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Rabbi Recap

September 22, 2009

The meeting with the Rabbi last night went very well. He was as warm and welcoming in person as he seemed on the phone and I feel very lucky that my first experiences with conversion have been with someone like this.

Sitting in his well-appointed study, we spent some time just chit chatting, E told him about her back ground in a semi observant home, I talked about my interest in converting and we shared some of the up and downs we have had with E’s family around my not being Jewish (more on this in a later post). After which he gave us a rundown of what his class will be like.

The program is set to be 18 weeks of study with other people considering conversion. It will meet once a week. I asked about the concerns with converting with a conservative rabbi and he had a thoughtful answer which boiled down to – it’s up to you, but he outlined some of the pros and cons of an orthodox conversion.

Pros:

An Orthodox conversion isn’t going to be challenged by anyone in the future, i.e., no one will doubt you’re Jewish*;

No one is going to doubt your children are Jewish (thought this isn’t as big a deal for E and I since she is definitely way Jewish); and

Though E thinks this is not going to be an issue, I worry her family will not accept this as a real conversion unless it is an orthodox conversion. It is one of the ironies of conversion that the convert is generally held to a more rigorous standard than what those who are born into a religion. There are things in E’s family from which I am excluded because I am not Jewish, it would be extremely frustrating if I were to continue to be excluded from those things after conversion.

Cons:

Converting in an orthodox manner means kabbalat ol ha’mitzvo., Meaning, I would need to accept the yoke of the rules of Judaism. All the rules. That would mean either never eating in my parents’ home again, not going to my sister’s wedding or my nieces and nephews baptism or lying to the beit din. I am not excited about either idea.

As the rabbi** said, no one follows all the rules, the important thing is to understand the importance of the rules and to do as best one can. I’m down for that, but that is not enough for Orthodoxy.

Additionally, I think that when it comes to picking a shul, E and I will be much more comfortable in a more egalitarian synagogue. I would prefer mixed seating; it would be nice if E could be on the Bimah. Conclusion Right now, I am leaning heavily towards a conservative conversion. I have some more thinking about it to do, but conservative seems like the right approach***.

Either way, we have signed up for the course the Rabbi teaches beginning the first week of October. I am already extremely excited.

*As long as you convert with a Rabbi approved by the Orthodox Rabbinate currently calling the shots in Israel.

** This guy is going to figure heavily in my life I think, I should come up with a witty nickname for him.

*** Can I tell you how little I know about Judaism that I was shocked to find out that conservative is really liberal while reform is like far left. I really thought conservative was like Orthodox light when really it seems to be more like serious Reform, if that makes any sense.

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14 Comments leave one →
  1. The Sikh Geek permalink
    September 22, 2009 10:51 pm

    Re: The First Con

    Yeah, that could be huge. I could see your fears about it creating a line between you and your family. While not as big, I had similar concerns about not drinking and being vegetarian with my family and friends, but it all worked out very easily. I think you’re old enough and wise enough to understand the spirit and letter of the law (pun intended).

    It’s funny that many of the Gora Sikhs I know were born Jews who converted later to Sikhism. Many of the values that they were raised with tranposed perfectly into Sikhism: dietary restrictions, deep observance of a sacred text, a monotheistic faith that gave wide opportunities to mystic experience, etc.

  2. seanv2 permalink*
    September 22, 2009 11:12 pm

    I am really fascinated by who converts and why. The Rabbi last night said that Catholics convert to Judaism at a rate disproportionate to their size in the general population. Makes sense, rigour, ritual… and guilt.

  3. Rachel permalink
    October 1, 2009 7:50 am

    The issues about what is a valid conversion are horrendous. You need to do what is right for you. I know my conversion will never be accepted by Orhodox and some areas of Reform* and I am comfortable with that. My shul is my second home, I love the environment, the rabbi, the people I have met. End of.

    The different denominations are confusing. Again, just do what feels right, what fits with your moral/ethical compass and take it from there. Worse for worse, you couild always re-convert at a later date, if you felt the need.

    *In the UK, the denominations are different than the US. We have Orthodox, followed by Reform, followed by Liberal as the main ‘branches’ – put in order of observance, with many variations within Orthodox and Reform. The beauty of where I have laid my hat is that it allows for many forms of observance within it. For example, I observe some of the kashrut laws, I am partially shomer Shabbat, whereas other members are more so, or less so.

    It’s a huge thing to take on, absolutely huge. Try to do things gradually. There will be set-backs, you may suffer a crisis of confidence in your abilities, faith, time restraints may prevent you from doing things that you wish. The secret is to understand it is your own journey, not the rabbi’s, not the other congregants. The time-scale is set by you. If you need a break, take one. Alternatively, if you feel you can forge ahead, do so. Keep the lines of communication open – your rabbi is there to help and advise and he will only be too glad to do so.

    • seanv2 permalink*
      October 1, 2009 2:55 pm

      Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Rachel. I think you’re right, especially in regards to how huge an undertaking it is. As of now, I am very happy with the Rabbi we have chosen, and I think things will work out well with him, plus the Rabbi at the synagogue we have been attending is also very welcoming and knowledgeable.

      As for the different denominations, is there no “conservative” in England then? Is liberal what we would think of as reform here in the States?

      • rachel permalink
        October 1, 2009 3:35 pm

        Agh, what a question! And I’m not quite sure, to be honest. Whichever is your most ‘left-leaning’ would be similar to Liberal Judaism here, which I guess would be Reform. But having said that, I noticed that you said elsewhere that you’re not required to learn Hebrew before conversion, whereas in Liberal Judaism we are required to know enough to be able to follow the service, learn the Shema in full etc, so things don’t perfectly align.

        I just checked, and Conservative is what we call Masorti – it’s quite a small movement here, I believe.

  4. seanv2 permalink*
    October 1, 2009 5:15 pm

    I am honestly not sure what the Hebrew requirements will be for this class. I might be required to learn it. Interesting to me that Conservative isn’t a big movement over there as it is the largest movement here in the States.

  5. Debbie B. permalink
    October 1, 2009 8:34 pm

    There is a large range in Conservative congregations, and some are much more close to Orthodox than Reform. Both of my two lay-led minyanim are currently affiliated with the Conservative movement (one used to be independent before a “merger” with its host shul), but are nearly Orthodox in practice except for being egalitarian. In fact, my primary minyan was founded by members who had been members of an Orthodox congregation before they started their own egalitarian minyan.

    In both minyanim, a majority of the congregants observe kashrut and Shabbat (probably some observe family purity too, but I’m not going to ask anyone!), and the services are very traditional. Both use “Sim Shalom”, the Conservative siddur in which there are only a very few minor word changes to the Orthodox liturgy in a very few places. Both minyanim are egalitarian with no mechitza and women leading services, reading Torah, taking aliyot, etc. However, even the seating arrangement is more like what is seen in Orthodox shuls: the person leading services stands in the middle of the room, not up on a bima on a stage. Services are complete and are all in Hebrew except for the “prayer for our country” and the D’var Torah. When I have davened in a Modern Orthodox shul for the b’nai mitzvot of the children of Orthodox friends, the service was exactly what I was used to.

    One other difference compared to Orthodox services is that one minyan is so tiny (only a little over two dozen active adult members) that it reluctantly went to using the triennial cycle for Torah readings because it was too much of a burden on the best Torah readers and using the shorter readings enables the less skilled leyners (like me!) to contribute more often.

    My husband jokes that the main difference between our minyanim and a typical Orthodox minyan is that we have Dairy kiddushes and we overwhelmingly vote Democratic.

    FYI, I am a Conservative convert married to a Jew. I attended services for 24 years, was married for 22 years, and raised two (converted) children as Jews before formally converting.

    • seanv2 permalink*
      October 1, 2009 8:49 pm

      Hi Debbie, thanks for such an informative comment, I hope you come back to the blog!

      Coming from a Catholic background the diversity even within different “denominations” of Judaism is exciting and, frankly, a little confusing. I expect that something with a label is going to have uniformity, but it is pretty clear that that isn’t true.

      The service we went to for Rosh Hashana was conservative and very staid and, well, conservative. The service we went to for Yom Kippur was conservative and very egalitarian and progressive and, well, liberal. The diversity within the conservative umbrella is fascinating.

      Debbie, I’d be really interested in hearing more about your journey to Judaism and why after 22 years of not converting you decided to convert.

      • Debbie B. permalink
        October 1, 2009 10:02 pm

        You can get an idea of my take on Judaism and my own Jewish identity by my posts on the Jews by Choice web site.

        I have also written several articles featured on the Interfaith Family web site.

        The short answer to your question of “why” is that when I got married at age 24, my parents would have been extremely upset if I had converted. Then later, I didn’t feel like I was observant enough by the standards of the rabbi of the Hillel where I was first introduced to Judaism (who unfortunately was killed in a car accident about a decade ago and so never knew that I did finally convert). And it didn’t feel right to do a Reform Conversion or perhaps even to convert with a very liberal C rabbi. But my family has become ever more observant and so have I, and finally it felt so wrong not to be Jewish that I felt that I either had to study with a rabbi or start seeing a psychiatrist. I joke that some people have a mid-life crisis and buy a bright red sports car—I just got religious!

        I agree with Rachel: don’t rush the process of conversion. You need time not only to learn ritual details and other “academic” aspects of Judaism, but also to accommodate your own identity to the cultural aspects of being Jewish. And as my sponsoring rabbi would say, you need time to become “spiritually ready”. For me, by the time I started to study for conversion, I had studied Hebrew at an Ulpan in Israel; I knew the liturgy reasonably well and had celebrated all the holidays for 2 decades; I knew and used lots of Yiddish and Hebrew phrases; and I even knew how to chant Torah (even though as a non-Jew it wasn’t permitted for me to do it) because I had learned by sitting in on my son’s Bar Mitzvah tutoring sessions and helping him to practice. I had my own special affection for Israel and basically felt Jewish inside. But I still met every other week with my rabbi for the better part of a year, and I do feel that I needed the time to prepare emotionally. In my case, I needed the time to drop the emotional barriers that I had kept up for so many years.

        As I told another prospective convert on the JBC web site: conversion is forever, so why rush? Better to do it slowly in a way that it feels right. It will be more meaningful that way.

        Also, please don’t choose denomination only based on the strictness of the expectations of following the mitzvot. The three major denominations have distinct theological and social views as well. Choose based on those basic beliefs. If Orthodox Judaism really “speaks to you”, I think you will find that you are able to accommodate your life to its requirements. And I don’t think that people should choose Reform Judaism just because it makes fewer demands for lifestyle changes, but rather because they like its approach to Judaism. Also, you are lucky to live where you have many Jewish congregations to choose from. Visit as many as you can. They will all have different “personalities” and you should find a Jewish community where you can feel at home.

  6. seanv2 permalink*
    October 1, 2009 11:46 pm

    Thanks Debbie, I admire you taking the time and making sure that the conversion happened at a time that was right for you and not because of some sort of outside pressure. I hope to follow the same path.

    As of now, I’m exploring and thinking. Conversion may happen soon (I kind of think it will – meaning in a year or two) or it might take longer, or it might never happen. I need to think about it, and talking about it here online has already been so helpful thanks to all the great comments.

  7. Anna permalink
    October 2, 2009 12:57 am

    Hi! I found your blog on JBC and I have to admit – what a relief it is to know that I’m not the only Catholic who wants to convert to Judaism! My upbringing sounds similar – raised Catholic, was confirmed, promptly stopped going to church. I find that I crave the tradition, community, social projects, and study, but when I sit in a Catholic Mass it simply doesn’t feel right. A few years ago I read “Judaism for Everyone” (Shmuley Boteach) in preparation for an academic course and something clicked. Since then, I’ve been looking for a path forward.

    I currently reside in the Washington area and work in Farrugut. The rabbi you have posted about sounds like a wonderful person to speak with about a way forward. Could you point me towards the synagogue, or perhaps a website with some local resources? The only conversion program I’ve found is the one at the Historic Sixth and I with Rabbi Weiss, with which I have an academic conflict (total bummer!).

    I’ve bookmarked your blog and I sincerely hope you continue to post throughout your conversion. It’s so wonderful to know there are others who share the same questions, anxieties, and hopes about conversion!

    • seanv2 permalink*
      October 2, 2009 11:21 am

      Hi Anna, thanks for checking out the blog, I hope you’ll be back! As for rabbi recommendations as I said elsewhere here I haven’t started the conversion classes (yet) but I have a couple of names I can give you, email me at nom (dot) de (dot) ger at gmail.

  8. rachel permalink
    October 2, 2009 5:02 am

    I echo Debbie. Choose the Jewish path that works for you, in your heart. If you have a functioning moral and ethical compass, becoming Jewish should not change who you are, but make you more ‘you’. If anything has changed for me, it is feeling comfortable and confident in my own skin – I feel more of a three dimensional person with an extra quality, rather than someone who was missing something and has used becoming Jewish to fill a gap in my life.

    As Debbie says, if you feel that something is missing in the shul you attend and the rabbi you study with, then you can change until you find something that feels right for (both of) you.

    • seanv2 permalink*
      October 2, 2009 11:23 am

      When we first started talking about conversion with E’s uncle who is kinda Ba’al Teshuva, he said basically the same thing as he put it there is a Judaism for everyone.

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