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!

Thinking of Conversion to Judaism? 5 Things to Do

Interested in a place at the table?
Interested in a place at the table?

This is an update of a post I made two years ago. It seems like time to revisit the topic.

So, you’re thinking of conversion to Judaism? Here are five things you need to do.

1.  FIND A RABBI. You do not need to be “sure” to do this. The rabbi will not immediately whip out a fountain pen and suggest you sign on the dotted line. Jews do not seek out converts or proselytize, and the conversion process is long and slow. What you need to know, though, is that the process cannot move forward until you have a rabbi. Rabbis do not charge for conversion, by the way; if someone calling himself “rabbi” talks about a fee for conversion, head for the exit. To make an appointment with a rabbi, call the congregation and ask to make an appointment.

For advice about finding a rabbi with the proper credentials for your conversion, read Choosing A Rabbi.

2.  FIND A CONGREGATION, partly because that’s where you are likely to find a rabbi and also because that’s one place the Jews are. Judaism is a religion embedded in a People. If you think you want to become a Jew, get to know some Jews. Hang out with the Jews.  Becoming a member of the Jewish People means you will also be spending time with Jewish people:  better find out if you like them. If there is more than one congregation in your town, try different congregations, because they will be quite different.  To find congregations, try Googling the name of your city and the word “synagogue.” You do not need to be a member of a synagogue to attend as a visitor.

Lately there have been some websites offering conversion to Judaism online. Before you settle for that option, read my article Online Conversion, Revisited.  

3.  DO SOME READING. Your rabbi will recommend books. If you are not ready to find the rabbi yet, here’s a good list of books recommended by actual converts to Judaism. Keep in mind that not all books and not all online sources are equally good; some are downright poor, so choose carefully or look for recommendations from sources you trust.

4.  TAKE A CLASS. Many Jewish communities offer classes with titles like “Basic Judaism” or “Introduction to Judaism.” Your rabbi may offer a class; if you don’t have a rabbi, taking such a class is a another way to meet a rabbi. (I teach such classes in the San Francisco Bay Area.  For more info on my classes, check out the Lehrhaus Judaica online catalog.)

5.  CHECK OUT JEWISH LIFE. Visit Jewish museums. Learn about Israel. Watch Jewish films. Read Jewish fiction. Eat Jewish food. Find out if your community has a Jewish newspaper, and watch for cultural events, speakers, concerts, festivals, and other opportunities to taste Jewish culture and life in your city.

One final thing:  it’s OK, in fact it is critical, to listen to your heart. If you don’t feel comfortable with the first rabbi you meet, talk to another one. If you don’t feel welcome at the first synagogue, check out another synagogue. 

And if, along the way, you realize that what you wanted was to learn about Judaism, but that it was just one step on your spiritual journey, that’s OK. There are many paths to holiness; Judaism is only one of them. I hope and pray that you will find the right path for you.

The Problem of Legitimacy, Part 2

I read a great blog post on PunkTorah.org last week on the issue of Jewish legitimacy. Rabbi Patrick Aleph held an event at OneShul in Atlanta where they wrestled with the idea of Jewish legitimacy, and it emerged that each individual felt that he or she lacked legitimacy relative to “everyone else.” Rabbi Aleph concluded:

The bottom line is simple: we are so obsessed with legitimacy and looking like we know what we are doing that is keeps us from doing amazing things in Jewish life. We are terrified that someone is going to call us out for doing things wrong, that for some of us it’s easier to hide in the corner and do nothing.

But I’m here to tell you something: hiding in a corner is a terrible place to die.

This was the point at which the lightbulb went on over my head; I have become a rather stubborn cuss when it comes to my legitimacy as a Jew, but I’ve struggled with legitimacy and disability. Now I see that they are the same issue: it’s the old “I’m not worthy” thing, the fear of being called out as a fraud.

I feel legitimate as a Jew, even though I am aware that there are Jews in the world who would disagree. I am not disturbed by that, because when the question comes up, my mind immediately produces evidence of my legitimacy: I think of the rabbi who oversaw my conversion, and certainly I see him as legitimate! I have studied Hebrew, lived in Israel, observed countless mitzvot. I feel legitimate as a Jew, because I am part of a Jewish community. I get feedback from fellow Jews that I’m the real deal enough of the time that I can  discount the ones who don’t agree.

But there was a time when I looked desperately for legitimacy, when I was just learning how to be a Jew. I remember longing to wear a kippah [skullcap] but being afraid I was presuming (and the joke of that is, you don’t have to be Jewish to wear one.) Then my study partner clapped one on my head one day, and voilá! A little piece of legitimacy fell into place. It was only by logging time and experience in owning my Jewishness – and by feeling the acceptance of my Jewish study partner –  that I was able to rest easy with that small piece.

A supervisor at one of my internships in rabbinical school asked me about my conversion and then indicated that he didn’t recognize it. I went back to my school and asked for guidance. My teachers there bristled to my defense. They saw me as legitimate and saw him as an outsider who was looking a gift horse in the mouth. Their response said to me, “Yes, you’re the real deal. Now act like it.”

Legitimacy comes from a sense of belonging, and of security in community, and we get that from the feedback we receive (verbal and nonverbal) from others in the community.  My students who are just beginning Jewish paths need to “do Jewish” day and night, spending as much time in the Jewish community as they can. They need reassurance and support, not just from their rabbi, not just from their teacher, but from other “regular” Jews that they are becoming one of us. They need to hear about it when they do something well, whether it is saying a blessing or helping to set up chairs.

And for me, I need to accept the fact of being a person with disabilities, and continue to build relationships with other people who identify as disabled. My dear friend and study partner in school is deaf, and she was the first to say to me, look, ask for the accommodations you need! Initially I was not sure about this, but her reassurance that she saw me as having legitimate needs helped me to ask for things I needed. Later, another colleague whose disability I recognized as “real” asked me why on earth I didn’t have a handicap placard for the car, when I obviously needed one – and she was right, and I finally accepted it from my doctor.

There will always be critics. But why pay any attention to the jerk at Home Depot who sees me on my scooter and says I wouldn’t need it if I lost 50 lbs? Why am I giving him so much authority? Why give some busybody self-appointed expert the authority to shame me? Because the words are his, but the shame is mine. I can accept it, or I can reject it. It’s just that rejecting shame requires resources: I have to own my situation, and know that my community sees me a particular way to have the gumption say “phooey” to the ignoramus.

The enemy is shame. The cure is community – loving, supportive community, that knows the importance of nurturing the newbies and the shaken.

Hiding in a corner is a terrible place to die, but it doesn’t have to be that way.

Part 3 tomorrow.