Monday, December 7, 2015

A Chanukah Pop Culture Lesson

This video seems quite appropriate for the last few weeks: "light a candle for peace." Enjoy the delicious 80s-ness of it.

I don't know how I discovered the song Light One Candle by Peter, Paul, and Mary, but I like it. And I listen to it every Chanukah. Maybe you'll like it too!

And since you're probably wondering, only one member of the band was Jewish: Peter Yarrow.

Sidebar: don't google the band if you were born too late for them, like me. It's pretty awful. Peter Yarrow was apparently a convicted sex offender, and there were a lot of links celebrating the death of "n-word lover" Mary Travers because of the group's famous support for the Civil Rights Movement. I'm just going to listen to this song a few times, imagine a better world, and get back to living in an imperfect world.

Chag sameach!

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Discouraging the Potential Convert with Antisemitism

In the Talmud, the rabbis require that a potential convert be asked a pretty specific question:

The rabbis taught: When someone nowadays presents himself for conversion, we say to him: "Why do you wish to convert? Are you not aware that nowadays Israelites are careworn, stressed, despised, harassed and persecuted?"
If he responds, “I know, and I [feel] unworthy [to share their troubles]”, we accept him at once.
- Babylonian Talmud, Yevamot 47a

To my knowledge, all the movements ask this question during conversion, at one point or another. In an orthodox conversion, the question may even be asked twice: once during the beit din meeting and again while standing in the mikvah. However, it's possible to get through a conversion without being asked the question in this specific formulation (whether that's a decision or only an accidental oversight, I can't say). But you should always be asked how you feel about assuming the risk of anti-semitism, whether you've suffered any so far, and how your family feels about you taking on this risk. There's no right or wrong answer; they just want to make sure you've really thought through the risks of the decision to convert. Being a Jew can be dangerous, quite frankly. 

Of course, it seems silly to ask this of patrilineal Jewish conversion candidates since society already views them as Jews, and they are just as susceptible to anti-semitism as any other Jew. Particularly since they're more like to carry last names perceived as Jewish! You can be born Jewish and have the last name O'Malley, yet many people who aren't halachically Jewish have names associated with being Jewish. But the idiocy of saying "so and so must be Jewish" based on a last name is a pet peeve of mine... 

The Statistics

So let's take this question out of the theoretical and into the real world: the FBI has released its 2014 hate crime statistics. Thankfully, the number of crimes in the US (that get reported to the police and then passed along to the FBI) are relatively low for the huge size of our population, and the numbers have been declining for the most part. But those numbers still represent people dead and injured and property destroyed. Things are much more serious in Europe. You can find more statistics about that compiled in this article in Slate: Anti-Semitism Trends in Europe Are More Complex than the U.S.

When You Enter the Community Affects How You Perceive Antisemitism Risk

When I entered the Jewish community about 12 years ago, antisemitism wasn't really on my radar as a real risk to me. Maybe some rude comments, but death or injury? Not really. Speaking to other converts from that time, this conversion experience wasn't unusual. It wasn't a very bad time to be a Jew in America, and we were hopeful things were improving. I knew these things were problems in Israel and maybe even Europe, but I came in after the Second Intifada had ended and wasn't being talked about on a regular basis anymore. I've seen anti-semitism creep up in the last few years, and we've suffered some very serious attacks even here in the US. You may not have heard of the more "minor" attacks because they're rarely picked up by the national media unless there are several deaths. (If you're in the Jewish social media world, you'll hear about it.) Vandalism, property damage, harassment, workplace and school discrimination, even physical harm to one or two people at a time...these things are very much alive. Even an attempted terrorist act wasn't covered very widely because no one was harmed: someone in a car shot repeatedly at a Jewish elementary school (I can't even find a link to a news story about it because only shootings with casualties are showing up in my Google searches).

Obviously, I think it's worth being here despite the danger. I think people get threatened by people who are different, and especially when those differences ring of truth. Humans don't like to be uncomfortable, and the existence of the Jews makes other people uncomfortable. (I wish Judaism made more Jews uncomfortable with how they speak and act, but that's a different problem...) 

What About Your Family?

No matter how comfortable you are with your risk level, your non-Jewish family may not be okay with it. Even your Jewish or not-halachically-Jewish family may not be okay with you putting yourself more into harm's way, which is what happens when you start attending synagogue or Jewish events or dressing more obviously "Jewish."

You may even be a little thankful when specific anti-semitic attacks don't get a lot of press because you don't want your parents to worry (I'm guilty of that). The best thing you can do for your family is show that you think it's worth being here, despite any potential danger. After all, the statistics for any particular individual are in your favor. And most importantly, show how the community supports each other and protects each other. Show that you're confident that the community takes threats seriously and values your safety. Personally, I may have played up the neurotic Jewish parent stereotype to convince my parents that the community worries just as much about me and my safety as they do. For my parents, that seemed to help. And so does time. And so did meeting people in my community to see that orthodox Judaism is a lot more than "don't do this and don't do that." Unfortunately, that's most of what they see when I visit. I think they "got" why I was okay with assuming this risk once they could see more of what I'm gaining by being here.

I believe I'll be ok (#MandatoryPoohPoohPooh), and I believe the relatively-minor antisemitism of everyday life is worth being here. I also believe it shows I'm on the right path. But that doesn't mean I didn't shake while I sat in bomb shelters in Israel last year. On the bright side, I survived, and I called my parents every day. My calm demeanor and boring stories about museums seemed to help. It's not like either of us knew that regular life could continue in a war zone. It helped them develop trust in the capability of Israel to protect us, as well as learning how to compare my experience with what they saw portrayed on TV. 

But sometimes I still wonder why I've chosen to join a minority group when I enjoyed a lot of privilege as a white American (and some non-Jewish "friends" have attacked me on this point when I denounce antisemitism), but I believe that this perspective has made me a better person as well as a better Jew. 

Choosing to subject yourself to anti-semitism is a double-edged sword (both good and bad in its way), and your feelings can and will change with time and circumstances. 

How do you relate to antisemitism, and has that feeling changed over time? How do you think your family handles it? Are there ways you can reassure them? 

Monday, September 21, 2015

Do You Have to Wear White on Yom Kippur?

The TL;DR Version

Do you have to wear white on Yom Kippur? No. Will you be weird (or the only one) if you don't wear white to synagogue on Yom Kippur? Nope. 

The RTFM Version

Wearing white (presumably only to synagogue because what else are you doing while fasting?) on Yom Kippur is a very common custom, yet it's not universally done. As I understand it, it's a custom, not in the "custom that has becoming as binding as halacha" legalistic sense; instead, it's a custom in the "that's nice, what a meaningful and/or cute idea" sense. Symbolically, it's considered a reminder of purity and being "white as snow" after repenting (making teshuva). Apparently it also has something to do with angels, but I wonder how influenced the "angels-wear-white" idea is by Renaissance art. Personally, that's not a symbolism that resonates with me, and that's ok if some of the symbolism doesn't do it for you either.

You can learn more about the various symbolic meanings of white and other Yom Kippur customs at Chabad, the JewFAQ, and Aish. Unfortunately, I didn't find anything about the origins of this custom and when it became encoded or common. It's an easy logical jump to make because of the very common symbolism, so it's possible that it developed simultaneously (or nearly so) in different communities without normal cultural diffusion spreading it initially.

The amount of white being worn by the people in synagogue will differ from community to community and even year to year. One year in one town, you might be the only person not wearing white. And the next year in another town, you might be the only one wearing white. Most often, there will be some wearing white and some not. As far as I can tell, there is no stigma attached to not wearing white. Some people do, some don't, some forgot (uhh...been guilty of that more than once), some didn't get the laundry done in time, and some can't afford a white outfit they'd only wear once a year. 

It's often associated with orthodox congregations but has been steadily growing in many reform and conservative communities (and may even be the community practice in some shuls). As a dimestore psychologist, I think there are two major factors pushing the increase in liberal communities: 1) the internet has made it easier to know about these customs from other communities, leading to a "that's cool, let's do that" change. A lot of people see deep meaning in this custom, and some believe it's beautiful. 2) A reaction against the perception of materialism that has plagued liberal High Holiday services since the early 1900s. I've spoken to some people who see wearing simple white clothing as a rejection of the "wear your best dress and fur to shul because everyone will be there" behavior and mentality that used to be more commonplace in many communities. Some shuls are still like that, but very few are defined by it today, in my experience. 

So if you own some white clothes and they're clean, wear 'em. Or don't. Whatevs. If you forget, don't worry about it.

The Kittle

The kittle happens to be white and is often worn on Yom Kippur...but not because of this custom. It's a separate custom and a separate analysis. 

We don't wear white on Yom Kippur because men wear kittles on Yom Kippur and kittles happen to be white. They're two distinct customs that may or may not overlap in your particular community. Maybe nearly every married man wears a kittle yet no one else wears white, or maybe there's only one or two kittles and the community overwhelmingly is dressed in their best whites. Or both. Or neither. But in an orthodox community, you won't find any women wearing kittles. Personally, I've never seen a woman (or even many men) wearing a kittle in the liberal congregations I've belonged to or visited. Your mileage will vary.

The kittle is the white, plain garment that is worn when one is buried. Yep, morbid. Interestingly, kittles made for living people to wear are often more elaborate and may include pockets. Yes, there's kittles for live people and ones for dead people. We're so weird. Moving on.

Men tend to wear the kittle before death, primarily as a reminder of mortality, though I think most men associate it more with Pesach and Yom Kippur than coffins. Funny how things get backward, right? People do the funniest mind tricks to forget that we're all mortal and will RETURN TO THE DUST. /drama

Is it custom or halacha? Resident Male Expert, my husband, says it's a custom. He wears a kittle, so I figure he knows something about them. Given the unpredictability of kittle-wearing in the modern orthodox community, I believe it likely is "just" a custom, though a common one. In some communities, particularly chareidi communities, there may be tremendous peer pressure (perhaps even disguised as "halacha") to wear a kittle at certain times because "that's just what's done." Know your community and avoid unpleasant surprises.

The kittle is generally first worn at one's wedding, as well as at each Pesach seder and Yom Kippur after. If one does that. Not everyone does. Some don't wear it at the wedding but wear it some chagim. Some wear it at the wedding and never wear it again until aforementioned coffin. Each person, and even each year, is different. And maybe you forgot to get your kittle drycleaned...or to pick it up from the drycleaner. No big deal according to most interpretations of halacha and custom. However, your mileage may vary, as mentioned above.

Tips & Tricks

So how does one "wear white"? You'd think that's an easy question, right? People wear white in many different ways. 

First off, you will probably see a healthy showing of off-whites because apparently cream and beige count as white. I get it, and I've even done it, because owning white clothing is usually an impractical idea. Especially white pants and skirts. Most people don't have the spare income to buy white clothing for one day a year when it's not actually required, not even by peer pressure. 

Second, many people wear only some white clothing, not an entire white outfit. Usually a shirt because, again, white pants and skirts are basically a terrible idea any day of the year. Also, they're harder to find in most fashion seasons. Married women who cover their hair and dress is white on Yom Kippur often wear a white scarf or hat. Again, not required in any sense of the word, especially if you normally cover your hair with a wig. Aish has an "Ask the Rabbi" that says, "On Yom Kippur the custom is to wear at least something that is white." Not a hard standard to meet, right? You might pull off one item of white just by accident.

Third, especially for the ladies, check the weather report first. On a rainy Yom Kippur, there will be far less white clothing in shul, since women's clothing often become see-through when wet. (Remember: umbrellas aren't allowed on Shabbat or yom tov, so you're stuck with a hooded jacket or raincoat...unless you forget it and get caught in the rain.) I've rarely seen that be a problem with men's clothing, which I assume is a sexist conspiracy designed to keep The Woman down. Of course, you can wear undershirts, especially a non-white undershirt, but speaking from experience, some men will stare at a wet white shirt, regardless of whether or not it's see-through. (Personally, I always wear an undershirt because it feels more tznius as a larger lady. It is not required, though some may tell you different.)

Fourth, watch where you sit. Especially around kids. If you're wearing white pants, don't accidentally sit in nastiness. Kids don't have to fast, so if you sit in some chocolate, it's going to look like there's poo on your pants, and that is going to distract the people sitting behind you. I may or may not be speaking from experience. 

G'mar chatima tova and shana tova! May you have an easy and meaningful fast!

Remember to check the eruv before chag! No carrying on Yom Kippur. (We'll talk about why at another time, but trust me.)

Friday, September 11, 2015

An Update on Bentchophobia

Several years ago, I wrote about my bentchophobia and how it strikes many of us when we enter the frum world.

I can't say I've improved much over the years. I still frequently avoid eating bread, solely because I'm still a slow Hebrew reader and bentcher. Sure, I have bentching memorized by now, but it takes only the slightest distraction and I slip into similar words from another memorized prayer or lose my place altogether. I'm also still very slow compared to others at the table, and I hate making people wait on me (curse you, Southern politeness!). Worse, I'm silly and insist on pronouncing all the words and taking breaths. At this point, I think I'm doomed to be a slow bentcher for life. For what it's worth, I think it's important to not slur together sounds that may or may not be actual words (you know who you are). 

But then...pregnancy. Your whole relationship to food changes, and it changes multiple times. Bentchophobia or not, bread has been one of the few foods I consistently can and want to eat. And this means I'm bentching 3 or more times a day. It's kind of awful, but I'm just glad to finally stop losing weight! (I lost a good amount of weight first trimester - but not HG.)

Bonuses: My memorization of the bracha is getting stronger, even when distracted. I'm eating real food and enjoying it. I feel like a big girl who isn't afraid of bentching anymore. 

Cons: I must spend half an hour a day bentching. I guess there's nothing wrong with that, but if I'm going to spend that much time doing something religious, I wish it were something more spiritual or intellectually stimulating (or at least a little variation!). 

Funny how things can change yet stay the same. Of all the Jewish things, why do I have such a complicated relationship with bentching?? 

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Why the Huge Difference in Prices for High Holiday Tickets??

A friend asked an excellent question that has probably occurred to many of you: "Why is the local reform shul charging $200 for holiday tickets, but the Chabad is only charging $25 and that includes a meal??" 

This contrast doesn't always exist, but it exists in much of America, especially smaller Jewish communities where there is only one or two synagogues of each movement. Your mileage can and will vary, sometimes even year-to-year in the same community!

Basically, this difference is a function of two different factors:
  • Supply and demand
  • In the specific shul's opinion, what's the purpose of selling tickets for the chagim?
Somehow, this turned into an economics lecture. Enjoy.

The Economics of the Chagim

Supply and demand is the easy part to figure out for each community. 

Demand is really high for seats on the High Holydays. People make disparaging remarks about "the one day a year Jew," but it's really a 2 or 3 days a year, and that's not really a nice thing to say about people anyway. You don't know their reasons. Eyes on your own plate, people. Yom Kippur is coming. 

Movement Differences

Demand may vary widely based on the movement of the individual shul and the other available options in the community. 

The house will be packed at every reform and conservative synagogue because people are more familiar with those movements and probably feel less intimidated going there if they think they're clueless (plus there's lots of English). I can't speak to attendance at reconstructionist and renewal congregations, but the average Jew-on-the-street may not know what they are or even that they exist. However, I have a feeling they pack the room just fine. 

I have had a reform temple try to turn me away on Rosh Hashanah because I had a free ticket and they were close to capacity but people were still lining up to buy tickets at the last minute. (Worse, the lady accused me of lying about having a free ticket because my name wasn't where it was supposed to be! She made me walk over half a mile back to my car - yes, that's how many people came - to get my student ID. Don't worry, other reform shuls have been very kind to me, so this was obviously one crazy doorlady.) 

The orthodox congregations have less demand because less people walk in off the street into an orthodox service. And those who do are usually orthodox people traveling or people more familiar with orthodox practice. There's a higher bar for familiarity and knowledge just to walk in the door (or so people think). Most orthodox shuls know the Holydays will include people who are less familiar with orthodox davening and practice, and they will make an effort to be user-friendly, such as calling out page numbers frequently (and you can ask them to call them out if they don't - all will be glad to comply, in my experience). Remember - they're human. If you need or want something to help you understand, ask. It probably just didn't occur to them. 

Very large orthodox communities may be more "business-as-usual" than the small communities who know they will get visitors. One group that makes large efforts to be user-friendly (especially on holidays) is Chabad, so every Chabad house should be very user-friendly because that's part of their mission: outreach to Jews who may be less knowledgeable about tradition [here is a link to find a service near you]. Other kiruv organizations have the same approach, such as Aish [I couldn't find a similar directory on Aish's site]. These are the two largest English-speaking kiruv organizations, but there may be other organizations near you doing a "beginner's service" or other user-friendly services, and not all of those are kiruv.

[An important sidenote: you should know that kiruv can have a dark side and is not always a positive experience. There are bad apples out there: manipulation, emotional abuse, financial abuse, outright lies, controlling behavior, cultish behavior, and heaven knows what else. You can check out the blog Stop Kiruv Now to learn more about these issues. Be an informed consumer because you are a consumer even in the religious context.]

Depending on how many synagogues of each type you have in your town, that will affect supply and demand a great deal. If there's only one of each type of shul (especially reform and conservative congregations), know that demand will often far outstrip supply.

Why Is Demand So High?

The most common reasons people go to synagogue at this time of year (but not the rest of the year) aren't the most positive: guilt, family pressure, loneliness, needing to belong to something bigger than yourself, shame for not attending more often, social expectation. Of course, these reasons don't apply to everyone walking in that door, and you shouldn't assume it about anyone. As marketers have known for decades, negative emotions sell more than positive emotions, and at higher prices. Think of how ashamed you can feel when you see weight loss ads (if you're overweight like most of us). Sex sells, but shame and guilt sell better.

Worse, every shul only holds so many human beings before the Fire Marshall gets upset and starts issuing tickets. Most shuls have expansion plans for the chagim; for instance, opening a folding wall to the social hall and extending the seating all the way from the front to the back of the building. The views may not be very good in the "nosebleed" section, but it works well enough for most visitors. After all, most people aren't there to daven. Many people come to see and be seen (if talking and conspicuous consumption ruin your davening, you may want to avoid shuls with this problem - ask around). In any shul, if unobstructed views and quiet matter to you, don't be late. Even better, be early and sit near the front. Jews are known to be a talkative people, but those people usually don't sit near the front.

The Math

Since there are only so many seats, the classic formulation of supply and demand kicks in: how high is the market willing to pay for a limited number of seats? The most practical answer for a shul is to charge the highest amount of money people are willing to pay to fill (close to) all the seats.

When Philosophy Trumps Economics

But that's where philosophy and purpose kick in. Just because that's the "practical" and economist-approved answer doesn't mean that those are the factors a synagogue considers important. 

Many shuls do take the economist's view, especially liberal congregations where demand far exceeds supply. High Holiday ticket sales are often the largest "fundraiser" of the year for congregations in all movements. It's silly to turn down that kind of money if people are willing to pay it. After all, the rabbi has to eat, and the lights have to stay on year-round. They're nonprofits, and the economy has not been kind to nonprofits for several years now. From this perspective, I feel pretty bad for the people who come once a year since they basically subsidize the cost for those who attend year-round. Being a cynic, you could compare that to a government sin tax

Some shuls don't have the demand to justify high prices, particularly mainstream orthodox shuls. In those communities, there are few non-members who will attend their services. In that case, the majority of the people buying tickets will be the people who already pay high shul membership fees. Some congregations include tickets (or a limited number of them) with each membership, but most don't. It's still often the largest "fundraiser" of the year for these communities, and you'll find that most community members view it as an internal fundraiser of sorts. 

But even oodles of "free money" (that you don't have to work for by marketing or fundraising) isn't a key motivator for many orthodox shuls, especially kiruv congregations. It would be nice to have that money, but their key metric for the High Holydays is "how many people came in the door and were exposed to our message?" This is outreach, folks! Whatever it takes (depending on the talents of the leadership) can include gimmicks, themes, gifts, reduced prices, free tickets, meals, parties, "sexy" or controversial topics, you name it. You need the highest number in the door so that you have the best likelihood of finding at least one person who "gets" your message. It's the same reason I hear so many radio ads for free tickets to "an awesome free workshop to teach you my super secret method of investing in New Jersey real estate to become a millionaire!" In a way, these people want to teach you to be a spiritual millionaire, in the most serious sense. Not everyone is receptive to that message, so you have to get high volume to be more likely to reach your "ideal customer." So the economist hasn't totally been thrown out with the bathwater ;) 

As you can see, since demand is usually so high in the liberal communities, this discussion doesn't even happen for them. From the overwhelming request for tickets, how would a reform shul decide who are the "right people" to get in the door? Often, everyone coming in the door is already an "ideal customer" for the reform and conservative congregations. The trick is to give such a good service that they keep coming the rest of the year! Increasing year-round membership is where the priority is for most of those shuls, and that's completely in line with their philosophy and their audience.

And That's All She Wrote

...And that is why there are usually highly disparate ticket prices for the High Holydays. 

Looked at from the economist's perspective, it's clear that the synagogues aren't out to get you or simply make a quick buck. Often, market forces and philosophy are driving the decision (or did forty years ago when the decision was first made and has been inertia ever since).

Is the price difference fair? To the consumer who wants total freedom of choice, not really. (You socialist! This is Amurica, and we support unrestrained capitalism!) But for people who are eager or simply willing to attend a kiruv organization, the deal can be pretty fantastic. And you can always try to attend your preferred shul, regardless of the financial cost by asking if you qualify for free or reduced tickets. (And you can always try your luck getting in without buying a ticket.)

Remember: there are always reduced price and free tickets available, even if they "forget" to mention it! Always ask if you're in a tough financial situation. I didn't attend High Holiday services for the first several years I was in the community because my orthodox congregation failed to mention this in their emails and bulletins that published information about ticket sales. I felt unwelcomed and intimidated (and quite ashamed of my inability to pay). Every year, I stayed away from the community for another month or two after the chagim because of these feelings (I can't say I was conscious of that tendency until much later). My relationship with the High Holydays has never been very good, probably because of these early experiences (especially that traumatic one with the reform shul!). Thankfully, most congregations have corrected these errors in the Age of Internet Shaming, but mistakes are always possible. Fallible human beings, usually volunteers, are in charge. Be patient. Be kind. Give people the benefit of the doubt. 

I hope you have a fabulous Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, no matter where or how you spend it! Chag sameach! 

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

It's Ok to Not Speak Yeshivish

Gather round, friends. I want to talk to you about something near and dear to my heart: you do not need to "speak Yeshivish" to be frum. If you want to, that's fine. But I don't want you spending time beating yourself up over the idea that you "don't talk like everyone else talks."

Elul can be a tough month of introspection. But make sure you're judging yourself for things that you actually should be judging yourself for. When you enter the frum community, it's so easy to get caught up in the externals and fitting in: clothes, hair coverings, where you go or don't go, how you speak. There's a time and place for these considerations, but being a frum Jew is (or should be) far more: your middot (character traits), tzedakah (charity), your prayer life, your connection to Gd and your fellow Jews, how you spend your time, and who you spend it with. Whether you say Torah or ToRAH or TOYrah is not a measure of your Yiddishkeit. How you speak is very connected to how good of a Jew you are: do you gossip, do you embarrass others, do you speak cruelly or thoughtlessly? The words you use to speak are irrelevant to how good of a Jew you are.

Some background: Yeshivish is the slang term for peppering your speech frequently with Hebrew and Yiddish. It's not limited to the Yeshivish community; it's present in almost all sections of the orthodox world. However, out-of-town communities usually have far less Yeshivish speech, which we'll talk more about below. [You can read more background and hear an example at Word of the Day: Yeshivish]

There are many reasons why BTs and converts choose to speak Yeshivish:
  • The #1 Reason People Give: "Fitting in." However, I'd argue that this is an unsubstantiated assumption we newbies have of the community. In every community, you can find many Frum-from-Birth folks who don't speak Yeshivish. And as a whole, there are many "successful" Baalei teshuva and converts who don't speak Yeshivish. It is not a requirement for fitting in, even though we keep telling ourselves it is.
  • It makes you feel like you belong to "the in-crowd." You've made it; you're one of the gang. You might even feel special and superior around your "old" friends, which is probably #BadMiddos. This is the internal, emotional version of the external "fitting in" reason, and it can be a good thing or a bad thing.
  • It can help you fly under the radar, if that's important to you. If it is, I encourage you to honestly consider why you feel this way and decide whether they're good reasons. (There are many good reasons to fly under the radar, especially in certain situations and with certain people, but there are just as many bad reasons: low self-esteem, an inferiority complex, feeling superior to your old life, escaping your past, etc.)
  • It can help convince people that you're "legit" and knowledgeable, especially rabbis who may be deciding whether to convert you or not. Hate the game, not the players; though I wish more frum Jews realized vocabulary lists alone don't make great Jews. Unfortunately, every conversion candidate has to play this game at least sometimes or with some people. But remember, plenty of people get through the process without a lot of effort in this area. It may make things easier, but lacking it shouldn't make it harder.
  • Also unfortunately, it can be necessary when people have unethical business practices. I have had frum potential-landlords suddenly treat me much better (and reduce prices or requirements) when I start speaking "Jewish," and I've had the same experience in stores, with mechanics or other service people, and any other kind of salesman. This may be especially important if you're a Jew of Color who needs to mitigate potential racism, especially from a landlord or realtor. Every time I experience this, it is a chilul Hashem obviously motivated by #BadMiddos. I learn my lesson and try not to deal with the person again. But Jews are human, and business works like this in many small communities. I'd be lying if I said I haven't slipped on a Southern accent for the same services when I go back to the South. (It's surprisingly annoying to get called a "damned Yankee" when you're geographically more Southern than the jerk saying it.)
  • Sometimes the Hebrew or Yiddish word is just so much better or concise than the English word. In that case, use that word every time. Using the right phrase when you need it doesn't mean you "speak Yeshivish." You just speak well. 
That last bullet describes me. I'm a trained linguist, and there's something beautiful about the "best" word for the right idea. I "don't speak Yeshivish" (and quite honestly, rarely understand fast New Yorker Yeshivish), but I use Hebrew and Yiddish phrases all the time. But I use them purposely and make an effort to not use then when they would embarrass or exclude someone who might not understand these terms. In my life, that's basically every day. I (happily) live firmly between the frum and secular worlds. 

For the most part, that is entirely why I choose not to speak Yeshivish, and why so many out-of-towners don't speak Yeshivish: we often talk to people who may have no idea what those words mean. (And sometimes you get pleasantly surprised to find out someone knows a lot more than you think! The key is treating everyone equally from the get-go, rather than obviously "dumbing it down" to certain people. Any time I'm not in an explicitly orthodox setting, I will minimize my use of Yeshivish speech.) It's important to me that my family, my non-Jewish friends, my colleagues, and even you readers can understand me without asking for a translation. I'm not perfect, but so far, it's worked well enough. 

I assume some knowledge on this blog, and my family has learned some words like shul and Shabbos, but I want to make sure that the people important to me can understand me. And I think that's why it's understandable that many (in-town) FFBs speak Yeshivish: everyone they interact with gets it. If I lived in Boro Park in Brooklyn, and didn't have many conversations with my non-Jewish family, and worked in a business aimed solely at frum Jews, odds are good that I would eventually speak Yeshivish. Your speech is often a reflection of your daily life. 

There's no right or wrong in the question "should I learn to speak Yeshivish or not?" Each person must come to that answer for himself or herself, but I want people to actively ask the question and realize the answer is not a default "Of course! How else will I fit in?" I have lived (primarily) in the orthodox community for about 11 years, and somehow people still think I'm frum and knowledgeable despite talking how I've always talked. (Well, let's be honest: they may not think I'm frum, that's not because of my speech; it's more likely because I usually don't wear "the uniform.")

In other words, you don't have to speak Yeshivish to fit in or to be a "frum" Jew. It may make some aspects of life easier or may be an accurate reflection of the daily life you lead. If speaking Yeshivish on a regular basis would negatively impact your family and work life, then don't. Code-switching is often very hard when you learn a language as an adult. You may have a hard time turning "off" your Yeshivish. No matter how you decide to speak on a daily basis, remember to be a kiddush Hashem and speak inclusively to those who may not be familiar with these terms. 

As you look for ways to improve yourself this Elul, I want you to remember that being yourself and being an individual is not something Elul (or Hashem) asks you to "fix." Be who you are and let the haters fall where they may. But don't invent haters to worry about! 

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Can I Feed My Children or My Pet on a Fast Day?

I'm surprised how often this question comes up. After all, what do you think is the alternative? Making them go hungry or having to hire someone else to feed them? We can get so afraid of unusual situations that sometimes we don't stop to think through them logically first. Fear is common whenever you face a new halachic situation, but it doesn't usually lead to a reasoned analysis of the situation (easy for me to say, right?). 

Luckily(?), there is nothing new under the sun. In case you've ever wondered about this question, the analysis is the same for any non-faster:

Yes, you can feed your kids, your cat, your dog, your pet flying squirrel, your sick spouse who is not able to fast, and your elderly family member who is prohibited from fasting. Anyone who is fasting can prepare food for, and even physically feed, someone who is not fasting. And if you have farm animals instead of pets, you're likewise able to give them their regular food. No shinui (change) required. (The only time you have an obligation to change the food you feed your pets is during Pesach, if the food contains chametz - but not if it only contains kitniyot.)

In fact, in the case of your children and animals, you have both a halachic and an ethical responsibility to make sure they're cared for. Nothing needs to be done differently, whether it's a minor fast like Tzom Gedalia or the Big Daddy Fast of Yom Kippur. However, I'll admit that it's much easier psychologically to put out dog food than it is to cook and serve a delicious meal to your kids or sick roommate. Dog kibble just doesn't look appetizing, no matter how hard a fast may be! I won't blame you if you choose to fix your least favorite food for your kids on Yom Kippur. That might actually be a really good idea for me to remember in the future...

Caveat: if you're breastfeeding, ask whether you're obligated to fast. You are not required to replace or supplement your breastmilk with formula on a fast and should not be asked to do so. After all, they didn't exactly have formula in the shtetl, so this isn't a new problem. Changing your child's food for one day could cause sickness. Especially beware if you ask the question and the rabbi/yoetzet/whoever turns it into a "Well, it's time for your kid to be weaned anyway" conversation. That is a medical decision between you and your pediatrician, not your posek. 

Depending on the circumstances, a breastfeeding mother may be obligated to have a modified fast or may actually be obligated to NOT fast at all. A posek should consider many factors: your health, the health of your child, the time since delivery, previous breastfeeding issues, the possibility that dehydration may reduce or eliminate your milk supply, etc. If it's not a yom tov in addition to a fast, you can use an electric breast pump normally. If you need to pump on yom tov, ask about the options available to you, whether that's a manual breast pump or using your hands or a third or fourth option that hasn't occurred to this non-parent. 

Bon appetit this Yom Kippur, children and pets of the world! 

Sunday, June 21, 2015

How to Advocate for Yourself Without Being a Jerk

People tend to fall into two camps: those who don't advocate for themselves and people who are always advocating for themselves. 

As a society, we tend to deride that second group of people. But why? Is their behavior really that annoying or are we jealous? I can't answer that categorically, but in at least some cases, jealousy can be a major factor for those of us in the non-advocating group.

Why should I be forced to advocate for myself? I work hard, I'm honest, I'm doing what I'm supposed to do, and people should react appropriately. Bosses should give me raises without me having to ask, and rabbis should be ready to convert me. Unfortunately, life is rarely that fair or easy. 

I know this, but at the same time, especially because I'm an overly-polite Southerner, it's still hard to act on. I want things to work the way they're supposed to, and I don't want to have to "force" people to do what they should. Sometimes people aren't paying attention. Sometimes they misunderstand what they see. Sometimes it's easier to ignore the good boys and girls when you have troublemakers in the class. I know these things too, but it's still hard for me to speak up for myself. 

But I learned to do it, and I believe it's important for all conversion candidates to advocate for themselves. Everyone, especially baalei teshuva, also need to use these advocacy skills when trying to find appropriate tutors or programs, when shadchans (matchmakers) made ridiculous suggestions, and when people say ignorant things at the Shabbat table. But we'll talk about this specifically in the conversion context. 

The trick is finding an advocacy style that is true to your personality and doesn't make you look like a psycho or a jerk. Sometimes it's a fine balance, and some people are inclined to believe any self-advocacy (especially by women) is inherently aggressive. Advocate too strongly, and you scare people. Let self-advocacy slide, and it takes longer for you to get what you need. You might never get it. I admit that I still err on the side of less advocacy, and that's very influenced by being both Southern and female. It has caused me to have lower wages than male counterparts and to be skipped over for opportunities I deserved both professionally and in my private life. It's hard to act differently than I was raised to act, as a proper and submissive young woman. But I have accomplished a lot from even minimal self-advocacy. I'm always learning and improving, and I'm learning to ask for what I deserve. The problem is convincing myself that I deserve something! "I deserve to convert" is a lot simpler to justify to yourself than "I deserve a raise"! 

Why would you want to advocate for yourself in conversion? Quite frankly, you're the only advocate you've got, and most of the rabbis involved are too removed from your daily existence to really understand where you are Jewishly. You need to keep them updated. And that was my secret: I thought of it as "updating" the rabbis, not pestering them. That simple mental shift completely changed my perspective.

Unfortunately, in conversion, the squeaky wheel gets the grease. It's human nature to run from fire to fire, and I generally don't find it to be blameworthy behavior. I've mentioned several times before that rabbis are human. And most conversion rabbis are not paid for their work. Even the local rabbi, who is paid to be the rabbi of a shul or yeshiva, is not paid for spending time with people who aren't his congregants or students. Synagogue memberships pay the rabbi's salary, and conversion candidates aren't eligible to be members. Therefore, you do not pay his salary, and almost no shuls mandate in a rabbi's contract that conversion candidates are part of his job description. (Sidenote: some shuls do, surprisingly. Ironically, one of my prior shuls did have such a contract clause, even though it was ignored in practice. There is hope out there!)

So what does self-advocacy look like? In most cases, it's phone calls or emails. Just making sure that the rabbis keep you in mind. That way, they know you're moving forward, you can provide proof, you can ask questions that show how thoughtful and clever you are (hopefully). I hate phones, so email was the natural choice for me. A much bolder friend converted with the Israeli rabbinate, and she took her homework to their office every afternoon, and just sat in the waiting room until they accepted her case (they normally don't convert non-citizens). Desperate times call for desperate measures, but stay classy when you have to call in the big guns. Remember that self-advocacy in the conversion context rarely leads to immediate results. You're playing the long game. Steady, consistent advocacy adds up.

A great definition of advocacy is "ask for what you need while respecting the rights of others." In fact, that link is chock full of good info.

Some examples of self-advocacy:
  • Tell your sponsoring or converting rabbis about the new book you read or class you took. Share something you learned from it or whether you enjoyed it.
  • Share your opinions on an event in the Jewish news. It shows you are paying attention to the larger community and affiliating yourself with it. (Assuming they'd agree with your opinion, of course. Don't provoke a political fight. Keep it positive whenever possible.)
  • Ask others to advocate for you by speaking with or writing to a rabbi.
  • Email or mail formal updates on a regular basis, with lists or "proof" if you have it. For example: books read, classes taken, topics studied with tutor, update that you moved into the eruv or got a kosher roommate.
  • Contact the rabbis with a question that shows you're thinking about halacha in a serious way.
  • Share something you learned that you enjoyed. Your passion will shine through.
  • Ask the rabbis what you can do to move things along, and don't accept vague answers. Press for concrete tasks. 
  • Ask for what you can improve or what remains a sticking point. For example: are they concerned about your job or home situation?
  • Ask "what would you do if you were in my place?" You might get some really interesting answers! Or a blank stare of confusion. 
  • Ask for a timeline. It's harder to press for concrete answers here, but don't let them push the question away like it's unimportant.
  • If you have struggles because of the conversion process, share them. And ask for ways to improve the situation. For example: you are engaged and need more than 3 weeks' notice to plan your wedding. Similarly, you need advance notice of when a couple will need to separate for a minimum of 3 months (but also should not be much longer than 3 months because that's cruel) because one of you needs to find a place to live and make concrete arrangements with family or a landlord. Or someone in the community is gossiping about you. Or you have problems finding meals and other community involvement. 
  • If you need paperwork or information, don't let it slip their mind. For example: your child needs to be enrolled at the local Jewish school next month, and you need a letter from the beit din to approve it since you're both not halachically Jewish.
  • If a shadchan (matchmaker) makes stupid requests of you, you should push back to show that the behavior is unacceptable. For example: a black Jew only being set up with other black Jews. Or in my case, shadchans kept setting me up with men who said they hated pets, but the shadchanim (yes, all of them) assumed I would get rid of my 3 pets "for the right guy."
  • If someone says something ignorant at the Shabbos table. For instance: speaking badly about converts or Jews or color or baalei teshuva, making racist comments, or otherwise showing behavior that is unbecoming to a Jew. Whether those situations are applicable to you, it's the right thing to speak up. This is my biggest struggle recently; see all polite Southerner mentions above. But it's even more important if the comment is about your group. Who is better able to correct assumptions than the person being assumed about? 
  • Ask for what you need, whatever that is. Do you need a tutor? A friend? A family to become friends with? Access to free or affordable books? Help applying for a yeshiva or seminary? A contact for hospitality when you go out of town next week? A definite timeline so you can make major school, employment, housing and/or marriage decisions? 
  • Make suggestions. What would you like to see a class or shiur on? Maybe you'd like to organize a book club at the shul? Did you think of a way to make the shul more welcoming to guests? Would you like to volunteer on a committee? Did you find a typo on the beit din's website? 

Unfortunately, I waited too long to start advocating for myself with batei din. I didn't advocate at all with my first beit din: simple updates when I had something worth updating. But considering they kicked me out (and my experiences prior to the kicking out), I probably would have just sped up the kicking of the out. 

I learned my lesson and girded my loins for a tough time with the new beit din. For all I knew, I would be blackballed from any RCA-approved conversion beit din. (Thankfully, that didn't happen!) So when I connected with the new beit din, I took a more active role in my conversion. Being a bibliophile, I emailed a photo of my growing Jewish bookshelves and a list of all the books I'd read to date, updated each month. I asked questions when appropriate. It doesn't sound so impressive now, but I believe it helped. If nothing else, it made me feel proactive. That worked for my personality and style. And by that time, others were advocating for me too (mostly thanks to my work on this blog, which I started when I couldn't find any answers or help in my community or the internet). 

I don't know how much of a squeaky wheel I was for the beit din, but I began to feel like I had a small measure of control in the process. I converted six months later, and I believe my advocacy tactics would have shifted and perhaps increased if the process had been longer. That was the plan, anyway. You have to consistently reevaluate your self-advocacy to determine what the best action is now.

Conversion makes you feel so powerless, and self-advocacy is something still in your control. You're still part of the decision-making process in some way. Do it in a way that is true to you and your personality (and be upbeat about it), and you will usually avoid being seen as a jerk. Maybe you'll be seen as slightly annoying, but it's hard to hate friendly and excited people. 

How do you self-advocate? What could you do better? What was something you accomplished only because you asked for it?

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Updates a Go Go!

Oh gee willikers, guys. There's so much going on. And I can finally share it with you! 

First, let's talk about some personal stuff. I fell off the face of the earth recently, and now I can tell you why: I'm finally pregnant for the first time, and I've been sick as a dog. In fact, I just hit 9 weeks today, and I've already spent this week on bedrest because of an infection. Which reminds me: throw out a prayer for Kochava Yocheved bat Sarah when you get a chance, ok? 

You think you're "late" having kids at 31 in the orthodox community? I knew I was in trouble when it seemed like half my law school had already given birth, since demographics show us to be the latest breeders in American society. I've benefitted from the fact that most of my friends, Jewish and not, have already had children, and I plan to keep exploiting their wisdom. I've struggled for a long time with infertility and polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), and being open about those challenges has been such a blessing to me that it was natural to share my pregnancy in a similar way.

We'll talk a bit more in another post about pregnancy customs in the orthodox world, but one is identical to a secular American custom: not announcing a pregnancy until the second trimester, for fear that one might announce and then have to explain a miscarriage. I disagree with this custom, so I announced at 6 weeks. And so far, it's one of the best decisions I ever made.

Who would disagree with such a reasonable sounding custom? I have seen many women post their pregnancy announcements, followed quickly by statements about how hard it was to be so sick during the first trimester and not be able to tell anyone. If you had the flu, you could tell your coworkers or friends why you cancelled plans or took some time off or became a little scatterbrained. I was immediately sick when I found out at 4.5 weeks, and I cannot imagine not being able to ask for appropriate accommodations. In fact, I had to skip out on bedrest to give a class this morning and had to ask to present sitting down. It wasn't a big deal, and we all had a great bonding moment over it (helps that it was a women's bar association event!). Being able to share my struggles, both physically and emotionally, about becoming a mother has already been invaluable to me. I don't have much experience with kids, and I grew up with an abusive mother. Parenthood has always been a very complicated idea for me, and I'm continually thankful to be reminded that I'm not alone in my struggles and worries and even ambivalence. Gd forbid, if I should miscarry, I'll need the same support and advice. It's not for everyone, but it's for me. It doesn't help that both I and my husband don't have living mothers or any sisters. Facebook and texting has filled the need that most people fill within their families. 

Likewise, I have seen the shame and pain of women who suffered miscarriages and felt they couldn't tell anyone. Of course, I only learned these women's struggles months or years after it happened. Grief is one of the worst things to happen to your work and personal relationships. It changes everything, at least for a while. After my mother died a year and a half ago, I can't imagine if I had to keep it a secret. And we'd been estranged for 15 years! Miscarriage is almost always unavoidable, and talking about it helps remove the stigma from an experience that affects 1 in 4 pregnancies. Making women feel forced to hide it is just plain cruel. And as I said above, if that happens to me, I'll need all the support I can get. 

So yeah. Happy things! Puppies! Glitter! Ice cream! And... 

A New Website!

Second: the cool website stuff! You guys. We're getting a new site! Both this site and my law firm's site are in the process of being rebuilt, so you should see a completely reorganized blog/site (hosted on its very own domain!) in the near future. Web design takes a lot longer than I thought, but it's going to be awesome. If you have suggestions for the new site, please feel free to email them to me at crazyjewishconvert at gmail or post them on the blog's Facebook page

Thank Gd, I got an affordable rate, but it's still a very large expense, and I earn little to no money from this work. In four and a half years, I've earned a little over $200. Needless to say, I'm not doing this for the payday. If you'd like to contribute towards the site redesign, you can click that beautiful little "Donate Here" button in the right sidebar. I can't offer you a tax deduction, unfortunately. But you'll be helping converts and baalei teshuva make a smoother transition into the orthodox community! And to feel not so alone, like I did. 

Friday, May 15, 2015

Phrase of the Day: L'Kavod Shabbat v'Yom Tov

You've probably seen this phrase really often but may not even know it, especially if you don't yet read Hebrew.

Most notably, it has been written on (sewed onto) every challah cover I've ever seen. For example:

So what's it all about?

Meaning & Usage

It means "in honor of/for the honor of Shabbat and holiday." As a grammar nerd, it's interesting to me that yom tov isn't written yomim tovim, the plural. However, each time Shabbat and yom tov fall on the same day (happens pretty often), we make the bracha "has commanded us to light the candles of Shabbat and yom tov." That bracha phraseology may be used at other times during the chag, but none come to mind for me right now. So I think the theory is that the cover is useful for any specific day you might use it, rather than the general idea of Shabbat and holidays throughout the year.

You may often see it shortened to just "Shabbat v'yom tov," as you see on 2 of the 3 challah covers pictures. (Those are 3 of the 4 I own. Why do I need 4? I have no idea, but there was a wedding involved.)

Does it have to be both Shabbat and yom tov to use an item that says L'kvod Shabbat v'yom tov? Nope, it's just a catchall for all the uses you might have. Use it on Shabbat. Use it on yom tov. Use it when they fall together. But don't use it on Pesach. Unless you set one aside for Pesach (hey, that's a great idea for one of those 4...).

How Else Is It Used?

Nearly anything can be done lekavod Shabbat v'yom tov. In fact, the most common place you might hear it spoken is in the grocery store. There are many famous stories about rabbis or other pious people who saved the very best food for Shabbat, even in the poorest of conditions. That idea continues today, and you may overhear people debating whether to buy a nicer version of some food or a new food lakavod Shabbat. This can be done any day of the week, so long as it is set aside for the coming Shabbat.

I would guess that haircuts and buying flowers come in second and third, but it's a dead heat for which one should take which place. If you're going to buy flowers or get a haircut, it's best to do so late in the week (Thursday at the earliest but preferably Friday is what some people say) in order than it can also be in honor of Shabbat, even if you intended to do it anyway. This is particularly relevant to haircuts. 

You should also try to save newly-purchased clothes so you can wear them for the first time on Shabbat, in honor of it. It's hard to wait sometimes (so guilty here), but it's a very common custom and a beautiful idea.

It can really be anything. I know of a working mom who doesn't do much cooking during the week, but always cooks for Shabbat to honor it. Her homecooking is so unusual that she's been able to turn it into something that can bring extra honor to Shabbat and joy to her family.

Do you (or others you know) do anything else l'kavod Shabbat or yom tov?

But How Do You Say It??

The better question is how one pronounces it. I have found three pronunciations (so far): 

L'KaVOD: Luh or Le being the best approximations here for L'

LaKAvud (like "mud")


Do you know a pronunciation I missed? Which one do you use? Where have you seen it written besides on challah covers?

And what special thing will you do to honor Shabbat this week? 

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Can a RCA Convert Become Lubavitch After Conversion?

Yes, yes, and yes. I saw this google search come up and wanted to reassure all of you that your RCA (or IRF or private beit din or whoever) conversion does not tie you to a particular hashkafah (philosophy, approach to Judaism). 

Well, it doesn't have to.

I wrote a while back about the special challenges that face conversion candidates who want to live as Lubavitch chossids. But even in those worst-case-scenario circumstances where you may have to leave your Chabad shul and rabbi until the conversion is over, nothing prevents you from going back once the conversion is over. And most people who leaned that way early in the process do go back after, though I can't say how many stay long-term. I think they needed to go back to see if it really was the place for them, and sometimes it's not. It's tying up loose ends, in a sense. Especially when a short-sighted blanket prohibition on Chabad was part of the conversion. That tactic works just as well with conversion candidates as it does with teenagers.

Why does this work? The RCA does not espouse any particular hashkafa. Remember that the RCA is essentially just a licensing agency that allows independent batei din to use their name and support. Your particular beit din may have a specific hashkafa, such as many of the yeshivish and chassidishe batei din, most (all?) of which are not RCA batei dins. In those cases, you may be expected to toe the line to that particular hashkafah, but that should be a consideration before you sign on with that particular group.

As you go through the RCA process, you can choose to affiliate Polish Ashkenazi, Hungarian Ashkenazi, Yekke, Yeminite, Iraqi Sephardi, Dutch, whatever. Most people don't convert that specifically, sticking to general Ashkenazi or Sephardi designations

What determines your customs? Among other things, the community you convert in, the rabbi(s) you work with, and your personal ethnic history, especially if you have some Jewish ancestry from a particular area. But even if you go general, you will still be a mix and mish-mash of many minhagim because American and Israeli communities (and many communities worldwide) are usually a mish-mash of people from everywhere. And so many intermarriages between different types of Jews have created many families with mixed minhagim. So, at best, you are probably "Ashkenazi by default" if you convert in the United States. You could easily end up "Sephardi by default" in Israel or some other communities. Nothing wrong with it, except from the people who refuse to see the reality that a "community standard" doesn't exist in most places today.

Rather than just focusing on the Lubavitch candidate, let's try some other scenarios. Let's say you convert in Atlanta with the RCA-approved beit din there and you convert through a middle-of-the-road orthodox shul. That doesn't mean that as you learn and grow and move through life that you can't move to the right and become yeshivish or move left. Likewise, if you convert yeshivish, you're not prevented from becoming chassidic later on. Marriage often influences these major shifts, as opposed to the subtler shifts we all have.

Where you are haskhafically when you convert is just one moment in time. Every Jew is (should be) growing, changing, learning all the time, for the rest of your life. We all go through periods of more or less stringent observance. Different things speak to us in different seasons of life or life circumstances. And there will probably be a period or two (or more) of anger and rebellion. Congrats, that means you're really Jewish.

Don't be afraid that your conversion seals in what kind of Jew you'll be for the rest of your life. It doesn't, and it can't. 

Sunday, May 10, 2015

The Rabbis Who Might Be Involved in Your Conversion

Rabbis, rabbis, rabbis, everywhere you look it feels like there's another guy in a beard and a hat (well, maybe not in your community, but you get what I mean). 

Interacting with all of them and coordinating them doesn't just feel like herding cats, it actually is harder than herding cats because cats have less responsibilities and people to answer to. Not to mention, you're usually not allowed to participate financially in the community that pays their salaries. (You can't become a member and pay dues, for example.) You probably rank pretty low on the list of a rabbi's priorities, through no fault of your own. It's not personal; it's just how our community has become structured.

So let's talk about some of the rabbis who might be involved in your process and some of the roles they might play. One rabbi could serve many roles (and often do). Some may live down the street, some may only known on the internet. However you get the help, teaching, and services you need is a good way to get them. Be creative if you need to, but watch out for red flags that might indicate a huckster or someone abusive (emotionally, financially, sexually, or whatever). 

Rabbis are human. Remember that all the time, and you will be slightly less angry or frustrated with your situation. It's almost never personal. If you're in a difficult rabbi relationship, make "rabbis are human" your mantra, and repeat it frequently. As I say in that other post, neither of you has the like the other for you to both do your jobs. You can wish the situation were better, but you have to deal with what you've got.

The Bare Bones: 3 Rabbis

Let's talk about the absolute minimum number of rabbis you'll have to deal with: three. You really only need three rabbis to sit on a beit din, and one of those rabbis can be the rabbi whose community you've been living in, studying with, etc. So even at the bare bones level, you have three very busy people to coordinate. On the bright side, the beit din will do most of its own coordinating. Downside: you have little input in those dates, and you might have to change your schedule to accommodate theirs.

I think it's interesting that we really don't need 3 rabbis to sit on the beit din, as any knowledgeable Jew can as long as there's one rabbi to make sure everything is done correctly. That's just a shift that has occurred over time, but remains the structure of batei din in most non-orthodox Jewish communities.

The Normal 4th and Maybe 5th

Most people will have a fourth rabbi: the sponsoring rabbi, who is usually (but not always) your community rabbi. If your sponsoring rabbi isn't your community rabbi (for example, a tutor or mentor), then you'll also have your community rabbi involved, bringing you to five rabbis.

Beit Din Additions

Regardless of who is the sponsoring and community rabbi(s), you may have a fourth rabbi sitting on your beit din. It happens sometimes,  though I'm not entirely sure why, but people have walked into a beit din meeting and faced four or five rabbis instead of the expected (and stressful enough) three. This is unlikely, but it's something to be aware of, and don't let it worry you. From the people I've known, there doesn't seem to be a consistent factor on the side of the candidate, so I assume it's usually a practical scheduling decision when they're afraid one or more rabbis might not be available to also attend the mikvah. For example, in one case, a rabbi's wife was due to give birth around the expected mikvah date. Or maybe a rabbi had heard of you and was interested in meeting you, which was at least one of those cases.

The Takeaway

You'll most likely have to deal with 4-5 rabbis in the average conversion process. This is assuming you have only one beit din by the time you convert and no one retires or moves away (or gets arrested, of course).

But Wait! There's More Rabbis!

That doesn't mean there aren't other rabbis in your life. Some may not function as rabbis at all: some may just be friends, others might host you for meals a lot, or be the person who introduces you around in shul. There's no shortage of ways that people can help you, especially when those people happen to be rabbis.

You might have a rabbi tutor (or three). Your tutors never have to be a rabbi, unless your beit din requires at least one rabbi tutor. You may have multiple tutors because maybe you spend one semester learning in a group class with one rabbi, then get private tutoring from another, and a third teaches you to read Hebrew (or understand it, if you're more advanced). And maybe one or more of those tutors moves, retires, goes on sabbatical, becomes too expensive for your budget, realigns his priorities, whatever. Most people never get more than one or two tutors (formal or informal), but it's good to know you're not weird if you end up with 5. 

You might also have some specialized rabbis, if you face a particular halachic situation. Some examples: 
  • If you or a family member have a health problem (including mental health issues), you need a rabbi who understands those issues and the halacha that applies to them. Your average rabbi may be helpful at best, but harmful to your health at worst. Don't mess around here. It's a common problem for rabbis to either not know or not admit when they don't understand something well enough to rule on it. If you suspect a ruling is uninformed or ignores your particular circumstances (because your circumstances are always relevant to a halachic ruling, especially in health), move up the ladder to a rabbi who is more familiar with the issue.
  • If you have a pet. Most rabbis are clueless about both pets and how halacha applies to them, and thus, they give completely wrong halachic advice. They may even tell you it's prohibited to own a pet!
  • If you have Jewish roommates while you're not Jewish, you need someone very familiar with the halacha of people who are converting. Your beit din is the best place to start when you have a question like this.
  • If you have any other question that may be different for someone in the conversion process. See above.
  • If you have complicated family issues or like to visit your family often, you need a rabbi who is sensitive to those kinds of family issues and the halachic issues that can arise. You may need a different rabbi depending on whether your family is Jewish or not Jewish because the rulings can come out quite differently, and in my experience, these rabbis (usually kiruv or beit din rabbis) tend to specialize in one circumstance or the other. If you have a mixed family, you may need two rabbis to help with each group.
  • If you're in a romantic relationship with a Jew, you're eventually going to run into a lot of halachic questions. The beit din will usually address them as you go through the process. But speaking practically, a number of people have romantic relationships they never disclose to a beit din. If that's you, find a rabbi you trust, even if that means making a semi-anonymous relationship with a rabbi online.
  • If you work in a job that has halachic issues, you definitely need a rabbi who knows the field and knows Shabbat and yom tov halacha very well. This is especially true if you're a doctor, in medical school or residency, an EMT or other emergency personnel, or other people who tend to be "on call" any day, including Shabbat. If you're not in that lifesaving category, you will probably have to take some time to transition away from working on Shabbat and holidays, and a good rabbi can help you make better choices while in that transitory period. [That goes for students who feel compelled to study on Shabbat too. I survived law school without doing it, so I promise it can be done, and the break can actually make your other studying more effective.] As a sidenote, if you think you've been a victim of employment discrimination at your job or in a hiring decision because of becoming observant, you may want to consult with an employment lawyer. Usually those consultations are free, but you'll want to weigh the chilul Hashem factor and the emotional (and financial) cost of pursuing a claim.

In Conclusion

Rabbis are friends, not food. Wait, wrong cliche. [Finding Nemo, in case you don't know any children of the recent generation.]

I will openly admit I'm gunshy with rabbis, and I usually don't trust them farther than I can throw them. I've had too many bad experiences and seen too many others face similar situations because of my work here. However, the longer I'm around, the more good people I see trying to do the right thing. My heart is thawing towards rabbis, though it probably has a few more years to go. [Ha! We all know lawyers don't have hearts!]

Have situational awareness and pay attention to red flags and your gut instincts when you deal with rabbis in the conversion process, but don't let yourself get too cynical until you have a good reason to be. Look for people who just happen to be rabbis but could be your friends, especially if you're young and can find rabbis or rabbinical students your own age. 

Balancing naïveté, judging people favorably, and trusting the system when the system allows an inappropriate level of power over your life is a tightrope walk. Take it from me. But most people get through just fine, and hopefully that person is you. 

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Happy Lag B'Omer!

I hope you have a fun Lag B'Omer! Break out the BBQ, shave, get a haircut, and don't burn anything down!

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Sign #374 You've "Made It": The Annual Dinner Invitation

You get four invitations to "The Annual Dinner." In one day.

Seven in one week, and I doubt the mail onslaught is over yet. From shuls past and present, Hatzolah, yeshivas, and seminaries.

One is for a shul you've never even belonged to. In fact, you've never even been there. How does that happen?? 

All worthy causes that deserve our support, but I don't have $300-$1,000 for any of you, much less all of you in one week.

You'd think someone on the committee would get the memo and schedule the annual dinner at a different time than everyone else! Alas, we're dealing with Jewish bureaucrazy. That was originally a Freudian slip typo, but then I realized it was true.

Why we have annual dinners in the first place is an excellent question. Should we look to a different model? Probably. Chances that will happen? Very small, but it'll probably be spearheaded by an entrepreneurial new Chabad shaliach, since they have to provide all their own funding. He has little to lose and everything to gain. Disrupt the system, chassid! We need it!

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

UPDATED: The 5 Types of Mentors You Need

I've written several times before about the need for every convert and BT to have a mentor. But really, you need at least five mentors because each will expose you to a different part of the community and to different facets of Jewish life. As a bonus, you see how multiple people handle similar situations and learn traditions and minhagim you'd never learn from a book. 

While I believe that every one of the five is necessary, that doesn't mean you need five separate people. Five would be best because it would give you the most exposure to different ways of doing Jewish, but less will do in a pinch.

Someone at the same life stage. 

I never thought life stages would be so important until I entered the orthodox world. Most people's social lives center around people of a similar life stage. I think this is the most important of the potential mentors you can have because this person provides a model for your life today. 

Here's a list of some of the possible life stages you might be experiencing:
  • Young singles ("young" depends on your community)
  • Older singles (again very community-dependent)
  • Young marrieds (who usually don't have children)
  • Married without children (once you reach the age yentas assume you're having "problems")
  • Married with children (and the different age levels, of course!)
  • Empty-nesters
  • Retirees
Getting matched up with someone (or a couple) at the same stage as you helps you see how you will fit into the community. Without someone at your life stage (and nearish to you in age), it's hard to imagine what someone like you "looks like" as an orthodox person. I think this is the main reason I took such a long time to become orthodox. I was a single college co-ed in a subtropical beach community, and I didn't know anyone who could model what that looks like for an orthodox woman. Nearly everyone I knew was at least 20 years older than me. Most college women are unlikely to take tznius fashion advice from the average mom, and most moms don't have the time or energy to spend on their appearance like a college student does. Nothing is wrong with either; it's just a different stage of life. I didn't believe that until I experienced it myself, even though I'm not a mom yet. 

Someone at a similar stage of life will "get" the challenges and struggles you're dealing with, whether it's dating, kids, or taking care of aging parents. They'll understand the halachic issues your life stage creates, as well as being able to support you emotionally. You'll also be able to be social together, whether that means bars, museums, hiking, or playdates. In short, they'll be someone who can be a real friend to you.

Someone your own age. 

Usually, this will be taken care of by finding someone at your life stage, but not always. For example, you might have a hard time finding someone in your life stage, especially older singles and "older" married couples without children. These groups in particular tend to feel some level of isolation or frustration in the orthodox community. Or maybe you find that the people at your life stage aren't your age. The advice I gave for life stage is the same here: it's about finding people you can model your behavior after. What does an orthodox person your age look like, act like, do? That's not something you'll learn in a halacha book.

A parental-like figure of the same gender. 

A mom-figure or dad-figure is invaluable, so long as you don't get creepy about it. They're not your mom or dad. You're not their responsibility, and they're not a financial resource for you. They're your friend who happens to be a generation or so older than you. There's a different kind of emotional support you get from someone older than you. I've been lucky enough to experience that in my Jewish journey. I already see that in myself and friends, even though we're not exactly parental figures.

In a way, this allows you to see your future in the Jewish community. You'll also get advice from someone who's been around longer than you, both in the Jewish community and alive in general. This person can be an invaluable resource for advice, both practical and social. They'll usually have a good understanding of the community politics and may even be someone who can go to bat for you with rabbis or other leadership. 

I make a caveat for conversion candidates and BTs who are very young. If you're in your college years, I think you should have two older-generation mentors: perhaps an older single or young married in addition to someone your parents' age. You may even want to know both an older single and a young married because you don't know what the next stage of life will be for you. (And having been an older single, it's not a death sentence.)

A family with kids still at home. 

If you have a family or plan to at some point in your life, you should befriend a family with kids still at home. You need to see what Jewish family life looks like day-to-day because the home is the real center of Jewish life. This is where the rubber meets the road of Jewish learning and where you will learn the most if you pay attention. 

If you're retirement age, I think connecting with a younger family is beneficial but not necessary. You'd get all the relevant home-learning you need by befriending a couple of similar age and life stage.

However, the young family is the group who has the least amount of time to deal with another person underfoot. At least, that's how you'll feel. Some family might make you feel that way too, but there's a family out there who will be glad to have you as a guest. Be respectful of their time, but don't be afraid to ask to come over for this or for that. It probably won't occur to them, or they'll think you must be busy. So ask. Worst they say is no, right?

An easy way "in" is to babysit for the family, if you have the time and inclination. However, be careful that you're not exploited or made uncomfortable by this arrangement. You should be paid like any other babysitter, unless you're offering it as a birthday present, other specific gift, or as bartering for tutoring or cooking lessons, whatever. You can offer a reduced rate if you like, but make sure the boundaries don't get too blurred. I have seen several family-candidate relationships sour when the family exploited free babysitting or tried to use the candidate as a convenient Shabbos goy to do things they can't halachically do. One of the stories that made me saddest was a friend who was looking hard for meals one week. Finally, a family she was close to called her up late on Friday, and she thought they were offering a meal. In reality, the eruv was down, and they wanted her to come over and push the stroller to shul. A conversion candidate is trying to live a shomer Shabbat life, so using them as a Shabbos goy is disrespectful of them and of the process itself. It's very difficult to stand up for yourself in these kinds of situations if you encounter them (they are relatively unusual, thankfully), but perhaps mentioning the problem to the local rabbi or another community leader can help address the situation. They could even offer a community class on the laws of "the Shabbos goy," which are actually very complex and interesting (and useful!). However, I dream of the day when a Shabbos goy is only used in an emergency situation, not for someone's personal comfort.

A rabbi or other trusted halachic resource. 

You might find it surprising that I list this last and that it doesn't just say "a rabbi." This mentor could be any of the people listed above. If not, then this person is least likely to be a close personal friend. They'll more likely be a resource rather than a mentor. Nothing wrong with that either. This isn't someone you get halachic rulings from. Most of the time, you don't need a ruling, you just need guidance and it's not complicated.

So how do you find these people?

Don't just walk around asking people to be your mentor. They'll probably get weirded out. You might be able to find one or more of these people online, and I don't discourage that, but ideally, these should all be people you can see face-to-face, even if they're in a community a half-hour or hour away. 

These relationships may be mentorships, but they're really just prioritized friendships. You find people you like, start becoming friends, then prioritize that friendship. Don't let the relationship go cold. Invite them to things. Ask to be invited to other things. Not just Jewish stuff! Keep in touch. Deep relationships are the forte of introverts, so this method works for both introverts and extroverts. So no excuses!

I didn't have ANY of these kinds of people in my life while I was converting excerpt through the internet. You can become orthodox without these people, but it will feel harder and take longer. The education of the everyday is the hardest to learn. That's what I try to do here, but nothing can replace the advice and guidance of people who know you.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Word of the Day: Ulpan

At some point in your orthodox journey, someone is going to suggest you go to ulpan. Another class and another thing to learn? Sounds great, but what's ulpan? 

In short, it means modern Hebrew classes. But it's more than that. It's a particular style of teaching a foreign language through intense immersion and often with a class that may not share any common language other than the one being taught. It almost always refers specifically to teaching Hebrew, but other languages can be taught ulpan-style. As a linguist, the ulpan method is as fascinating to learn about as it is frustrating to experience. Ulpan is being thrown from the frying pan into the fire.  It's as close as an adult can get to learning a language like a child does, in my opinion.

From Day 1, you will ideally be using only Hebrew (with lots of pantomime and hand gestures), though that depends somewhat on the dedication of the teacher and the persuasive skills of the students who want the teacher to speak in English. Depending on the teacher, you may not learn grammer very well, but that's not really the goal. The goal is to get you speaking ASAP: at the bank, at the grocery store, at your kid's parent-teacher conference. It's the most practical approach to language learning you can find.

When taken as part of immigrating to Israel, there are often cultural components to the education, including holidays, etiquette, and slang. It's not just language; it's acculturation. Some have called it brainwashing, to be fair.

Traditionally, ulpan is a common experience that ties together generations of people who made aliyah to Israel. It's a rite of passage that goes back before the country was founded. Many new immigrants, especially those from poorer countries and those rescued from hostile governments, often spend the first several months in an immigrant absorption center, where they spend several hours a day in ulpan. As I understand, attending ulpan is totally voluntary (as is staying in an absorption center), however most olim appear to take advantage of it, especially since the first 5 months (currently) are free. I can't find it on the new Nefesh B'Nefesh website, but I know you used to be able to take an extra 6 months of ulpan at a very reduced rate. 

But five hours a day, 5 days a week, of Hebrew for five months? Your brain might melt. Talk about a bonding experience.

Ulpan outside Israel is often closer to the traditional foreign language class you're used to. For example, in my experience, I attended class once a week for 2.5 hours at a time as a near-total beginner. Homework was assigned between classes, but much of the experience depends on your classmates and their dedication to the immersion method. Learning any foreign language requires a certain degree of willingness to look like an idiot, but ulpan will test your self-esteem's limits. One major advantage to learning in Israel with olim is that everyone already feels like an idiot in public and is therefore highly motivated to improve. Also, it's unlikely that your class can get too off-topic when there is no common language other than Hebrew. The problem is finding ulpanim programs outside Israel. Even in NYC and Los Angeles, that's no easy task. There is Rosetta Stone (which I enjoy and find tracks my ulpan curriculum really well), and there are online teachers available. However, I've heard mixed results from online tutors and tutoring companies. Do your due diligence before hiring a Hebrew teacher!

You can find more about the history and methodology of the ulpan experience available from the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Looking at the larger picture, do you think learning modern Hebrew should be considered a necessary (or even important) part of the convert/BT experience, or should we be focusing our energy on earlier Hebrew and Aramaic for text work? I'm having a hard time answering that question for myself, so I'm curious what all of you think and what your experience has been!