5 Things to Do if You Want to Become a Jew

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

1.  FIND A RABBI, and make an appointment to talk with him or her. 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. He may say something vague like “We can study together” or suggest that you take a class. She may suggest that you come to services for a while, and see how it goes. 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, move on. To make an appointment with a rabbi, call the congregation and ask to make an appointment.

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 not only a religion, it 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 out service times and other good times to visit, look at the website of the congregation. To find those websites, 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.

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.

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. Find books that speak to you and your situation. Listen to your heart!

I wish you a fruitful journey!

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Waiting For A Miracle?

Imagine the scene: the armies of Pharaoh thunder toward the Hebrews, who are cornered at water’s edge.  The people begin to scream and cry, asking their leader, “Were there not enough graves in Egypt, that you had to bring us out here to die?”  Moses, their leader, replies, “Stand still, calm down, God will fight for you.”  Then — in the movie version, not the Torah version — God commands Moses to stretch out his rod over the sea, and a miracle happens.  The bad guys die, the good guys live, and everyone parties.

What? you say.  That is in the Torah, I’m sure of it!  That may be the way we generally tell the story, but it leaves out a line.   Here’s what it says in Exodus 14: 13 – 16.

And Moses said unto the people: ‘Fear not, stand still, and see the salvation of the Eternal, which He will work for you to-day; for although you have seen the Egyptians to-day, you shall see them again no more for ever.  The Eternal will fight for you, so hold your peace.’ 

 And the Eternal said unto Moses: ‘Why cry to Me? Speak to the children of Israel, and let them get moving!  And lift up your rod, and stretch out your hand over the sea, and divide it; and the children of Israel shall go into the midst of the sea on dry ground. 

Somehow, in all the drama, one very important line often gets lost.  Moses was looking for a miracle.  He told the people to look for a miracle.  He said, “Don’t be afraid, stand still, wait for God to save you.”  And God’s response to Moses was direct:  “Why speak to me?  Talk to them!  Tell them to get moving!”

Vayisa’oo – get moving! – is a key word in this week’s very famous Torah portion, Beshallach.  Don’t wait for miracles.  Talk to each other.  Encourage each other.  Don’t be passive.  GET MOVING!

Forward movement precedes miracles, even in the greatest miracle story of all time.

So in those edge-of-the-sea moments, when it is tempting to hope for a miracle, or even more tempting to despair, the trick is to look for the way to move forward.  Even in the panicked crowd, can I move my foot forward just a bit?  Can I encourage someone else to move forward too?

Fear and paralysis are the great enemies of survival.  Fear and paralysis would have left the children of Israel at the wrong edge of the sea, trampled and slaughtered.

Vayisa’oo — get moving.  Write to your elected representative.

Vayisa’oo — Volunteer to help someone in need.

Vayisa’oo — Vote, whenever you have the chance.

Vayisa’oo — Keep moving to the next job interview.

Vayisa’oo — Keep moving on the project, whatever it is.

Vayisa’oo — Encourage others, rather than discourage them.

Vayisa’oo — and we’ll all dance, on the other side.

What time is it anyway?: Reflection on the Creation Story

Time Selector
Image by Telstar Logistics via Flickr

Jewish “days” start at sundown, because in Genesis 1 it says, over and over, “It was evening, and it was morning.”  This is something that takes some getting used to, if you don’t grow up with it:  the day begins when the sun dips below the horizon.  The fact that you’ve been up for hours has nothing to do with it.

Jewish living is like that, tilted 90 or 270 degrees from Western secular life.  The day begins at sundown.  The year begins in the fall.  (Also in the middle of winter and in the springtime.)  Sunday is yom rishon, the first day of the week (and it begins on Saturday night.)  The whole thing is cockeyed.

There is no doubt about it, we are a stiff necked people, as the God of Israel comments to Moses in Exodus 32:9.  Only a stiff necked people could insist on their own cockeyed timetable for thousands of years of diaspora, tripping over other people’s holidays and calendars and clocks and whatnot.  Ask anyone who asked for Rosh HaShanah off this week:  it’s a nuisance.  Yet we stick out our stiff necks and insist on it year after year after year, annoying our bosses, confusing our neighbors, and making some paranoid types certain that we are Up to Something, an international conspiracy, perhaps.

Why not accomodate?  Why not assimilate?  Why not go with the flow, for crying out loud?

We stick with it because time is sacred.  The traditional story is that the day begins at sundown because Genesis says so.  But we could as well read it the opposite direction:  we have that story to explain, to remind us, to keep stepping to that Jewish drummer:  it was evening, it was morning, it was the first day.  The creation story doesn’t tell us “how the world was made,” it tells us how to look at the world.  It’s easy to say, the day begins when I get up in the morning — then the world revolves around my state of consciousness. It’s easy to say, the day begins at midnight, because the government and mutual agreement say so.  But Genesis says, “It was evening, it was morning,” to throw us off balance, to say, “Stop!  Look!  Think!  PAY ATTENTION!”

Notice the passage of time.  Notice the cycle of seasons.  Notice when the sun goes down and comes up, and that will require you to take your eyes off the computer screen, off the TV, off your own navel, and out to the horizon.  Live out of step with the ordinary, so that you will step lively.  Pay attention.

Pay attention, because as Chaim Stern z”l wrote for Gates of Prayer:  “Days pass and the years vanish, and we walk sightless among miracles.  Lord, fill our eyes with seeing and our minds with knowing; let there be moments when Your Presence, like lightning, illumines the darkness in which we walk.  Help us to see, wherever we gaze, that the bush burns unconsumed.   And we, clay touched by God, will reach out for holiness, and exclaim in wonder:  How filled with awe is this place, and we did not know it!  Blessed is the Eternal One, the holy God!”

Parashat Nitzavim: Not Beyond Reach

Surely, this Instruction which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach. 12 It is not in the heavens, that you should say, “Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?” 13 Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?” 14 No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it.  (Deut. 29: 11-14)

“There is so much to learn!” Every conversion candidate I’ve ever worked with has said that, at one point or another.  They don’t call it “The Sea of Talmud” for nothing. Jewish learning is vast and it can be overwhelming, with languages and laws and endless intricacies to master.

This particular passage from this week’s Torah portion comes near the end of the book of Deuteronomy, after a wide-ranging catalogue of things to do and to remember.  After all the 613 commandments, then God says, “Surely, this Instruction … is not to baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach.”  Just as I reach the point of overwhelm, reading the book, it says, “Surely you can do it.”

When I became a Jew, Rabbi Steve Chester handed me a large Torah scroll in front of the  congregation.  I was delighted to hold it in my arms, despite the fact that it was very, very heavy.  He asked me, “Got it?” and I nodded.  I recited the Shema with the congregation.  Then he began to talk to the congregation about conversion.  Periodically he’d stop and ask me, “Is it too heavy?” and I would shake my head:  no, not too heavy.  Meanwhile I clutched the scroll and my arms  began to  quiver.  My back began to complain.  I shifted the scroll slightly.  “Are you OK?” he said, and I nodded.  He went on teaching.

Finally I reached my limit.  “Are you OK?” he said, and I gasped, “It’s very heavy.”  He took it from my trembling arms, and said, “Yes, it’s very heavy.  No one can hold it alone.”  And then he got to the real lesson, that it takes a Jewish community to “hold the Torah” properly.  It simply isn’t something a person can do alone, because the Torah is indeed very heavy.

When I feel overwhelmed by Jewish living, whether it is the cleaning before Passover, or the teshuvah before Rosh HaShanah, I try to remember that lesson.  I do not have to carry the Torah alone.  Surely, with the arms of a minyan, with the minds and hearts of my Jewish community, it is not beyond my reach.

L’shanah Tovah!

Rearranging the Furniture

Coffee Shop Rabbi is an experiment in Jewish outreach, and as such, I’m constantly watching to see what works, what doesn’t work, and what can be improved.  This fall big changes are afoot:  I am going to offer “Intro” classes of various lengths in four different cities in the SF Bay Area:  Oakland, Palo Alto, San Rafael, and Lafayette.  Three of the classes are sponsored by Lehrhaus Judaica, and one is sponsored by Temple Isaiah of Lafayette.

Two of these classes are my road-tested Intro to the Jewish Experience, 24 weeks, revolving enrollment, an ongoing process of building and learning about Jewish community.  The San Rafael class will be much shorter, a three part series of four classes each, exploring the practical aspects of Jewish spirituality and life.  The final class, at Temple Isaiah in Lafayette, will be their Exploring Judaism class, and it will follow a year’s arc with the life of that congregation.  I’m excited to expand my own learning about adult Jewish beginners in new settings and formats.

L’hitraot!