Meeting the Rabbi – My Story

Image: Rabbi Chester and I at my ordination on 5/18/08. (Photo taken by R. Sanford Akselrad.)

It is a truism among writers that when you particularly love a line or a paragraph it is often the one that most needs to be edited out.

I’m barreling towards a deadline on an article about ritual and conversion to Judaism. The article is supposed to be academic writing, which means that I have to rein in my inclination to tell homey little stories, especially first-person stories.

So here is a bit that had to go. I’m sharing it here to pacify the part of me that was determined to tell it, and partly because I think it might be useful to someone worrying about meeting a rabbi to talk about conversion:

————–

I read anything Jewish I could lay hands upon, absorbed a quantity of information and misinformation, and finally decided I was sure. I called and made an appointment to meet with the rabbi.

So when I first approached Rabbi Steve Chester in 1994, I told him very confidently that I had decided that Judaism was for me. His words to me like a non-sequitur: “There’s a tradition for turning candidates away three times – can we agree that I’ve done that? I don’t want to be unfriendly.”

Then he added, “Maybe you want to be a Jew, maybe not. I’d like to slow down, study with you for a while, and see how it goes.” He explained to me that not every Jew in the world recognizes a Reform conversion, and that it would not hurt his feelings if I decided to meet instead with a Conservative or Orthodox rabbi, just to be sure to let him know. The warning about non-acceptance of converts mostly flew over my head. He gave me a book to read, told me to sign up for an Introduction to Judaism class, told me he expected to see me at services every Shabbat, and we made an appointment to meet again the next month.

He didn’t send me away, but he wasn’t terribly encouraging, either. I could not leave that meeting shouting, “I’m going to be a Jew.” All I knew for sure was that the rabbi had given me assignments to do, and we had an appointment to talk again in a month. What I had, from that moment, was a relationship with a rabbi. And let me tell you, to this day, the relationship with Rabbi Steve Chester is one of the most important in my life.

The Introvert from Egypt

Image: A green game piece stands apart and separated from a group of red game pieces. (tillburmann /Pixabay)

Yesterday, I wrote about the question of the introvert in community by asking a number of friends how they handle it. Today, I thought I’d share the fact that I’m very much in sympathy with the student who asked the question, because I am myself an introvert, and suggest some insights that have helped me.

  • The more structure there is to a community event, the less it stresses the introvert in me. Attending services, I am there with others, I participate. In the service itself, once I learned how to participate, I could be completely present but also quite comfortable, sure of each interaction. After the service, then there’s the oneg, which is something else altogether.
  • The more UNstructured the event, the more it stresses the introvert in me. The oneg after services is a prime example. People are there, some I know, some I don’t, and some who look familiar but I am not sure. At first I am afraid that no one will talk to me. Then, when someone approaches, I’m worried about improvising in a conversation. My go-to when I feel completely at sea is to look for someone else who is standing alone. I walk over to them and introduce myself.

Strategies for settling into a community:

  • At first, concentrate on structured events: going to services, classes, funerals, shiva houses. Usually these events have someone leading, and all we have to do as participants is find a seat and be there. Cultivate some very small talk for before and after: “Hello. My name is…”– “The music was beautiful, wasn’t it?”– “This topic is fascinating! What draws you to it?” — “How did you know the departed?” — and once you can get the other person talking, just listen.
  • Having a task to perform lessens the stress. In the service, if all you feel comfortable doing is saying “Amen” at the appropriate times, say it with gusto. In adult ed classes, strive to look interested (the teacher will love you for it.) And at funerals and shiva houses, remember that your simple presence is the mitzvah; if you are there, and say little or nothing, it’s ok because you were THERE. You don’t have to talk at any of these high-structure events, except possibly for some classes. At the scarier, low-structure events, I do what I mentioned above at onegs: I seek out another wallflower and say hello. Then, even if we don’t sustain much of a conversation, at least neither of us is standing alone.
  • Eventually, try some less structured events: join a committee at synagogue, volunteer to help with an event. Here, again, having a task will help with the stress. In a committee, you can ask for a partner to help you do anything you want to volunteer for but feel unsure about: “Could I have a partner for this?” If you go to an event and there is clean-up afterwards, stick around to help with that. I have made lifelong friends that way.
  • Finally, remember that when God finished creation, God said, “It is very good.” You are a good person, introversion and all. Take time for yourself to recharge.

If you engage with community in small steps, the day will come when you walk into the oneg after services and it is no longer a wilderness of strangers. The day will come when you will gladly wave to friends and then, because you remember being a stranger, you will tear yourself away from friends to seek out the newcomers and the people who are standing alone.

You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.

Deuteronomy 10:19

“I’m an introvert! How can I be part of a community?”

Image: A pen puts a check by “Introvert” on a survey. (Yeexin/Shutterstock, all rights reserved.)

Recently one of my students said, “I’m an introvert. My rabbi says I have to spend time ‘in the community’ and I am not sure I can fit in.”

As Robert Putnam pointed out almost 20 years ago in Bowling Alone: The collapse and revival of American community, Americans have become less and less connected to each other. He wrote this before the rise of social media: MySpace, Facebook. Twitter, WhatsApp, WeChat, QZone, etc.

It isn’t surprising, therefore, that Americans remain reluctant joiners. For those those who are also naturally inclined to introversion, the prospect of walking into rooms full of strange people may be downright upsetting. For someone like my student, it is dismaying to hear, “You have done well on classes, etc, but you need to spend more time in the Jewish community.”

First of all, why would a rabbi insist on such a thing? Isn’t one’s religion a personal matter?

There may be some religions that are purely personal and private, but Judaism is a communal package of more than just religion. Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan z”l famously described Judaism as a civilization, making that the title of his magnum opus on modern American Judaism. Even purely religious elements like prayer often require a minyan, a quorum of ten adult Jews.

So it is a wise rabbi who insists the candidate for conversion spend substantial time doing Jewish communal activities, and that the person spend time with real, live Jews. It happens all the time that people fall in love with Judaism in the abstract. To be happy and successful as a Jew, one needs more than the abstraction: one needs to get accustomed to the mishpocha [family] in all its (sometimes dysfunctional) glory.

I am myself an introvert, as are many rabbis. However, rather than parrot what works for me, I thought I’d crowd-source some ideas about participating in community when one isn’t accustomed or naturally inclined to do so. Here’s what I learned from a random assortment of people on Facebook, some who are Jewish, and some who aren’t, when I asked:

Do you consider yourself an introvert? If so:

– Are you part of a community (a synagogue, a parish, etc.)?

– How do you participate in that community?

– Do you have advice for other introverts who want to participate in community but aren’t sure how to go about it?

Here are some of the suggestions:

I jump in slowly. Maybe I wade in. 🙂

– Allison Landa

Get on a committee and participate with what they do.

– Belle Rita Novak

My advice would be to…

1. Go to classes at the synagogue, where you have meaningful discussions about the big questions in life rather than engaging in just small talk.

Torah Study, Intro to Judaism, Beginning Hebrew, etc are all great example classes.

2. Volunteer to lead/organize an event at the synagogue. That way people will come up and introduce themselves to you with questions about that specific event, instead of you having to go up to them and try to make small talk in order to get to know new people.

– Rabbi Ahuva Zaches

Start small and add on as you want to challenge yourself.

– Christo Chaney

Others agreed about classes and committees, and suggested a Jewish book group. Two people mentioned the importance of alone time to re-energize after spending time with others.

And it turns out a rabbi I respect very much, Rabbi Elisa Koppel, has written an entire blog post, Learn: The introvert and the oneg: How I learned to step out of introversion every now and then. She is the Director of Lifelong Learning at Congregation Beth Emeth in Wilmington, DE and has a lot to say on the subject of introversion and membership in community. Rather than give you excerpts, I am linking to the whole blog entry, because it’s all good.

If you are an introvert who has found comfortable ways to participate in Jewish community life, I hope you will add to this list of tips by using the “Comments” reply section. And if you have specific questions about this, I hope you will share those too – talking it over, sharing ideas, these are also part of being in a community!

Jews by Which Means?

Image: A mikveh – ritual bath for immersion.

In discussions about conversion to Judaism, I’ve read various terms to denote people who have been Jewish all their lives, and people who became Jews as adults. There is considerable disagreement about English terminology for the latter: some of them object to “convert,” and some dislike the euphemism “Jew by Choice.” The Hebrew term is “Ger Tzedek,” or for a woman, “Giyoret Tzedek,” meaning “Righteous Resident.”

For those who have been Jewish all their lives, I generally hear “Born Jew” or simply “Jew.” Conversion is the exception, historically, and as any person who became Jewish as an adult can attest, there are prejudices against them in the modern Jewish community.

Lately I’ve been studying BT Yevamot 46a, a major source in the Talmud about the process of giyur [conversion.] One fascinating part of the discussion involves an implied explanation for our process of conversion: it is intended to be identical to a process the Israelites went through in the book of Exodus, before receiving the Torah at Sinai. It starts:

The Sages taught in a baraita: With regard to a convert who was circumcised but did not immerse, Rabbi Eliezer says that this is a convert, as so we found with our forefathers following the exodus from Egypt that they were circumcised but were not immersed. With regard to one who immersed but was not circumcised, Rabbi Yehoshua says that this is a convert, as so we found with our foremothers that they immersed but were not circumcised.

BT Yevamot 46a

In the verses that follow, the sages reason that many of the Israelites had stopped circumcising their children during the years in Egypt, but that all had to be circumcised before they had the ritual meal of Passover. Then they found verses to support the idea that all of the men and women immersed in living water before they received the Torah at Sinai. Their children would inherit their Jewishness (though children with penises still needed brit milah [ritual circumcision] at eight days.) They did not need immersion in a mikveh to be Jews.

So perhaps instead of saying “Born Jews” or “Jews by Birth” perhaps it is more accurate to say “Jews by Inheritance.”

Why does this matter? I think it is an important distinction, particularly with the racist nonsense circulating about “Jewish blood” and “Jewish DNA.” Judaism is not a biological thing: it is a precious possession, a valuable inheritance, or something that a ger tzedek has striven and made sacrifices to obtain.

Once the rituals are complete, and the conditions are met, there is no distinction between the person who inherited his Judaism, and the one who strove for it:

Once he has immersed and emerged, he is like a Jew in every sense.

BT Yevamot 47b

Mourning a Non-Jewish Parent

Image: Candle flame. (Public domain)

I converted pretty late in life. My parents are long gone, and I’ve never been sure whether or not I should observe their yahrzeits. Both were gentiles. What do you think?

– A Reader

Great question! When a Jew has Jewish parents, they normally have an obligation to bury the parents, say kaddish for them, mourn them for a year, and then observe their yahrzeit in following years. Yahrzeit is the Ashkenazi word for the anniversary of a person’s death, and we observe it by lighting a candle, saying kaddish with a minyan, and giving tzedakah in their memory. The corresponding name in the Sephardic tradition is nahalah.

A Jew is not obligated to say kaddish for a non-Jewish parent. However, they may observe all Jewish mourning practices for them if they so choose. Thus the answer to your question, “Should I observe their yahrzeits?” is that you have no obligation to observe them. However, you are permitted to observe them if you wish.

In making your decision, a Jew should consider related mitzvot, particularly the mitzvah to honor one’s parents (Exodus 20:11.) Even then, there is no single answer. I have known Jews who chose to observe yahrzeits for their parents out of love and respect for the parents’ memories. I have also known Jews who did not observe yahrzeits for their parents because they believed the parents would not have wanted it, so out of respect they do not observe.

Jewish mourning practices have developed over many centuries. There is a deep wisdom in providing mourners with a fixed process through which they can mourn with support, and then emerge back into ordinary life. Some losses are profound, and for those, having periodic brief times of mourning such as yahrzeit and Yizkor can provide comfort even years after a death.

In general, I advise gerei tzedek [converts] to observe Jewish mourning practices for non-Jewish relatives unless they have strong objections to doing so. Mourning is no time to separate oneself from the community. Like every other Jew, the ger tzedek has a right to the comfort and support that Jewish mourning practice can provide.

Al Cheyt, Regarding Ivanka

Image: Ivanka Trump at the Holocaust Memorial. (Public Domain)

I just saw some chatter on Jewish Twitter about Ivanka Trump. Doesn’t matter who was writing, or what they said; it was the same stuff as usual, and I started to do what I’ve been doing for years and let it pass. Then I realized that I need to make teshuvah, because my silence has been a sin.

So I confess it, Al cheyt, Concerning the sin of listening in silence to lashon hara (literally “evil tongue,” spreading lies) I am guilty. I have let people say cruel and untrue things about Ivanka Trump and I have said not a word.

Ivanka Trump is giyoret, a convert to Judaism like myself. She converted to a different branch of Judaism, and she has made a lot of choices that I don’t like, but that doesn’t change the fact that her conversion was legitimate. Like it or not, she’s one of us.

It has become fashionable in some circles to speak ill of her Jewish practice, to cast aspersions on her legitimacy as a Jew, and to use the word shiksa (Yiddish for non-Jewish woman, but literally “filth”) to refer to her. I’ve listened to people say such things, and I was silent.

Her conversion is legitimate. Her observance may not be perfect, but whose is?

She is a public figure, involved in the U.S. government. It’s fair game to disagree with her politics and her fitness for her job. It’s fair game to question her business practices. I don’t even have to like her.

It is not OK, it is downright wrong, for me to stand by while people throw words like shiksa at a convert. And from now on, I shall behave differently: I will change the subject, I will send the conversation elsewhere, or I will confront the person saying these things privately.

For the sin of evil speech, spoken or accepted, which we have committed before you, God of pardon, pardon us, forgive us, atone for us. 

– Adapted from Al Cheyt prayer in the Yom Kippur service

Do Not Believe These Lies

Image: Person w/ name tag, “Mr. Know-It-All.” (Rob Byron/Shutterstock)

I just had a conversation online with a very nice gentleman. He had been given a bunch of misinformation by a Self-Appointed Jewish Misinformer (SAJM.)

The question in this case was, “Can a person convert to Judaism?” The SAJM answered, “No, a person has to be born Jewish.”

It happens that I had that same conversation many years ago, with another SAJM. There was no reason to doubt this person, so instead of converting early in my twenties, I converted at age 40, after a better-informed Jew told me that the previous answer was bunk. I lost almost 20 years of Jewish living to that Self-Appointed Jewish Misinformer.

SAJM’s do a lot of damage to Am Yisrael (the People of Israel.) They spread all kinds of misinformation, for instance:

NOTE: ALL OF THE STATEMENTS IN THE LIST ABOVE ARE UNTRUE! If you want to learn more about them, click the link for each UNtrue statement.

Sometimes misinformation (or even information, poorly delivered) can be cruel. For a real-life example, read “my teacher said im not jewish.”

How not to be a Self-Appointed Jewish Misinformer:

  • Refer questions of Jewish identity or status to a rabbi. If you want to show off, offer the questioner names and contacts of several rabbis.
  • If you thought you learned it somewhere but you can’t remember where or from whom, at least look it up before you reply.
  • Remember that there is great diversity in Judaism. Not everyone is from your shul, your movement, your particular Jewish heritage. Even for rabbis, not all answers apply to all Jews!
  • Remember that humility is a virtue, and teaching error is a sin.

Don’t be a Self-Appointed Jewish Misinformer! By making appropriate referrals, looking things up, and remembering the vast variety in Judaism, you can contribute to the Jewish world.