Online Conversion, Revisited

January 1, 2014

Becoming Jewish [courtesy of BecomingJewish.net]

Becoming Jewish [courtesy of BecomingJewish.net]

Back in May, I wrote a blog post entitled Can I Convert to Judaism Online?  I’ve been doing some thinking about it, and today I am ready to share some new thoughts.

I am enthusiastic about conversion to Judaism.  I became a Jew as an adult, and it has been a challenging and rewarding path.

I am an old hand in online communities. My brother gave me a 300 baud modem for my 30th birthday in 1985, and I’ve been online ever since. I’ve seen some of the best and the worst the online world can do in terms of community. I’ve learned and taught online.

Online resources are a mixed bag for conversion to Judaism.  There is a wealth of information available online, and some of it is very good. Some of it is quite awful. A story to illustrate what a bad source of info can do for you:  My Hebrew name is Ruth. I originally chose that name because I read “somewhere” that all female converts to Judaism had to take the name Ruth. When my rabbi asked me what name I had chosen, I said “Ruth” because I thought it was some kind of a test. He said “Good choice!” and put my new name on the shtar (document) of conversion. It was months before I found out that I had had a choice. I’m fond of my name, now, but I wish I’d asked more questions!

Judaism is a communal religion. Ever since the beginning, Judaism has been a practice of a living community. Abraham and Sarah were the first community of Jews, but it was not long before they were surrounded by a community. Genesis 12:5 says that they set out “with all the souls they made in Haran.” Traditionally we understand that phrase to mean that Abraham and Sarah welcomed others to their way of life.

I learned how to behave as a Jew from spending time with other Jews. I ate at the home of fellow Jews, celebrated holidays with them, copied them when I didn’t know what to do, asked questions, prayed with a minyan, studied in classes with Jews, asked more questions, and found my way to an ever-evolving practice of my own. It doesn’t happen privately or in a vacuum: I did this, and continue to do this in community with other Jews. 

Important Jewish activity takes place with a minyan present, a quorum of ten Jews. They don’t have to be rabbis, they don’t have to be anything but adult official Jews, but we don’t say Kaddish, we don’t say Barechu, we don’t read Torah without those other nine Jews.

This is my great objection to conversion that happens purely online: a person may work with a rabbi, they may have a reading list and a to-do list, and they may even travel to meet the rabbi from time to time, but if they are not growing up Jewishly in a community with other Jews, they’re missing out on an essential part of the process: they aren’t spending actual time with actual Jews.

We are called “a stiff-necked people” and we’re all that and more. There’s a running joke about the guy who loves Judaism but can’t stand Jews. As someone told me after my conversion: “The good news is: you’ll never be alone again. The bad news is: you’ll never be alone again.”

There are rabbis online who will sign you up for a class or three, give you a reading list, and work with you for a conversion. Depending on that rabbi’s credentials, it may or may not be a valid conversion (more on that in a future post.) But my point here is: if you want even a minimally good conversion process, you need not only a rabbi, not only a beit din, not only a mikveh — you need a real Jewish community.

A real Jewish community has wonderful people, annoying people, breath-takingly smart people, staggeringly stupid people, Democrats, Republicans, Independents, crackpots, menschen, and that’s just the short list. You’re going to love some, and others you will duck when you see them coming. And that is part of being a Jew, being part of a big, unmanageable tradition with saints like Abraham Joshua Heschel and embarrassments like Bernie Madoff.

If your heart is tugging you towards Judaism, don’t settle for an “online conversion.” Call your local synagogues, and find a rabbi and a community with whom to explore Judaism. If there is no local synagogue, then ask yourself if you, like Abraham, need to “get out of your land, and from your kindred, and from your father’s house, and into the land which [God] will show you.” [Genesis 12:1]

If it is meant to be, then a Jewish community is waiting for you.


“You want to be Jewish and you live WHERE?” An Internet Mystery

November 14, 2013
Rabbi Jacob Saul Dwek and officials of the gre...

Rabbi Jacob Saul Dwek and officials of the great synagogue of Aleppo. Jewish life in Syria came to an end in the 20th century. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There are places in the world where there are very few Jews, and where Judaism is officially or unofficially forbidden by the state.  One of the great mysteries of the Internet, to me, is that periodically someone in one of those countries will write to my friends at BecomingJewish.net and inquire about conversion to Judaism. 

All the folks at BecomingJewish.net can do is write back to them and explain that (1) it isn’t safe to convert to Judaism in their country and (2) there are few or no Jews there, so it isn’t possible to convert.

On the one hand, it makes me sad to think that someone who wants to be Jewish is living in a place where they simply cannot become Jewish. On the other hand, it speaks to a real misunderstanding of Jewish life, because even if they could convert, they could not have any kind of meaningful experience of Jewish life without a community.

Judaism isn’t something you do by yourself. It isn’t private, it isn’t personal. It is communal. We pray in a minyan, a group of ten or more. We have a minyan for important occasions, like a bris.  How can you have a seder, if you have no one with whom to discuss? We don’t even study alone!

This is why my first advice to anyone converting to Judaism is to find a rabbi, find a community, and to be regular at everything: services, events, and so on. It’s only by spending time with Jews that you can learn to be a Jew, and get the goodies of Jewish life.

As for the people writing letters from Pakistan and Saudi Arabia to BecomingJewish.net, I have no idea what’s going on there. If they are real, I hope they can find their way to a place where there are more Jews.


Mikveh for Conversion: 8 Things to Know

November 13, 2013
A contemporary mikveh at Temple Beth-El in Bir...

A contemporary mikveh at Temple Beth-El in Birmingham, Alabama. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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


Guest Blogger: “Own Your Judaism!”

October 13, 2013
Dawn Kepler and a Rainbow Challah

Dawn Kepler and a Rainbow Challah

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

She wrote to her mailing list about my Who’s the Most Jewish? post and said some things I wish I’d said. So I thought, “Gosh, it’s time for a guest blogger!” 
———

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.

One of the most empowering things for a Jew by choice is to be active in Jewish community.  If you are on a committee, setting out the oneg, cooking for the homeless project, helping out in the shul office, bringing snacks to Hebrew school, you’ll gain a sense of personal ownership.  Make your shul, YOUR SHUL.  Make your rabbi, YOUR RABBI.  

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!  


#BlogElul – This I Can Believe

August 13, 2013

Right before Shacharit at home

I have always found the notion of “belief” rather troublesome.

It reminds me of the story from the Gospel of John, when Jesus told doubting Thomas, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”  That story bothered me, which is the nutshell version of why I became a Jew.

I chose to be a Jew. I chose it not because of any belief, but because of things I see, things I can believe. I see a way of life that offers me a path to goodness transcending human failure. I see a tradition that demands that I yearly examine myself and ask, sharp-tongued, am I being my best self? I see communities of people who care for and about one another, who care for and about the world, who make room for difference.

(Yes, I know there are Jews that don’t do those things. Show me any group of human beings who never foul up and then we’ll know that there is alien life among us.)

I saw a community that made room for me, a fat disabled lesbian with a Southern accent, and who then turned to me and said, “Bring it!” I saw a prayer book full of words that I could say or choose not to say, words with which to wrestle, words that if I let them flow over my brain long enough would show me where I next needed to grow.  I saw a history full of role models to emulate, from the kind patience of Hillel to the audacity of Doña Gracia Mendez to the scholarship and devotion of Rabbi Regina Jonas.

I saw a community that had room for belief, but that also honored disbelief. I saw a tradition that valued words almost more than anything– except actions.

I saw a religion that did not claim to be the One True Path. It is one of many paths to holiness and wholeness.

In that, I can believe.

This post is part of #BlogElul 5773 / 2013, a month-long themed blogburst orchestrated by imabima. I can’t promise that I’ll post every day, but I hope to share at least a few posts on these themes over the month to come. For other people’s posts on these themes, search using the #BlogElul hashtag.

Reblogged on the Reform Judaism blog.

 


Transition Time

July 7, 2013
Kiddush Lunch at Temple Sinai

Kiddush Lunch at Temple Sinai

For the past six months, I’ve been helping out at Temple Sinai in Oakland, CA while Rabbi Jacqueline Mates-Muchin has been on sabbatical. She and her family have been living in Israel. I filled in on a part-time basis, assisting Rabbi Andrew Straus.

I grew up as a Jew at Temple Sinai. I began the process of formal conversion to Judaism when I knocked on Rabbi Steve Chester’s door in the  early 90’s, and all my first lessons in what it meant to be Jewish happened in and around that big old wedding cake of a building. Later on, they sent me out into the big Jewish world, first doing committee work for the Jewish Family and Children’s Services of the East Bay, and then as a regional board member for what was then called the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, now the URJ. I went on to work at URJ, and eventually decided that I would be happiest as a rabbi. I applied to Hebrew Union College, and was ordained in 2008. All the way through, I could feel the folks back at Sinai encouraging me.

I never thought I’d be back in Oakland, much less on staff at Sinai. The hardest part of the decision to become a rabbi was the fact that it was unlikely I’d ever live here, or be a regular at Sinai again. Then in the middle of my student years, one of my sons was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and it was clear to me that with or without employment, my family needed me in Oakland. I bounced back and forth between Oakland and L.A. until ordination, and then I headed home for good after ordination.

Since then I’ve worked at a variety of positions and served a lot of people in California and over in Henderson, NV. Coffee Shop Rabbi came into being in 2010 when I decided to quit “looking for a job” and do the work I saw before me, reaching out to unaffiliated Jews and meeting them in convenient places near their work or home. I did that, and taught classes, and provided funerals and grief support for the unaffiliated.  I found the rabbinate for which I was born, best described by Hillel in Avot 1.12: Be like the disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace. [Be] one who loves one’s fellow creatures and brings them close to the Torah. 

And then last fall I got the call from Rabbi MM, and had the chance to serve for a while at the congregation I have loved for all my Jewish life. It was a joy to give back, to serve the people who had been so good to me. It has been a pleasure to work with both Rabbi Straus and Cantor Ilene Keys, and to learn with them as I did so. I have enjoyed the day-to-day company of the office staff, something that the “Coffee Shop Rabbi” doesn’t have.  I got to know people at Sinai that had been there all along, but we hadn’t met; old friends trusted me with new sides of them.

But this week Rabbi MM is returning, and while I’ll miss some things, I’m glad she’s back. I kept my teaching schedule during the past six months, but the work with unaffiliated Jews had to go on hold; there just wasn’t time for it. Now I’m chomping at the bit to go back. I’ll go back to advertising my services, and Lehrhaus Judaica has expanded my teaching schedule for the fall.

Will I miss Temple Sinai? Nope – I’ll still be there as a Jew in the pew! And I’ll still be doing work that I love, teaching Torah and hanging out with the Jews.

l’shalom [towards peace],

Rabbi Adar, the Coffee Shop Rabbi

P.S. My son is doing very well, by the way – he’s stable now, and is an artist-fabricator running the shop at an outfit called the Department of Spontaneous Combustion. (If you are curious, follow this link and watch the video. He’s the guy in the white tee shirt.)


Tip the Rabbi?

June 11, 2013

English: A basic, Sharp-brand solar calculator.

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!


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