Sunday, March 30, 2014

Can You Buy a Conversion?

In short: probably, but it's unlikely you'll find one or be able to afford it. 

The two major "slurs" against converts are accusations that you "converted for marriage" or "bought your conversion." You rarely hear the second one, but it does come up. Ironically, the only accusations I know of were in the chareidi world (ironic since you'd think those groups would demand "higher standards" than the modern orthodox). 

For the first time (to my knowledge) since this blog started in 2010, someone got here by Googling "fast conversion to Judaism." In my experience, many people think the conversion process will be fast and easy...until they actually read about it. That hope is quickly dashed against the rocks of reality. 

But some people feel entitled. Those people dislike being treated like the rest of us and feel that standards are really just "suggestions." If you have the right connections and/or enough money, you can make anything happen. (This should not be confused with a "squeaky wheel gets the grease.") I expect these kinds of unethical demands are more common in "rich" cities like Los Angeles and New York City, and in those who are related to shul leadership. There's nothing like your shul board or your major donor demanding a conversion, when denial or delay could jeopardize your job - so it's not always the rabbi's "fault." That is a very complex situation.

On the other side, you have people who feel they have to resort to distasteful methods to accomplish what they believe is right in a corrupt system. For example, the recent controversy of the woman who was converted as an infant 35 years ago and had her conversion rejected by the Israeli Rabbinate when she sought to get married in Israel. She admits, but will not identify, that her situation was "resolved" once "powerful connections" stepped in with protectsia (special influence that is possibly as mafia-sounding as it sounds like). Is this wrong or right? I don't know what to tell you.

With rabbis being human, I'm sure there are rabbis who have a price. I personally don't know of any (and please don't post your accusations here; those comments will not be approved). There are certainly rabbis who reject conversion candidates for corrupt reasons, more than accepting them. There is unfortunately a history of crooked rabbis in conversion; Leib Tropper being the foremost example of recent memory. 

If you're here to covert seriously, be aware of corruption red flags, and get out while the getting's still good. If something feels wrong about a request for money or to see you privately, trust your gut and review the facts with someone removed from the situation. Give the benefit of the doubt the first time (and maybe a second if it's truly unclear), but eventually you'll either have to speak with someone in authority in the community or go to another community. If you acquiesce to a corrupt rabbi, you will also fall when he is exposed. And Gd-willing, he will be exposed.

It is a sad truth, but you may be thrown under the bus no matter how you deal with a corrupt (or mentally unbalanced) rabbi. But thankfully, I am confident that you'll probably never have to deal with something like this. However, we should do our best to take seriously those who believe they have been wronged. And to shun and ex-communicate rabbis who abuse conversion for their selfish goals. If you are in a bad situation, get help. 

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Looking to Learn Some Torah?

Few orthodox institutions allow conversion candidates to become students. However, one organization in New York City has a history of being conversion-friendly: the Drisha Institute for Jewish Education. It is not explicitly an orthodox institution, so admission is open to Jews and conversion candidates from any background. However, the teaching is "traditional" and in accordance with orthodox views (but open to questions and dissent should you want to share it). Of course, it teaches women Gemara and other rabbinic texts, so that makes it a radical institution in America. Most of its programs are women-only, but some programs are open to men.

There are three summer programs, most primarily aimed at college-aged people. You can find out more at their Summer Programs page. If you are comfortable with the Hebrew alphabet, there is likely something for you to study this summer at Drisha! There is also an introductory Biblical Hebrew class offered over the summer and in the fall semester. In six months at Drisha, I went from the aleph bet to studying Gemara, so they can really work wonders!

If you're looking for Talmud study next fall, Drisha is creating a (co-ed?) morning Gemara program. It is not advertised on their website, but they plan to offer it 3 or 4 mornings a week 9am-noon. The days and levels will depend on who signs up, so don't be afraid to apply if you've never studied Gemara before! As I understand it, tuition will be waived for those who commit to regular attendance. If you're interested, please email Ariella Newberger at!

In addition, there are other classes that are great for relative beginners, like Beginner's Pashanut (studying commentaries on Biblical text). The schedule and class offerings change each semester, so you should check out the finalized offerings next month.

What do YOU want to learn?

Friday, March 21, 2014

Do You Need Help with Your Siddur Pronunciation?

Lately, I haven't blogged as much as I would like, for many reasons. However, I do have time that I want to use to help others.

So I'm setting up shop as a tutor. I'm not the most knowledgable person you might find, but I know my limits and I'm patient. I'm not afraid to admit when I'm wrong or I don't know. I also know what it's like to stand in your shoes as a conversion candidate or recent convert (and in many ways, as a baal teshuva).

I am considering creating some formal classes at a later time but starting with such a simple thing: pronouncing prayers in the siddur. I struggled with whether I was pronouncing prayers correctly, but I was embarrassed to ask others and I was hesitant to "waste" someone's time with it. But it's not a waste of time, and I'd love to help you with something that is so simple yet so important to our lives. Alternatively, I can help "check" your pronunciation if you're more confident in your Hebrew. I am no Hebrew pronunciation expert, but I think I can help you. And in return, I expect that learning with you will teach me many things too!

If you're interested in learning with me once a week via Skype (Thursday evenings or Sundays), please email me at crazyjewishconvert on the gmail server. Don't mind the weird way of saying that; I try to avoid spambots.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Need a Purim Costume Idea?

My dirty secret is out: I hate dressing up in a costume on Purim. To be fair, I don't care for dressing up at any time, whether that's Halloween, a party, or ComiCon. I can't explain it, but I know I can't be the only one.

However, most people love dressing up for Purim, and I do like seeing other people dressed up. 

Perhaps you've never experience a frum Purim before and don't know what to wear. Purim sounds like Halloween, but are your sexy nun and sexy ghost costumes from 2 years ago still appropriate? Shockingly, no. 

Coming from a secular American background, I can't help but compare Purim to Halloween. When planning a costume, imagine if Halloween were truly family-friendly and about having relatively wholesome fun. Costumes will often be nerdy or downright dorky. I'm looking at you, group of people dressed as the Periodic Table of the Elements.

Some costume parameters to consider: tznius (modest), preferably not intended to be scary (too Halloweendik in many communities), and cross-dressing is allowed. Couple/family costumes are common, and group costumes are more common than in the non-Jewish world. You will probably see many "Jewish joke" costumes, playing on Biblical/Talmudic quotes or community stereotypes.

And surprisingly, don't worry about whether your costume is shatnes, a mixture of wool and linen which is normally prohibited by halacha. Apparently Purim is the one day when you can wear shatnes d'rabannan, according to the Rema. If that interests you, you should ask your rabbi what that means.

Here are some costumes ideas for Purim:
Queen Esther
Kohen Gadol
An animal
Audrey Hepburn
Bob Ross
Bonnie and Clyde
Cartoon character 
the Doctor Who reincarnation of your choice
Harry Potter character
the Hebrew Hammer
Indiana Jones
Movie character
(Pregnant nuns should be expected in most communities, but I personally don't recommend mocking another faith)
Orbit Gum Lady
Pop culture character
Sherlock Holmes
Sparkly vampire

I hope this got your creative juices flowing, and I look forward to seeing all your great costumes!

Next year, remember to hit the Halloween sales for wigs, colored hair spray, costume make-up, and costumes!

Friday, March 7, 2014

How to Pronounce Achashverosh Without Embarassing Yourself

(Just kidding, you'll probably still embarass yourself! Remind yourself: builds character!)

It's that time of year again...when you try to avoid saying Ahashverosh despite all the talk about Purim. I often mispronounce Jewish words, and I'm generally okay with that, but the name Ahashverosh is so long that my failure is much harder to ignore. ProTip: Call him "the King" instead.

You can find an introduction to Achashverosh at Jewish Treats: Who Was Achashverosh?

Unfortunately, no one has made a video for how to pronounce Achashvarosh, but there is one for the English name Ahasuerus, which sounds nothing like the Hebrew! I'm sorry, but that is a dinosaur; not a king.

I'm going to do my best to help you out. If you know of a recording that is easy to learn the pronounciation from, please post it in the comments!

Here is my attempt to write it phonetically:
a (short, somewhat like "ah") - CHASH - vay / vei - ROSH
The stress is lighter on the last syllable than the second one.
If you can't pronounce the "ch" sound reliably (or at all), don't worry. People often pronounce the name (lazily?) as Ahashverosh instead of Achashverosh. In fact, I didn't know it was the "ch" sound until just this year when I began working with the Hebrew text. It is an old Persian word, so tripping over it does not reflect on your Hebrew skills. This name is complicated and you may need to re-learn it every year like myself.

To hear the name Achashverosh in its natural habitat (speech, of course), check out the Purim shiurim (lectures) on Here are some ideas to get you started:
Achashveirosh: Silly Fool or Master Manipulator? by Rebecca Belizon
Did Esther Convert in the Palace of Achashverosh? Conversion and Jewish Identity in History and Halacha by Rabbi Ephraim Kanarfogel
Who is Achashverosh: A Character Analysis Through the Eyes of Chazal by Rabbi Jesse Horn (requires more comfort with Hebrew phrases)

Shabbat shalom!