Ever seen something and wish you’d written it? That’s how I feel about this one:
Go look. Feel free to come back here to discuss!
Wow, wow, wow…
Ever seen something and wish you’d written it? That’s how I feel about this one:
Go look. Feel free to come back here to discuss!
Wow, wow, wow…
If you are going to a mikveh as part of your conversion, here are things you may want to know:
1. A mikveh is a ritual bath which meets rabbinic standards for construction, volume and for the source of the water. Certain bodies of natural water may also qualify as a mikveh.
2. Jews use the mikveh for conversion, for family purity, for ritual immersion before a holiday, before a wedding, or for immersing dishes for kashrut purposes. Some Jews have never been to a mikveh, some use it regularly. In recent years, the use of the mikveh has seen a revival of interest for recovery from rape or incest, for marking important anniversaries, and other uses.
3. In the mikveh, you want nothing to separate you from the water. Therefore before entering the mikveh, we remove all clothing, all jewelry (even wedding rings) and all medical appliances (dentures, contact lenses, etc) as well as cosmetics and fingernail polish. We enter the mikveh the way we were born: naked.
4. Most mikvaot (plural of mikveh) will have a place for you to shower and wash hair and clean fingernails before immersion. It is proper to wash body and hair and to brush the teeth before entering the mikveh. We don’t want anything between us and the water (even dust or dead skin) and we want not to bring dirt into the mikveh.
5. Speaking of which, a well-run mikveh is kept scrupulously clean. It is OK to ask the manager of the mikveh about the sanitary procedures, if you are concerned.
6. Tzniut, modesty, is an important Jewish value. If you are doing a ritual which requires a witness (like conversion) a proper mikveh witness follows a procedure to avoid looking at any but the necessary part of your body. He or she will be looking only to make sure that everything, including hair, was completely submerged in the water. A “proper mikveh witness” is usually someone of the same gender who has had training for the task.
7. At a conversion, there are specific blessings which must be said aloud between “dunkings” in the water. Your rabbi will teach you those. The mikveh witness (who may or may not be your rabbi) can assist you with the blessings if memory is an issue.
8. A mikveh is an expensive facility to maintain, and there is often a fee for using it. Be sure to ask your rabbi about the fee.
Finally, if you have any questions about the mikveh, it is really OK to ask. Rabbis are accustomed to talking about all sorts of things that aren’t usually part of polite conversation and your rabbi is not going to be embarrassed by anything you ask. He or she will be familiar with procedure and rules at the mikveh you will use, and can be more specific than I can be in a blog.
I wish you a holy and meaningful trip to the mikveh!
For conversion support in the Bay Area of California, go to BecomingJewish.net
A memory came back to me today.
I was still a brand new Jew, practically wet behind the ears from the mikveh, and I was at my first Big Jewish Event (the sort that had hundreds of Jews who weren’t from my congregation – wow!) I was big-eyed and surfing the learning curve, drinking up the fact that it is a Big Jewish World and I was now a part of it. I was deliriously happy to be a part of the Jewish world I saw around me.
I was walking along a hallway at the convention center with a senior member of my congregation when it happened. The guy (I’ll call him Dave, not his real name) was a macher, someone who knew lots of people at the convention, and who had been on many committees. I was proud to be walking along learning from him. Then he said to me, out of the blue, “See that rabbi over there? You’ll never be as Jewish as her little finger.”
My euphoria crashed in a ball of flame. I couldn’t speak, couldn’t respond, couldn’t move the muscles in my face. I could hear my heart beating. Shame rose in me, and I wanted to disappear through the floor.
I continued walking along beside this man, but I couldn’t look at him. And I never told my rabbi about it.
I have no idea what was going on with Dave, who before and after that awful statement was very nice to me. Today, more secure in my Jewish identity, I might ask him what the heck he was thinking. I would challenge him, because certainly the tradition says that a person who chooses Judaism and goes through the long process of conversion is every bit a Jew. But because I was new, and shy, and intimidated, I said nothing.
When I tell this story to others who became Jewish as adults years ago, they answer with their own stories. It seems to be a rather common experience, so much so that when I work with adults in the process of conversion, I feel it necessary to prepare them for the ambivalence in the community about adopted members of the tribe. It’s not a constant thing, but every now and then an otherwise perfectly nice person burps up a statement that says, “Nope, not one of us. Never will be.” There are ways to handle it, both conversationally and internally, but it isn’t pleasant.
Now, I have been around the Jewish block long enough to know that this is an extension of that popular pastime “More Jewish than You” – that for whatever reason, we Jews seem to have a need to reassure ourselves that someone out there is less Jewish than we are. But when I hear the wailing over the recent Pew study and the angsting over the declining membership in congregations, I want to say, “Well, what do you expect? If we hit people with sticks, they will run away. Duh.”
And I know that isn’t the whole answer, but when I meet people who have left congregations because someone was nasty to them, I just have to wonder: how would the Jewish world be different, if we all acted as if each Jew were precious and non-replaceable?
How would the world be different if we treated every human being that way?
From Rabbi Adar: Dawn Kepler is my friend and teacher. Years and years ago, she mentored me through conversion. She is the founding director of Building Jewish Bridges: Embracing Interfaith Couples & Families in Berkeley, CA. Dawn has worked in outreach to unaffiliated and interfaith couples since 1990. BJB’s programs also address the unique concerns of Jewish minorities that are often a subset of the interfaith population – multiracial, multiethnic and LGBT Jews.
In response to the needs of seekers and converts to Judaism, Dawn works with Linda Burnett on programs offered through the website www.becomingjewish.net.
Whether you were born Jewish or converted to Judaism it is highly tempting to get caught up in the mental high jinks of other people, especially ones who are verbally poking you with a stick. But don’t. Don’t let someone else’s insecurity color your confidence and your actions.
Read Rabbi Adar’s article, Who’s the Most Jewish? and ask yourself, do I need more learning? Do I want to read Hebrew better? Would I really feel better if I had converted or was converting in a more traditional movement?
Do what YOU need to feel authentic. I have a friend who began with a Reform conversion and years later decided to have a Conservative one. Then more years passed and she became Orthodox and had a third conversion with an Orthodox rabbi. Some people refer to this as an ‘upgrade.’ It’s not. An upgrade means to raise to a higher standard. What standard are you shooting for? Judaism demands that we use our brains, learn what our sages have taught and then upgrade our lives.
You know the story of Zusya who wept for fear that he had not been himself. In other words he had not fulfilled his potential. The upgrade you must pursue is to and do whatever it is that you were created for. Only you really know what that is.
So let’s think about it.
I have a friend who decided to get on the chevra kadisha (the committee that prepares the dead for burial), another one joined the hospitality committee, another volunteers at Jewish Family & Children’s Services, another donates services from his business to various agencies’ fundraisers, another reads with kids through the Jewish Literacy Project, and another heads his shul’s blood drive.
Find out what your passion in the Jewish community is and DO IT. OWN your Judaism!
Now lech lecha! Get going!
If you’ve been around the Jewish community for a while, you’ve probably seem some version of the game, “Who’s the Most Jewish?” also known as “More Jewish Than You.” It’s one of our less attractive things.
For example, if you are a convert to Judaism, sooner or later someone is going to try to tell you that you’ll never be really Jewish. (My standard answer: “Take that up with my rabbi.”) Others may try to tell you that you’re more Jewish because you had to study and learn. Either way, it’s unpleasant.
This used to bother me a lot more before I heard the story of René Molho (of blessed memory.) René was a survivor of Auschwitz and one of my teachers. He devoted his last years to retelling his story to combat the rising tide of Holocaust denial. René and his brother grew to young manhood in Salonica, a Greek island with a famous Sephardic community. Just as Ashkenazi Jews spoke Yiddish, Sephardic Jews spoke Ladino, a language closely related to Spanish. When René and his brother arrived at Auschwitz, the Jews there refused to believe the two young men were Jewish because they didn’t speak Yiddish. It was quite a while before they stopped treating the Molhos with suspicion.
René was in Auschwitz with a yellow star on his chest, and there were Jews who thought he wasn’t Jewish enough.
This sad, stupid business has many roots. The Jews René met in Auschwitz had been terrorized. Many of them had never met Sephardic Jews, and it must have seemed like some new and horrible trick. From the Roman Empire through the Middle Ages, it was often illegal for Jews to convert Christians or Muslims to Judaism, so a ger tzedek [convert] could bring huge fines or violence down upon the community. Jews are obligated by Jewish law to welcome and assist fellow Jews, so frauds were not welcome.
But in my experience, most of the “More Jewish than You” game in modern times comes from insecurity. Jews who worry about their own legitimacy salve that insecurity by finding someone to look down upon. It’s not just converts to Judaism, either: I have heard people say that someone is less Jewish than so-and-so because:
If something about your status as a Jew worries you, talk to a rabbi and figure out what you need in order to feel legitimately Jewish. If only an Orthodox conversion will do, go for it! If in your heart of hearts you feel you really ought to be keeping kosher, do it! If you need to do more mitzvot in order to feel legitimate, run to do those mitzvot! If you feel sorta-kinda-Jewish and wish you had papers to prove you are really, absolutely Jewish, talk to a rabbi about conversion or some other way to ritualize your identity. Learn Hebrew, learn Yiddish, learn Ladino. If general insecurity is the problem, get some therapy. But don’t let stupid words from insecure people make you miserable.
But whatever you do, don’t find someone to label “Less Jewish than Me” so that you have someone to look down on, too. We can all be tempted by this at times – to say that well, so-and-so is Orthodox and all that, but she’s really a hypocrite (thus not as Jewish as Me.) We might be tempted to throw around some Hebrew when we know that some of the people at the table don’t speak Hebrew, because hey, it may make them feel bad but Can You See How Jewish I Am? You’ve seen the game played – just make sure you are never the player.
And may the day come soon when we are all kind and wise, and there is no more insecurity, and no temptation to cruel games or defenses against them! Amen.
I love perusing the Google searches that bring people to my blog, because it tells me what people want to know. Today someone typed, “How much to tip the rabbi.” I’m going to expand that a bit, to include the various ways rabbis are paid for their work.
- If you are a member of a congregation with a full time rabbi, the rabbi’s salary is part of the congregational budget.
- If you are using the services of a rabbi who is employed by a congregation and you are not a member, you may be asked to pay the synagogue for his or her time. That “honorarium” or fee will be mentioned when you set up the service (say, a funeral.)
- If you wish to express your thanks, you can always contribute to the rabbi’s discretionary fund. That money is set aside for charitable purposes (not the rabbi’s car payment). Your rabbi will use it to relieve immediate suffering (for instance, by purchasing “gift cards” to a grocery store for a hungry person) or to support the work of a nonprofit organization.
- Freelance or community rabbis (those not employed by congregations) may or may not perform weddings, baby namings, etc. The way to find out is to ask. Generally they have a set fee for these things, but the exact rate will depend on local custom.
- It is a Jewish tradition to give tzedakah [a charitable contribution] to celebrate happy occasions, to memorialize the dead, and at holidays. That money might go to a rabbi’s discretionary fund, or to a synagogue fund, or to a nonprofit that serves the needy.
- No respectable rabbi charges for conversion to Judaism. There may be a charge to take an “Intro” class, or to use the community mikveh, but conversion itself is not for sale. If someone quotes you a fee “for conversion” it’s time to look for a different rabbi.
- It is not rude or crass to ask up front about fees. If you cannot afford the fee as quoted, say so. The rabbi may be able to help you access assistance for low-income individuals, especially for a funeral.
This information is geared for the United States. However, the last point holds true everywhere: as Hillel said, the shy will not learn. Ask questions!
Often I get email from people who want to know if online conversion is an option. Here are my thoughts about that.
IT TAKES A JEWISH COMMUNITY TO MAKE A JEW. I believe very strongly that conversion should take place within a Jewish community setting, probably a congregation. The process of conversion is not just about study, it’s about becoming part of Am Yisrael, the People of Israel, and it’s very important that a candidate spend lots of time with Jews and get a feel for life in a Jewish community. What if a person went through the rituals, became officially Jewish, then found out that he or she didn’t really much like Jews, or felt terminally out of place with Jews?
IT TAKES JEWISH EXPERIENCES TO MAKE A JEW. Often people who feel drawn to Judaism first explore it by reading books and looking around online. Those are legitimate activities for learning about Judaism, but they will take you only so far. A person interested in Judaism should experience the whole range of sensory experiences that go into Jewish life: the crunch of matzah at Passover, the taste of traditional Jewish foods, the sounds of Jewish worship, the rhythms and unusual scales of Jewish music, the adrenaline of a good Torah study session. The candidate need not like all of it (I personally will never learn to like chopped liver, although I have grown fond of gifilte fish) but it’s important that experience be real, not theoretical.
IT TAKES TIME TO MAKE A JEW. Sometimes people want to know “how long does it take?” The answer to that is that it takes as long as it takes. Study begins with a class or with a rabbi without a fixed goal. The process of study may end with conversion, or it may be a step along some other journey that the candidate is taking. Until both the rabbi and the student are sure that Judaism is the only possible destination, options stay open. Most rabbis like for a student to experience Jewish life for at least a full year’s cycle (there’s that “experience” word again) to see what happens. Without face-to-face contact, it’s hard to sort out what’s going on with a person, and that is critical knowledge for a rabbi working with a conversion student.
Now, you may be saying, “But I don’t want to be a synagogue Jew! I have a different vision of my Jewish life!” And my answer to that is to say, as gently as I can, that conversion to Judaism involves a massive transition of identity – you do not know where it will take you. I did not know where it would take me. But what I do know, for sure, is that community and experiences are key to the process of becoming Jewish. We are a communal people, so much so that we don’t read Torah or say Kaddish without ten Jews present. We have Jewish Film Festivals because we like to get together to watch Jewish movies.
I am aware that there are websites advertising rabbis who will study with conversion students online. And there may be circumstances in which there is a vibrant Jewish community with which to learn but no rabbi. Perhaps in those circumstances, if there’s really no better alternative, it might work. But I worry when I hear about online conversions. I worry that students will not get what they need and will not be adequately prepared for life as a Jew.
First, check out your local options. If there really isn’t a congregation near, is becoming Jewish so important to you that you are willing to relocate, to live near more Jews?. Why do you want to become a Jew? And if you do become Jewish, what will you do about being Jewish, if there’s no one else with whom to celebrate holidays, or lifecycle events, or pray?
Whatever you decide to do, I wish you well on your spiritual journey!
יהושע בן פרחיה אומר עשה לך רב וקנה לך חבר והוי דן את כל האדם לכף זכות
Joshua ben Perachiya used to say: Get yourself a rabbi, and acquire for yourself a friend, and give everyone the benefit of the doubt. – Avot 1.6.
The Sayings of the Fathers, from which this saying is taken, are a collection of friendly advice from the rabbis of old. This one, “get yourself a rabbi, a friend, and give folks the benefit of the doubt” is great advice, especially for a person who is or wants to be connected to Jewish community.
If you want to become a Jew, if you want to get married by a rabbi, if you want a rabbi for a funeral, if you want reliable advice on Jewish custom, law, or tradition, you really need a rabbi. Advice from Jewish friends, relatives, and people in the grocery store line is not reliable! (I say this from hard experience of my own: I made my first inquiries about becoming a Jew when I was in my teens. My Jewish friends were absolutely certain that one had to be born Jewish. I didn’t inquire further, and wasted years when I might have been happily Jewish, as I was destined to be. Oy!)
So you want to find your rabbi. Here are seven bits of advice:
1. ASK YOUR FRIENDS. If you have Jewish friends, ask them for referrals. If they don’t have a specific rabbi to recommend, ask them for referrals to synagogues (where you will often find rabbis.) If they can’t help you, ask them if they know someone who can make a referral.
2. CHECK THE LOCAL SYNAGOGUES & JEWISH INSTITUTIONS. You want a rabbi nearby, not one you can only contact through email. Check out your local rabbis via synagogue websites and by sitting through services they are leading. Other local Jewish institutions may have rabbis on staff – check their websites, too. Also — this is important! — if you find a synagogue that feels like home to you, their rabbi is a good bet to be your rabbi, too.
3. CALL A RABBI AND MAKE AN APPOINTMENT. You are not “wasting the time” of the rabbi when you make an appointment to meet with them. Most rabbis like meeting new people (they would not stay in this line of work if they didn’t.) You don’t have to be “sure” about this rabbi. This is a “getting to know you meeting.” There should be no charge for a meeting of this sort.
When you meet the rabbi, be sure to both talk and listen. Talk to her about your project (learning more, converting, marriage, whatever). Answer his questions as honestly as you can. Ask her the questions on your mind.
4. LISTEN TO YOUR KISHKES. Kishkes is Yiddish for “gut.” Are you comfortable talking to this person? Some people want a scholarly rabbi, some want a warm rabbi, some want a fun rabbi, some prefer a rabbi who doesn’t feel too chummy to them. Often we don’t even know what our idea of a rabbi is on the front end; it’s only when we’re sitting in the room with that person that we say, “Oh, that’s a RABBI!” So meet the rabbi and see what your kishkes say to you.
5. RABBIS VARY. Rabbis are individuals. Each has a personality, opinions, and ways of doing things. No two rabbis are alike, not two Reform rabbis, not two women rabbis, not two Orthodox rabbis. So if the first rabbi you meet doesn’t feel like “your rabbi” that is OK. If he or she has opinions or rules or a manner that you find upsetting, just keep looking.
6. WHAT’S A GOOD TIME? August through mid-October is a frantically busy time for rabbis with congregations, and many other rabbis as well. Call after the middle of October, or before August begins. Call the office phone during office hours, or email if you have an email address for them. It’s nice to give them a “head’s up” about the topic: “Hi, Rabbi Levy, my name is Ruth Adar. I’m considering conversion and looking for a rabbi.”
7. IF YOU HIT A SNAG: If a rabbi says he doesn’t have time, or she feels “wrong” to you, or if your Jewish friend thinks you are crazy for even wanting a rabbi, take the advice that opened this essay and give everyone the benefit of the doubt. There are lots of rabbis around. The one who isn’t a good fit for you, or who didn’t have time when you called, might be a good fit for someone else. Your Jewish friend may be reacting out of some bad experience of his own.
If you are in the United States or Israel, you’re in luck – there are lots of rabbis. If you live in the San Francisco Bay Area, you can check out the local rabbis via BecomingJewish.net. If you keep looking and asking and listening, you’ll find your rabbi.
Today I saw the following message on twitter:
I feel like everyone is always mentally judging moms when they’re out with their kids. Like they cannot mess up, w/o being visibly judged.
TheKnottyBride‘s tweet hit a nerve for me. I was a new mother thirty years ago when I discovered that every stranger had an opinion on my parenting. Was my baby wearing the right kind of shoes? Was I dressing him properly? Was I feeding him properly? One woman looked at me sternly and said, “You don’t want to be a Bad Mom, do you?”
Later on, I heard about it when I let the boys watch TV (Bad Mom!) and when I got rid of the TV (Bad Mom! Kids need TV or they will not be able to socialize with other kids!). I was a Bad Mom when I restricted their movie watching to only G movies (other parents said, “That’s kind of ridiculously strict!”) and when I made an exception to the rule, of course, I was a Bad Permissive Mom. When I divorced, I was definitely a Bad Mom, and as a divorced woman, I received even more unsolicited opinions.
As I’ve discussed in another post, there were a lot of folks who were sure I was a Bad Mom when I came out as a lesbian.
Eventually I learned to listen only to people I had reason to trust: our pediatrician and most of their teachers. I had a circle of friends with whom I’d consult about parenting decisions. I paid extra attention to parents of adults who’d turned out well. I learned to tune out everyone else. The “Bad Mom” theme became a family joke.
Later, when I became a Jew, the experience fielding other people’s opinions was handy. I converted with a rabbi who is still my model of a mensch and a rabbi. He is a Reform rabbi, so mine was a Reform conversion. I went before a beit din [rabbinical court], I immersed in the mikveh [ritual bath], and I threw in my lot with the Jewish People. I continue to grow in the observance of mitzvot, and hope to grow Jewishly until the day I die.
And yes, there are people who will insist that I am not a “real” Jew, or that I’m not as Jewish as a born Jew. I give them exactly the same amount of attention as the people who thought I was a Bad Mom. When I am having a low self-esteem day, it can get to me, but for the most part, I pay them no attention at all.
There are issues of interpretation of halakhah [Jewish law] that I understand and accept. In Orthodox settings, most of the things that a non-Jew cannot do are forbidden to me anyway because I am a woman, so really isn’t much of a problem. I’m already married, and I don’t expect an Orthodox rabbi to bury me. Not all Jews understand the Covenant in the same way; I accept that. What I don’t accept is the opinion that the only “real” Jew is a born Jew.
Just as with the parenting, I have teachers and friends whom I trust. I take their tochechot [rebukes] very seriously; I do my best to listen humbly and to make teshuvah [a return to the right path]. By doing so, I learn and grow as a human being and as a Jew.
There are people for whom I will never be a Good Mom, and people for whom I will never be Jewish Enough. It was a great and liberating day when I realized that I cannot change those people. Most of them are speaking from insecurity or some pain deep in their own souls. It’s their problem, not mine: I can’t fix it.
So I will close by giving my own Free Advice to new moms and new Jews. In Pirkei Avot, the sage Joshua ben Perachyah says, “Find yourself a teacher, and get yourself a friend, and give everyone the benefit of the doubt.” Find people you can trust to give you good feedback. Listen to them. As for everyone else, assume that they are being rude out of pain or insecurity or a misguided desire to help, and don’t worry about them. Do your best and LET IT GO.