Live in Israel for Two Years?

It is now officially late March, and the time has come to receive acceptance (and rejection) letters from graduate schools. I only applied to four schools, two in the U.S. and two in Israel, and I thank God that the two I have heard back from so far have both been letters of acceptance. While I am glad I got into both programs, I secretly hoped I would only get into one program out of the four so the decision of where to go would be made for me. I have trouble deciding what to eat for dinner, so the decision of where to get a Master’s from is pretty much impossible for me.

I spent the past year trying not to become too invested in any program so I wouldn’t be disappointed if I didn’t get in, and now, I have to go against the rule I made for myself and rank. There are so many factors to consider, such as money, faculty, location. I also have to at listen to, and somewhat consider,  the opinions of my family, friends, and mentors. I think all the programs I applied to are great and pretty comparable to each other money wise (when taking cost of living, scholarships, and everything into consideration), so it really feels like it is coming down to where I want to live for the next two years.  And as scared as I am to say it, I feel the answer is Israel.

I spent this past summer in Israel studying at Tel Aviv University. I had the opportunity to see many different parts of the country and even spent my last week and a half exclusively in Jerusalem. While two and a half months is not the same as two years, I feel like I had the opportunity to get a good sample of what life would be like living in Israel- and I loved it. I can’t idealize it and say it was truly only the land of milk and honey. I had my phone stolen at the shuk in Tel Aviv, had to sit on the floor of an overbooked bus from Tel Aviv to Eilat, and had a few awkward moments in Haredi neighborhoods of Jerusalem.  Even with the not so great and many frustrating moments, I could still see myself living there (at least for a few years). And what is a better time than when the commitment is only two years and I am only 22 years old?

Mitzvot in Conservative Judaism

I love Judaism.

From the beginning of my desire to convert to Judaism, I knew that I would first and foremost identify as a Jew and the branch of Judaism that I affiliate with would be secondary. While this sounds nice, it is naive to  see the branches of Judaism as artificial divisions. You can think a certain way and practice a certain way but at the end of the day you have to function within a community.

Orthodox and Conservative were the two branches that I spent the most time considering  when choosing a community. I still question where I fit best at times, but for several reasons I know that Conservative Judaism is the right place for me. The tension comes because my practice tends to be on the more Orthodox side of things.

When I discuss this with my friends they tend to think I am crazy and that Orthodox practice is much harder than Conservative practice. I disagree.

Orthodox and Conservative Judaism both see mitzvot (commandments) as binding. Conservative Judaism, unlike Orthodox Judaism, sees mitzvot as evolving. This difference in opinion leads to differences in practices, like the Conservative movement ordaining female rabbis while the Orthodox movement does not.

For me personally, I feel it is harder to live out mitzvot through the Conservative movement than the Orthodox movement, which is largely why I practice in a more Orthodox way. In Orthodox Judaism, there is a clear sense of not only what to do but how to do it. In Conservative Judaism, there is the same 613 mitzvot, but there is a very different approach that enables you to practice each in ways that are meaningful for you. This ambiguity can be beautiful and confusing at the same time. I struggle with finding the most meaningful way of living out each mitzvot in my life. Especially in this early stage of learning to live as a Jew, I find it necessary and rather comforting to have clear rules and expectations of how to live in the world.

I am in no way saying one way of practicing is better than the other. I think that everyone needs to find what is best and most meaningful for them. For me, I find the structure and clarity of Orthodox practice more comforting , but I am also trying to ensure I understand and value my community’s practices. While the process of trying to find what is best for me is mostly frustrating, I know that it is necessary in order to ensure that I am secure in who I become as a Jew and that I can live out my Judaism even when I leave my present home and community.

Shabbat (Conservative Style) x 4

The decision of which branch of Judaism to convert through has been a long, hard road. I feel like my theology and practices fit one branch on this issue and another branch on another issue. After much thought, I decided that the Conservative movement was right for me. Even after that decision, even after many months of living within the same Conservative synagogue and working with the same Conservative rabbi, I still go through bouts of doubt when I don’t exactly fit into the practices and beliefs of the community. One of the most frustrating instances I face, weekly, is that my way of “keeping” Shabbat is different from the majority of my community’s practices.

Usually, I observe Shabbat in ways that would be associated with Orthodox practice. I do drive to shul, because there is no synagogue in walking distance, but I also make sure to prepare my food ahead time, not to write, and stay away from my phone, t.v. and computer.  While I enjoy observing Shabbat with these practices, it feels very isolating at times to be separated from the normative practices of my community, like eating out after Kabbalat Shabbat. I have not found anyone in the community to share my Shabbat practices with, so it often becomes a lonely experience to come home and eat and read in silence. In order to avoid the feeling of isolation, I would usually try my best to stay up late on Thursday night and wake up early Friday so I would be tired Friday night and not have to spend too much time alone after services. As it is getting closer to the summer, I know that Shabbat will only begin to feel like it is lasting longer and longer with late sunsets on Saturday. And as things stand now, this only means I will be spending more time feeling isolated than before.

After months of frustration over Shabbat, I finally realized I am approaching this wrong. Yes, I love a more Orthodox approach to Shabbat, but that is not the right approach for everyone and my community finds value and meaning in another approach. Instead of being frustrated by the disconnect between my practices and my community’s practices, I need to push myself see things in a new perspective and try to better understand how my community finds wholeness in Shabbat.

For that reason, I decided to dedicate at least 4 weeks to Conservative style Shabbats. I began last Shabbat, Adar 16, and plan on continuing until the Shabbat before Pesach. Last week, I attended Kabbalat Shabbat service and then joined a few friends from shul for a dinner at a local restaurant. On Saturday, after services, a friend and I drove to a conference I had to attend on Sunday a few hours away. Normally, I would have waited until after Shabbat to make the drive, but decided that spending the five hours in conversation was a better use of Shabbat than my usual reading alone. We even stopped at a restaurant on the way for some food. I have still kept some earlier practices that keeps Shabbat sacred for me personally while blending in with the community better and not having the same isolating effect. For example, I still do not use my phone, watch t.v, or use my computer. My outlook on Shabbat for these four weeks is to build relationships and seek the “spirit” of Shabbat in new ways. This primarily calls for me to be in community and learn from others. Whether I end up keeping Conservative style Shabbats or returning to my previous practices is still to be determined, but either way, I certainly know that this is an opportunity to learn and grow.


Saying Goodbye to My Shorts

Winter has been in full swing, even in Texas, for the past few weeks. The cold weather is a big reason why my shorts have been buried in the back of my dresser drawers. But this week, in the middle of January, I pulled out all my shorts and boxed them up for donation.

Over the past several months, I have been attempting to incorporate a more modest, Jewish way of dressing, tznius. Tznius, or modest dress, is largely observed in Orthodox communities, but some Conservative and Reform Jews choose to dress modestly. Dressing modestly according to Orthodox Jewish code is more than just not wearing short skirts or showing mid-drift. The concept of tznius varies from community to community, but in general, for a women, dressing modestly includes wearing skits that at least cover your knees, wearing close toed shoes, wearing shirts that cover your elbows and collar bone, and if you are married, covering your hair. Some colors or styles of clothing are more traditional for certain communities so if you are joining a particular community it is important to follow their understanding of tznius.

In my community, part of the Conservative movement, dressing modestly is a concern, but not in the traditional ways of understanding tznius. For this reason, and the fact that there aren’t many Jews were I live, I really stand out when I dress according to tznius, but I keep reminding myself that that is no reason to not dress according to the way I understand and value tznius. Dressing according to Jewish tradition is not something I should be ashamed of. All people dress according to what they value and for me that means being in solidarity with Jews around the world who follow Jewish tradition.

Each time I am afraid to look foolish as I put on a skirt and thick leggings (opposed to warm Jean pants) in the middle of Winter, I think of the courage it is taking many Jews around the world to dress differently. Women who are going through the same internal debate as they get dressed, and men who wear a kippah even though no one else around them does.

The action of taking every pair of shorts I own and getting rid of them seems rash, but honestly I have never really like wearing shorts anyway.  I also packed up most of my pants for donation, but a couple pairs stayed in the drawer. I kept them for a few reasons. First, I can wear them with a dress over, if necessary, on a really cold day. Second, it is scary to totally let go of all my clothing, and since my community is okay with pants, if I do want to go back to wearing pants I can. Lastly, it is empowering to know that I have perfectly good jeans sitting in the drawer but I am choosing to wear a skirt.

Following Orthodox tznuis isn’t for everyone, and I certainly don’t follow it as strictly as someone else might, but I find it to be an important dimension of Judaism in my life, especially at this point of trying to enter the Jewish community. I wish everyone luck in finding what tradition has to offer them and ways to incorporate meaningful practices into their daily life. Clothing is just one way I am reminded in daily life of my relationship to Hashem and to other people in the world.

Towards a Fuller Me

Today was Halloween. I usually don’t dress up, but one of my professors encouraged us to have a costume for class, specifically a Harry Potter costume. I have watched and enjoyed the Harry Potter movies, but I have never read the books and remain largely ignorant of the Harry Potter pop culture. To take the easy way out, I decided to just buy a Harry Potter house scarf and call myself a student at Hogwarts. A few days ago, my roommate and I visited the local Halloween store, and I was about to buy a Gryffindor scarf when she, being an avid Harry Potter fan, turned to me and asked if that was the house where I belong. I hadn’t even thought of buying a particular house scarf, I didn’t even know the name of all four houses, but she insisted that I could not just buy any house scarf. The house scarf I bought had to reflect the particular house where I belong.

An online test, of  over 100 questions, was what I used to place myself in a Hogwarts’ house. As I answered the questions, the majority related to moral character, I tried to really reflect on my answers. I found myself conflicted in answering questions based on who I am or who I try to be. Was I supposed to answer the questions based on my average response or on the ideal response I would hope for? I realized there is sometimes a disconnect between who I am in my day to day life and who I am when I put my best self forward. I told myself that I was going to make a conscience effort to give the world nothing less than my best self. After I took the test, I wrote in my journal how I see myself acting in the world and how I wish I was acting in the world. I made a list of things to work on daily, weekly, and monthly to help me make a conscience effort to provide the world with the whole person I was made to be.

I easily related the experience of identifying who I am on an average day compared to who I am on my best day to my conversion process. Right now, I am living my life and while things are going well, I know that I am not at my fullest, not yet. I am in the process of working towards being at my fullest. I pray from my siddur everyday, but these efforts, while bringing me closer to expressing myself more fully, are still limited. Right now, mitzvot for me are only actions that I am doing, they are not yet who I am. They are very much who I feel I am, my best self, but not yet my reality. As I continue through this process, I will continue to practice being a fuller, better person in the world through mitzvot, the 613 commandments and more generally good deeds.

“Not All Those Who Wander Are Lost”

I was not lost, but I certainly found.

The famous author of The Lord of the Rings series, J.R.R. Tolkien, wrote the words, “not all those who wander are lost.” This line has become a well-known quote because so many people can relate to the idea of wandering. Throughout our lives, we encounter many moments of wandering. We move from school to school, city to city, and job to job. Throughout the numerous processes of wandering, many of us are fortunate enough to stay rooted by family and friends. No matter how many times we move to a new city, we always have our “hometown.” In these instances, it is clear it see that those wandering are not necessarily lost and retain their roots.

On a deeper level, we wander in our minds, hearts, and souls as we explore ideas of why we are put on this earth and what direction our lives are headed. It seems like the deeper types of wandering happen when you don’t have a clear direction. Even if you are not lost, you are lacking clarity in a meaningful way. Some of us begin to learn more about different religious traditions as we wander through profound questions that either were previously unanswered or not sufficiently answered. With the majority of conversion stories I have encountered, from a variety of religious traditions, the converts describe their experiences as going from being lost to being home. They often begin in a state of little to no religious conviction and make a total transformation when they find their religious tradition and realize life now makes (more) sense. I can definitely relate to the end result feeling. I understand what it feels like to have this new found religion as the home you never knew existed but where you most certainly belong. But the first part, the experience of being lost or without a “home,” I have never felt.

I grew up in a very stable and loving two parent household. My parents, like their parents and their grandparents, created a nurturing, Roman Catholic household.  I had church every Sunday and catechism classes every Wednesday. I participated in many Church activities, like Vacation Bible School, youth days, and Christmas’ pageants. Besides a brief rebellious streak when I hit thirteen, I loved going to church, catechism classes, and all other things Christian. I had a clear religion with clear beliefs in a clear community. I never felt lost. I never had profound moments of doubt or skepticism. I never felt like my needs were not being met. I had the Church and never expected to want anything else.

When I began learning about other religious traditions, in junior high and high school, my study was based on interest of cultural diversity and had little, if anything, to do with theology. I began wandering even though I had a firm conviction in what I believed. I cannot easily relate to the story of other converts who were not spiritually fulfilled before they found their religion, but I can relate to their feeling of finding home, finding more fulfillment then you ever imagined possible, and finding a relationship with God and a community. I have never had a child, but I imagine that my experience is similar to the feeling of a parent. You led a fulfilling life before your child, but then you have your child and realize your life takes on new meaning, experiences, and fulfillment that you never knew you were missing. I never knew I was missing Judaism until I found it, and now I cannot let go. I did not wander because I was lost, but I can not deny that I found significant meaning I never knew I lacked.