Monday, February 28, 2011

UPDATED: Why You Shouldn't Date During Conversion

NOTE: The Kvetching Editor wrote a response to this post here. I just want to point out that her situation is not what I'm describing. I'm talking about a single who enters the orthodox conversion process and then begins dating people who are already orthodox. However, for the record, I think dating is probably a bad idea during conversion for a majority of people, but there are always exceptions to the rule. My advice: Don't assume you're going to be that exception and seek out relationships. If they happen, they happen, but don't actively pursue it. That's my 2 cents. Now go buy yourself a stick of gum.

This is a touchy subject for many people. But this is the one rule you can expect to hear from every single conversion rabbi: No dating until after the mikvah (if you're currently single or become single during the conversion process). But why?

From the rabbis' perspective, it's generally an intermarriage issue. Especially today, most people who consider Jewish conversion don't finish. Therefore, even though you may be accepted to a conversion program, they hold out no particular hope that you will finish the process. However, if you're dating a nice Jewish person while converting, then drop out of the program for whatever reason, it's unlikely that the Jew will dump you over it. Then the rabbis worry you'll continue dating and end up marrying as a Jew and non-Jew. Of course, you say, "That'll never be me!" But you never know that for sure until you're done, and neither do the rabbis.

Further, from your perspective, you should discourage any orthodox Jew from dating you until you've gone to the mikvah and officially converted. He or she will get more flack from the community than you can imagine. Most notably, especially when it's a male Jew and a converting female, they will assume that the relationship is not "proper" (as in observing shomer negiah, etc), and they will question whether the Jew is "really" orthodox. They'll assume that the conversion candidate just doesn't know any better, but that the Jew knows exactly what he's doing and is trying to date non-Jews without looking like he's headed towards intermarriage. I've known people who survived this, but it's not pleasant. And it's one more outside pressure you don't need on a relationship.

Similarly, if your new partner isn't orthodox but you're in the orthodox conversion process, that is enough to derail your conversion for "not being serious." Many people approach the conversion process because they're dating a nonobservant Jew, but the nonobservant Jew normally studies to become observant as you study to convert. If you begin dating a nonobservant Jew after you've started your process, the rabbis don't expect that the other person will begin becoming observant but will actually draw your observance back.

So what happens if you happen to meet someone "nice" at shul, etc, and you want to pursue something? Stay quiet about it. Even if the other person says something and it becomes a mutually-acknowledged crush, most potential dates aren't willing to stick around for the time and pain that a conversion can involve (and most born-Jews have no idea what that will entail). Of course, you're sure that they will do it for you. And they probably think so too. And maybe they will. My advice: they can wait on you, but not in any official capacity. As I like to describe it: keep them on your "shidduch radar." If he or she is still available and interested when your conversion is complete, you can talk then. That doesn't mean you must avoid each other or can't be friends. However, for your sake and his/hers, keep any continuing friendship above reproach. Gossip in the Jewish community is bad enough without feeding it situations and words that can be misinterpreted.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Shabbat Shalom! The Good News Edition :)

I've been a bit of a negative Nancy lately, so here is some good conversion news for you:

North American Rabbis Protest Conversion Policy.

Sure, the rabbis have rallied to protect all orthodox converts' rights to make aliyah, but I'm more skeptical that such a rabbinic "uprising" would happen as a way to pressure the Israeli Rabbinate to recognize the Jewishness of these same orthodox converts. Yet the Rabbinate is questioning the validity of the conversions performed by (or that could be performed by) many of these same rabbis. (It's really very interesting to me from both halachic and psychological standpoints.)

However, it's a healthy, large step in the right direction! They're listening!

And as always (so far), Natan Sharansky impresses me:
...Chairman Natan Sharansky, who told the board that Israel's chief rabbinate should not be involved in determining who can be allowed to immigrate to Israel. 
"I want to separate the argument about conversion from the recognition of Judaism for the sake of citizenship-eligibility under the Law of Return," Sharansky told Haaretz. "It’s so important that a person who undergoes conversion according to the tradition of his community and who the community accepts as a Jew be eligible to make aliyah under the Law of Return."
If you don't know anything about Natan Sharansky's life, I suggest looking him up!

And now to get you in the mood for Shabbat, check out this page of Shabbat songs from Aish. Note that the pronunciation may not be the same as your community uses. It's the little things that throw you off! Personally, I can't help but get distracted by "oy"ing, but I've just got to get past that one, don't I?

What's your favorite Shabbos song? (And what's the singular of zimrot? Google failed me.) Mine is probably Shalom Aleichem. It's a definite earworm for me, and you'll find me humming it the rest of Shabbat dinner!

Shabbat shalom!

Thursday, February 24, 2011

A Non-Orthodox Response to the Current Orthodox Conversion Issues

For those of you following the conversion/aliyah issues with Israel and the greater Jewish community, you may want to check out yesterday's blog post at On the Fringe-Al Tzitzit, Conversion Crisis Update: the New Jewish "Papacy."

I won't express an opinion on the content (or maybe my jury is still out?), but I did particularly enjoy the quote, "Side/snide note: It takes a certain talent to develop an official policy that’s both anti-Galut and anti-Tzionut."

How to Daven in Public Without Looking Like a Nutter

Quite honestly, you're probably going to look like a nutter whatever you do. But that's ok. You can minimize your public nuttiness with a few tips. This topic always makes me think of plane trips, so perhaps this colors my discussion. Feel free to add your tips in the comments!

First, seek a private location, if available. There's not much you can do in some circumstances, such as a plane with the seatbelt light still on. However, if available, there are airport chapels, the back of the plane, and other quiet corners.

Half the time, if you don't shuckle (rock) back and forth, you just look like someone who reads while moving his or her lips.

Use your cell phone! Pretend you're talking on your phone or a bluetooth and suddenly, you look no more crazy than anyone else. (But you will look crazy to someone like me who never remembers that bluetooths exist.)

But what about bowing during the Amidah? For instance, if I'm on a plane, I make less of a bow in my seat than I normally would. The people sitting by me inevitably realize I'm doing "something weird," but it generally doesn't draw attention from others.

And now, the pi├Ęce de resistance, tefillin! How can you possibly avoid looking like a nutter when forced to don tefillin in a public place? Surprise: You can't! If you have tips, I'd love to hear them, but I have yet to see it done without confusing everyone else. And at some point, some "proud American" is going to think you're a terrorist or something equally un-American. Don't think you're safe because you're flying to or from a large Jewish community: I remember a news article approximately 2-3 years ago where a teenager donned tefilin on a flight between Chicago and NYC, and the flight attendants tackled him!

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

My First Shabbat Kallah

What's a Shabbat Kallah? It's a celebration for the bride on the Shabbos afternoon before her wedding day.

In some ways, it's like a frum bachelorette party. (Note that there may also be a "normal" bachelorette party with the bride and her girlfriends!)

I went to my first Shabbat Kallah last month, and it was a very lovely experience! However, classical feminists will probably balk at the experience. There is a terribly strong emphasis on pleasing a husband and having tons of babies. I admit, I was a bit put-off at first, and I am certainly not a classical feminist. However, the female solidarity and togetherness in that room was incredible!

There was food and drink out, and several women brought their young children. A rebbetzin served as the "MC" of the festivities, and I learned later that she is the kallah teacher (kallah teachers are another post, but to give you an idea, they're the women who normally teach an engaged woman about the laws of family purity). She hosted different "games" and then there was dancing. I left at that point, but the main festivities appeared to be over.

The games:
Give the kallah a bracha (blessing): The rebbetzin passed around a bag of random items. We each closed our eyes and selected something from the bag. The "game" is making up a bracha for the kallah based upon the item you chose! For instance, I drew a soup ladle, and my friend pulled out a toy camera.  This was a really cool idea, and I was amazed by the creativity in the room! Thankfully, my friend is a bracha master, and she helped several of us formulate a bracha! As you might imagine (this is a room of orthodox women after all), a lot of the brachas came back to "have lots of babies and have them soon." That's very much a cultural thing in the orthodox Jewish world. It's still present in the liberal Jewish world, though less in-your-face.
Give the kallah marriage advice: The rebbetzin then had each of us choose a random book about marriage. The kallah chose a number, and we each turned to that page and came up with some marriage advice for the bride. I liked this "game" a lot, but some of the advice given would set a classical feminist foaming at the mouth. In retrospect, it really wasn't that bad, but it felt pretty sexist at the time. I later realized that I had expected the advice to be sexist after all the child-based brachot, so that's how I interpreted the advice at the time. However, I could generally notice a difference between the words of women from different generations, though that isn't a rule. The Jewish world, even the orthodox one, is a-changin'.

In summary, if you're invited to a Shabbat Kallah, GO. You don't need to know anything special. You don't even need to know the bride! I didn't. Just sit back and enjoy the festivities, and if you have questions, ask your neighbor. There's such a joy in the room that everyone's patience is at a high-point. (And of interest to converts: the attention is so focused on the bride that it's unlikely that anyone will think to question you!)

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Other Bloggers' Take on the Current Orthodox Conversion Hullabaloo and Kochava's Proposed Solution

Frequent commenter Elle at On Becoming Devoted has written a post called The Reality of Conversion.

I suggest that you all read it for another convert's perspective on today's orthodox conversion process! However, she focuses more on the after-conversion concerns, which can be just as painful (if not more so) than the initial conversion.

I am in no way swayed by the fact that she writes glowingly about me :) If anything, I'm swayed by the fact that she's awesome enough to be a doula!

The Kvetching Editor, one of the two Kochava-labeled experts in the conversion field (and also the "other" convert blogger named Chavi), weighed in on the topic this week at Conquering the Conversion Conversation. She shares a perspective I generally share: there's no point in getting upset about the things you can't change.

And after a few weeks of dealing with the lowest-of-the-low in conversion stories, I would really like to write all this stuff off. Put it out of my mind and focus on my own conversion process. (Or heaven forbid, on my school work!)

But I can't. I have to talk about this precisely because other people aren't. And I honestly believe that I can affect change by creating this conversation. (Reason #6,205 I know I'm Jewish: Being a rabble rouser for what's right.) The news stories come and go, and lots of people discuss the politics of conversion every week, but few (if anyone other than the individual involved) focus on the emotional toll the current conversion process is taking on sincere candidates. Judaism should build us up, not tear us down like a Marine bootcamp. Conversion is plenty discouraging enough without rabbis and laypeople taking it upon themselves to treat the grand majority of conversion candidates like dirt until we emerge from the mikvah.

The RCA's Geirus Policies and Standards sets no policies on (nor even mentions) how to treat the potential convert as a human being. However, they do have a relevant policy which is not currently being enforced by any RCA regional beit din that I'm aware of: "Working with the Regional Batei Din, the RCA/BDA will create informational brochures for rabbis to use when meeting with potential converts. These brochures will assist the rabbi by conveying the standardized procedures and requirements to converts and those associated with them. For similar reasons, the RCA/BDA may establish a website with public access." Section 3.b.ii.

Making the beit din's conversion expectations concrete and measurable, as well as being clearly presented to the candidate, will resolve 90% of these issues. Most of us are content to wait however long we must for a conversion, but we want to know why we're waiting, and we want to know what's expected of us so that we can be sure we're on the right trajectory. Too many of us are told to "go and learn" for 1-2 years before entering any formal training/tutoring, and by that point, we've learned many things that must be un-learned.

My suggestion for the information a beit din should provide to a conversion candidate: an average timeline with the steps of the conversion process (or several versions of a potential conversion timeline), observance level required before conversion, what is prohibited before conversion, "appropriate" communities, "appropriate" congregations (since many batei din hold that Chabad need not apply as a sponsoring congregation), the required involvement and observance level of involved significant others, etc. These batei din appear to have answers to these questions, but refuse to release any useful information because obfuscating the process is their best discouragement technique. However, these same rabbis wrote and adopted the policy above, so why can't they enforce it? There are plenty of other areas for discouragement, not to mention that becoming an orthodox Jew is discouraging enough without the "guiding" rabbis tearing down your self-esteem.

It's the truly sincere candidates that the RCA is driving away, and most of them go through conversion anyway with a liberal congregation or an independent orthodox beit din. But of course, that fuels the argument that they "weren't sincere after all." After the stories I've heard recently, I don't blame them for leaving, and I in no way doubt their sincerity and desire to live as an observant orthodox Jew.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Convert Questions: What Does Hatafat Dam Brit Feel Like?

(Hatafat dam brit is the "drop of blood" drawn from an already-circumcised male as part of his conversion. It is the "completion" of brit milah, if you look at it as completing the original circumcision.)

This is a question that gets bantered around a lot, but no one gives an answer. I asked around and got a few answers, and maybe you want to share your knowledge/experiences in the comments! For those of you who are new to the blog, I'm female. I have no personal knowledge of this issue whatsoever.

The answers all boil down to "Not really." And usually, the anticipation was the worst part. Just like any other time you get blood drawn!

Interestingly, it was mostly described as "uncomfortable." Why? Think of getting blood drawn from a finger stick: sometimes the blood doesn't immediately come out. What do they do next? Squeeze your finger.

The other interesting answer shared that there may be two pinpricks because apparently there is an argument about where the drop of blood should come from. Therefore, don't faint if they say you have to get "stabbed" twice!

In summary, it gets built up as much scarier than it really is. If anything, it's uncomfortable and somewhat embarrassing. It's certainly not anything to be afraid of. You can feel better by feeling sorry for those poor converting schmucks who have to get a full bris!

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Check out this week's Haveil Havalim!

Haveil Havalim is a weekly round-up of blog posts from many members of the Jewish blogosphere. If you're interested in seeing what's on Jewish minds this week, check out To Kiss a Mezuzah, this week's host!

Friday, February 18, 2011

Orthodox Pop Culture: Internet Earworms

Over the last couple of years, several really awesome Jewish earworms have made their way onto YouTube. (Earworms are songs you can't get out of your head!) Just in case you missed them, here are some of my favorites! I get the feeling a lot more will appear in the Comments, which could make for one really awesome study break for this girl... (After all, my orthodox pop culture knowledge is necessarily limited to relatively recently.)

Shabbat shalom, and enjoy the light-hearted silliness!

There's a new one hitting the internet airwaves this week, a safe-for-work, "kol-isha free" version of Cee Lo Green's "F You" song. (Personally, I find the quality of the parody debatable, as opposed to the other videos below. However, the sound is right on!)

Now the Chanukah War between the very creative Yeshiva University Maccabeats and the always creative and enjoyable Matisyahu! I'm still trying to figure out the Matisyahu video and it's February. The Maccabeats, on the other hand, launched themselves straight into the limelight both in secular newstelevision and the blogosphere. The "most Jewish" blog post about the Maccabeats remains Will YOU Marry a Maccabeat?

And now my favorite, the Groggers! Posting a link to their "Get" video yesterday was the inspiration for this light-hearted Friday post.

The Groggers released a new video back in October, which is a lesser-known Jewish earworm. Have you ever wanted to combine "Eishes Chayil," creepy stalking, Breslovers, & killer clowns? Me too!

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Jewish Traditions in a Nutshell: The Ketubah and the Get

The New York Times had an article last Friday about non-Jews using ketubot (also Englishized by us English speakers as ketubahs) as part of their wedding ceremony: Christians Embrace a Jewish Wedding Tradition. (You may have to create a NYT account to view older stories.) This definitely goes in my "least expected national news stories of the year" file.

So what's the ketubah? It's basically the original pre-nup! And it is one of the earliest "feminist" documents, if you ask me.  It's a contract between a husband and wife that becomes effective upon marriage. However, the wife is not agreeing to anything other than marrying the husband. The entire agreement is what the husband will do for his wife, both during the marriage and upon a divorce.

There is a traditional text, but today there are many variations, both orthodox and liberal. Generally, the husband agrees to provide his wife with food, clothing, shelter, and fulfill her sexual needs. Yes, you read that last part right! There's that feminist element, written a couple thousand years ago (two thousand? Three?). It also lists her alimony rights in case of divorce, etc.

A recent (Facebook-powered?) movement is encouraging the use of particular language in all ketubahs that will legally (in the local courthouse sense) require the husband to provide a "get" (the "e" is pronounced "eh" like in "meh.") to the wife. So what's a get? It's a Jewish divorce, which happens to be a paper, much like the ketubah. You go before a beit din, and the beit din can even decide property and child issues if the parties wish. If the parties agree, a get decree can even be submitted to civil courts as the basis of a civil divorce. Most people, however, do the civil divorce and the Jewish get as totally separate "legal" proceedings. Note that one proceeding doesn't rely on the other, so you can get them in any order or even only one. (I do know of people with a get but no civil divorce.) However, if the wife does not get a get (practice your pronunciation!), she cannot remarry Jewishly. Civilly, yes she may remarry, but orthodox and conservative rabbis (and some reform, I'm told) will not officiate at a Jewish remarriage without a get. (A get does not apply if the woman was previously married to a non-Jew.)

And yes, the husband is always the one who "provides" the get to the wife, just as he "provides" the ketubah. Notably, even the Rabbinical Council of America (the RCA) has "adopted a resolution insisting that no member Rabbi officiate at a wedding unless a proper prenuptial agreement on get has been executed." The Conservative movement actually spearheaded this idea with the "Lieberman clause" in 1953. It's gaining speed in the orthodox community today. Personally, you can bet money that I'll have get language in my ketubah! Working in divorce law probably influences that a wee bit, but you should all do it regardless.

So why is there a Facebook movement about gets? Here's a controversy lesson for you: men are refusing to provide gets to their wives as a way to extort concessions in civil divorce proceedings (especially "Your alimony or your get"), as a form of emotional abuse, and/or as a way to get "revenge." How do these groups affect change in these very personal relationships? They encourage shunning the husbands. That's right: shtetle politics at its finest! But no lie, it works. It's effective. And it's gaining momentum.

For more information on "get" language, go to The Prenup. If the controversy of Jewish divorce interests you, the Organization for the Resolution of Agunot (ORA) is fighting for more peaceful and fair Jewish divorces. If you want some entertainment, check out my absolute favorite Jewish punk song/video: Get by the faked punk band the Groggers, which is apparently now a real punk band thanks to the popularity of this song.

Obviously, being single, I don't have a ketubah. As much as I love mezuzot, the ketubah feels very similar to me. It helps that they can be extremely pretty. You can bet, G-dwilling, that ketubah is getting framed and hung on my wall! And it will be the prettiest ketubah you ever saw.

Practical note: If you're going to frame your ketubah, remember to make a full-size, color photocopy and place it in a safe deposit box at the bank along with your conversion documents!

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Monster that Orthodox Conversion Has Become

You've already heard that conversion is like falling in love. But you may not know that getting an orthodox conversion can sometimes be like an abusive relationship.

In a cosmic sign that I can't escape this topic this week, Frum Satire posted yesterday "Stop Screwing with the Converts Already!"

The world Jewish community and Jewish politics have caused a "frummer than you" approach to conversion where the meaner, harder, and more demoralizing BD 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! A conversion can be plenty strict and "unquestionable" without breaking you like military boot camp. Conversion is painful enough without adding to our burden.

I want to emphasize that not all American batei din are like what I'm about to describe. However, it is the unquestionable trend, and new policies are popping up in the established batei din while more and more independent batei din "go out of business," so to speak.

Leaving specifics aside, this post will address the general issues: a) how/why have conversions changed, b) why are conversions more susceptible to rabbinic politics, and c) how are these changes affecting conversion candidates?

So let's talk about what it's like to convert orthodox in America today.

First, you should know that things changed about 5 years ago. In Israel in 2006, there was a mass de-conversion thanks to the discrediting of a prior head rabbi of conversions in the Israeli Rabbinate. News articles estimated that approximately 10,000 people were de-converted thanks to the discrediting of this rabbi. This made the rest of the world scramble to "standardize" their orthodox conversions to avoid such a thing in the future. If that doesn't sound like a big deal to you, please realize that all of those people, living their lives like anyone else, were suddenly declared "Not Jewish" because of rabbinic politics and a bad apple convert. Suddenly, they were intermarried, and many of their children to also be declared "Not Jewish." There's been very little discussion of how this issue was "fixed," but word on the street is that a gerus l'chumrah could "retroactively" restore their Jewish status. (As a side note, that means those born-Jewish female children who were suddenly "Not Jewish" also won't be eligible to marry kohanim.)

Three years ago, the Rabbinical Council of America (the RCA) approved a set of "Geirus Policies and Procedures" after negotiations with the Israeli Rabbinate. The Rabbinate apparently agreed to create a list of "presumptively approved for Jewish status for Rabbinte standards" batei din (BDs) and that the RCA could establish regional BDs to carry out conversions that would be accepted in Israel as being under the umbrella of the RCA. Today, there are 12 of these BDs in the US and Montreal. Some independent orthodox batei din (generally "liberal" modern orthodox and very strict chareidi/chassidishe) still function, but increasingly, everyone is being pushed through the RCA process. Some of these independent BDs are on the Approval List. (The list can change at any time and is not officially published by the Rabbinate. This has been compiled by an independent Israeli group.)

There is a severe lack of current statistics, so we're left with anecdotal evidence. I suspect that a majority, if not a super majority, of new conversion candidates are going to the RCA-approved BDs. Quite honestly, it's the smart thing to do as the halachic and Israeli rulings stand today. However, we all know that the tides of change come quickly when converts are involved, and those changes are always retroactive. (For example, see Converts and Aliyah.)

Soon...a conversion may require a vow against television and "unfiltered internet." (Just about everyone already requires that converts "of childbearing years" vow to send all children to yeshiva day school for 13 years, which limits new converts to living in approximately a dozen US cities. These young converts aren't allowed to even begin the conversion process until they've moved to an "acceptable" community.) I laughed when I first thought about the TV and internet comment, but then I met a someone with an (at the time) indefinitely delayed conversion whose community members told him the kedusha (holiness) of his home just wasn't high enough for a conversion because of those two things. Yes, this is really happening.

Why is the conversion process especially vulnerable to rabbinic politics? It’s much easier to let Jewish politics play out in the conversion arena. Converts-in-progress don’t have the standing or the resources to challenge corrupt, cruel, and/or ridiculous conversion regulations and rabbis. Who are they going to complain to when they're still learning the Jewish community? Who is going to be willing to stand up for someone who isn't part of Klal Yisrael yet? It’s singling out the weakest members of our communities to practice power politics. Even worse, there is practically no one willing to risk their rabbinic neck to stand up for these people. (Though there are wonderful, notable exceptions! But let's be honest: they may be risking their jobs and standing in the community.) If we conversion candidates challenge questionable/overly-stringent policies, people unfamiliar with today's orthodox conversion process think that we’re a) not dedicated enough to becoming Jewish, b) just don’t understand the halacha, and/or c) are whiney.

Remember the mitzvah to not oppress or abuse the convert or remind him/her of a non-Jewish past? Doesn't apply until the person is a "convert." (Of course, there are several interpretations of this mitzvah, but the bottom line is that none of those mitzvot appear to apply to the conversion candidate.) In fact, until the candidate comes out of that mikvah, that candidate is a gentile and there is no heightened standard of behavior as is generally required towards other Jews.

Before conversion, we’re essentially 3/5 of a Jewish person. With all the Jewish rights and power that idea conveys. (Not to make light of the historical reference. We really just aren't "worth" as much pre-mikvah as we are post-mikvah. Stories abound of borderline-cruel rabbis who suddenly become buddy-buddy as soon as the convert pops out of the mikvah!) A lot of people in the conversion world think that they’re “doing us a favor” by meeting with us/putting up with us, and therefore, we should be grateful for whatever bread crumbs of kindness we receive. And as noted near the beginning, the more they treat us like dirt on their shoe, the more the greater Jewish community is willing to accept that conversion. We are rewarding those with the worst behavior.

How are converts reacting to the increasingly hurtful American conversion process?

The converts/candidates I've spoken with in the last week (and before that) are overwhelmingly bitter, angry, and distrustful of rabbis. Instead of rabbis being seen as "guiding" a conversion, the candidates have become trained to expect that the BD will sabotage them at every turn, and they become paranoid, looking for the next instance of the BD's cruel words or outright sabotage. In many cases, the rabbis seem to believe that the ends justify the means. Newsflash: If you make a person despise you because you've unjustifiably broken his/her heart time and time again, they will never trust you. Never. You will never be friends. They will never respect you. The best of those people will avoid speaking lashon hara about you, but unfortunately, that is unlikely since we're all imperfect beings. Deigning to grant the candidate the privilege of becoming Jewish will not suddenly justify all the pain and suffering you have caused. And you have  caused the candidate to sin because it is nearly impossible to avoid holding a grudge, speaking lashon hara, or the 4 million other interpersonal mitzvot that hatred and anger can cause. The ends do NOT justify the means.

The most sickening case I've heard was someone whose file was "lost" after receiving approval for a tutor. This isn't unusual; at least one BD has an unwritten policy to lose every application multiple times (purposely creating months of lost time). A year later, the candidate contacted the BD and was told to go back to the very beginning of the conversion process. The BD supposedly had no record of the previous meeting, so they had written the candidate off as a "drop out." Even the sponsoring rabbi thought everything was hunky-dory. If the BD sticks to their guns, two years of that person's life have potentially been wasted. Straight up wasted. And the candidate is facing another two years of what has already been done. A long-time frum, devoted, community leader is a victim of seemingly-purposeful bureaucratic inefficiency that would rival the French or Israeli government. All in the name of rooting out the "insincere" candidate. If that candidate still isn't sincere, who of us is??

So what about me? I have a vague plan for myself at this point, but there are still a lot of issues to work out. I'm thankful to be in a position that I can completely turn my plans upside down with no more "real" hassle than confusing friends and family. After all, in a few months, I'm unemployed and unattached. I'm optimistic about the new plan, but it's intimidating. Thankfully, I've been blessed with the patience of many good friends who are familiar with the conversion process.  Once I shared my discoveries, they were just as shocked as I was. I was pretty afraid I was overreacting! So if you feel the same me, you're not overreacting. The world has gone crazy. And we conversion candidates must be crazy for staying, but this Jewish neshama came with a stiff neck, so I'm not going anywhere.

/rant. Let's hope someone out there is still willing to convert me after this post. But who else was going to say it? :/

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

UPDATED: How to Interview a New Jewish Community

Happy Half-Priced Candy Day! Now on to business...

During conversion, you feel like you're the one always being interviewed. And you are.

But at some point, maybe even during your conversion, you'll also get to interview someone: the rabbis and congregants of a new community. Hopefully you have a selection of communities! Even if not, an interview is still a good idea so that you know what you're getting yourself into.

(And I guess non-converts could use this list too, lol...)

Here are some questions I thought about for my own community-selection process, and I hope you'll add your own in the comments! I've divided the topics into categories, but the categories are pretty arbitrary and overlap. (A post about figuring out what you want in a community first is forthcoming!)

a) Demographics of the Jewish Community: Where is the kosher food, the mikvah, and the schools? Where can you buy fresh meat? Is there a kosher butcher? How diverse is the larger Jewish community? How diverse is the shul congregation? What is the Ashkenazi v. Sephardi v. everyone else breakdown? If you are a minority, how well will this community treat you? If you're single, can you find a marriage partner or will you have to look elsewhere? If you're an "older single," how well will this community treat you? If you happen to be a convert/conversion candidate, are there others in the community? Will the community treat you well if/when they know? Ditto if you're divorced and un-remarried, a single parent, a parent of a special needs child, a parent of adopted children, not "Jewish-looking enough," GBLT, or any other thing that makes you "weird."

b) Demographics of the Larger Community: How well do the Jewish community and the larger community get along? Have there been any anti-Semitic crimes or other hate crimes in recent years? Are there sidewalks where you plan to walk to shul? If not, have people been hit by cars while walking to shul? What kind of interfaith interaction is there? How well-lit/safe is the walk? How can you cross the street on Shabbat? Do the "walk" signs change without pressing a button or maybe there's a crossing guard? If not, do you feel safe crossing without a light? If you belong to a minority group, do you feel that the larger community is welcoming to you?

c) Hashkafah of the Synagogue: What is the hashkafah of the shul? (Hashkafah is translated as worldview, but it is often compartmentalized into labels like Modern Orthodox, Chabad, Chareidi, whatever. If you've always lived in a "one shul town," you may not know where you fit in!) Where do the rabbis and congregants see the congregation going in 5, 10, 20 years? Do they generally agree on the trajectory of the congregation? How bad are the synagogue politics? (They're all bad, but some are worse than others!) How is the leadership of the synagogue structured? Is the shul affiliated with a national organization? (If not, why not?) How welcoming is the community to new members and visitors? Do they daven (pray the services) fast or slow? How much singing is there? Are they lackluster singers? If you're female, are you looking for egalitarian or female-only opportunities?

d) Hashkafah of the Rabbi: What does the rabbi think his role is in the community? Where was he trained? Does he follow the rulings of a particular rabbi or rabbinic school? Is "his" rabbi still alive? Either way, if he has a question he can't answer, who does he ask? Does he have a halachic specialty? Are there topics he likes to focus on more than others? Do you want the rabbi to have a familiarity with something important to/about you? (For instance, I would want a rabbi at least somewhat familiar with halacha as it relates to pets!) Google the rabbi and see what you find. Is there more than one rabbi? If so, learn about the others too! If you have my luck, you'll first meet the one you like least! If you're female, it would be best to try to meet the rebbetzin or anyone else who generally advises women on women's issues.

e) Explore the Shul: Where are the men's and women's entrances? Are you comfortable with the mechitza? Where are the siddurs? Where are the bathrooms? What kind of classroom space is there for shiurim/learning? I suggest looking through the library and seeing what kinds of books you find. Is the building uncomfortably hot or cold? Is there a keilim mikvah (mikvah for immersing kitchen utensils)? Will you be comfortable in those seats for 3+ hours at a time? Is there an eruv? Where is the eruv and will you "hold" by it? How will you be notified about the status of the eruv each week? Are children welcomed during the services? Are there childcare/classes/alternative services for kids? Is a police officer present on the synagogue grounds during "high risk" times or even weekly? Is there a newsletter you can sign up for before you move?

f) Personal Growth: How many shiurim are offered each week? Do they fit your schedule? What are they about? Do the topics range from beginner to advanced so that you have room to grow in your learning? Are there other learning opportunities in the larger Jewish community to supplement those offered by your shul? Is it possible to suggest new topics or to arrange for special events of interest to you? What learning opportunities are there for your kids? Do you want special interest groups like singles, teens, young marrieds, Israel advocacy?

g) Arrange for a Shabbat visit when you've narrowed down the contenders. The shul should be able to arrange for hospitality that will allow you to stay with a congregant and arrange meals with various congregants. This is the hands-down best way to learn about the community. If possible, sit in on a class or two and go to a weekday davening.

h) Debrief: What was your knee-jerk reaction? Did people talk to you? Were they nice to you? Were they even polite to you? Did they offer to introduce you to others? Did you feel a connection with the rabbi(s)? Could you see yourself being friends with people in the congregation? Are there congregants of  similar age/experiences? Was the davening too fast or too slow? Does your observance level "fit in" with the community? Do you "fit in"? Did you feel comfortable, maybe even "at home"?

Monday, February 14, 2011

Action-Based Mitzvot and Ethical Mitzvot

I had a hard time deciding how to title this post. You can group mitzvos in any number of ways, but here I want to focus on 1) mitzvot that are primarily actions and 2) mitzvot that are primarily ethical (I also like calling them interpersonal). We each have a preference or one group that is easier than the other. Personally, I put a lot of emphasis on the ethical mitzvot. On the other end of the scale, some people feel a greater connection to the physical mitzvot.

Here is a quote from the Kuzari (the book) that struck me (paraphrasing the prophet Michah):
Obey the fundamental laws of ethics observed by even the most primitive societies, such as maintaining justice, helping the underprivileged, and thanking G-d for His bounty. You cannot properly fulfill the Divinely ordained laws unless you first observe the basic rational laws of ethics.

What is Michah and the book trying to say? By considering the greater context of the discussion, it seems to be arguing (something I've heard before) that after leaving Egypt, the Israelites needed to be succeed in those ethical laws before being judged worthy of standing at Sinai to receive the Torah: "These and similar [rules of ethics] are rational laws, [which you can yourself figure out]. They are the essentials that pave the way to the Divine Torah. No society can function without a code of behavior." In this way, the ethical mitzvot are prerequisites to Torah and the physical mitzvot.

Michah claims that Israel began to ignore the ethical laws during the time of the Second Temple. And that once those laws fell to the wayside, Israel didn't understand why they had to keep any of the laws, ethical or physical, and became unable to accept anything less than 100% certainty. However, life is uncertain. G-d is impossible to prove 100%. Even when you think you know something with absolute certainty, there can still be facts unknown to you. On the other hand, because nothing is certain, does that mean that you should throw everything out and believe nothing about the world, the universe, or G-d? Some do, and I can understand that. For the rest of us, we make the best decisions we can on the information we have. And I think that's still reasonable.

What's your take? Looking at the interplay between the physical and ethical sure is interesting! (And I apologize if this post is less than clear! I've only had a couple of hours of sleep!)

The prophet Michah is probably best known for the quote, "He has told you, man, what is good, and what G-d requires of you: only to do justly, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d."

Friday, February 11, 2011

Conversion is Expensive, Part II

In continuation of a previous post (Reason #84 You Know You're Crazy: Orthodox Conversion is EXPENSIVE!), here is the second edition of a possibly-indefinite series of posts warning you how horribly expensive orthodox conversion is (not "can be," IS).

I had meeting #2 with the beit din, and here is a breakdown of all the expenses I remember just to get to that meeting. (It doesn't include stuffing my face in every kosher restaurant I could see!)


  • Flight, $120. I saved $40 to use a different airport, and I will never fly into it again!
  • Shuttle from boondocks airport to civilization, $45 (the alternative was 3 hours on public transportation to go 31 miles)
  • Dog boarding for one night, $56
  • Airport parking, $27
  • Caffeine to keep me awake, $15
  • Work hours missed (aka, income not earned), $150
  • Two school classes missed, one of them being a class that only allows one absence per semester
  • An all-nighter in a desolate, scary airport that was ripe for a zombie invasion (Literally didn't see even a security guard for the first two hours! Super creepy!)

Money Saved:

  • I saved a bunch of time and money set aside for public transportation because of several people (both old friends and those met that day!) who were kind enough to offer me rides. I originally estimated that 8-9 hours of my 21 hour trip would be spent on city buses!
  • Staying in the airport saved me $75 in hotel and shuttle costs. However, it cost me a small part of my sanity. (I had several generous offers to sleep on couches, but a shuttle would still have to pick me up at 3:30am and cost another $45.) I'm a very adventurous traveler who has slept in airports several times before, yet I don't think I'd recommend this for anyone after a beit din. It's way too much sleep-deprived time to overanalyze everything that just happened. 

TOTAL: $413 plus a significant loss of sanity, sleep, and school time. All money that was set aside to help me to move to that new community, sigh. Remember that with application fees and other things, my first meeting cost me approximately $1,000, plus a couple hundred more on books. Since that time, I've spend another couple hundred on non-conversion-related Jewish books because I ran into some great sales on book sets.

And what was the result? 20 minutes with three rabbis and being told to call back to set up another meeting once I actually move to the new community (aka fulfill the Acceptable Community Requirement). From my perspective, it was effectively a repeat of my initial interview, though I'm sure they had other goals in that meeting. Being uber-rational, I'd be much more content to wait if I knew the reasons instead of being left to my own speculation. (I was later advised to be more assertive and ask about the things I'd like to know. Ironically, it's what I tell my customers at work every single day: "It never hurts to ask. The worst the judge can say is no." I was terrified that any question like that would open up another "discouragement" opportunity, and I was pretty tired of attempted discouragement at that point.)

Because of high demand for this beit din's appointments, that means no meeting until at least a month, maybe two, after I call to request an appointment. So...June or July. To quote someone familiar with my beit din, I'm in the "pre-limbo limbo." In other words, I haven't even started my conversion process. Le sigh. Back to the books and self-teaching. I'm pretty sick of books, ya know? After seven years with books and the internet as my primary teacher, I'm ready to deal with a real person! ("Real" teachers and rabbis are generally hesitant about teaching a conversion candidate until given permission by the beit din working with the candidate.) Unfortunately, I'm told it'll be 6-9 months before I'm assigned a tutor. The explanations of the process in documents and in person left out all the parts of the process between the initial interview and getting a tutor, and that has made a frustrated Kochava! Those left out parts add up to a year or more of converting that I hadn't even considered. I had resigned myself to a certain process, and now I've discovered it's almost twice as long as I had originally prepared myself for.

My advice to you? Start working with a beit din as soon as you are even entertaining the thought of an orthodox conversion. Being already frum is going to give me no time advantage in the conversion process. I'm still looking at 2.5-3 years of conversion despite having almost a year of orthodox living behind me. And if they ask you to wait in a "holding pattern," don't do it! It's equivalent to the beit din putting you in the archives. Be assertive and ask to continue meeting, even if it means multiple flights to them. I'm angry at myself for not being more assertive last fall. It just seemed so reasonable at the time! And this is coming from a person who has been called "overly assertive" in normal life! Though not to "normal lawyer" standards :)

As an interesting side note, today (7 Adar) is the anniversary of Conversion 1.0. At the time, it seemed like a very auspicious day for a conversion!

Thursday, February 10, 2011

UPDATED: When Can a Conversion Candidate Begin Wearing Jewish "Things"?

Of course, the cop-out, generic answer is always, "It depends on the person." It also depends on the "thing."

Let's start by talking about a couple of things, and then we can continue the discussion in the comments if you want to talk about other Jewish items!

Jewelry: Personally, I think anyone can wear Jewish jewelry at any stage. Heck, even people who have no intention of ever becoming Jewish can show an appreciation for Judaism with style! Of course, you need to be prepared for someone questioning you about it, based on the presumption that you must be Jewish if you're wearing Jewish "stuff." Therefore, don't wear the jewelry unless you're ready to deal with the conversations it can spark. And if you're not, you could still wear a necklace under your shirt or something similar that keeps it hidden from public view.

Tzitzit (specially knotted fringes usually only worn by orthodox men, though not all orthodox men): Your beit din will probably have an opinion on this. And being female, I don't know a lot about them or the laws of tzitzis. I have heard that they may be prohibited until after a conversion is complete, but that isn't verified. All that said, from an outsider perspective, it seems like tzitzit could be worn very early in the conversion process if a person finds meaning in them. However, I would suggest keeping them tucked in (a whole other topic in itself, from what I understand) because seeing the tzitzit could cause others to make assumptions about your Jewish status and rely on that for the sake of a mitzvah (particularly in making a minyan). I welcome any help in the comments section!

Kippah (Yarmulke): You can basically just re-read everything I just wrote about tzitzit. However, my understanding is that batei din have much more standardized protocols on converts wearing kippot outside of shul simply because they all require a male convert to be wearing a headcovering full-time long before a conversion is finalized. Remember to be very careful about others making assumptions about your status and relying on that assumption for the sake of a mitzvah. You should not be wearing a kippah until you are comfortable with and able to correct someone's assumption.

Of course, because of the attention it can cause, full-time kippah wearing is probably not recommended until you're relatively far along in the process. Let's not kid around; wearing a kippah can be dangerous. It's like having the bat signal for anti-Semites on your head. Therefore, I think a lot of the analysis on when to begin wearing a kippah has to do with personal comfort with the concept. However, similar to the hidden jewelry suggestion, my understanding is that many men begin by wearing a "regular" hat of some kind more often, then wearing those hats full-time, and then the hat with a kippah underneath before venturing out with only the kippah. In other words, working your way to full-time kippah wearing gradually and with attention to the place and people. Of course, a hat by itself is fine as a headcovering halachicly,  from what I understand (though community standards may dictate more strictly). Remember that you're not tied to only wearing a kippah every moment of every day. (Unless that's how your community rolls.)

Tallit: My understand is that in most American communities, only married men wear a tallis except for a single man leading the davening. However, other communities begin wearing a tallis at the age of bar mitzvah. Check with your beit din, but commenters below and comments from others tell me that this is generally something that will wait until after conversion.

Tefillin: Sorry, guys, this one waits until conversion. However, like a bar mitzvah, you may be asked to practice with a tefillin set without the parchment inside for a couple of months leading up to your conversion.

Women covering their hair: Similar to the kippah conversation, this should probably be implemented gradually. Also, you will want to be prepared for the conversations that can be provoked by a full haircovering like a snood, sheitel, or tichel (as opposed your run-of-the-mill hat). Also be careful that someone doesn't make assumptions about your status that may affect the fulfillment of a mitzvah. I can't think of any examples, but maybe you can. Now when to begin wearing? If you're not married, don't. If you are married, then begin covering whenever you feel comfortable doing so. Many start with only covering inside shul and go forward  from there. Most women I've spoken to/heard from about haircovering later in marriage say that they finally reached a day when they "needed" to cover their hair.

I better see some active commenting on this topic, especially from you men!

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

When Is It OK to Say "I'm Jewish," Even If You Really Aren't?

If you're like most people, you haven't really thought about this question.

But yes, there are times when you will be asked if you are Jewish, and you should answer a simple "Yes," even if you've had no conversion. (And even if you've taken no formal steps at all!)

Here are the usual suspects:
a) When you're requesting a religious accommodation. School, employers, meal requests, etc. They're required by law to at least try to accommodate you, and most (especially colleges) will do so easily and may even have standard procedures. My understanding is that they can't even inquire into your statements about your religion, except for clarification of the details or to request a letter from a clergy member. And of course, they can question if they think you're a liar :) That's normally cleared up with a clergy letter though.

My community rabbi was clever enough to come up with a letter for me to give to my school that satisfied my needs, but also didn't say, "I certify that this girl is a Jew." There is a legitimate worry there because people who are less-than-honorable can abuse these kinds of documents to try to "prove" a Jewish status that doesn't exist. Here's what the main part of it said (edited for privacy, of course): "Kochava attends and is affiliated with my congregation and practices orthodox Judaism. Because of this, she is strictly forbidden to work and take tests or classes on the Sabbath and Festivals." Then it went into an explanation of what holidays are included and an explanation that these dates don't correspond to the Gregorian calendar. That was just plain great writing for a conversion candidate.

b) When filling out hospital forms. Listing yourself as Jewish will send a rabbi to you instead of a preacher! G-d willing, you should never need the counsel of a chaplain at a hospital, but you want them to send the right one if the need arises! It can also affect the mortuary they call if you were to pass away in their facilities. You will probably be asked for this even if you're not being admitted. The hospital just wants this information in their records in case the day comes when you're brought in for an emergency. You might not be able to express your wishes if you're unconscious!

My take on this:
1) They have no right to inquire into your Jewish status and private life.
2) Most people who will be asking this question don't even know anything about Jewish status to begin with. Be thankful for the American Christian tradition that has trained people to think you are a member of a religion as soon as you say you are! (Even many American Jews believe this!)
3) If you did launch into the "No, but..." explanation, you've opened the door for them to try to deny you a religious accommodation.
4) If you've had a conversion already but are pursuing a different one, congratulations! You're definitely legally Jewish for secular legal purposes! You should have no qualms saying, "Yes, I'm Jewish" for these secular purposes.

BEWARE: Be cautious giving the simple "Yes, I'm Jewish" answer if you suspect that the person may rely on that information for the sake of a mitzvah. For example, if you are asking for a religious accommodation from a professor who is Jewish, there is the risk that the professor may one day try to count you in a minyan. However, you could wait to give the qualification until it actually becomes an issue. If there were a more direct connection between the statement and a mitzvah, tread carefully. Use your best judgment.

Can you think of any other situations when this rule of thumb might apply?

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Update on Converts and Aliyah: Reviewing the Law of Return

Do you ever get tunnel vision? Apparently I do. And I did when I wrote Convert Questions: Converts and Aliyah.

Let's summarize that post quickly: There are two times where your "Jewish" status matters when making aliyah to Israel: (1) for the Rabbinate (orthodox converts only, and even then it's not a given) and (2) the Ministry of the Interior, who decides who gets to become an Israeli citizen. The paradox I noted before was that the Rabbinate could think you're the frummest Yid since Moshe Rabbenu, but still not qualify as a Jew for purposes of the Law of Return. The Ministry of the Interior has unreleased (and sometimes changing) internal regulations that could prevent a convert from making aliyah because of an uncorrectable "flaw" in their conversion. As of right now, the policies in place require 1 year of residence in the converting community AFTER the conversion is complete. (I've also seen 9 months. Note that this policy was declared an unconstitutional violation of the Law of Return by the Israeli Supreme Court, so the Ministry of the Interior just started secretly enforcing this regulation.) This is bad if you converted 5, 10, or 20 years ago and moved to a new community within that year. You just can't fix that. Similarly, they're requiring a certain amount of study time as part of the conversion process (I've seen 350 hours), which is also something that can't be "corrected" later.

If you're like me and have no familial Jewish connections, that post is still true. However, the very clever Ronit reminded me to look at the other provisions of the Law of Return. (That's the law that allows Jews from anywhere in the world to immigrate to Israel with automatic citizenship.)

The Law of Return defines "Jew" (ironically enough) according to the same criteria used by the Nazis in their Nuremberg Laws: Anyone with one Jewish grandparent or who has a spouse with at least one Jewish grandparent. (Note that any halachic Jew who "voluntarily changed his religion" is ineligible for citizenship under the Law of Return. That includes Messianic Jews, but not Messianic Jews without a Jewish mother.) With all that in mind, let's look at some possible situations that can still get you converts back to the Land of Milk and Honey!

a) You get married to a Jew! You were going to do that anyway, right? If you got married (or were married before your conversion) to a Jew of any stream, you can make aliyah as a Jew, all internal regulations aside! No needing to wait a year, and no worrying about the hours requirement. Like you really needed the state of Israel to jump on the "What, you're 22? Get married and have babies already!" bandwagon.

b) You have a father or at least one grandparent who is Jewish. Proving that can get tricky, though. However, people do it all the time, so it can be done.

Basically, when do these regulations matter? When you're single and don't have Jewish family. AKA, this girl over here. Hence...tunnel vision. I apologize if I caused you any unnecessary fear, and may we all merit to live in the land!

Monday, February 7, 2011

Monday Thoughts

I don't actually have an official post for today. Just checking in on the personal level.

Tomorrow I take a 24 hour trip to meet with the full beit din for the first time. As you can imagine, I'm a wee bit nervous. But more than that, I'm annoyed with myself. I realized that I've been basically living an orthodox life for 11 months now (8 months since I got kashrut implemented fully in my house, thanks to a move), but without being in an official process, there's no "credit" for that, no way to really prove it. That means it feels like another year of wasted time (going on 7 of those) because I couldn't get off a fence. I could have pushed things forward, but I accepted the "why don't we just think of this as a holding pattern until you move?" idea without a second thought. Since I was just starting my final year of law school, this even seemed like reasonable advice. This is a scary process, and at the time, the "holding pattern" still felt like I was moving forward. Now...I'm not so sure it was. It was still some kind of moving forward on my end, but I don't know what it was on their end. I worry that it's going to be counted as dead time.

To my credit, I've learned a lot in the last year, but it (and more!) could have been learned more easily, regularly, and cohesively in a structured process.

So tomorrow, hopefully, I'll get the parameters of my official conversion process and get the green light to begin studying with a tutor. I have very little hope of being given a time-frame, and that's ok. I'm very blessed to have such wonderful in-real-life and virtual friends who've been so encouraging over the last few weeks and months!

I just want to finish this so I can get on with living a normal Jewish life. Sometimes it's very draining to be status-less. I'd just like to be the average, run-of-the-mill Jew for once. And honestly, I'd like to stop thinking, talking, and writing about conversion all the time. I just want to be. Several of you have been kind enough to tell me how helpful this blog has been for you. It's been equally helpful for me because I needed to get these thoughts out of my head and onto a piece of paper. (Any other GTDers out there??) If I can write these things down, they rattle through my head a lot less. So perhaps the moral of the story is that I really AM crazy after all ;)

(I also have a less "freak-out" Jewish errand tomorrow! I'm going to meet a rabbi to learn about his congregation as my potential new shul home :D I'm very excited about it because I think it's going to be a very good fit!)

In other personal news, the puppy is growing like a weed! And he's generally as stinky as a weed too. Also, he ate my glasses on Shabbos. Literally. I think he might be amoral because he has no concept of the word "no" or shame. Off to the optometrist with me!

Friday, February 4, 2011

A Blogger Tries to Understand the Convert and Baal Teshuva Communities

Since I started blogging, I don't get to keep up with reading other blogs as much as I would like. The overwhelming side-effect of blogging is that now I've discovered literally over 50 new blogs that I would love to read in addition to the 15ish I used to read religiously. School and work have only made the situation worse, especially since I'm still trying to catch up from missing the first week of the semester because of the flu! This means that the individual promotion of a post is normally the only reason I get to a particular blog. Hat tip to one of my favorite FFBs, Heshy Fried of the blog Frum Satire for bringing this post to my attention!

Blogger Harry Maryles has written a post titled Three Questions for the Ger and Baal Teshuva on the blog Emes Ve-Emunah. He asks three questions:

  • What inspired you to become frum/Jewish?
  • How have your family and friends accepted you becoming observant/Jewish? I would also ask this question somewhat in reverse. How do you deal with your family and friends?
  • The Shidduch question: how does a Baal Teshuva or a Ger find a marriage partner?
Of course, each of us would answer those questions differently. A lot of people have shared their answers in the comments following the entry, if you're curious to learn about other people's processes!

In case you're curious about my Great Thoughts, here are my answers, in short-and-sweet form:

What inspired you to become frum/Jewish?
It was right for me, and I believe that it's true. And being a type-A, practical, psychologically-inclined person, I love how the Torah doesn't hide the faults of the Patriarchs/Matriarchs and other Torah personalities, and Jewish law also "takes us where we are." The goal is locating where you are now and where you want to go, and then Jewish law/thought gives you methods for growth in that direction.

How have your family and friends accepted you becoming observant/Jewish? I would also ask this question somewhat in reverse. How do you deal with your family and friends?
The beauty of America is that 90% of Americans have been so influenced by Christianity that they think, " say you want to be Jewish. I guess that means you are now." That "magic phrase of change" mentality means that my family thought of me as Jewish for years before I ever got off the convert-or-don't-convert fence. Also, since I've taken such a long time, they've been able to adjust at their own pace. Granted, they see themselves as respectful and open-minded people, and that kind of self-vision is half the battle because it commits them to act in accordance with how they see themselves. There's your pop psychology for the day! It also helps that they aren't fire-and-brimstone Christians (while I grew up in an atheist home, my step-family is Episcopalian).

On the other hand, it's my secular/liberal Jewish friends that have been the most difficult as I've become more observant. I would say those are the only friends I've lost, and I'm very sorry for that. However, I can't blame them: Most of them have had friends "frum out" and effectively become pushy Jewish missionaries. Why should they expect me to be any different? The non-Jewish friends (or the friends who are only vaguely-connected Jewishly) have generally been curious and respectful. They've given me many opportunities to try to explain halacha and Jewish life quickly and simply, and it's a lot easier to have that practice with a sympathetic audience! It makes explaining these issues to a professor, employer, and stranger a lot easier because I've gotten to do my "market research," so to speak.

The Shidduch question: how does a Baal Teshuva or a Ger find a marriage partner?
Depends on each person. I think the shadchan (matchmaker) route is MUCH less successful for converts, and to some extent, also for BTs. This is exponentially more true in the case of Jews of color: Shadchans have a terrible reputation for matching JoCs based solely on skin color. "You're black, they're black. Of course that's more likely to produce a better marriage because that person will understand you better than some FFB Lithuanian!" However, the right shadchan (or a friend acting as an informal shadchan) can be worth his or her weight in gold.

Shabbat Shalom! Conversion Is Like Falling in Love

In the beginning, you decide to convert, and you are infatuated. You want to breathe, sleep, and eat Judaism every hour of the day. Any time spent apart physically hurts. The "eccentricities" of Judaism and Jews are cute, and you're glad you noticed them.

You begin learning everything you can get your hands on, just like those long, all-night-long phone conversations.

And then reality begins to sink in. Judaism becomes a normal part of everyday existence instead of something so new and fresh. The eccentricities no longer look so cute, and they begin to annoy you. Your patience begins to run thin. 

Some days you love Judaism, and some days you want to hit it in the face. You don't understand why Judaism does the things it does, and then some days you discover a love letter waiting for you. You love it, you hate it, it excites you, it confuses you.

It drives you crazy, but you still love it. And everyone else wonders what you see in it.

Shabbat shalom! May you have a "date night" with Judaism this Shabbos, and may you be reminded of that puppy love in the beginning of your relationship!

Thursday, February 3, 2011

UPDATED: The Factors to Consider When Choosing to Convert

According to me, there are three major considerations when choosing where/how to convert. These three guideposts should help you decide a) the movement you want to convert with and then b) the community/rabbi/beit din you want to convert with.

a) How you feel about your conversion.
At the end of the day, this should be the most important: Do you feel that you are fully and legally Jewish? Usually, converts shift this to the backseat in favor of the other two concerns. But if you don't take this seriously and convert in a movement/community you're not comfortable with, it will tear at you because your internal and external selves will be out of alignment.

This is where people start talking about money, jobs, and family impeding a "healthier" choice. Of all things, your relationship with G-d should be the foundation for those things. However, people fear change, and conversion can bring change you never even imagined. And sometimes, you really are between a rock and a hard place. Think creatively and you may find a solution that is even better than your current situation! Flexibility, a sense of adventure, and a healthy dose of patience will serve you well in all aspects of your conversion. I also recommend having creative and trustworthy people to brainstorm with!

Don't sell this point short. It'll make you unhappy if you do.

b) How the community feels about your conversion.
In theory, whatever community you're converting in should accept the conversion their leader does. The problem usually comes when you move or when you're dealing with the "larger" Jewish community, even if it's the Jewish day school down the street. This is the element most out of your control.

Really, this is the one that takes patience and a thick skin. Try not to wear your heart on your sleeve. Your conversion is what it is, and no amount of cajoling from you will make it acceptable to someone who doesn't want to accept it. Nine times out of ten, it's better to just walk away and try to accomplish your goal somewhere else. Hopefully, you have that option! Sometimes you don't. And if you don't, is there a way to create a similar opportunity yourself or within your own community? You may have located a real need for your community!

Once you've thought about these things, you can decide where you want to live. That may or may not be where you currently live, and if you're planning to convert orthodox, you shouldn't make that final decision until you've spoken to a conversion beit din about your situation. After all, one of the worst conversion issues to have is being required to move to a new community, but your situation delays or prohibits that move. On the other hand, if you're planning to move to New York City, Los Angeles, or Toronto, you can be pretty certain that they could only ask you to move to a different part of town. I don't recommend buying a house anywhere until your conversion is finished, simply to avoid these issues. And if you already own a home, realize that you may be asked to sell it and move, and that may be a condition of your conversion process.

This factor is also where you should assess which beit din within a movement you want to convert through. In probably 90% of liberal conversions, the community rabbi is the obvious (and only) choice. He or she will convene a beit din made up of either other rabbis or respected laypeople in the congregation. Some of the larger Jewish communities have larger liberal conversion processes. For instance, the conservative community in Los Angeles has a very streamlined program through the American Jewish University.

For orthodox conversion candidates, the question is much harder: RCA or not RCA? The Rabbinical Council of America has attempted (controversially) to streamline orthodox conversion procedures in order "to comply with halacha" and to presumptively qualify as valid conversions for the Israeli Rabbinate. The Rabbinate has agreed (until they change their minds) to presumptively accept conversions performed by the regional batei din overseen by the RCA. On the other hand, some conversion candidates don't agree with RCA rulings or otherwise don't wish to have an RCA conversion. (Keep in mind that the batei din on the RCA list are not all in the same stream of orthodoxy. There are chareidi and other non-Modern/Centrist Orthodox groups on the list, if that is the type of conversion you would like. Even the more Centrist/General-purpose Orthodox batei din allow you to "personalize" your conversion through your choice of shul and sponsoring rabbi.)

Others who choose not to pursue a RCA conversion simply have a community rabbi or community beit din willing to convene a beit din without all the fuss and hassle of traveling to an RCA regional beit din every three months or so. (The closest beit din could easily be several states away.) If you plan to have an RCA conversion, most American orthodox rabbis will understand why, and most of those rabbis will support the choice. Many community rabbis stopped performing their own conversions after the new RCA procedures were adopted in 2007, so your community may determine your conversion options. Note that many chareidi communities have their own beit din that will still perform conversions. However, read below to see how those conversions work for aliyah.

I suggest having a frank discussion with your community rabbi about the choices available to you and the pros and cons of each. Keep in mind that RCA conversions are now so difficult, so well documented, and so regimented (and not to mention lengthy) that it's pretty unlikely that a convert who remains orthodox (even if he or she moves to a different stream of orthodoxy) will have the conversion questioned. That in itself is a good reason for going the RCA route. You know your conversion will be thorough and widely accepted. I think the procedures in at least some of the regional batei din could be compared to a year or more in seminary or yeshiva. Personally, I like that, even though it makes the process longer, more difficult, and more expensive. (The $25-50/hour for private tutoring is probably the single most expensive element. Imagine a weekly hour session for 1-3 years!)

The take-away of this point: think about how you would react if someone rejected your conversion as valid. What if they denied you from taking a class, joining their synagogue, or rejected your child's application to a Jewish school?  This should inform your choices, but it should NOT be the deciding factor; go into your conversion with your eyes wide open. You're never going to be "ok" with someone rejecting your conversion, but you will still have to come to terms with the possibility (some would say inevitability). Unfortunately, most people let this factor decide for them, potentially leading to a great deal of frustration and unhappiness. On the other hand, whichever movement you choose, make sure you actually want to be there! Choose the movement you believe in, even if that means dealing with more flack from people than you'd like. It's a lot easier to handle the flack and stupidness when you're happy with your choices.

c) How "good" the conversion is for aliyah purposes.
As I noted in the converts and aliyah post, you can have the strictest conversion in the world and still "fail" to be Jewish for aliyah purposes. You can read more in that post, but the general rule is that a conversion from any movement is theoretically valid for aliyah (for government purposes, not Rabbinate ones). The trick comes with satisfying the government regulations that have created additional requirements: 1) living in the converting community for a year after the conversion is final and 2) a minimum study requirement of 350 hours. (These requirements are presumably retroactive to conversions performed before the regulations existed.)

Going back to the RCA/Not RCA conversation above, I mentioned that those regional batei dins are presumptively accepted as valid for the Rabbinate. On the Israeli "approval list," (listed at the top of the Links page) there are some non-RCA batei din listed and accepted. Their conversions will also (until the Rabbinate decides otherwise) be accepted as presumptively valid for the purposes of the Rabbinate. As all of you probably already know, any liberal conversion is presumptively invalid for the Rabbinate (and by presumptively, I mean Hashem might have to speak from the Heavens to get them to accept it). But what if you convert with your local orthodox rabbi or a community beit din that isn't on that list? Your conversion may still be accepted as perfectly valid (and the more chareidi your beit din, the better your chances), but those conversions are individually "verified" as being halachicly valid. I don't know what that would entail, but it's one more hassle I don't want in my life.

Good luck making your very important choices. And if you change your mind, you probably can. It may happen during a conversion process or after you've completed it. However, you may lose a lot of time. If you're single and want to try to have children, that could be a significant factor for you. Of course, you don't want to make a decision for the wrong reasons and then have a spouse to deal with when you change your mind! (But for the record from the person who works in divorce: divorcing "because of religious differences" is unlikely to be the real culprit. It's much more likely to be a more foundational problem like lack of communication or poor money management. For full disclosure purposes, I blame almost all divorces on those two issues, abuse, and cheating.)

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Convert Rants: Discouraging the Conversion Candidate

Everyone hears that a rabbi "has" to discourage a conversion candidate 3 times. Some rabbis don't hold by that at all. Some do exactly three and then will begin a congenial conversion learning process. Some may or may not obviously discourage before working with you, but will continue to discourage you regularly and to varying degrees of questionable ethics. I don't think I'll ever forget the rabbi who would schedule appointments with me and then just not show up. He "forgot." At the time, I just thought he was disorganized and possibly rude, but with the benefit of hindsight, I believe it was on purpose. And to this day, I personally think that's going "beyond the call of duty," so to speak. Notably, this was not an orthodox rabbi. This is not solely an orthodox problem, though I suspect it is more widespread and generally more severe in orthodox conversions. Discouragement is one thing. Rudeness, poor manners, and cruelty are another. As if the Holocaust, anti-semitism, and kashrut aren't enough to discourage the average person from converting to Judaism!

Rabbis are one thing.

All the other Jews is another.

Every time someone has quoted that discouragement idea to me, they talk about rabbis. So then why do non-rabbi Jews like to get on the discouragement bandwagon? I personally haven't had much of a problem with this, but it's one of the most common "bad experiences" I hear from other converts. Other Jews seem to feel perfectly comfortable telling conversion candidates that Jews will make them miserable, no one will ever want to marry them, and no one will accept them or their children as Jews. Or any other thing they can think of to "fulfill the mitzvah of discouraging the potential convert." I'm sorry, but I don't believe that's your mitzvah to fulfill. Just like it's not mine to slaughter sacrifices in the place of a kohen.

Dear Jewish public:
It is up to the rabbi to decide when and if a conversion candidate should be discouraged. In fact, you probably don't know enough about the conversion candidate to make a halachic ruling whether discouragement would be a) appropriate and b) necessary. This is not your responsibility, nor your place. Cease and desist. Once it crosses a certain point, I'm physically incapable of fulfilling the mitvah of judging favorably because your behavior is so irrational, cruel, and misguided.
Abused Converts

Of course, there is the idea of the mitzvah not reminding a convert of his past and all the interpretations of that mitvah, but that only applies after the conversion is complete. And that is a totally different post that will come soon enough.

Let's look at a more foundational problem here, both with rabbis and laypeople: The ends do NOT justify the means. Nine times out of ten, rabbis are (really) genuinely nice people, but they can get caught up in this discouragement cycle, especially as the orthodox conversion procedures spiral out of control in a quest to become "unquestionable." These people don't realize the harm they're doing to conversion candidates and that the convert will remember every single cruel word, rude act, and other poor behavior. Eventually converting them is a wonderful end for the convert, but the average convert is not suddenly going to understand the pain you caused him/her, forgive you, and feel buddy-buddy with you. They will remember the means you used, and it can have long-lasting emotional and psychological effects. Most notably, it can create a deep-seated distrust of the clergy and anyone else in power in the Jewish world.

I think it's most telling that when I think about these stories, I think of an abused dog who forever jumps at loud noises and always wonders if his owner is going to pet him or hit him.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

What Is a Hebrew Name, and What Does It Do?

A commenter had a great question, and I decided to write about it in a longer form and make it accessible to the rest of you! Basically, what is the point of a Hebrew name? When, where, and why is it used?

First, what is a Hebrew name? At its most basic, it's your Jewish legal name. You already have an English legal name, and a Hebrew legal name serves almost all the same functions, which we'll address in a minute. A Hebrew name is a new name that a convert will choose for himself or herself as a part of the conversion. The name may be Yiddish, Ladino (the Sephardic equivalent of Yiddish), or otherwise not Hebrew. However, most are Hebrew.

What does a Hebrew name look like? For born Jews, a Hebrew name consists of three names: yours, your mother's, and your father's. Translated, it is written as "Rebecca daughter of David and Sarah" or "Joshua son of David and Sarah." That's the full version of the name, but shortened forms are used in different contexts. Using our examples, if Joshua is being called to the Torah on Shabbat, he will be called by his father's name only: "Joshua son of David." If Joshua were sick and asked people to pray for him, he would give them his Hebrew name with his mother's name: "Joshua son of Sarah."

Now let's put that into Hebrew terms. Daughter of = "bas" if you use Ashkenazi pronunciation and "bat" if you use Sephardi pronunciation. "And" is v'. Therefore, Rebecca is "Rebecca bat David v'Sarah."

If a born-Jew's parents don't have Hebrew names, common practice is to use the parents' English names in the formula above. And if a Jewish child wasn't given a Hebrew name, that person can choose a Hebrew name at any point. A rabbi might make it "official" using a prayer during the Shabbat (or other Torah reading service), but I'm unclear whether that is necessary. Just using it may be enough.

What does a convert's Hebrew name look like? It's the same set-up as above, except that Avraham and Sarah from the Torah are considered your "spiritual parents." People sometimes say that this means that you are no longer the child of your parents, at least in a legal sense. Some say that's true even in the literal sense. I think those are minority opinions, especially as a convert is still required to fulfill the mitzvah of honoring your father and mother, and that generally refers to the people who raised you. (Complicated discussion, let's save it for another day.)

Therefore, using my own name as an example, I am "Kochava bat Avraham v'Sarah." Most (especially on documents) expand the name to "Kochava bat Avraham Aveinu v'Sarah Imenu."

What about when a patrilineal Jew converts? Or the child of a mother who converted in a way not accepted by the child's current affiliation? Depending entirely on who you talk to, the convert may have Avraham and Sarah as his or her "parents." However, they may also have their Jewish parent's or parents' Hebrew names, even if the converting rabbi doesn't view that parent as "Jewish." This is generally a much more complicated issue.

Physically, what does a Hebrew name look like? Most importantly, it's written in Hebrew on all official documents. Therefore, you need to verify the correct Hebrew spelling before your conversion is final. Remember that the same sounds can be written several ways in Hebrew, so you might accidentally give yourself a nonsense word, or worse, a word that means something else! You'll also need to remember the letters used so that you can spell your Hebrew name for someone else. (And that means knowing how to correctly spell the parent portion of your name too!) Sometimes the English transliteration will be good enough, but all the "legal" uses will need the Hebrew letter version.

What must a Hebrew name used for? As I said above, it's your Jewish "legal" name. Think about what your legal English name does (especially if you go by a nickname or other name normally): it goes on forms and is used in professional situations. The bare minimum when you will have to use your Hebrew name is 1) your naming as a baby or upon conversion, 2) being called to the Torah in a synagogue service, 3) when you ask someone to pray on your behalf, 4) getting married, 5) getting divorced, 6) when you die, 7) after you die (such as when people remember your yartzeit - the anniversary of your death). It will likely come up at other times, like on synagogue membership forms or enrollment forms for your children to attend a Jewish school/program.

When can you use a Hebrew name? Really, whenever you want. The two extremes: a) limit its use to the legal situations described above or b) legally changing your English name to match your Hebrew name. It's fine to only use your Hebrew name when required, and there doesn't appear to be any stigma or stereotype related to doing so. Legally changing your name can be annoying and difficult, depending on what state you live in. State laws govern how to legally change your name. However, changing your name due to marriage tends to relax the normal rules exponentially. As a general rule, either or both partners to a marriage can change their name at that time (and you should be given the right forms with your marriage license). My understanding is that you can generally change your name however you like at that point, whether or not you take on a partner's last name, so long as you don't violate any of the laws related to a name change. (Remember when Prince became the Symbol Formerly Known as Prince? Doesn't fly in just about any state. Neither does naming yourself after a famous person or other trademark without a good reason. No, you cannot name yourself Brad Pitt or Kentucky Fried Chicken. Check your state laws for more information, and remember that I am not qualified to give legal advice.)

Adding a Hebrew name as a middle name or changing it to your middle name could be good middle ground option. It would be especially handy if it is your first middle name, which means it would be printed on your driver's license and passport. If you plan to use your Hebrew name as your everyday name, having your Hebrew name on English legal documents can make your life a LOT easier.

You do not need to legally change your English name to use your Hebrew name as your full-time name. You can correct your teachers, co-workers, and spouse so that they will only refer to you by your Hebrew name. This takes some adjustment for most people (both you answering to that name and them remembering to use it!), so be patient. I don't suggest using it when dealing with any government agency, such as the DMV, Social Security Administration, or the police. You might accidentally end up committing a crime by "misrepresenting" yourself. Definitely do not do this if you've been arrested!

What if the jury is still out? You can use your Hebrew name selectively, only in certain social circles. That would allow you to maintain your English name for work or school purposes, but you could use the Hebrew name whenever you want. For instance, the only place I use my Hebrew name is actually this blog. I like my English name, and both names are relatively unusual. And like many converts I've spoken to, I've already been published under this name in my field, so I don't expect my English name to go away anytime soon. However, I purposely chose a name that I would feel comfortable using as a full-time name one day (especially if I make aliyah), and I may make it my middle name legally whenever I get married.

In summary, your Hebrew name is yours and yours alone. Sometimes you'll be forced to use it, so I suggest picking one you like. Other than those prescribed times, you can use it as much or as little as you like. However, no matter what you choose, a lot of people in your past (especially family) will probably always know you by your English name. This is especially true if you pick a name that is difficult for English speakers to pronounce!