Who is Legitimate? Who is Authentic? Who is a Jew?

"This is your destiny, to serve the Jewish People."  (5/18/08)

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. We instruct him in some of the easy mitzvot and some of the hard ones. – Yevamot 47a

Some snapshots from my own experience as a ger tzedek, a convert to Judaism:

– A conversation I had with a non-Jewish relative about a week after my conversion. She said to me, “But you aren’t racially Jewish.”

– A conversation with a leader in my congregation, who said, “You’ll never be as Jewish as her little finger,” pointing to our new assistant rabbi.

– A conversation with a fellow congregant at Temple Sinai, who learned that I was applying to rabbinical school: “Are you going to upgrade to an Orthodox conversion?”

– A conversation with a woman who worked for El Al in a security position, right before she allowed me on a flight to Tel Aviv after a 36 hour delay because my story didn’t make sense to secular Israelis: “Why would anyone want to be Jewish if they didn’t have to?”

– A conversation with a supervisor at a chaplaincy internship. After grilling me and finding out that the rabbi who sponsored my conversion was Reform, he said, “I don’t recognize Reform conversions. OK… well, we’ll start with you on the floor with the dementia patients, you can’t do much damage there.”

– A conversation with a woman at a Sisterhood meeting in the San Fernando Valley: “Rabbi, I need to ask you something: [pause for a deep breath] Where did you get your nose done?”

– A conversation with a woman who insisted that she had been Jewish in a previous life, so she didn’t need to convert.

– A letter from an attorney, a week after I got home from my father’s funeral: Seems that a while back Dad had decided I wasn’t his daughter. He disowned me.

– My rabbi, looking me straight in the eye just before my ordination, saying, “This is your destiny, to serve the Jewish people.”

– An email conversation with a guy who told me that he felt Jewish, and that he was the judge of what that meant for him.

– Last year my brother called me and asked me to officiate at his wedding. I did so with pleasure, a simple civil wedding. It meant the world to me that he wanted me to do it, that he still sees me as his sister.

Face it, authenticity and legitimacy are issues when we talk about “becoming Jewish.” Who is really Jewish and what makes them so?

Here’s what I think: Judaism is a family, a big, messy family. There is disagreement about who belongs and who does not, who is “real” and who is not, who is legitimate and who is not. And in my family of origin, as in many families, there is disagreement about who is family and who is not.

A person cannot wish themselves into a family; it’s a relationship that requires participation from both sides. There are many ways that people become part of an extended family: people are born in, or get informally adopted. But there is a point at which membership becomes formal and there is no going back, when one makes a commitment that cannot be easily dissolved. That’s official membership: when there is a commitment on both sides, and any break is a terrible rupture, like divorce. In a regular family, the moment of formality is adoption or marriage. With the Jewish People, it’s conversion: brit milah, tevilah, and a beit din. [Circumcision for men, Immersion in a mikveh, and a rabbinical court.]

When I sit as a member of a beit din, a panel of three rabbis that makes the decision on behalf of the Jewish people to go ahead with the conversion/adoption, questions weigh upon me. Does this person understand what they are getting into? Are they doing it with a whole heart? Are they equipped to participate? Will they be there with us when times are bad, when it’s really hard to be a Jew? Do they mean it, when they say they’ll raise their children as Jews?

There are no guarantees. At some point in the future, this person may disown us. Some other part of the Jewish family will try to disown them, for sure. Whether that works will be up to the individual Jew: some of us learn to say, “I’m sticking around anyway.”

Whatever happens, it will be messy, but it might be destiny, too.

This post first appeared two weeks ago, in a slightly different form.

Shelach-Lecha: Another Year Older

Mikveh, Oakland, CA

I’m celebrating an anniversary this week.

There are various ways of keeping track of things in Jewish time. One can celebrate the exact date of something in the Jewish calendar (say, 11 Sivan, 5774) or the Gregorian calendar (June 8, 2014.) My way of keeping track of this anniversary is to celebrate when a particular Torah portion comes up in the calendar: this week’s portion, Shelach-Lecha, the story of the scouts (Numbers 31:1 – 15:41.)

Shelach-Lecha was the Torah portion the week I became a Jew. I think of this week (whenever it falls, depending on the year) as my Jewish birthday, and it’s a big deal to me, in a quiet sort of way. I don’t give a party, but I do attend services and spend some time reflecting on my life as a Jew.

The story in the portion is pivotal for the Israelites in the wilderness. God tells Moses to send scouts into the Promised Land, as they are camped just outside it. God even tells Moses which men to send. Twelve scouts go into the land. Ten of them report that it is totally scary, the people are giants, and we’ll all die there. Two scouts, Joshua and Caleb, come back and say, hey, it’s fine. The people are so frightened by the account of the ten, however, that they panic. God is disgusted by their reaction, and says that clearly these people are not ready for the Promised Land – the next generation will get to go, but not them. And that’s how the 40 years in the desert happened.

What I took from the story at the time of my conversion was simple: “If you don’t go, you’ll never know.” There were things about Judaism and the Jewish community at Temple Sinai that I loved. But I knew that there was lots I didn’t know; I was more ignorant than many of the children. I’d taken an “Intro” class, I’d studied for a year, but I found Hebrew very difficult and some of the social stuff very challenging. For instance, I wasn’t a “huggy” person – I never touched strangers – and at that synagogue, people were constantly hugging and kissing (and for the record, they still do.) I wanted to fit in, but I still had a lot of fears.

Years later, I know that it was reasonable to have some fears. But I am so very glad that I took the risk of “entering the Land.”

The story in the Torah is full of people taking risks. Some were very well-calculated risks, but others were true leaps of faith. At Sinai, as they are offered the Torah, the people say, “We will do and we will hear.”  In other words, they agreed to the Torah before they knew what was in it. Becoming a Jew is something like that: you learn what you can, you hang with the community and see what it’s like, and then the day comes when it’s time to commit.

There has been some discussion of late in the Jewish press, wondering if the process of conversion is too long and too involved. “Should we be more welcoming?” some wonder, meaning by that, “Should conversion be an easier, shorter process?”

My take on it is that a year is the least it can take in most circumstances. Becoming a Jew is a shift of identity, and it has many aspects. Candidates for conversion often encounter surprises. Some discover that the parents they thought would be horrified, weren’t. Others discover that their relatives are antisemites. Some discover that it really hurts not to have Christmas, and others are surprised when they hardly miss it. Some find that the more they go to synagogue, the happier they are – and others find that they don’t enjoy being part of the community. Some think about Israel for the first time, and have to get used to the idea that as a Jew, they will be connected to it whether they like it or not.

It takes time to have these experiences. It takes time and support to process them. And some of those experiences may be deal-breakers. It’s easy to focus on the intellectual tasks: learning prayers and vocabulary. However, the emotional work of this transition is very serious business. It involves letting go of some aspects of the self, and adopting new aspects of identity. I am still the person who showed up at the rabbi’s office, all those years ago – I still have memories of Catholic school, and my Catholic school handwriting. I had to let go of some things: my habit of crossing myself whenever I heard a siren, for instance. It was a reflex left over from years before, but it took time to fade away. It took time and effort to figure out how I might respond as a Jew to a sign that someone was in trouble.

After a year of study, that process was well underway, but I can’t imagine being “ready” any sooner.

The ten scouts were scared. They weren’t ready. I suspect that even though Joshua and Caleb are celebrated as “good” scouts, they weren’t really ready either. They talked as if going into the Land was no big deal.

It takes time to change, and change is an uncomfortable process. The midbar, the wilderness, is a frustrating place. It’s big and formless and full of scary things. But sometimes it is only by passing through the wilderness that we can become our truest selves.

Death and the Jew by Choice

How can a Jew mourn properly when his family is not Jewish? What about when the mourning traditions of the family involve things that a Jew would never do?

This is a situation that comes up eventually for most people who became Jewish as adults. Someone in the family of origin – the non-Jewish family – dies, and there’s no well-defined path for the Jew to follow. It came up for me a few years ago when my father died. My family is Catholic, and they observed Catholic and southern rituals for death: a “visitation” at the funeral home with the casket open, a funeral Mass, burial in the family plot with a priest in attendance, and a big meal featuring pork and shellfish and other treif afterwards.

In another family, there might be an expectation of cremation and scattering of ashes, or of ashes kept in an urn on the mantlepiece indefinitely. There might be a custom of no ritual at all. Other families may feel that an opulent casket and flowers are the way to show respect for the dead.

First of all, if you are reading this because you have suffered a recent loss, my condolences and sympathy are with you. The loss you feel may be made even worse by the awareness of this difference between your family and yourself. However, there are things to know that may help.

1. Call your rabbi for support and advice. The rabbi will want to know about your loss, and will want to support you in this time. You are not “less Jewish” because your family is non-Jewish: you are a Jew in pain, and your rabbi wants to know what’s going on with you. The fact that the person who died wasn’t Jewish is immaterial. You are a Jewish mourner, and you need the care of your rabbi and community.

2. Recognize that for the majority of your family, the customs they are used to are going to be the most comforting. “Viewings” and “visitations” are also a legitimate way to process loss and begin to grieve. It isn’t our custom to view a dead body, but for some people it is a way of showing respect. If you do not wish to participate in some aspect of the funeral process, you can simply skip that part, or participate minimally. At the funeral of a non-Jewish friend, I did not view the body, but I did visit the family at the funeral home. I simply hung back and did not go into the part of the room where the casket and body were displayed.

3. K’vod ha-met – respect for the dead – is a Jewish value.  By “going along” with funeral arrangements that aren’t in the Jewish tradition, you are honoring the wishes and traditions of the person who died. Making a fuss about the funeral because it does not conform with your present practice would not be respectful. At family meals, do not make a production of kashrut or other Jewish food practices – just take care of yourself and don’t eat anything you don’t want to eat. At the meal after my father’s funeral, I quietly asked in the kitchen if there were some fresh vegetables or fruit available.

4. Mourn as a Jew after the funeral. Jewish mourning practice really begins after the funeral (or in this case, after the customs of the non-Jewish family are observed, whatever they may be.) Call your rabbi or your synagogue and let them know that you will be sitting shiva. Sit shiva, and do it properly, especially after the death of a parent. What happens at shiva is not for the dead person. Shiva is for the mourner who needs to process the enormous change in their reality. Even if the relationship with the parent was not a happy one – especially in such a case! – mourning is necessary. Your Jewish community will show up for you, but they can’t do it unless you ask. The efficient way to ask is to call your rabbi or synagogue.

5. Ask for the help you need. If, reading this, you are thinking, “I wish I’d known that!” know that it is not too late to attend to old wounds. Make an appointment with your rabbi, or write an email, and tell him or her what feels unattended. It may be too late for shiva, but unfinished mourning is a genuine issue and the tradition has resources for that. If you see a pattern here of “ask your rabbi” and “seek out your community,” you are not mistaken. This sort of thing is one of the reasons that joining a comfortable synagogue or other Jewish community is a good idea for every Jew if it is at all possible.

6. Be gentle. If you go to a family funeral, and things do not go well either for you or with the family, know that all funerals are a difficult time. Be as gentle as you can be with yourself and with your fellow mourners. If you wind up eating something you normally would not eat, if you do something you would not ordinarily do because you don’t have the presence of mind to make a better choice, make teshuvah and leave it behind you.

Mourning is a difficult time. There is no easy way to do it. Our tradition offers tremendous resources for the mourner, if only we will make use of them.

Intro to Judaism Now Available Online!

One of my classes
One of my classes

I teach Introduction to the Jewish Experience, a Basic Judaism class for beginners, and this year we are extending our reach to include distance learners. That’s right, if you have a computer and access to high speed internet, you can take the class, too. We began last week, but recordings of each class are available online for registered members of the class. It’s not too late to sign up.

This is not a “conversion class,” although some of the people who take it may be studying towards conversion. People take the class for many reasons: they are in an interfaith relationship and want to learn more about Judaism, they are born Jewish but want an adult Jewish education, or perhaps they have begun working for a Jewish institution and want to understand Jewish life. If you are curious about Judaism, that’s all you need.

IMPORTANT NOTE: If you are studying with a rabbi for conversion, ASK YOUR RABBI before signing up for any online “Intro” class. He or she may prefer or require a particular class.

The class has three parts, which may be taken in any order:

  • Fall: Jewish Lifecycle & Holidays
  • Winter: Israel & Texts
  • Spring: Traditions of Judaism

You can learn more about the class and see the syllabus at the class website. This class is offered through Lehrhaus Judaica, an school for adult Jewish learning in Berkeley, CA since 1974.

To sign up for the class, visit the class page in the Lehrhaus Catalog online. There you will find more info about the class, including the schedule and tuition.

Conversion Manifesto

A New Jew receives the Torah
A New Jew receives the Torah

Bethany S. Mandel wrote a powerful article, A Bill of Rights for Jewish Converts and published it in the Times of Israel this week. She wrote primarily for an Orthodox audience, but there is a lot in there for liberal Jews to ponder as well.

Rabbis need to have conversations about some of Ms. Mandel’s points. However, many of the things that are difficult about being an adult Jew-by-Choice are things that have to do with the behavior of ordinary Jews.

Let me speak to this as the Jew-by-Choice that I am, in the form of a 10-point manifesto:

  1. Don’t introduce me to others as “a convert.” That is contrary to Jewish tradition, and just plain rude. In some contexts, it is bullying.
  2. I may choose to reveal my history as a person who came to Judaism as an adult, but I don’t owe every Jew an account of it.
  3. My status as a Jew is not appropriate subject matter for small talk. Ever.
  4. If there is something about my conversion that doesn’t meet with your approval, take it up with my rabbi or with yours.
  5. If you don’t approve of my rabbi, keep it to yourself. Really – what do you expect me to do about it?
  6. Don’t gossip about your perceptions of my history, and don’t listen to such gossip from others.
  7. If you see someone bothering me with 1-6 above, please interrupt and change the subject.
  8. If you see someone mistreat converts more than once, take it up with them or with your rabbi.
  9. If I do something out of ignorance that will cause me difficulty, bring it up with me privately and kindly.
  10. Want to help? Invite me to Shabbat dinner. Sit with me. Include me. Smile.

The Book of Ruth teaches us that we never know how a particular Jew is going to fit into the big picture of Jewish history. Ruth was a particularly unpromising candidate for conversion. She was a Moabite woman, looked down upon by many respectable Jews of her time. However, through her choice to become one of us, and participation in the communal life, Ruth became not only the wife of a communal leader, she became the ancestor of King David himself.

Programs can be useful and have their place. However, the thing that makes a synagogue “welcoming” is not the programming, not the service, not the board, and not even the clergy: it is the behavior of each individual member of that community when they encounter someone new or different.

 

Mapping Our Jewish Journeys

liftarn_Compass“These were the journeys of the Israelites who started out from the land of Egypt” – thus begins the last Torah portion in the Book of Numbers. The books of Exodus and Numbers tell the story of the Israelites from Egypt to the banks of the Jordan River. This final Torah portion pauses to review where they’ve been before they cross into the land of their ancestors, the land they have been seeking all along. Their journey did not end with the river crossing, though. In truth, the journey of the Jewish People was only beginning.

Where are you on your Jewish journey? Are you a tourist, checking us out? (That’s OK, by the way – you are welcome to learn all about us.) Are you on a journey toward Judaism, seeking to connect with the tradition and perhaps convert? Are you already Jewish, but looking for a deeper connection with your people and your tradition?

My guess is that if you’ve come looking for this website, you’re on some sort of a Jewish journey. To get the most out of it, and especially to get where you want to go, it’s wise sometimes to stop and take your bearings.

Do you have a Jewish community? Traveling through the wilderness alone is miserable, if not impossible.  Joshua ben Perachyah, one of the most ancient rabbis, used to say, “Provide yourself a teacher and get yourself a friend; and judge every man towards merit.” In other words, don’t journey alone. Whether your Jewish community is a class, or a congregation, or a club, or a chavurah, you need other Jews. Otherwise you’ll lose your way.

What’s your immediate goal? If your goal is conversion to Judaism, there are specific steps to take. If your goal is to learn more about Judaism, find a class! Many synagogues and Jewish community centers offer “Intro” classes that are appropriate for a wide range of learners. If your goal involves making a Jewish choice, like how to raise your children, or how to manage within an interfaith relationship, local Jewish institutions can point you to resources and there are also websites with good information. Or you may have a very specific goal. There also your Jewish community can come into play: look for Jews whose path you admire, and learn from them, whether it is how to make bagels or how to speak Ladino.

Where have you been already? Just as Moses paused to recount the journeys of the Israelites, you may want to make your own map of where you’ve already been. What worked? What was a good experience? What was difficult? Was something both difficult and a good experience? What was worthwhile? What wasn’t?

Where are you afraid to go? The Israelites often stopped in their tracks to wail that they were scared, they hated the wilderness, and that slavery seemed like a pretty sweet deal. They were afraid to enter the land, they were afraid of the wilderness, and in their fear, sometimes they did dreadful things. But sometimes the things that scare us the most turn out to be the best journeys of all. If something looks scary, or feels too difficult, that might be a sign that it’s exactly your best next step, whether it’s learning Hebrew or calling a real, live, offline rabbi.

I am on my own Jewish journey, too. Mine started, improbably, in Catholic school back in Nashville. Today I’m a 59 year old rabbi pursuing new challenges. Thank you for including me in your journey!

 

 

Why Does Conversion to Judaism Take So Long?

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“Why is it taking so long? I can’t wait to get to the mikveh!”

If I had a nickel for every time a student has said that to me, we could go get fancy espresso drinks. There is something about being “in a process” or “on a journey” that makes us long for the destination and impatient to “arrive.”

Here’s the deal: Conversion to Judaism is a very serious matter. It’s serious for the person making this change, and it is also serious for the Jewish People. In the Middle Ages, it was illegal for Jews to convert Christians or Muslims to Judaism, and the repercussions could be terrible for the entire Jewish community. Today, it isn’t quite as dramatic, but what it boils down to is, once you are a member of the tribe, you are a part of us. We’re stuck with you, and you’re stuck with us. The saying is, Kol Yisrael aravim zeh l’zeh [“All Israel is responsible one for another.”] So the time of study, the courtship, is long and slow.

It takes a year to experience each of the Jewish holidays, and to experience the feeling of being apart from celebrations that we leave behind. Your relationship to the old holidays will change. Your relationships to family members and friends will shift to include the changes in your life. You will also make new friends, explore new possibilities in the Jewish community.  None of this can happen quickly.

This is a very precious time. Congregational rabbis make an extraordinary investment of time and effort in candidates for conversion, because there is not only much to learn, but much emotional ground to cover. Most students meet regularly with their rabbi as they move through the year or more of study. The rabbi will not schedule a beit din or the mikveh until he or she is sure that this person is ready to move forward as an adult member of the Jewish community – that is, without the special support that a candidate receives.

So don’t get in a rush. Don’t worry about “when.” Studying for conversion is a special time, a time that, once over, will never come again. A new Jew is an adult member of the community, and they’re on their own: to work on committees, to choose classes or study, to be as involved as they want. But the days of being a baby bird will be over.

Conversion to Judaism is a long process: for most, it takes at least a year, and for some, more than that. The point is not to do it quickly, but to do it well. I wish you a challenging and rewarding process!