Thursday, April 19, 2012

Today is Yom HaShoah

Today is Holocaust Remembrance Day. 

We will Never Forget the six million who perished as Jews. But remember that only one Jewish grandparent made you a "Jew" to Hitler, so many Christians and Christian converts died as Jews. Even being married to someone classified as a "Jew" could be a death sentence. 

We also risk forgetting the other five million who died for being gay, a gypsy, a political minority, or other "undesirables." We shouldn't forget the "righteous Gentiles" who risked their lives (or lost them) to save Hitler's intended victims. Or all the others who died because of one man's personal madness: in the countries he invaded, the militaries he faced, the German population, and anyone else who stood in his way. 

Never Forget.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Management Update

As of today, the blog is on indefinite hiatus. I may be done blogging; I don't know. Regardless, the content already here will remain. Please refrain from emailing me, as I won't be checking the account.

After an incredibly inappropriate breach of my privacy, I think this blog has gotten out of control. This is no longer a safe space, so I'd rather fade back into the obscurity of the internet. 

Good luck to all of you.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Chag Sameach! No Post on Friday.

This blog is shomer Shabbat and Yom Tov. Tonight begins the last days of Pesach.

Therefore, there is no post on Friday, April 13.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The Growth of Dogs in the Jewish Community

I used to be known as "the girl with the 3-legged cat." Now the poor mutilated cat has been upstaged by some dirty, poor-mannered dogs. Now, if a stranger knows anything about me, they know I have "two huge dogs." And in New York City, of all places! If I'm at a Shabbos table, this is guaranteed to be how I'm introduced. 

One day, I'm not going to be such an oddity. Dogs (and all pets) are slowly but surely making their way into Jewish communities all across America. It's becoming downright normal. 

Until recently, pet ownership was pretty exotic in the orthodox community. Many community rabbis (the majority? I doubt it) rule that pets can't be touched on Shabbat (often a knee-jerk answer instead of a researched one), and that is a good enough reason to not pursue pet ownership. Also, they're expensive, especially on top of 4 day school tuitions and eating kosher meat.

If that weren't enough, there is a deeply-entrenched fear of dogs in the Jewish community. My understanding is that many of my generation's grandparents are simply terrified of dogs (the Nazis definitely helped create that fear). Once a parent has a fear of dogs, he or she often tells the kids to avoid dogs and that they're "scary." Also, kids pick up on how their parents shy away from animals or even cross the street when a neighbor walks a dog down the street. The children have a lesser fear of dogs that might more appropriately be called inertia and habit. Today, my generation (who is having kids today) often grew up with parents who didn't like pets and didn't have any, but the kids had secular neighbors who had dogs. These children went over to friends' houses and met dogs there. Now, their adult friends are getting pets. This generation, despite being raised with a nominal dog fear-mongering, has been exposed to pets. There is still a lot of fear or dislike, but there is a great openness to having pets and a realization that pet ownership has many benefits. And that's how people end up with pets: the parents aren't opposed to the idea (or even think it might be nice), and then they have children who beg for pets. We've seen an exponential increase in pet ownership in the community, but I don't think it's anything like what we're going to see 10 years from now when my generation's kids are a bit older.

Unfortunately, the yeshivot aren't preparing their rabbinical students for these issues in the communities that will hire them. All you need is one pet owner in the community, and there will be shailahs for the rabbi. In smaller communities with high baal teshuva and convert populations, the pet ownership rate could be more than 50%. I would estimate that over 75% of one of my prior communities owned at least one species of pet, but often several species. Some friends and I are doing our best to change the attitude that "pet halacha" isn't a priority in rabbinic education, but change is always slow. However, at least there is a growing public conversation that is allowing pet owners to pool their knowledge and to locate far-away rabbis who are qualified to answer these questions.

When talking about pets, you need to assess your local rabbi's knowledge and his willingness to ask someone more knowledgeable in a particular halachic area. You can ask him what he has learned and if he knows a rabbi who is knowledgeable on pet issues. It helps if your rabbi owns pets or has owned them. Some things just can't be explained to someone who has never had a pet, and sometimes those facts can be halachically relevant. I'm told there's one book on the topic of pet halacha, but I haven't found it, and you don't see many rabbis publishing papers about it. (I did find a book about the halacha of wild animals!)

In some ways, pet shailahs are very similar to conversion: a community rabbi knows very little about today's conversion process (as opposed to what's "on paper" halachically) nor does he know how to apply halacha to someone "between" halachic statuses. Likewise, many rabbis (most?) know very little about the divergent opinions about pets and the various strategies that have been found to make pet ownership easier halachically. It is absolutely possible to own a pet with little to no halachic issues other than buying the right food.

These are some of the major issues that a community rabbi needs to know in order to serve the average community:
  • The rules of what pets can eat, particularly no mixing meat and milk and no chametz during Pesach. (Though I learned this year that there is a possible work-around for animals who can't survive without chametz - other than "selling" your pet to a friend to petsit for 8 days. I'm afraid I don't know enough to explain it to you.)
  • The various opinions on touching pets on Shabbat. People often say, "Pets are per se muktzeh on Shabbat," but rabbis don't always think to investigate the issue. That may have been true for much of history, but I would argue it's not today for at least dogs and cats. Of course, I'm no rabbi!
  • The rules of Shabbat and yom tov as applied to a pet. For instance, which dog tags, if any, can be carried on a collar on yom tov? How should you carry the leash? What will you do with the poop? What would you do if your pet escaped on Shabbat or yom tov? What would you do if your dog were hit by a car on Shabbat? How will you take care of your dog's needs if the eruv is down?
  • How to halachically neuter a pet (because your pet should absolutely be neutered!).
These questions are often machlokets and need to be decided before you're in the situation. For instance, when your dog runs away on Shabbat is not the time to hunt down the rabbi for a shailah!

Pet owners: have I forgotten anything major?

In happy dog news, we've recently welcomed two new puppies to the frum-female-blogging-world (that I know of): Max and Sabra!

Monday, April 9, 2012

Conversion Candidates: The Child Who Doesn't Know How to Ask

At the seder, the discussion always surrounds the rasha, the wicked child. We rarely discuss the other three children, and usually then, only to compare and contrast with the rasha.

This year, I put a name to a long-standing part of myself: the child who doesn't know how to ask the question. You can never explain why a realization hits you and when, but I've been spending some time comparing the conversion candidate to the child who doesn't know how to ask. Baalei teshuva can also fit the bill, but I think there are (generally) more personalized resources for the BT than the conversion candidate.

We all lack some middot, and almost all of us fall prey to pride. We often fall victim to the "Hah! What a dumb question!" or "Wow, doesn't he know anything?" or the slightly less terrible, "Oh man, I remember when I didn't know anything either."

These are the attitudes we take with the child who doesn't know how to ask when that child has the strength and courage to speak up. Yes, sometimes people make ridiculous statements based on half-knowledge or being fed misinformation. But that's often the most effective way of asking a question you didn't even know you had. The strongest (and most humbling) lessons I've learned happened when I made a giant idiot of myself. Heck, I created a blog to help you avoid those moments I had (and continue to have in all areas of my life). 

Conversion candidates are not being properly educated. Worse, they've not even being given the tools to get an education to decide whether a conversion is proper for them or not. The kiruv resources are dedicated to educating potential BTs, no matter how lukewarm they may feel, but the most dedicated conversion candidates can be alienated, shuffled around, and embarrassed by every "teacher" they encounter in our communities with little opportunity for recourse (or verification). Each one of us has the potential to teach someone (even inadvertently), and we should embrace that role. If you want to be selfish about it, I assure you that every teacher learns at least as much as his pupil, if not more.

Conversion candidates, yes, you will say dumb stuff about Jewish law or practice. So does everyone else. Those slip-ups are (generally) not your failure. They're the community's failure for not helping you find the right words to ask your question or for not even showing you there is a question. On the other hand, no one likes admitting ignorance, and people especially don't like discovering they were ignorant without knowing it. I personally hurt most from thoughts like, "WOW. I actually said that? What an idiot." As much as I'd love to stop dwelling on those moments, we need to find ways to stop dwelling on them. Admit when you're wrong, learn why, and learn from the experience.

Both sides of the conversation need to take a big bite of humble pie.

I googled around for discussions of the child who doesn't know how to ask. There aren't as many as I had hoped, but I found a very good discussion from the perspective of an educator: Helping the Child Who Cannot Ask:
"[W]e can also view the presence of that child at our seder as a gift. We know how to deal with the wise, wicked and simple child. But the presence of a child who doesn't know how to ask can transform the seder for everyone, even for the wise children. Who knows what unanticipated issues may arise. Our success in helping this child discover the buried questions can make the seder the genuine learning experience it was designed to be."

The conversion candidate (and convert) transforms the born Jews' perspective on Jewish life. Converts bring fresh blood literally (yay genetics), spiritually, and philosophically. These fresh perspectives and fresh enthusiasm make Judaism "the genuine learning experience it was designed to be." But that learning experience must be a partnership.

Only when the Jewish community properly educates prospective conversion candidates (especially about the idea that there are divergent views even within orthodox Judaism, rather than the "normal" kiruv approach that there is one hashkafah) will we have conversion candidates who know how to ask questions. Only once he or she has the right question can there be a right answer.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Pesach: The Red Sea Beach Diet

Tonight starts Passover. Despite being chol hamoed, I intend to have posts next week. 

I hope you have a chag kasher v'sameach!

So. Pesach is here. Let's assume this is your first or second Pesach (particularly speaking to those of you who haven't converted yet), and that you're trying to "do it all" this year. By now, you've cleaned your home, maybe even kashered stuff. You probably have everything that doesn't move covered in tin foil or contact paper. You're ready, and you're going to make the best Pesach ever!

That's all well and good (and well done!), but don't beat yourself up if you mess up or simply don't make it all of Pesach without chametz. Pesach preparation can be very difficult, and everyone talks about it, but I don't see people talking about how difficult it is to actually do Pesach itself. Everyone says, "Oh, I'm so glad Pesach is here! My house is clean, and now I can relax and have a great week!" While that's usually true for the first night, I don't think that's necessarily true for the other 8 days (or 7 in Israel). Maybe these people who have been doing fast days and making Pesach their whole lives don't think anything about a major (and sudden) diet change, but converts and baalei teshuva often have a very difficult time making such drastic diet shifts, and that difficulty can last several years.

If viewed objectively, Pesach is very similar to a crash diet. You're going cold turkey on almost all carbs that the average American eats. Your diet over the next week will not be balanced, and you will probably be lacking nutrients your body needs. It's hard on your body, and it's hard on you mentally. Forbid a food, and instantly your body is ravaged by cravings for it. 

So if you don't make it...acknowledge it, see what you can do to prevent it from happening again, and move on. There's no need to beat yourself up over it. There is certainly no need to feel like a terrible person if you haven't converted because you're not obligated yet. It's voluntary, so there isn't an aveirah.

Pesach can bring out the OCD in you, in addition to the guilt. Don't let Pesach ruin Pesach. Conversion is a process for a reason, just as we all have ebbs and flows in our Judaism. Remember to learn from all your experiences, both the good and the bad.

I hope this little Downer Debbie pep talk ends up being unnecessary for you and that you have a wonderful, relaxing, kosher, delicious, guilt-free, and constipation-free Pesach.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

What Does a Beit Din Do Besides Conversions?

Most of you are familiar with one thing batei din do in the modern world: convert people. But what else do they do? You'd be surprised. 

A beit din can do most of the things a secular court can, in addition to presiding over pure halachic issues. What doesn't a beit din do? Hear criminal matters or civil harms that may come close to criminal harm. For example, punching your neighbor in the face can be both a criminal or civil case, but it's too close to a crime for most  batei din to accept.

Civil cases. That's right, you might even be able to bring your small claims cases to a beit din. Suing your neighbor for breaking your window with a baseball? Have a contract disagreement on a multi-million dollar deal? The beit din can do it. And amazingly, they do. More than you'd think, and for much larger amounts in controversy than you'd think. 

Gets (Religious Divorces). Divorce is actually a mitzvah d'oraisa. A beit din is required to issue the get (religious divorce).

Divorce issues. If the parties agree to it, a beit din can decide alimony (spousal support), child support, child custody, and property division of the marital assets. However, just because you (and/or the beit din) decide it doesn't mean that a secular court will enforce it. Child custody and child support appear to almost always be open to court intervention. So don't bet on that beit din ruling being set in stone. But speak to your attorney for questions specific to your case. Every state is different.

Halachic status rulings. Sometimes born Jews need "paperwork" too in order to "prove" their Jewish status. That status may be a) whether they're Jewish (or need to convert or have a geirus l'chumrah), b) whether they're single, and/or c) whether they're free to remarry. As you can imagine, most halachic status filings are probably filed once someone is trying to get married.

This is a very short introduction to the beit din system. Every beit din is organized differently, has different standards, has different appeals procedures (if any), and may only hear certain kinds of cases. If you're in the market for a beit din or are halachically required to involve a beis din, make sure you know how a prospective beit din works, and be sure to get references from several people who have recently gone through the beit din (especially people who "lost" the case, so long as you take it with a grain of salt). Be aware that batei din (out of the many batei din in this world) are regularly accused of corruption and/or incompetence. Don't just close your eyes and point to a name when you're choosing a beit din. There is probably too much at stake to get a procedure/group of rabbis that you don't respect.

Sidenote: When someone is halachically required to go to a beis din, except for in the case of divorce, is beyond the scope of my knowledge at this time. If you have a legal matter, I suggest you speak with your local rabbi to determine whether you're halachically required to go to the beit din instead of a secular court.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Pesach Cleaning Got You Down?

I hope you all enjoyed my prank yesterday! That is the only successful prank I've ever done. I am physically incapable of playing a prank because my face gives it away every time. Enter...the anonymity of the interwebz. If you have no idea what happened, check out this explanation: What Is a Rick Roll? And no, I'm never gonna give you up.

Back to your regularly-scheduled blogging...
I hope you're readier for Pesach than I am. Granted, I don't go crazy and try to combine Pesach prep and spring cleaning. (I'm also a pretty detailed cleaner throughout the year, so it's not that dirty. Yes, even the baseboards get a monthly cleaning. I may be insane.)

Don't let Pesach cleaning and preparations get you down. It's not as hard as people make it sound. If you want a time estimate for how much prep time you need, check out Out of the Ortho Box's handy flowchart. Despite being tongue-in-cheek, I think it's true.

Personally, I like this item-by-item approach to Pesach prep: How to Do Your Pesach Cleaning Cheerfully in Less than One Day. (Note: your community/rabbi's standards could be different than printed here.)

If you decide to go all out, this is what you will look like:

And this is what "going all out" can look like: 

Disclaimer: Take all of the above with a grain of salt. I was pronounced as "lacking an appropriate fear of chametz."

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Hello Again!

Well, I'm back! It's been strange to not be blogging for the last few weeks, but the break was sorely needed (and appreciated).

The break was good for me to think and really take the time to get my life re-organized.

Concerning the state of conversions today, I've been thinking a lot about a post on my friend's blog, A Lady of Chance: You Want a Conversion? Too Bad! 

What are your thoughts?

Regular posts will re-commence tomorrow morning at 10am and continue every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday thereafter.