Monday, March 13, 2023

A Wonderful Resource for Everyday Modern Hebrew (and a Coupon!)

Do you or your family want to learn everyday modern Hebrew? Talkbox.mom is what I use in my own home/our homeschool. It's just as good for adults as kids. I studied linguistics in college - I know a thing or two about second-language acquisition. (True story: my independent study was about teaching Esperanto to older children as a means of making later third and fourth language acquisition easier. Like a bridge into language learning for American kids with parents who only know English.)

Believe me, I have scoured the internet for Hebrew resources for years. There are few Hebrew resources out there, but this one is very well made, and the quality of the physical materials is high as well. And you also get free access to an app where everything is pronounced at different speeds. (They have many languages - not just Hebrew!)

It's essentially a self-ulpan design, if you're familiar with ulpan. You learn by talking, even if you don't quite understand what you're saying at first. Like a baby learns!

Today and tomorrow (Monday and Tuesday, Mar. 13-14) are the last days to start at the lower pricing before it costs $10 more per box - and you'll keep the lower price for as long as you're a subscriber. Inflation has finally started coming for my school supplies!

Here's a coupon for you to get $15 off your first box if you add in the phrasebook at checkout. Personally, I think the phrasebook is indispensable and worthy buying on its own for the phrases you won't find anywhere else for everyday life. Honestly, where else would you find, "Stop hitting your sister!" I kid, but it's in there. 

The first box has to do with food and snacks, which also delves into the ideas of "I want" and other related grammatical ideas without actually dwelling on the grammar at all. The phrase book covers a whole range of life, not just one topic.

Here’s the link to choose the language you want to start now and save! My referral code is REFK7EAUHQM86.

(I'll also get $15 toward a future box for our family. Otherwise, I have no affiliation with them, just a happy customer.) 

An old photo from my fridge:

Picture of the Talkbox.mom Snack Time fridge cheat sheet on my fridge with a piece of colorful children's art underneath it.

 

 

Tuesday, February 21, 2023

What to Expect the 1st Time You Attend Synagogue

So you've been reading books, scrolling social media, reading this blog...and you think you're ready to go to a synagogue service for the first time.

The mechanics and the level of "oh no what have I gotten myself into I am not ready for this" will be different between orthodox and non-orthodox services only because non-orthodox services will be less unfamiliar and more used to clueless newcomers. So for that reason, I suggest going to a non-orthodox service as your first service, even if you eventually intend to convert orthodox. But you'll probably feel that panicked way no matter which kind of service you attend.

 

Security & Getting in the Door

Of course, this post is going to be focused on the experience in America because that's most of my experience. Attending synagogue outside of Israel, America, Canada, you may find very strict security and may need to request permission from the synagogue to attend. You may be asked to provide a copy of your passport, and the regular procedure may require a letter/email from your current rabbi. Of course, if you're reading this, you don't have a rabbi. Just be honest that you're considering conversion or have Jewish ancestry and would like to visit to see what a service is like. 

They may very well say no you can't visit, so please don't take it personally. That happened to me in several European cities back in 2007. I didn't visit a single synagogue in a year except the one in the town where I lived and taught. It's not about you or converts or anyone specifically. This has long been the situation, and its solely about security. They don't know you from Adam, as they say. (No Jews say that though, in my experience. Is that a Southern or Christian thing?) Remind me to tell you about the time I was almost arrested in Egypt on a study abroad trip for taking photographs of a Cairo synagogue from the street.

 But let's assume you're in America or somewhere similar. Really, all you do is find out the services times and walk in. Individual synagogues may have a different security set up, and you may be approached by a security team member to ask who you are and why you're here. It's not the most welcoming, but I get it. 

However, be aware that security teams are made up of regular people who have prejudices and can sometimes get puffed up with the "police-like" power. A whole lot of people love watching Law & Order. It's not unusual for Jews of Color or guests of color to be interrogated and actively made to feel unwelcome. 

When I complained in a public meeting with a security team who admitted to doing this (and at least one Black Jew being upset enough to leave and never return), both the team and the community in the meeting erupted into a round of "the ends justify the means" and said they did nothing wrong. It was that person's fault for not understanding and being willing to "take one for the team." They were oversensitive! You gotta break some eggs when you make an omelet, amirite?? 

Scared people do and say bad things to people they perceive as outsiders, and that applies across Jewish movements. It can happen in a liberal-seeming reform synagogue that claims to be "welcoming" just as much as the most politically conservative orthodox synagogue. Traditionally, non-orthodox synagogues have been unlikely to have a security team, but that is finally changing due to the rise in antisemitic crimes. But let's be clear - 

  • the ends do NOT justify the means, 
  • bad "policing" actually makes us less safe by wasting resources and alienating community members,
  • "the ends justify the means" is not a Jewish value, 
  • and racism and xenophobia are not Jewish values either. 
36 times (or more, depending on who you ask) we are commanded to love the "ger" - the convert, the outsider, the immigrant are all translations of that word.


Parking & Driving

If you're attending a non-orthodox synagogue, there'll be parking available outside the synagogue. If you're attending an orthodox synagogue, you may arrive to find that the synagogue's parking lot has the entrance blocked. No driving is allowed on Shabbat for orthodox people. Even though you're not Jewish/not orthodox, it's considered polite to park a little bit away from the synagogue and walk a block or so. Basically just not parking right in front of the synagogue and driving off in front of the congregation.


What to Wear

Dress as though you were going to a job interview. You want to make a good impression, and you likely want to dress in a fairly conservative manner the first time you visit a synagogue so that you can get a feel for what's "normal" and "socially acceptable" in that community. Men usually wear a suit and tie, women can wear what they would wear to a job interview. In an orthodox community, women should wear a skirt that reaches the knee or lower. All should wear closed-toe shoes.

All of this is up for grabs after your first visit. Dressing in a very conservative manner will help keep your visit as uneventful as possible.


What to Leave at Home on Shabbat and Holidays

Your phone, your smart watch, and anything else that is electronic and/or makes noises. You know that'll be the time someone calls you and you forgot to turn off the ringer. Or your smart watch decides to ping to remind you to walk 200 more steps to meet your goal! Leave them at home or in the car.


Headcoverings

If you're male, you may want to grab a headcovering/kippah/yarmulke from a basket near the door to put on your head. This basket is going to be present in almost all synagogues of every kind. If this is a non-orthodox syngagogue, women may take one as well.

You may find a second basket with lacy headcoverings for women that look like lace doilies if you also had a grandmother or greatgrandmother who covered her house in doilies (is that a Southern thing too??). In no synagogue will headcovering be "mandatory" for women.

Beside both baskets, you might find hair pins to help you secure your headcovering of choice. (It's okay to take them to the bathroom to put them on with a mirror.)


Get Your Books

 Next you'll probably grab a prayerbook (siddur), but some synagogues will have them at the seats. It's always okay to ask any random person "Where do I find the prayerbooks/siddurs?" It's not always obvious, especially in orthodox synagogues. This is not a question that will out you as being in a synagogue for the first time because all of us have to ask this from time to time, but it will out you as a visitor to this synagogue.

 If there will be a reading from the Torah, you'll also want to grab a Chumash. They'll be stored beside the siddurim/prayerbooks. They're usually much bigger and thicker. This will apply on Monday and Thursday mornings, and Saturday mornings and afternoon (mincha service). There are other times when we read the Torah like the holidays, but if you realize mid-service that you forgot to grab a Chumash, it's perfectly fine and normal to walk back to grab one. It happens to all of us sometimes.

 

What If I Have to Go to the Bathroom?

 You can come and go as you need to, like to the bathroom. 

Usually, it's good manners to stay seated and not enter or leave the sanctuary during the Rabbi's Speech. But you'll see people do it, and if you have a bathroom or child emergency, don't worry about it. You may find people stationed at the doors who won't you go back into the sanctuary until after the speech is over. Why of all things this is the "good manners" hill that so many synagogues choose to die on is beyond me. I'd rather they appointed enforcers to make people be quiet during davening, but that's just me. I can barely think in English when other people are talking, without having to think in both English and Hebrew and the ambient noise of other people davening.

 

How Will I Follow Along?

You probably won't, let's be honest. And that's okay. A siddur is extremely complicated, more like a "Choose Your Own Adventure" book than a prayerbook you might be used to. "If A, turn to page X. If B, turn to page Y." There might be a page number board on the wall in the front of the sanctuary, or maybe a person announces page numbers. If you're in an orthodox synagogue (except most Chabad), it's probable there will be no announcement of page numbers at all.

So just sit and stand with the congregation and read some of the prayers that you think they may be doing. For instance, maybe they only announce a page number 2 or 3 times during the whole service. You can turn to that page and spend time working through that section, following the instructions you read.

It's also perfectly normal and okay to ask any random person, "Excuse me, what page are we on?" Most people are very happy to help, and they may volunteer page numbers as we jump around through the service. (But you might be surprised how many times you hear, "I have no idea either.")

 It's okay to pray in your own words and your own way at any time.


Then What?

That's pretty much it. Just sit and stand as everyone else does, and eventually the service will be over.


After the Service

Celebrate - you made it!

There may or may not be a "kiddush" (after Shabbat morning services) or "oneg Shabbat" (seems to be a reform Friday night thing) or other social gathering after the service. 

Most services end by people just turning around and going home. Maybe you'll be approached by someone who noticed you're new, maybe not. If there's a social gathering, you're welcome to stay and socialize!

Sunday, February 19, 2023

Reflections 11 Years Later

It's been just over 11 years since I completed the orthodox conversion process that created this blog. What's changed? What's it like "on the other side"?

Last month, I saw my conversion anniversary on the calendar and made a note in my planner. ...And then I completely forgot about it until a week after the anniversary.

So that's about how it's going. It's...normal. Just life. I don't think about it often.


But would I feel that way if my world and the rest of the world hadn't also changed so much, so fast in the last 11 years? I don't know. 

People who convert are often people comfortable making big changes. Not everyone is capable of overturning their lives completely. Conversion is rarely the last big project for that kind of personality. But I also think most of us would agree that the last 11 years have been unusually eventful compared to the decade before.

For myself: Long-term unemployment due to the aftereffects of the 2008 recession, marriage, infertility, becoming a caregiver for my mother and then her death,  Hurricane Sandy, new communities, being diagnosed ADHD, later learning that I'm autistic, raising young kids, #MeToo, the Black Lives Matter movement, the rise of racism, antisemitism, and fascism, Covid, losing my job to Covid, the current bipartisan Covid denialism while living as a high-risk family, becoming a small-scale farmer and herbalist, homeschooling my kids, the death of my beloved elderly dog 2 weeks ago. There's always something.

I still haven't been inside a Jewish space since February 2020 because of the lack of Covid precautions. I've had to build a new way of living in a world that fundamentally doesn't care about the safety or well-being of me or my family, and that includes Jewish spaces in my experience. (No, I'm not interested in your Covid denialist or minimalizing comments. I've heard it all.)

I became a volunteer political organizer in secular politics several years ago, and I only realize now that I've long been a political organizer here. I've been advocating for the rights of conversion candidates and against racism in our community since 2010. I've fought repeatedly with the Powers that Be to hold conversion abusers accountable, both in my case and in others. Three guesses how successful those efforts have been at creating systemic change! But we've built a community, many more people know their rights, and many have validation that red flags are in fact red flags, not their imagination.

 

It's been a lot, both internally and externally. My conversion is old news in my world even though it dominated my life for so many years.

Does that mean it'll be like that for you? No way to know. But I think we all find that our conversion eventually does fade into the background as our lives move forward. The mundane and the emergencies eventually keep you too busy to think about it much anymore. It doesn't affect your day-to-day as it did before. And if it was abusive or otherwise traumatic (as it can be even under "good" and well-intentioned circumstances), it can take time for those wounds to heal. But they do eventually stop hurting so much on a daily basis. 

 

So what's the upshot here? Whatever you're struggling with now will eventually be over, and it'll be old news. Nothing is forever, and no one is ever alone. Others have been there, and we've gotten through it. You can too. But whatever happens, nothing stays the same for long. New problems, new celebrations, new people, new challenges...life goes on.

You're gonna be okay. You're not alone.

Thursday, February 16, 2023

What Is a Chumrah and What Is Halacha

If you haven't discovered it already, 2 Jews equals 3 opinions! And it is entirely possible for all of those opinions to be correct. How is that possible?? I'm Jewish, so I could give you 18 answers to that question.

The best answer I can give you is that Judaism is not only NOT a monolith - Judaism isn't intended to be a monolith. "There is no Jewish Pope," as people like to say. (Not anymore that is - that would be the Kohen Gadol in the destroyed Beit Hamikdash and presumably again when the Temple is rebuilt.)

 

In Judiasm, multiple answers can and are valid. We have a strong tradition of different communities having different rulings, and this is codified in the Talmud/Gemara. Much of the Talmud, written down approximately 1,500 years ago, consists of "Rabbi A says X, Rabbi B says Y, they debate, and either no answer is given or both are declared valid." 

So in a nutshell, those positions from the Written and Oral Torah are the "halacha" and there can be multiple "correct answers" to any halachic question. "The halacha" - the "minimum standard" - is rarely clear-cut, often has multiple answers, and often depends heavily on the context of the question and the person asking.

 

So if multiple positions can be valid, what is a chumrah?

A chumrah is going "beyond the letter of the law." One example is the idea of hiddur mitzvah - going above and beyond to make a mitzvah beautiful, like buying the most beautiful menorah or etrog.

All agree that it is generally an admirable thing to go above and beyond the halacha (generally, so long as it is done with the right intention but even that is up for debate). However, a chumrah is by definition *not* required by the halacha. It is a voluntary assumption of something *beyond* the halacha. Anyone who tries to tell you that a chumrah is the minimum standard is wrong by definition.

But on the other hand, a "chumrah" can become "the halacha" if it becomes pervasive community practice for a very long time. That is discussed widely in the Talmud, where the rabbis note the basic halacha, but that the community usually went above and beyond (especially in kashrut/kosher food issues), so that that position then became the "minimal halachic standard" because the entire community had accepted the stringency as the minimum. Most chumrot began life as a minhag/local custom.

So let's look at a common example conversion candidates run into. This is why you find (so so so many) rabbis saying that "the halacha" is that women must wear stockings on their legs, because in many chareidi and chassidic communities, those communities have accepted stockings for well over a century as a minimum standard to fulfill the mitzvah of tznius ("modesty," for lack of a better English translation). But of course, each community argues over what color those stockings must be, whether they must have a visible seam, etc. That debate is a discussion for another day.

But even if a chumrah is binding on one community, it is not binding on communities who did not accept that as common practice. No matter how much some YouTube rabbi tries to tell you otherwise.

So what does this mean for you? Always take any statement of "the halacha" with a grain of salt. Says who? Is that halacha or is that a minhag or is that a chumrah? Is it d'oraita or d'rabbanan? Does your halachic authority hold by this? Does your community hold this way, or is this another community's position? What does your community actually do, regardless of what they may say?

I don't mean to sway you from what you are doing if you want to take on a chumrah. I just want you to understand the definitions we're dealing with so that you can make informed decisions (and I want you to not force your chumrahs on other people).

Just because someone tells you something is "halacha" doesn't mean it is "the halacha" you personally are obligated to do. And if you're a nerd fascinated by every detail of Judaism, which I've found most conversion candidates are, it's just dang interesting to know and understand what the basic halacha of a question is, and what chumrahs and minhagim exist for that same question. And it makes you a better Jew! After all, that's almost entirely what the Gemara is - debating what's the rule for a specific situation and why.

On any specific question, check with your rabbi, but you should also develop a feel for how your rabbi deals with chumrot and minhagim - many rabbis play fast and loose with the distinctions between halacha, chumrah, and minhag and don't really seem to care about the distinction. And some react poorly to being asked what kind of position X is. 

If it's important to you to know the difference, make sure you say so. But if you're still in the conversion process, that may not be the wisest question to ask because some say it suggests insubordination and a lack of respect for authority, which they may also call halacha shopping (#NoNotBitterWhyDoYouAsk). This can be true even with non-orthodox rabbis, so don't assume this is an orthodox-only problem. 

 

Ideally, find a rabbi who will take your questions positively and with the respect they deserve. But that's not always possible. If your local/sponsoring rabbi isn't that kind of person, then it's perfectly okay to have a second person for these kinds of questions, and that may be a friend or mentor rather than a rabbi (even better if your friend or mentor also happens to be a rabbi!). And I'll let you in on a secret - your rabbi doesn't have to know you have this other person. Because just having more than one person to ask about halacha could also be seen as insubordination, lack of respect for authority, and halacha shopping. For example, I've always advised that a pet owner get a rabbi specific for pet issues who is also a pet owner - but that doesn't mean you have to tell your rabbi that you have a "pet rabbi." After all, no one wants to be made to feel like you don't trust them with a question they feel capable of answering, even though my experience personally and professionally in the conversion space has taught me that most rabbis are completely unqualified to answer pet questions. They don't know how much they don't know.

Don't be afraid to ask questions, but use good judgment about who you ask those questions to and how you phrase it. The situation for the inherently curious conversion candidate has gotten even more toxic in the years since my own conversion. Keep being curious, even if it scares people who want you to shut up and not ask questions. This is your one, beautiful life. Learn everything!

Monday, October 3, 2022

Watch This Space!

More is coming! 

 

I "discovered" Judaism at 19 years old, which is now half a lifetime ago. I began this blog 12 years ago, but it has been quiet for almost 4 years. I'm nearing my 10th wedding anniversary, have 2 children, and still live in the New York City area. 


What have I learned?

 

What do you think is coming? And what would you like to see? Tell me in the comments below!

 

Until then, if you need to find me, try this:


Monday, May 20, 2019

Do I Need a Havdalah Set?

Do you need a havdalah set to "do" havdalah properly?

In short, nope. It's absolutely not required to make a kosher havdalah.

But is it nice? Did I spend years thinking my life would be better if I had one?

Yes.

But there was never enough money for it. I always needed books (or rent inside the eruv) more. A havdalah set is a piece of art, really, and its price reflects that.

So What's a Havdalah Set? 

The premise of a havdala set is "hiddur mitzvah," beautifying a mitzvah. Doing a mitzvah well and beautifully is a mitzvah too. The purpose of a havdalah set is to beautify your practice of havdalah. That's all.

So what is a havdalah set? Havdalah is the (very short) ritual that marks the end of Shabbat. It requires a multi-wicked candle, wine or grape juice (other beverages can be substituted, but that's a longer conversation), and spices. 

A havdala set just holds each of those pieces. There's a wine cup, a candle holder (doesn't look like a normal candlestick), and what's called a spice box.

There are two traditional designs, one silver and the other ceramic, usually blue and white. Wooden sets painted with bright colors are also quite popular. There are differences among them, but here are three representative, mid-priced sets: 

Silver Havdalah Set:



Ceramic Havdalah Set:


Wooden Havdalah Set:

How to DIY Havdalah

How can you do that yourself, without a specialized set? 

Use your kiddush cup (or whatever you use as a kiddush cup). You can use it for both purposes. 

A lot of people hold the candle, over a paper plate or paper towel or a small plate that you're ok with getting candle wax on. They even make little plates for this purpose if you want something specific to havdalah but have a smaller budget. 

Spices are the easiest: keep them in the container you bought at the grocery store. Cinnamon is my favorite, but cloves is probably the most popular. You could be a renegade and get pumpkin spice or nutmeg! I don't know whether it's required to be set aside the spices specifically for use during havdalah, but I think that's a good idea either way. Just place it with your other Judaica, wherever you keep your kiddush cup (which also doesn't have to be a special cup but I also recommend setting one aside just for Jewish purposes).



Here is the set-up we've used for years, though of course I forgot to include our kiddush cup because it was in the dishwasher. We use the same cup for kiddush and havdalah. Just a candle (like this), something to hold spices, matches, and a havdalah plate we received for our wedding (I don't see anything similar on Amazon).

What Do You Really Want When You Want a Havdalah Set?

So what did I want when I wanted all those havdalah sets? Stuff, quite frankly. Jewish stuff that would prove I was "really" Jewish. Stuff that would make my house look Jewish, make my actions look Jewish. And because I also love beautiful things and the rush of buying something. I'm an American raised on rampant, unbridled consumerism, of course.

Do I have a havdala set now? Yes, actually. I got it secondhand, for free, and only a few months ago. Close to 15 years after I first began dreaming of having one. Would I buy one? If I felt it was the right use of my finances at the time, yes. That's why I feel like a havdalah set is a great gift to give (if that's the price point for your gift). I would have a hard time spending that much money on one for myself, but I would have an easier time purchasing it for someone else. If I'm honest with myself, I always admitted there was a better use for 60+ bucks. Usually books, of course.

I haven't always kept my eye on what matters and turned down the shiny object of my desire when it wasn't the best use of my time and money, but I did here. 

What really matters to you? And what's distracting you from that?

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Some Last-Minute Pesach Resources

Time is short, are you ready??

Don't worry if you're behind. Don't worry if you haven't even started. Full disclosure: we haven't started and we never do until right before. Maybe it's ADHD, maybe she's born with it? 

Either way, here are some last-minute resources you might find useful!

Chag kasher v'sameach! Have a happy and kosher Pesach! 

Free Advice:

Some songs you might find useful:

  • Kadesh Urchatz (the order of the seder, sung repeatedly through the seder) by Rabbi Chayim B. Alevsky (there's an odd echo sound but this was the best version I found of the tune I've heard at all the seder tables I've sat at - YouTube suggests there is a lot more variety in tune than I've personally seen)
  • Mah Nishtanah with lyrics in both Hebrew and transliteration by The YouTube Rabbi (a woman, for those men who don't do recorded kol isha)
  • Dayenu by BimBam 
  • Chad Gadya by StandWithUs. This one includes sound effects, just like we sing at our own sedarim (our sounds are a bit different, but it gives you the idea). 

Appropriate Greetings:

Chag sameach!
Chag kasher v'sameach!
Gut yuntif!
Chag Pesach sameach! (less likely, but you might see it, especially in writing)

Thursday, March 7, 2019

How Long Does It Take to Convert? The Real Answer Is There's No Answer

This is probably the most common conversion question out there:

How long is this going to take?? 

(I wish Blogger offered a "scary" font! Letters dripping with blood would convey the feeling much more accurately!)

It's obvious to think about this question when you first get interested in converting. But you rarely realize this question will recur again and again until you're done, finished, converted. This is not a one-time question. This question runs on a loop and often feels like it dominates your life. 

I think this question-on-loop is the root of so much of the "let down" feeling many people experience after conversion. We've spent so much time and energy, often years, counting down to some unknown time in the future, that we don't know what to do when that question no longer feels like it rules our lives. My whole life has centered around this question for so long - what do I do now? 


All this is to put the question in a broader perspective and to recognize that the question is far more emotional than it seems on the surface. 

Such a simple question, right? How long does it take to convert? 

But it's far from simple to estimate how long a particular conversion will take, and there are no easy answers even though we can talk about generalities. Anyone who says otherwise is either ignorant or lying. 

Generalities, however, are no guarantee for you as an individual. And getting mad that your life doesn't reflect what you think is (or should be) "average" is rarely very helpful. It just eats at you and your self-esteem instead.

Because after all, when you ask "how long does a conversion take?" don't you really mean, "how long will it take ME to convert?" Those are two completely different questions. 

There are lots of follow-up questions to ask before you can even get into the ballpark of a timeline for an individual person. This is a non-exhaustive list:
  • Which Jewish movement are we talking about? (There are no guarantees even in the non-orthodox movements, despite what people say, though generalities are more likely to be the average experience.)
  • How long have you been learning about Judaism?
  • How deeply have you learned? (You can have years of superficial learning or months of intense learning and be in the same place!)
  • What are your prior connections to Judaism, especially in your family?
  • Were you raised in another Jewish movement and only need a conversion to join another movement?
  • Were you raised with a deep faith in another religion or is this your first "official" foray into organized religion? Do you have a history in multiple faiths?
  • Have you gone to a synagogue yet? Are you a regular attendee? For how long?
  • What relationships, romantic or friendship, do you have with other Jews?
  • Are there outside time factors at play, like a wedding date or you'll be moving?
  • What do you know about Jewish practice in your movement?
  • How much of that practice have you personally put into practice?
A patrilineal Jew (one whose father was Jewish and is not considered halachicly - Jewish law - Jewish) who has a lot of experience in the orthodox community has a very different timeline for an orthodox conversion than the person who just did their first Google search. Same in the non-orthodox movements (and remember that a patrilineal Jew would also need a conversion to join the conservative movement). Further, that same patrilineal Jew would have a very different answer about the timeline depending on whether they're approaching the conservative or orthodox community. 


Now that I've lawyered this up with a dozen versions of "it depends," let's talk generalities. 

Assuming you're new to Judaism, the "textbook" answer for how long a conversion takes is 1 year for non-orthodox movements and at least 2 years for an orthodox conversion.

Is that actually average for our Google searcher? I don't think so. I think this is an average for an "ideal" conversion, not an average of actual conversions. And I think, at best, it's an "average" from the time the person makes contact with a rabbi who actually has the power to get things moving, not from that first Google search. The amount of time between Google search and sitting across the desk from a rabbi ranges wildly. 

What I've found is that, in general, few people take a straight-line path to conversion, aka an "ideal" conversion. Those timelines presume consistent and relatively intense commitment, education, and putting it into practice. The non-orthodox conversion generally involves taking a class that lasts about a school year plus a calendar year of active practice in the community. An orthodox conversion is much harder to quantify in that same way because usually, the education will have to be self-directed, you arranging your own education (few places have organized classes or mentoring programs). 

Is that really an "ideal" way to convert? Not many people maintain the "necessary" commitment and education consistently over a year or two to finish a conversion under these suggestions. Most of us slow down or take a break entirely one or more times during the process. After all, making a decision this important and for life (especially in an age of growing antisemitism) is a huge decision not to be taken lightly. Most of us step away to see if it still feels right, and we may do that several times over several years - I did. I moved to a whole other country to see if I felt I could be happy living a "secular" life! I took another big break when I began law school. Both of those breaks (and the smaller ones along the way) reconfirmed that this is where I need to be, come hell or high water. Don't worry, hell and high water came too. When those challenges came, and they'll continue coming throughout my life, knowing I took those breaks and how I felt during them confirms my decisions and helps me push through the hard times. 

I was very angry at myself when I ended those breaks because I felt like I wasted time, that I put "my life" on hold. But that time wasn't wasted, and I'm still drawing dividends from those times a decade later. Knowing me and my personality, if I had pushed through and finished my conversion at a breakneck pace (as my perfectionist self wanted and judged me for failing to do), I would not still be here. I would question my decisions and wonder whether the grass is greener somewhere else. I know it's not because I asked those questions before I signed on the dotted line. I converted long after the honeymoon period had passed; I knew the people in the Jewish community were human beings with failings. I think having several hits to my idealism about Judaism and the humans who practice it were valuable long-term because, of course, I'm still dealing with these people now. I disappoint other people (as some of you commenters are so happy to tell me), and they disappoint me. Of course, our religion is structured to need the community, and when that community fails you consistently or actively throws you under the bus, I understand why people leave. In my earlier years, even my own negative experiences didn't prepare me to have compassion in those cases. They weren't spoken about as actively as they are now online, and it always looks different when it's the people you love. We have a long way to go as a community, but I still choose to be here. And I understand why other people don't. An "imperfect" conversion process with starts and stops won't answer all these questions for the rest of your life, but I think is helpful for most people. A cooling off time is good for any permanent(ish) question, whether conversion or marriage or tattoos. 


I read online that my orthodox conversion would take about two years. Honestly, I can't even measure how long my conversion took because where do I start counting? I was involved with the Jewish community, primarily the orthodox community, for five years before deciding to seek a conservative conversion. I was told my conversion could have been immediate given my experience and practice, but I had to "check the boxes" so to speak by completing the year course. I converted in about nine months, still converted a little before the class ended (and yes, I had to finish the course). So was Conversion 1.0 six years or nine months? 

On the other hand, I've known many non-orthodox converts who took far longer than one year, and they've been shamed by others or themselves that they didn't finish in the "right" amount of time. Our journey is our journey and no one's journey is the same as another's. This attachment of personal virtue to a certain timeline only hurts people.

My orthodox conversion process started almost immediately after that conversion, thanks to various factors. Do we start measuring from when I made the decision? Or when I began working with a beit din? Or from the time I began working with the other beit din that actually did my conversion in the end? From the decision, it was a little over a year and a half. From my first beit din meeting with my final beit din, four months. From the time I "discovered" Judaism? Eight years. If you had told me that I wouldn't convert for six or eight years, would I have continued past that first Google search (technically, it was a dive into the Yahoo database)? Maybe not. Does that mean I shouldn't be telling you this story for fear of discouraging you? Maybe. But the premise of this site has always been to help conversion candidates understand the unwritten "rules" and practices and get honest answers to hard questions. Without good information, we can't make good decisions. And too many people believe they're bad or inadequate or a failure because they don't measure up to these timelines people parrot as though they actually mean something. They don't. 


My advice: as immediate and practical as questions about the timeline are, they're not actually that helpful. If you convert in less time that "suggested," yay! But resist the urge to feel superior to the people who are taking longer than you. Your factors and their factors are completely different (even more so if you're converting with different rabbis and batei din, which introduce their own factors). 

But if you take longer than "suggested," and it will be longer for most of you, that question often makes you feel bad about yourself. Like you're a failure. Like your life is on hold. Certain parts of your life may be on hold (particularly romance), yes, but this is still your life. I wish I'd remembered that - I was living my life even while I thought it was on hold. I focused on what I couldn't do and not on what I could do. I missed a lot of opportunities. 


Timelines aren't the right question to ask - ask what you need to do to get to the next level. What do I need to focus on next? Where are my weaknesses and how can I strengthen them? What relationships can I build with friends and mentors and teachers? What should I learn next? What practice should I take on next? How can I do a current practice better? Those questions to the rabbis overseeing your conversion will be a lot more practical and useful than "how much longer do I have left?" And the answers will be a lot more empowering because it gives you something you can do. When you're told a time (and you usually won't be able to get a rabbi to say a time), everything remains out of your power. You're a powerless bystander watching things happen to you, just logging your time. Focus on being an active player in the process and let the time fall where they may. This approach, ironically, will probably get you to the finish line faster and with more of your self-esteem intact. 

Saturday, January 12, 2019

Dressing "Frum" at the Gym

I think I've always been surprised how commonly people (usually women) ask about halacha and going to the gym. But especially about headcoverings and the gym. Yet I don't see men asking about their yarmulkes at the gym 🤷

In short, your mileage will vary considerably. Ask people in your community. If you're in the conversion process or recently converted, err on the side of more conservative. #BecauseDoubleStandards. You'll probably still face double standards as a convert even if you converted long ago, but it's easier to claim the right to follow "only" the community standard when you've been in the community a longer time.

As always, I'm not a halachic advisor. I'm not telling you whether anything is right or wrong, simply sharing the variety of answers I've seen other people live out in their daily lives. Communities and individuals within those communities have a wide range of practice, regardless of whatever Internet Rabbi tells you is "the halacha." I can assure you there is no one "halacha" answer to these questions for "the orthodox community" (nor is there to most Jewish questions). And people being people, they may not conform to what their community would say is "the answer." This is why you need to understand your specific community.


Here are some of the questions you might consider and some of the answers you might see:

Do I need to go to a single gender gym?
If you're male, this option doesn't exist for you, so no. You're stuck with gyms where there may be women exercising. Just as you would if you chose to exercise in a public park. I've never seen a man ask for such an option, but I don't know whether that's because they know they don't exist or because it's not something that would even occur to them to ask for.

That said, it seems very standard that men keep their shirts on while exercising, and often while swimming too (though less common in swimming). People don't often talk about it, but there are "tznius" clothing standards for men too, often cited as being mid-bicep to mid-thigh. Whether or not a community officially "holds" by that or another definition, it's not something that is commonly discussed, so I don't think many men even know there's an idea out there that they should wear a minimum amount of clothing. I could be wrong, but that's my impression, and my impression is certainly colored by the obsession with speaking publicly about what women should or should not be wearing at any available opportunity. #NoNotBitterWhyDoYouAsk 

Women, you have this option, and honestly many chose it for reasons of sexism, not religious reasons specifically. Women who don't want to worry about being propositioned, stared at, touched, or harassed. Or who want to wear clothing they find more comfortable for exercising but worry would attract more male attention (especially the bustier ladies). Many orthodox women choose a female-only gym so they can wear clothing that doesn't comply to their "public" standard of tznua, since those rules only apply in mixed gender scenarios (according to most, I'm sure there are people who say you must be fully dressed to tznius standards 24/7). The reality is that even most female-only gyms often have male trainers and instructors. Some women treat them like doctors, physical therapists, and other professionals who see us in less-than-full-dress for health reasons, and that means they wear whatever they think is most appropriate for working out.

Many women (like myself) end up a co-ed gym. I purposely considered the fact that even the "women's only" gyms I had access to were not actually single-gender. Orthodox women wear a whole range of things even in a co-ed gym. Just like with swimming, some wear clothes that comply with their normal standard of tznius and some wear what is considered "normal" in those situations either for safety reasons (more fabric, more that can get caught in a machine or tripped over) or because they believe that avoiding standing out too much is also part of being tznua.

Women who want to wear "skirts and sleeves" to the gym have many options. A common choice is a long-sleeved exercise shirt, leggings, and a running skirt. I've found a cotton-elastic pencil skirt works just as well. I use a plain one from Old Navy that I bought almost 10 years ago. Here are some items I've personally used or similar if they're no longer available: Underarmour long-sleeved shirt, Columbia 3/4 length sleeve shirt (beware the collar bones! The horror!), leggings, running skirt, pencil skirtskirt with leggings attached. Again, be very aware of the potential safety risks of wearing more clothes while exercising, especially loose fabrics (which is why I prefer a pencil skirt). Also, you need to consider how comfortable you are with your skirt blowing up in the wind, riding up, or blatantly falling up, like in a yoga class. Pencil skirts and some other skirts can also limit your range of mobility, especially in weight lifting and classes. If you can't safely do an activity in the clothing you choose to wear, please choose another activity rather than trying to "make it work." 

For swimming, you can find a wide variety of "burkinis" available. Or if you can pronounce it (I can't), it's called a shvimkleid in Yiddish. I don't know of any other names for them, but I'd love to hear if you do! They come in many options: Full-length skirt, knee-length, and mid-thigh skirts all with leggings included underneath. Long-sleeved and 3/4 sleeve, and t-shirt style shirts. Mix and match! As someone with a high risk for skin cancer, I appreciate these swimsuits even more! I even took the "plunge" and always put my kids in a rash guard and board shorts. My only criticism is that the skirt is a LOT of fabric and it (not surprisingly) doesn't stay down in the water very well. Apparently some burkinis marketed to the Muslim community have buttons to help hold the skirt to the leggings, which seems like possibly a good idea. On the other hand, my friend is a swim instructor and rightfully points out that the skirts (buttoned or not) can be an added safety risk, especially since many of us in communities where wearing these is common have not been raised to be strong swimmers. Use burkinis with caution and stay aware of their risks to mitigate them as best you can.

What kind of headcovering should I wear to the gym? 
Whatever makes you comfortable. 

As I said, I've never heard a man ask this question about a kippah, but it would be a reasonable question to ask. Baseball caps are the most common choice I've seen, but beanies/knit caps/toboggans/whatever you want to call them are also common. 

I've also seen men who just don't wear anything while running or playing a sport. This is an understandable and accepted reason in many communities. They keep the kippah nearby, often in a pocket. This is analogous to unexpectedly windy days, when you'll often see men carry a kippah in their pocket or hand to get home still owning a kippah.

Married women who cover their hair is a more complicated question. I've seen very few sheitels, none that I can remember honestly. However, I don't know how that plays out in communities like Chabad, where sheitels are considered the halachically superior method of haircovering. You will see a wide range of decisions here, depending on the person and the community. I've seen:
  • Normal tichel, like any other day, even including a shaper
  • Baseball hat
  • Baseball hat with a simple tichel underneath
  • Pre-tied tichel or other simple tichel
  • Bandana
  • No covering at all (more common than you might expect)
  • Swim caps for swimming
As always, keep safety in mind when deciding what kind of headcovering to use. If you lose it while running across an intersection, you could stop and get hit by a car before you think twice. It could fall into the parts of an exercise machine. And more prosaically, it could be blown away by the wind and then where would you be? Try to focus on methods of keeping your choice on your head. A velvet headband under a bandana or tichel is very helpful, for instance (Amazon or Wrapunzel). I would recommend skipping shapers/volumizers/whatever you want to call them.

Try also to choose fabrics and styles that can be washed because of sweat and grime.

A last heads-up about hair coverings for women. People seem to forget that haircovering and clothing are two very different areas of halacha/minhag. They're based on completely different things. So they don't always "match." You may think it's weird to see a woman wearing pants and a tichel, but that's a perfectly reasonable possible outcome if you've studied the Jewish teachings on these ideas. On the other end of the scale, you could go to a womens-only beach and see a woman wearing a bikini and a fully-covering tichel. These are the outcomes of different approaches to the ideas of haircovering and tznius and are not contrary, though many of us do a double-take when we see "levels of observance" (as we think of them) that "don't match." I tell you this because it's easy to get judgey when you see something like that and don't understand why (ask me how I know!).


These are just some of the options you might consider with the gym. Be aware that people can and do change over time and as their exercise regimes and locations change. We do the best we can within the options we have and with the various safety concerns in mind. But if you take nothing else away from this, remember to consider the safety concerns for more modest exercise wear and take appropriate precautions. 

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Friendships When a Liberal Convert Goes Orthodox

I came across this question on social media again recently, and it has been a frequent concern over the years:

"I converted in one Jewish movement and now want to convert orthodox. What will happen to my friendships and my relationship with my former rabbi(s)? Will they hate me? Am I betraying them?"


First, I'll counter with another question: What if everyone abandoned you and thought you were an awful person - would you still want to convert orthodox? 

Because that's basically the worst case scenario. Guilt, shame, gossip, and being rejected by the people you care about. No laughing matter. 


But on the flip side, if you are living your best life and your friends take it so personally that they would reject you and gossip about you, do you really want them as your friends? 


I'm no armchair quarterback here. I've faced this. Twice, arguably three times, in fact. And that's just the friends. We're not even talking about my romantic relationships, which was its own special mess.

My secular Jewish friends were fine with me being Jewish-adjacent and just interested in Judaism. Then when I began seriously working toward my conservative conversion, I lost almost all of them. I became "too Jewish." Remember, I wasn't orthodox (yet). This problem doesn't just exist for orthodox converts, but it's usually only expected when people go orthodox. I've never seen anyone ask the question without framing it as an orthodox question, but this is not an orthodox-only problem. I would have expected this if I'd gone orthodox, but it shocked me when I was "just" going conservative. 

Then the "maybe it counts, maybe it doesn't" is when I became serious about my conservative Judaism. In my experience, even many conservative Jews don't know that the conservative movement holds by halacha. Many people only see superficial differences between the reform and conservative movements, when in fact they're based on very different philsophical/religious foundations vis a vis halacha and obligation. Again, I was "too Jewish" and ostracized. People stopped talking to me except to make jokes about me taking things too seriously. 

Stopping there for a minute, you have to consider whether this behavior is chicken-or-the-egg. Did I begin acting self-righteously? Did I lecture other people that they should be doing these things too? Did I do these things in a showy, arrogant way? Did I preemptively cut them out because I feared they would reject me, so I rejected them first? 

I don't think so. But I've found that religious matters are touchy, and even if I didn't intend to do any of those things, it's possible I still did or that others perceived me as doing so. The outcome is the same.

The second/third time came close on its heels: becoming orthodox. I lost almost all my new non-orthodox Jewish friends. A few stuck with me, and are still here now! This one hurt the most, perhaps because it was a more active rejection and struck into my professional life as a law student. I was an officer in the Jewish student group. They moved all the events to Shabbat so I wouldn't be able to attend. Then they voted in someone to replace me without telling me. It cut me to the core because these had been people I considered close friends, and that was one of the few places where all my worlds came together. I didn't have to explain the law stuff or the Jewish stuff or the student stuff; it was a place where I felt fully understood, at least on some level. 


So here's the bottom line: you can't control other people. They'll stick with you or they won't. You can't control who has serious religious baggage and will view any religious action on your part as a judgment of them. Some people will take your life choices personally when you leave their community (or move to the right or left in that community). That's just people and there's nothing you can do about it. They may even try to punish you or make your life miserable. Bullies are out there.

You have to do what's right for you, treat others the way you'd like to be treated, and let the chips fall where they may. No one becomes orthodox (or Jewish generally) because they hope to be popular. You will inevitably lose someone, perhaps someone very close or someone you highly respect. You'll often be surprised by who it is.

You're not betraying anyone by doing what's best for you, no matter how much they've helped you. No one has the right to ask you to stifle yourself for their own comfort. Everyone grows, all the time. No one should hold it against you that you grew in a particular direction they didn't. They may hold it against you anyway, but they have no right to. It's not your fault.


On the other hand, being perfectly honest, you may face different issues by staying in touch with your old non-orthodox community. I know of two instances when a beit din rejected conversion candidates for staying friendly with the people in their former non-orthodox community. It's possible both cases happened in the same beit din, but I don't know. The rabbis claimed it showed they "weren't serious." I'm intimately familiar with one of those cases, and it involved multiple levels of rabbinic bullying and emotional abuse, and I believe the beit din involved had (has?) a pattern of abusive behavior that I doubt has been resolved given the power structures in place. I believe this was emotional abuse, to dictate who you can be friends with. Especially when there was no warning given. However, I know people in the same beit din who maintained non-orthodox friendships, even with some of the same people, and did not suffer any consequences. The beit din didn't look for this issue, but they swooped down with hellfire once a bully brought it to their attention. It's possible the friendships were just an excuse and certainly weren't the whole objection, and that nothing at all would have happened without the determined effort of a bully who wanted them kicked out of the program. It's possible the bully made allegations beyond this, but this was the only piece passed back to the candidates involved.

You can't control the beit din any more than you can control anyone else, and I don't want you to reject your friends based on fearing this. Those actions by the beit din were wrong and abusive (not to mention the bully who instigated the whole balagan). But I also think you should be aware that things like this have happened, and if they happen to you, don't think this is normal or ok. These are red flags of abuse. Fight back. You have resources available to you, here online and even the RCA ombudsman (though I question whether an RCA ombudsman can ever truly be independent given the hierarchies of orthodox society and the powerlessness of conversion candidates). Being Jewish is also fighting for what's right and loving our fellow Jews. Holding batei din accountable for abuses of power is one of those responsibilities, as much as I know you want to fight a beit din as a conversion candidate. It's easier to take the conservative route, but know this: if someone wants to abuse you, they will find a way. It's a power trip, not a reasoned reaction to something you did. Limiting your life because you fear the beit din is no different than me being told as a woman that I shouldn't wear certain clothes or go to certain places or drink alcohol because someone somewhere could rape me. Rape is the fault of a rapist, just as abusive practices by batei din are the fault of the beit din, not the conversion candidate. (I use an extreme example for clarity's sake, but let's not forget that a beit din asked me incredibly detailed inappropriate sexual questions. Ironically the "white knight" in that story was Barry Freundel...the irony would be hilarious if it weren't disgusting.) Love your fellow Jews and maintain your friendships with the Jews you love. 


Well, that was a cheerful discussion and trip down memory lane. Good riddance to bad "friends," amirite?


via GIPHY
"I'm in a glass case of emotion!"