Anticipating My First Shabbat as a Jew!

Shabbat is my favorite Jewish thing. It beats Purim, kosher wine and even bagels. Shabbat is breath outside of time filled with songs, prayers, meals and Torah. Best of all, Shabbat involves moments within community. Shabbat being the same day for Jews around the world allows me to feel connected to those Jews even beyond my own shul.

This is my first Shabbat as a Jew. I now feel even more in connection with all the other Jews commanded to rest on Shabbat. I look forward to no longer being the ger (although I was always welcomed). I look forward to dwelling in Shabbat in a whole new way. Shabbat is no longer something I observe Jews keeping and try to participate in. This Shabbat is my first Shabbat that is me keeping a mitzvah. Shabbat is no longer something I do. Shabbat, along with the 612 other mitzvot, is who I am.

With the help of Hashem, I will dwell is Shabbat and allow Shabbat to fully dwell in me.

Shabbat Shalom.

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A Practical Question: To Wear a Kippah, Tallit and/or Tefillin or not?

With my conversion date approaching so quickly, I am facing practical questions I really hadn’t given much thought before.

Today, the question I have on my mind is trying to decide if I will wear tallit, tefillin and/or a kippah when I convert. Up until this point, I have never worn any of them, other than trying on a friend’s kippah once just to see how it would feel.

I don’t know how comfortable I feel with the idea, but it is also the custom in my Conservative community. I know when I move to Israel I will most likely not have to wear any of them, but I am trying to decide what to do while I still live here. I know I don’t have to do any of them, but I feel that it is something important to consider since it is so important to my community. The majority of women in my shul wear tallit and a kippah at least during Shabbat services and some wear tefillin during weekday services. My community also does require anyone going before the community in the service to wear both tallit and a kippah (or some sort of head covering).

The main thing I want is to be consistent in my practice. I want to believe in what I am doing to the point that I am not just sometimes praying with my tallit or only sometimes covering my head in the synagogue. But I know it will probably take some trial and error before I find out what I is comfortable and meaningful  for me.

I think I wouldn’t mind wearing tallit in private while I pray in the morning, but at this point couldn’t imagine myself doing it in public. Maybe just because I have never worn it. I think my biggest mental barrier is that I see all of these things as clearly masculine and  maybe that is why I don’t feel comfortable with them. If I don’t even wear pants, how can I wear tefillin? Also, a head covering doesn’t seem to give me the same uncomfortable feeling as wearing a kippah itself. A kippah is not a mitzvah, but a minhag (custom) that is traditionally for males. I see it as something that is a male symbol where as I see another head covering, like a scarf, as female. I would like to cover my head for the same reason that men wear a kippah, but then how do I justify only wearing it in the synagogue? And can I really cover my head in another manner, not a kippah? I think wearing a hat or scarf might be as equally uncomfortable because it is a symbol of a married Jewish woman, and I am not married.

At the same time, I do like the fact that tallit and tefillin are strictly Jewish and therefore outwardly represent a change in my identity. A man once converted can begin to wear tallit and tefillin that he was not able to before during prayer. I can’t really think of an equivalent for a female. I wish I had an outward symbol of my Jewishness. Something that is reserved for Jews. I mean, I will wear a Star of David, but that doesn’t feel quite the same.

I will keep thinking over the question of wearing a kippah, tallit and/ or tefillin. I will also try to think of other meaningful mitzvot or minhags that can be added when I become a Jewess.

Letter to My Rabbi

Over the past four months, I have gone through different options about how to approach the letter I wrote to my Rabbi about wanting to convert on this blog. I considered posting the entire letter, unedited with no commentary,writing a summary of the details of the letter, detailing my feelings regarding the letter or not acknowledging the letter at all. After starting many drafts to this post, I have finally decided that I would like to post the entire, unedited letter with brief commentary. I feel this is the best way to document my experience for myself and others.

First, some background: I have know my Rabbi for about 2 and a half years, first as my professor and later as I started attending his congregation. He is phenomenal, and I simply cannot properly explain what an amazing resource he has been for me with both my academic and personal journey with Judaism. Although I have come to know him fairly well over the past couple of years, I still have difficulties talking with him at times. The only reason I can think of to explain my fear is that I do admire and respect his opinion, and as my professor and the rabbi in charge of my conversion, he has authority and some power to evaluate me.  For whatever reason, it is hard for me to start conversations with him, but when I do, they are always fruitful.

This letter was written about six months after the first time I told my Rabbi I wanted to convert to Judaism and about four months after beginning conversion classes at our shul. He knew I was interested in Judaism and eventually converting, but I had not explicitly made my desire to convert in our community clear. When the topic of converting at our shul was raised in passing, I became too nervous to share that I wanted to convert through our community before I leave in the Fall. I felt that he received the wrong impression from my nervousness, and this letter was my response.

Writing this letter to my Rabbi signified a huge shift in my relationship to Judaism and the process of conversion. Our conversation after he read the letter resulted in the combined effort to work towards me converting before I move. After that conversation, the thoughts and feelings I had about becoming Jewish became more concrete. With each passing day, reality continues to set in, and I realize this is really going to happen. It brings a slew of emotions but mostly excitement.

I can’t attest to the experience of others, but I know that writing and sending this letter was one of the hardest things I have had to do in the process to convert. It is hard to put words to very intimate feelings and then send those words off to be judged. At the same time, it has been one of the most rewarding experiences, to wrestle with finding the words, and resulted in one of the most amazing outcomes, a plan for my conversion.

The letter:

“Dear Rabbi,

Let me start off by apologizing for emailing you. You are so busy and have so many emails to read that it is unfair of me to take up your time. With that said, I am going to do it anyway.

I have a mind that dwells, usually on the insignificant things. Since our conversation Wednesday evening I have not been able to get over the feeling that I gave you the wrong impression of how I feel about converting to Judaism. It is very hard for me to share my personal feelings, but I feel I must no matter how uncomfortable I am with the process. I will attempt to write openly and honestly,  בע”ה.

The first time I ever said the words, “I want to be Jewish,” I was 15 years old. It obviously seemed like a long shot since I lived in a small town, near no synagogues, knew no Jews, and didn’t even know what it meant to be Jewish. A few years later, I began seriously considering converting when I realized that it would actually be possible “one day.” I knew I had several steps before me, but I still knew the words, “I want to be Jewish” were true. It has been scary making the leap from serious contemplation over converting to the realization that this is going to happen because I cannot imagine my life otherwise.

That makes it sound like it was an easy decision, but it wasn’t and rightfully so. A decision as important as religion, the thing that shapes you and your life, should be difficult. I knew what I believed and knew how I wanted to live my life and it was clearly Jewish (at least in its simplest forms, more complicated theology is something that I will continuously learn and wrestle with). At the same time, I asked myself daily for about a year “Why do you want to do this? It is hard to be a Jew.” This is still a question I sometimes ask. I ask why I would take 613 mitzvot over 7 commandments. Honestly, it doesn’t make sense. Why give up something I can (more) easily follow for mitzvot that often leave me scratching my head? Logically, it doesn’t make sense, but my heart fell in love with mitzvot before I knew anything else about Judaism. Each day I asked the question, and even now, I can confidently answer that regardless of the gentile status I have now, I know that my soul was commanded to follow mitzvot along with all other Jewish souls at Mt. Sinai. Although I have not yet formally been commanded, I know that I was created in order to be commanded along with the rest of Israel. No matter how difficult it is to live with mitzvot, I know that I will be fulfilling my purpose when I do. Will I be able to be “perfect”? Probably not, but I know I want to live my life trying.

I love mitzvot already, but right now I am not commanded to fulfill them. Right now, every commandment that I follow is for my own benefit and is really only about bringing me closer to Hashem. While this is beautiful in its own way and necessary at times, it does not carry the same weight of being commanded. I can pray, keep kosher, observe Shabbat, ect. but until I am a Jew, it is really only for me. I am excited for the day when I do all these things for Hashem. One of the most beautiful aspects of Judaism, to me, is the fact that a Jew is commanded to live for Hashem in all aspects of life, every moment of everyday. It is one thing for me to wake up to pray for myself and another to be tired, want to press snooze and get up anyway, out of obligation, for Hashem.

This is just one example of many aspects of Judaism that I continue to be passionate about and inspired by. I feel this way about just about everything in Judaism and that is one of the reasons I know I want to begin living as a Jew as soon as I can.

Over the past few years, it has been difficult to feel like I don’t yet fit in anywhere. I dread being asked what religion I am. I cannot simply say I am not religious, because that is a lie. I cannot say I am Christian, because that is not what I believe or what I follow. I cannot say I am Jewish, because no matter how badly I wish I were, I am not, yet. This has been a horrible state to live in, and I constantly feel like I am lying to myself and others by not identifying as the religion that I practice and believe.

I do not want to continue to lie. I don’t want to continue to live mitzvot only for myself. I know I will only be shalom when my beliefs are an extension of my practices and my practices are an extension of my tribe and my tribe is an extension of my identity and my identity is an extension of my relationship with Adonai. This will only happen when I am a Jew, part of Israel, living in accordance with Hashem’s will.

The hesitation you may have felt on Wednesday was not by any means hesitation over if I want to convert to Judaism. I do with all my heart, soul and might.

Also, if it is possible, I would love to convert in this community and will do anything I can to make that happen. I have been scared to tell you that, because I don’t know what to expect as a response. I expressed my concern about leaving the community, because I was hoping it may prompt you to say something that could give me a more clear idea if conversion here would be possible. Also, it is a real concern. I am sad that I will be leaving the community, but I know it will always be my home. I am sad to be leaving you, but I know you will always be (my) Rabbi.

I hope I did not ramble too much. I tried to be concise, but as much as I am uncomfortable talking about myself, once I start it is hard to stop. I left so much unsaid, but I hope my desire is more clear than it may have been before.

Have a peaceful end of the week. May you have a smooth transition into the transcendent. See you on the other side.

“אלישבע

 

 

Passover in College

I have attended Passover seders for the past four years, and last year I didn’t consume any chametz (including leavened breads, oats, rice, corn and peanuts). But this year, I am going to be having my first real Passover complete with cleaning my apartment, selling my chametz, and conducting the search for chametz the day before Passover. While I have been anticipating Passover all year so I would be able to have a Passover more closely aligned with Jews around me, I have also been stressing over Passover for about the past month.

Living in a college apartment is not the same as having a Jewish home. The hardest part of the situation is that my roommate is not Jewish. While this does pose some issues for general kashrut (kosher) laws, it becomes much harder when the dietary laws become stricter over Passover. Also, having a college student budget does not allow for too much frivolous spending and lets face it, Passover is not a cheap holiday. In order to have a kosher kitchen for Passover you can’t use your ordinary dishes, pots, pans or utensils. Also, you need to get a whole new pantry full of food for 8 days.

After many weeks of stressing and running over scenarios in my head, I have found a non-ideal but practical solution to making it through Passover in my apartment. First, let me say it would be so much easier if I had a Jewish home to be in that already kept the mitzvot of Passover, but I can not invite myself to live with someone for eight days! But, if you have the option to help someone else prepare their home and stay with them, it would be a great way to learn and escape the issues of a roommate who doesn’t keep kosher for Passover. Now, my solution:

I am going to get rid of all the chametz (that I own) in my apartment, as well as clean the entire apartment (except my roommates room, which I never enter), car, and other possessions. During Passover, I will not use the kitchen at all since my roommate is going to continue to prepare food normally in there. We already discussed that for the week she will keep all food in the kitchen only. I will use a mini fridge set up in my room to keep all my food separate. Basically, all my food consist of for the week is raw fruits, (approved) raw veggies, and cheese approved for Passover. I also bought some prepackaged Passover junk food in order to keep my sweet (and salty) tooth at bay. I will use all paper goods for my food and won’t eat or take food outside of my room. I will drink still bottled water.

It is not perfect, but is what I see as a reasonable solution for Passover this year. Hopefully, next year I will be able to properly prepare and keep Passover in my home.

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.