Friday, September 9, 2011

What If You Live Outside a Jewish Community - Temporary Solutions

This post is intended for people living outside easy driving distance of an orthodox community. We're not talking about "living outside the community" as in "living 5 miles from the eruv and shul."

I'm going to share how I would approach living in an area without any Jewish resources. As always, each situation is different and your mileage may vary. I have two situations primarily in mind:
  • People who live in "un-Jewish" American areas, such as Wyoming or Rock Hill, South Carolina.
  • People who live in countries with little or no Jewish history and presence.
Both groups can face significant anti-Semitism, so I take that into consideration. However, safety is relative.

General Principles
This is a temporary solution, maybe two years maximum (ideally). After that, you should be living in a community. That means working hard, saving up money, and moving. It may even mean transferring to another university if you're currently in school. (Or waiting until you graduate, however long that is.) If you live in a country that doesn't have an established Jewish community, you are in a difficult situation because you will generally need a visa to live and work in another country. (Don't underestimate the value you may get from hiring an immigration attorney! It's worth at least a consultation. I'm not an immigration attorney, so please don't ask me about your situation!)

This is not an ideal situation. It will be difficult and frustrating and you will feel very alone sometimes. However, maybe you can find some comfort in the fact that you are neither the first nor the last person to be here. You can get through this period and successfully convert in an orthodox community. Many others have done so. When you finish, you'll know that you can accomplish anything! And you will have an olam haba that others can only dream of.

Step one: Google "Jewish X," replacing X with the name of your city, state, or country. When I researched law schools, I googled such things as "Jewish Boston," "Jewish Sacramento," and "Jewish New Orleans." Even the outdated webpages on Angelfire from 1998 can give names and places as a starting point. Go to the cemeteries, museums, synagogues (remember to keep safety in mind, particularly in foreign countries), etc. This is your foundation.

After that, everything else depends on you and your situation. I'm going to free-form brainstorm below, and others are welcome to add their experiences and suggestions to the comments. I've broken the suggestions into four categories:

  • Socialize with Jews
  • Learn
  • Increase Your Observance
  • Working Towards Conversion

Socialize with Jews 
There is simply no substitute for the real thing. As amazing as Judaism is on paper, if you end up hating Jews, you will eventually hate Judaism. It really is a gigantic version of the stereotypical loud, busy-body family. That has pros and cons. Am Yisroel Chai, the Jewish people live, and you need to get to know them just as much as you need to learn halacha.

Leverage your social media resources. Use advanced searches in Facebook, Twitter, or any other social media platform you regularly use to locate people who self-identify as Jewish. Email them, chat online with them, invite them out for coffee. You never know. Again, be safe.

Use real-life socialization websites. I only know two possible sites, but I'm sure others exist: Meetup and Couchsurfing. These sites allow you to arrange or join group social events. Meetup allows for group meetings, and Couchsurfing allows you to contact individuals who have volunteered to make people feel welcome! (Couchsurfing was created for crashing on people's couches, but many people note that they are willing to go out for coffee in addition to or instead of having an available couch.)

Go to any Jewish events/religious services that are available to you. I know, you're probably saying, "Wait, what?? I read what you posted on Tuesday!" I'm not saying that you misrepresent yourself. This post assumes that you are relatively early in your conversion studies. Every conversion candidate should have exposure to all three major Jewish movements: reform, conservative, and orthodox. It's the only way to make an informed choice. Going forward, I'm going to assume you're interested in converting orthodox. Even if you think that liberal Jews are wrong or misguided or whatever, there are still things you can learn from them that will apply to an orthodox conversion; in particular, the rhythm of the Jewish year, Jewish culture, and love of klal yisroel. I'm not suggesting that you seek a liberal conversion unless you intend to live as a liberal Jew. And you never know, potential orthodox conversion candidates change their minds all the time and choose to be liberal Jews. Leaving aside the arguments whether that is good or right, realize that it may happen. So don't burn your bridges by telling local Jews that they are wrong, misguided, or ridiculous. 

Learning without a community is a double-edged sword. It is probably the easiest assignment on this list, but there is a wide range of acceptable orthodox observance within halacha. Books will generally give you the "strictest" ruling for several reasons that aren't important right now. 

That disclaimer aside, you have books, the internet, private classes and university courses in Hebrew, etc. There are so many kinds of resources to keep you busy learning. The most important things you will learn are the concepts behind the halacha in each area. The definitions, the general principles, and the overarching ideas. The details really aren't as important, even though you may not believe that. What's important is to learn how to ask a rabbi an intelligent question. That way, you know what information a rabbi will need to answer your question and you may even be able to debate the issue to help come to the best ruling for your case. (Ex. Analogize to a different area of halacha - "Maybe the principle/exception in X would apply to Y?" Remember, rabbis are humans, and maybe you see a different angle that is equally important. More often, in my case at least, it becomes, "So why doesn't X apply here?")

Work through the various reading lists available here on the blog and on the internet. If you can take a few weeks to study abroad at a yeshiva/seminary that allows pre-converts or study with a chevrusa (buddy) over Skype, you can learn how to learn from the sources themselves. For instance, you can learn the Talmudic study method very well with a knowledgeable chevrusa and Skype.

Skype, phone conferences, mailing lists, email, websites like Jewish Pathways: there are many ways to study "with" other people. This can help alleviate the loneliness somewhat. Skype in particular is a great option because you can even show the other person the part of the text you're talking about!

Increase Your Observance
During this period, you have an incredible opportunity to focus on yourself and your mitzvot. However, if you don't have access to things needed for a mitzvah, don't beat yourself up over it. Do the best you can and you'll fully observe the mitzvah when you have the chance. After all, you're not legally Jewish, so you're not even obligated. That knowledge is a double-edged sword emotionally. Here, use it to realize your limitations and accept them. There is no reason to beat yourself up over things you cannot control.

As an example, let's discuss kashrut. If you don't have access to kosher meat, you do not have to slaughter your own meat or become a vegetarian. (But remember that it takes time to change to a kosher kitchen, sometimes years.) Eat meat, but eat it kosher-style. Eat only kosher types of meat and eat them in a kosher way (in other words, don't mix it with dairy). Continue to eat out. If it makes you feel more observant, you may try buying meat that is free-range, organic, or otherwise intended to decrease animal suffering. Apply those same principles to dairy if kosher dairy is not available to you. There is no need for you to become a vegan or refusing to eat out in restaurants or the homes of others. However, if you choose to become a vegetarian or vegan (and especially if you choose to become vegan), please do so under the guidance of a doctor and nutritionist. You could make yourself very sick.

On the other hand, it is very easy to focus on the interpersonal mitzvot and your relationship with Hashem. Focus on controlling your lashon hara, your jealousy, your anger, your anxieties. Daven. Learn Jewish philosophy. Study Pirkei Avot. Study Mussar texts. Work on yourself. You don't need a rabbi in order to be more mindful of your thoughts and actions.

Likewise, you can work on observances like Shabbat. You won't be able to observe everything until you spend Shabbats with orthodox Jews simply because there are tips and tricks that you won't figure out by yourself. The practical details are often left out of the books, which is why observance seems so difficult.  I mean, it is difficult, but it doesn't have to be THAT difficult.

Working Towards Conversion
Working towards the actual conversion with conversion rabbis is both more possible and less likely. Technologically, it is so much easier to keep in touch with your beit din. However, that increases the possibility of rabbis who mislead potential conversion candidates and either give them a questionable conversion or string them along for lots of money.

Especially those of you in the United States or other countries with converting batei din, inquire about their procedures. You may be allowed to apply. Consider applying to the beit din with jurisdiction over the Jewish community you plan to move to. For instance, if you live in Wyoming but intend to move to New York City, speak to the batei din in New York. You may be able to fly out and have some meetings with the rabbis, and thus, have more guidance over the process until you are able to move. If the beit din declines to work with you until you move, remember that they have limited time and resources and most people who contact them never move to the new community. Don't take it personally.

You could foster a relationship with a rabbi through the internet. That was the route I accidentally took by living my Jewish life online since I had few in-real-life options. That said, don't be a jerk about it and don't presume that you are entitled to the help and assistance of a rabbi you met online. Remember that they're human beings too, that they have other life obligations, and that they are speaking to you out of kindness. 

Don't work with a rabbi who asks for unusually large amounts of money. If you are asked to make large "charitable" contributions as a condition of your conversion and those funds must be given to a particular group, then there is something wrong there. A rabbi and beit din have the right to ask for reasonable compensation. You also have the right to request a financial accommodation (but I can't guarantee it will be granted or granted to what you believe it should be). Often, no payments are made to a beit din until the actual conversion has been arranged at the end of the process.

In other words, if something seems wrong, it probably is wrong. Don't be gullible or naive. And don't be afraid to ask for references. Even rabbis are people and ordination as a rabbi does not guarantee mental health or stability.

It should go without saying, but I will say it anyway: you should never be asked for any sexual activity, anything illegal, or otherwise legally/morally questionable. 


  1. I live in the South, in a relatively small orthodox community and this is all good advice. I would also add, don't be offended if you live in an area with a small Jewish community and they seem a bit tentative about accepting you at first. Often, they feel a bit defensive because of the political climate around them. Ours is a very tight-knit community that watches out for each other, but the flip side and somewhat sad side of that is that sometimes we have to. Our Shul has been defaced in the past and we have to be careful. More often than not, if the community is facing problems like these, they will take a bit to warm up to newcomers, but then will be fiercely loyal and protective of you once you are accepted.

    One piece of advice I got that was difficult but also very helpful was about outward signs of observance. Often, when you're first starting to convert, you want to LOOK Jewish. It's understandable. You are taking on big changes and you want to celebrate those. However, if you do live outside of a large Jewish community or if you live someplace like the south, it is often advisable to wait. Hold off wearing the chai or magen david necklace to work. Wait to wear your kippah every day until you are further along. These things will come with time, but a Rabbi advised me that it's better to wait until closer to the time that you are obligated to them than to make yourself a target for harassment or perhaps worse. There will be a time to stand up to the bullies, but at the beginning of the conversion process is likely not the right time.

    I will say that finding a supportive orthodox community makes a world of difference. Once you've found one, it seems like gravity naturally draws you there. It wasn't that I was forced by anyone to move. (I haven't reached that point yet.) It was that once I found the community that was right, I WANTED to move, couldn't wait to move! :)

  2. I'm not sure where the stereotype of the Jewish people, or of individual Jews, as loud and nosy comes from, but I'd encourage you not to perpetuate it. From a Torah perspective, these are not praiseworthy middos, and it's a shame to portray our people this way.

    1. Originally posted: September 10, 2011 at 8:48 PM

      Funny, I don't see those as negative qualities! I guess everyone perceives it differently. But I come from a very cold, distanced family, so I see all of this as passionate caring within a family.