. You might never get it. I admit that I still err on the side of less advocacy, and that's very influenced by being both Southern and female. It has caused me to have lower wages than male counterparts and to be skipped over for opportunities I deserved both professionally and in my private life. It's hard to act differently than I was raised to act, as a proper and submissive young woman. But I have accomplished a lot from even minimal self-advocacy. I'm always learning and improving, and I'm learning to ask for what I deserve. The problem is convincing myself that I deserve something! "I deserve to convert" is a lot simpler to justify to yourself than "I deserve a raise"!
Why would you want to advocate for yourself in conversion? Quite frankly, you're the only advocate you've got, and most of the rabbis involved are too removed from your daily existence to really understand where you are Jewishly. You need to keep them updated. And that was my secret: I thought of it as "updating" the rabbis, not pestering them. That simple mental shift completely changed my perspective.
Unfortunately, in conversion, the squeaky wheel gets the grease. It's human nature to run from fire to fire, and I generally don't find it to be blameworthy behavior. I've mentioned several times before that rabbis are human. And most conversion rabbis are not paid for their work. Even the local rabbi, who is paid to be the rabbi of a shul or yeshiva, is not paid for spending time with people who aren't his congregants or students. Synagogue memberships pay the rabbi's salary, and conversion candidates aren't eligible to be members. Therefore, you do not pay his salary, and almost no shuls mandate in a rabbi's contract that conversion candidates are part of his job description. (Sidenote: some shuls do, surprisingly. Ironically, one of my prior shuls did have such a contract clause, even though it was ignored in practice. There is hope out there!)
So what does self-advocacy look like? In most cases, it's phone calls or emails. Just making sure that the rabbis keep you in mind. That way, they know you're moving forward, you can provide proof, you can ask questions that show how thoughtful and clever you are (hopefully). I hate phones, so email was the natural choice for me. A much bolder friend converted with the Israeli rabbinate, and she took her homework to their office every afternoon, and just sat in the waiting room until they accepted her case (they normally don't convert non-citizens). Desperate times call for desperate measures, but stay classy when you have to call in the big guns. Remember that self-advocacy in the conversion context rarely leads to immediate results. You're playing the long game. Steady, consistent advocacy adds up.
A great definition of advocacy is "ask for what you need while respecting the rights of others." In fact, that link is chock full of good info.
Some examples of self-advocacy:
- Tell your sponsoring or converting rabbis about the new book you read or class you took. Share something you learned from it or whether you enjoyed it.
- Share your opinions on an event in the Jewish news. It shows you are paying attention to the larger community and affiliating yourself with it. (Assuming they'd agree with your opinion, of course. Don't provoke a political fight. Keep it positive whenever possible.)
- Ask others to advocate for you by speaking with or writing to a rabbi.
- Email or mail formal updates on a regular basis, with lists or "proof" if you have it. For example: books read, classes taken, topics studied with tutor, update that you moved into the eruv or got a kosher roommate.
- Contact the rabbis with a question that shows you're thinking about halacha in a serious way.
- Share something you learned that you enjoyed. Your passion will shine through.
- Ask the rabbis what you can do to move things along, and don't accept vague answers. Press for concrete tasks.
- Ask for what you can improve or what remains a sticking point. For example: are they concerned about your job or home situation?
- Ask "what would you do if you were in my place?" You might get some really interesting answers! Or a blank stare of confusion.
- Ask for a timeline. It's harder to press for concrete answers here, but don't let them push the question away like it's unimportant.
- If you have struggles because of the conversion process, share them. And ask for ways to improve the situation. For example: you are engaged and need more than 3 weeks' notice to plan your wedding. Similarly, you need advance notice of when a couple will need to separate for a minimum of 3 months (but also should not be much longer than 3 months because that's cruel) because one of you needs to find a place to live and make concrete arrangements with family or a landlord. Or someone in the community is gossiping about you. Or you have problems finding meals and other community involvement.
- If you need paperwork or information, don't let it slip their mind. For example: your child needs to be enrolled at the local Jewish school next month, and you need a letter from the beit din to approve it since you're both not halachically Jewish.
- If a shadchan (matchmaker) makes stupid requests of you, you should push back to show that the behavior is unacceptable. For example: a black Jew only being set up with other black Jews. Or in my case, shadchans kept setting me up with men who said they hated pets, but the shadchanim (yes, all of them) assumed I would get rid of my 3 pets "for the right guy."
- If someone says something ignorant at the Shabbos table. For instance: speaking badly about converts or Jews or color or baalei teshuva, making racist comments, or otherwise showing behavior that is unbecoming to a Jew. Whether those situations are applicable to you, it's the right thing to speak up. This is my biggest struggle recently; see all polite Southerner mentions above. But it's even more important if the comment is about your group. Who is better able to correct assumptions than the person being assumed about?
- Ask for what you need, whatever that is. Do you need a tutor? A friend? A family to become friends with? Access to free or affordable books? Help applying for a yeshiva or seminary? A contact for hospitality when you go out of town next week? A definite timeline so you can make major school, employment, housing and/or marriage decisions?
- Make suggestions. What would you like to see a class or shiur on? Maybe you'd like to organize a book club at the shul? Did you think of a way to make the shul more welcoming to guests? Would you like to volunteer on a committee? Did you find a typo on the beit din's website?
Unfortunately, I waited too long to start advocating for myself with batei din. I didn't advocate at all with my first beit din: simple updates when I had something worth updating. But considering they kicked me out (and my experiences prior to the kicking out), I probably would have just sped up the kicking of the out.
I learned my lesson and girded my loins for a tough time with the new beit din. For all I knew, I would be blackballed from any RCA-approved conversion beit din. (Thankfully, that didn't happen!) So when I connected with the new beit din, I took a more active role in my conversion. Being a bibliophile, I emailed a photo of my growing Jewish bookshelves and a list of all the books I'd read to date, updated each month. I asked questions when appropriate. It doesn't sound so impressive now, but I believe it helped. If nothing else, it made me feel proactive. That worked for my personality and style. And by that time, others were advocating for me too (mostly thanks to my work on this blog, which I started when I couldn't find any answers or help in my community or the internet).
I don't know how much of a squeaky wheel I was for the beit din, but I began to feel like I had a small measure of control in the process. I converted six months later, and I believe my advocacy tactics would have shifted and perhaps increased if the process had been longer. That was the plan, anyway. You have to consistently reevaluate your self-advocacy to determine what the best action is now.
Conversion makes you feel so powerless, and self-advocacy is something still in your control. You're still part of the decision-making process in some way. Do it in a way that is true to you and your personality (and be upbeat about it), and you will usually avoid being seen as a jerk. Maybe you'll be seen as slightly annoying, but it's hard to hate friendly and excited people.
How do you self-advocate? What could you do better? What was something you accomplished only because you asked for it?