Guide to the Convert Vol. 4: Community – for better, for worse

Jewish community is unlike anything I have previously experienced. It’s not just a group of people who live in a commune and therefore they know each other. These are the people that deeply care for each other, look after each other’s children, go to the same weddings and pray at the shuls. Being a convert often means that you have left your family in a different dimension and while the conversion process is changing you, you realise that the people that come to your life will either strengthen that process or weaken it. They see you through the rough times and celebrate with you when you are at the peak of the mountain. They go out of their way to make sure that you are fine and, before you know it, you understand that you are part of that system. You become a charged particle that travels from one person to another and you can’t even discern anymore when receiving turns into giving and vice versa.

Elisheva:

With all the trials converts face, it’s important to mention the unsung heroes in every convert’s process – the members of the religious community who open their arms, hearts, and homes to the convert, providing guidance throughout the long process. I literally would not have survived my conversion process were it not for the wonderful friends and honorary family members who gave me a shoulder to cry on when I thought I couldn’t take it, those who encouraged me to keep climbing when it seemed impossible, and those who stood with me – literally, and in spirit – when it was time to sit before the beit din the final time.

To paraphrase the head dayan of my US-based beit din, everyone has their own pace for conversion, however, there are a few key elements that they look for to gauge a potential convert’s readiness: a demonstration of halachic knowledge, completing a certain number of courses to gain knowledge of the Jewish faith and traditions, and “assimilation into the Jewish community”. Once this happens, you’re ready. That last requirement may seem kind of obvious, but it’s actually one of the most important elements of the conversion process – community.

When I moved to Israel, I made the choice to live near the kehilla, or community, that I already knew. It was a calculated move on my part, and not just because I wanted to actually know some of my new neighbors since I was making Aliyah without any family in Israel. It was also because I needed a misphachat mametset, an adoptive family that would host me for Shabbatot and holidays, along with being available to help me prepare for the long road ahead of me toward conversion. When you first begin, knowing the program will be approximately 10-12 months doesn’t seem so bad—but once you’re in the middle of it all and the uncertainty of your situation really sinks in, the length of time is an interminable age. Your kehilla is what will see you through.

Kehilla is a fairly loose term, as communities take on many shapes and forms. It often begins with a rabbi and a synagogue. In the States, my closest confidants were my sponsoring rabbi and his wife. New friends I made in the community to invite me over for holiday and Shabbat meals followed quickly thereafter. In Israel, my community was actually much larger – mostly because I lived in a religious neighborhood and was physically closer to that community. I had my sponsoring rabbis, who taught my conversion courses, I had my adoptive families, many friends (both old and new) who just let me be as I continued my process, and most importantly – I made friends with other potential converts. You could say I led a charmed existence as a convert.

Gone were the days of fighting tooth and nail for the beauty of Shabbat in a predominantly Christian area of the US. But more than that, there were just so many types of religious Jews in my Israeli town. My friends and community ranged from Modern to Hareidi streams of Orthodoxy, in addition to people of Ashkenazi, Sephardi, Mizrachi, and Yemenite backgrounds. The labels don’t matter as much as the fact that seeing so many types of religious Jews intermingle – and sometimes intermarry – gave me a safe place to be myself as I prepared to officially join the ranks of Orthodox Jewry. I never felt I needed to lose myself in order to take on this life, even as I took on such different lifestyle and religious changes. I never struggled with feeling like I was always being watched to ensure I was ‘doing the right thing’ at all times.

The most important thing to remember when building a community is that all members have value, including the potential convert. One of the things I often heard about were horror stories from converts with less-than-welcoming community members – people complained of being followed or kicked out of their conversion programs because they had exchanged professional emails with members of the opposite sex in the community. I knew people who were forced to move to entirely different States in the US to complete their conversions, ostensibly to ensure they assimilated with the ‘right communities’ and didn’t have too many undesirable outside influences. There are other stories of rabbis and batei din who were disrespectful or outright cruel. With the exception of one upsetting meeting with an influential dayan who had me in tears the entire 45-minute bus ride home, I didn’t experience anything like the stories above. I did relocate to Israel in the middle of my process and started over again, but this was my choice. I came back to Israel when I did because I needed to be back.

I found life as a newly-minted Jew strangely startling – I was suddenly able to date, cook food for friends, open and pour any and all wines, and generally feel confident in my status as a full-member of the Jewish community. Perhaps it was more jarring for me because I didn’t come from a Jewish background, neither did I grow up in close proximity to an observant Jewish community, and I wasn’t converting for the sake of my impending marriage. Hashem led me to these things, but by myself. Once I completed the process, I was suddenly connected to a wealth of communal history, both good and bad. And having a diverse community has really provided me great access to that communal history.

As those who are dating, engaged to, or married to, or otherwise related to converts quickly learn, the value of the convert’s community is greater than one would assume from the outside looking in. These people saw the convert through the hardest and most joyous times many will experience in such a short period of time in their lives. Helping to maintain close does much to ensure a convert’s happy and healthy transition into a well-lived-in religious life and future.

Esther:

I can honestly say that I fell into my community in Beersheva, like a plum into compote. Living previously in the vibrant Jewish neighbourhood of Golders Green in London I knew that the community is what kept us alive as a nation and I couldn’t do without it. Therefore I had reached out to the community in Beersheva through a Facebook group at least a couple of months before I was even on the plane inquiring mostly about the infrastructure of the city as well as accepting a few invitations over for Shabbatot.

I thank Hashem that the flat mates, whom I was bound to live with during my MASA program, weren’t religious thus prompting to visit and stay over Shabbatot with different families. It can be tiring, but that was the driving force that got me to meet most amazing families and forming life-long ties with them. They adopted me without a second thought and since they were my primary community in Israel, it was mostly to them that I run to when things got unbearably hard at some point. Since the community is your network of contacts I ended up meeting more families not only in Jerusalem, but also in other places in Israel. Currently my Shabbat plans revolve around which family I am due to visit soon. It’s the most comforting feeling in the world.

Within that family-oriented community experience I also became part of a smaller community in the women’s yeshiva in Jerusalem. I am deliberately using the word “yeshiva” because it is probably the only place where women can learn the Talmud the way the men do; not the diluted version assuming that it’s just too much of a complicated piece of writing for them to process. We were only allowed to use dictionaries, never translations, and for that purpose I decided to spend time learning there, especially since my MASA program was ending and I was previously never exposed to a full-time Jewish education.

From the methodological viewpoint I have hit a jackpot. Apart from the Talmud I learned the Chumash (again, no translations) with all the commentaries in a way that will probably never again allow me to sit through the Torah reading at the shul and not lean over to someone pointing out that something doesn’t make sense and therefore there must be an explanation to it, we just have to leave now and find it.

Some issues however transpired as the year progressed and with the hand on my heart I wouldn’t have made it without my community. Without getting into too much detail, not to compromise certain people and still with a big gratitude in my heart for the opportunity to learn there, I reacted very poorly to being manipulated and controlled by one of the members of the staff. What I considered a friendly attitude at the beginning, I suspected to be some kind of a game as I continued interacting with him more on daily basis. He was also our teacher and therefore the profound interaction couldn’t have been avoided. I would have shut up, if that was just my observation, but unfortunately it wasn’t and when things reached the point where I felt a great discomfort of being in his company, it was one of the community members that reached out through their friends, worried-sick, to a local organisation asking if that kind of behaviour has been previously noted. She got back to me saying that indeed there have been complaints and that I should be very careful how I conduct myself.

That wasn’t terribly difficult, I was never a groupie, so when his attention began wearing off especially after a couple of incidents one of which included inviting me over to the office in the evening to follow up on the taharat mishpacha class and giving me a sex talk – I decided to make a move and detach myself from the place, continue with classes but not live on campus. I arranged that with one of the girls and moved out into a flat in a very close proximity. I probably only managed to live there for a month during which I was put on the spot each time I came to class that I left the women of that school and didn’t care about anyone. Guilt trips also don’t work on me and seeing that he simply became even more invasive with the end result being that I had to move out. He said that I don’t need to worry about anything – I could simply come back to the campus, if I wanted. Financially I had no other choice.

By then, my stress levels were off the charts, I became sick and had chest pains – a reminiscent of the hospitalisation which happened a few years prior to joining the MASA program. I agreed to move back in, but requested a holiday first. I literally flew back to Beersheva. I didn’t even know how long I was going to stay, but however long that was, the community was there ready to give me time to put myself back together. Most of the time I stayed with one of the families and they just let me be, which was sleep, sleep and… more sleep, asking me if I wanted anything to eat and ready to listen to whatever was coming. That was also the time that I met Elisheva for the second time and ended up staying at hers for another week or so. That’s I think how we became friends.

I came back to Jerusalem with new strength and refused any more evening meetings in the office or any conversations behind the closed doors. In classes I focused only on learning and didn’t respond to any personal jokes. My defiance of course led to another meeting which was actually an argument with me refusing to listen to any of his personal issues and setting boundaries for our future interaction. It got better, but it got better also because I knew that there were people who had my back, not only in Israel but also abroad; who would move the heaven and the earth if something happened to me.

I need to note here, that the situation at the yeshiva has changed dramatically since that year. Rules were implemented to guard the students for unnecessary feelings of being violated in any way. The female staff took over more duties that had to do with dealing with students directly and, unsurprisingly, any conversations between the male member of the staff and the students had to be conducted in the presence of the female member of staff in an open area.

In other words, there is nothing bad that wouldn’t turn into good. Hashem has really blessed me with an extended family here and put me in the place where I could learn and grow to the point where the dayanim decided to come up with more inventive questions, because I had learned far and beyond what most of the converts learn during that year. In a way, your community is your life-source; everything in your life is interconnected with them. These are the people that have been on this earth for a longer period of time and their wisdom and counsel is what can get you through many hurdles which otherwise you would have struggled with more.

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