Tag Archives: conversion

A Week in the Life

Some of what I’ve seen this week:

A four month old baby nestling in the lap of his 90 year old great-grandmother.  His head fit perfectly into the crook of her right arm.  It was a celebration of his naming and conversion (he had been to the mikveh earlier in the day), and also of her special birthday.  The entire family was gathered around.  The children, now in their late sixties, the grandchildren creeping close to their forties, the great-grandchildren, ranging from 10 or so all the way down to this newest addition.  His eyes were bright and wide as he took in his surroundings, his cousins, the generations of his family.  She radiated joy, even tough life was not easy, even though she was mostly wheelchair bound, even though …

But what is a day like that, a moment like that, a family like that, worth?  Maybe the answer is this:  everything.

 

A seventy year old man got up to eulogize his mother.  She died at 94, after a long, good, and full life.  She had seen the birth of grandchildren and great-grandchildren, had been blessed with good health well into her 90s, had lived with a sense of joy and gratitude.  Truly a good life, a life to celebrate.

He spoke simply and clearly, related a story or two, talked about characteristics and qualities, laughed a bit.  And then cried.  Even when you are 70 and your mother is 94, even when the life was good and long, even when there is so much to be grateful for, a loss is a loss, and your mother is your mother, and the one who brought you into the world is no longer there for you, as she always was.  The grief is real, and the pain is deep, and the heart is torn and needs time to mend and heal and feel grateful again.

 

A man in his 80s has been fighting an insidious disease for a long time.  I visit him every few months, to check in, to catch up, maybe to lighten his spirit just a bit.

His independence is slowly but surely eroding.  From living alone to living in a supported living environment, from being able to walk with a walker to riding in a motorized wheelchair, to now needing to be pushed everywhere.  His mind is sharp, he watches it happen, bit by bit, day by day.

He fights with great strength of spirit and even greater dignity.  He smiles and jokes, he goes about his day in the best way he can, he gets up each morning, gets dressed, mindless tasks for us, monumental tasks for him.

We chat about the stock market (oy!), the Ravens (he is a fan and anticipating this weekend’s game), and most of all about his family.  He plans for the future, thinks about how he can improve his life, and finds within himself the grit and determination to do so.

The morning blessings we recite each day remind us to be grateful for the ability to stand, to move, to stretch, to dress, to rise from bed, to welcome the morning’s first light.

Life, too, can remind us of how grateful we should be for each and every day.

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A Day in the Life

Of a rabbi, of course.  This was Sunday, a busy one, filled with lifecycle events as Sundays so often are.  My schedule had been complicated by a funeral (something you simply can’t plan for).  I was writing the eulogy by 7:30, doing my best to pull together the threads of the conversation I had had with the family the previous day.  A long and well lived life, one worthy of both celebration and gratitude.  The funeral was scheduled for 1.

But there were other things on the docket.  First up a conversion of a 6 month old baby boy.  I met the family, helped the parents navigate a moment that is both simple and at the very same time enormously complex.  When the baby was out of the mikveh and dry and smiling, I was back in my office.  My remaining schedule for the day:  an unveiling at 12:15, the funeral at 1, and then a wedding downtown scheduled to begin at 3:30.

Of course I had to prepare for the wedding, put together a few comments to make to the bride and groom, make sure I knew exactly what the order of the ceremony would be.  I spent the 40 minutes or so between the conversion and the time I had to leave for the unveiling doing the wedding prep.  At 11:45 I was climbing into my car to head to the cemetery for the unveiling.

Now it would be a sprint – unveiling, funeral, burial, wedding, all in rapid succession.  I met the family for the unveiling in the cemetery at 12:10, a small group gathered a year after their loss to pay tribute to memory and presence.  At 12:25 I left the cemetery and drove to the funeral home.  The funeral service began promptly at 1, with beautiful words of tribute spoken by the son and daughter of the woman who had died.  From the funeral home back to the cemetery for the burial service.  It was now 2:45.  I left the cemetery for the second time that day, pulled onto the highway, and headed downtown.

I found the proper lot, parked, took my tallit and of course the ever present Rabbi’s Manual.  I found the wedding coordinator (s!) and they led me to the bride and groom.  There is always a reaction when the rabbi arrives at a wedding – yes!  This is actually going to happen!  And soon! We signed the ketubah, were led downstairs, got in line for the procession, the music started, and we were off.  Wonderful bride and groom, laughing and so at ease.  In twenty minutes it was all over, the young couple joined together as husband and wife.

I took a breath.  A kindly bartender poured me a bourbon, and I chatted with some of the wedding guests for a time, even got to wish the groom a mazaltov.  But the day was over.  Dusk was falling, and I headed home.

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Strangers in a Strange Land part 4

Been a while. We’ve had one of those funeral runs we get at the shul off and on, and I have not had time to read the paper, play my guitar, see my family, or do just about anything else, let alone blog the last week or so. I have a few minutes so thought I would try to squeeze in the promised last piece in the ‘Strangers’ series.

The last issue to address is that of conversion. A month or so ago I posted a blog about the question of conversion to Judaism which was a response to an open letter written by a woman who converted and had studied with Barry Freundel, the disgraced rabbi from the DC area. She wrote about how demeaning the conversion process had been as opposed to warm and welcoming, how difficult and complicated as opposed to simple and straight forward. I suggested in my post that many of her problems would not have occurred had she converted in the liberal Jewish community. Even so, I wrote, we should make conversion even easier. The post was entitled ‘Great Expectations’ and was published October 24.

I was surprised when a couple of weeks ago an Orthodox rabbi named Shmuly Yanklowitz published an Op Ed in the NY Times in which he essentially suggested the same thing. Conversion should be easier, he wrote, not more difficult. Expectations should be reasonable, not impossible to meet. Standards should be relaxed, not made more stringent. Surprisingly there are other wheels in the Orthodox community moving along the same lines.  But at this point they are few and far between.  Much more commonly the conversion process in Orthodoxy has become so exclusive, the standards so impossibly high, that few people in their right mind would try to become Jewish.

Why?  Why did the Orthodox community move in that direction, creating a structure whereby conversion would rarely take place, where candidates would often be rejected, where few would be considered ‘kosher’ enough?  I think one reason is fear of the stranger, a bizarre yet strong sense that one who is ‘other’ – i.e. not born of a Jewish mother – should be prevented from entering the circle.

This is not rational thinking, and it is not good for the Jewish people.  We need an influx of new ideas, new perspectives, new backgrounds.  I  think one of the reasons the Orthodox rabbi was able to be so original in his thought was that he himself is a convert to Judaism.  His ideas are fresh and spot on.  He understands that fear of the stranger is no way to run a religion.  His column is ‘Judaism Must Embrace the Convert.’  It was published in the Times on November 23rd, and is well worth the read.

The truth is we need more people to think like that, and to speak out.  Instead of closing Judaism down and circling the wagons we need to open it up and embrace the differences in each other, in other people, in other communities.  If God wanted us all to be the same we would all look alike, think alike, and worship alike.  I for one am glad we don’t.

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Strangers in a Strange Land

What a provocative phrase! It comes from Exodus 2 (verse 22), and is Moses’ explanation of the name he chooses for his son, Gershom. ‘Ger’ – stranger – and ‘shom’ there. In that one word is an expression of Moses’ particular dilemma, representative of every Jew’s dilemma, and the dilemma of the Jewish people as well. To be a stranger in a land not your own, an outsider in a place where you dwell but are not fully connected. To be other. We come from Abraham, the ‘Ivri,’ the one from beyond.

The Torah does not shy away from this core fact of Jewish life, in fact it uses this idea as a constant reminder to us to care for those less fortunate. Time and again the Torah tells us we have a special responsibility to watch out for the orphan, the widow, and the stranger “because we were slaves in Egypt.” We know what that feels like to be other, to be the stranger, and so should be extra-sensitive to those who share that experience.

Over the last week or so a series of stories that have been in the news remind me of how difficult the issue of the stranger is in our culture still today. The killing of Michael Brown, the young black man from Ferguson Missouri, is at least in part a story of what can happen when we fear what we are not, when we are afraid and estranged from the other. At its heart, racism also comes from that kind of fear, and the Michael Brown tragedy is deeply connected to issues of race.

Fear of the other is also at the heart of a ‘nationalities bill’ that is making its way through the Israeli political system, having been approved by the Israeli cabinet this week. As currently constituted, the bill would create a licit distinction between Jews and Arabs, with a two tiered citizenship structure that favors Jews. There are many ways to let the stranger know he is unwelcome, and giving him a different legal status is one tried and tested method.

Finally, there is the issue of conversion to Judaism, which has become contentious particularly in the Orthodox community over the last number of years. A NY Times column this week by a brave Orthodox rabbi about making the conversion process more open and less exclusive and intimidating will raise some hackles in the Orthodox world.

Over the next few days I’ll write a short blog about each of these stories – Michael Brown, the Israel ‘nationality bill,’ and conversion to Judaism. In each case the perception and fear of the other plays a central role. We were strangers in Egypt. I am wondering how well we remember that experience, and the lesson it is supposed to teach us.

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Great Expectations

Yes, the great Dickens novel.  I am re-reading it, and enjoying it immensely.  The title is a double entendre.  Great expectations is a technical term in the book referring to Pip’s expected inheritance – as in ‘he has come into great expectations.’  But the phrase also hints at Pip’s own hopes and dreams – how he wants to live and who he wants to be.  Both meanings play an important role in the narrative as Pip grows into adulthood.

We might say the same for people who decide to convert to Judaism.  When they become Jewish they come into an inheritance – a faith tradition that is thousands of years old and filled with wisdom and beauty.  But also their conversion is a piece of the puzzle of their lives, a way of nourishing their souls.  Great expectations indeed.

This is in part why it was painful for me to read a blog post that appeared on the Times of Israel website, written by a woman named Bethany Mandel.  The title of the post is ‘A Bill of Rights for Jewish Converts,’ and the author, herself a convert, outlines a series of 10 challenges that often confront Jews-by-choice.  Among them:  conversion ‘costs’ are often not revealed until the candidate is just about to become Jewish;  converts are put into the uncomfortable position of having to discuss deeply personal matters with total strangers;  the conversion process is drawn out, and almost impossible to meet demands are made on candidates.  To see Ms. Mandel’s complete article you can check the following link:  blogstimesofisrael.com

When I read her article it struck me that virtually all of the problems she points to are particular to the Orthodox conversion process.  Had she converted under the auspices of the Conservative or Reform Movements she would have, in all likelihood, come through the experience with a very different feeling about the meaning of conversion.  Her sense of personal dignity and affinity for the Jewish people would have remained strong.  Her conversion experience would have been positive and not painful.  And, as a Conservative rabbi, I hope her welcome into the community would have been generous and genuine.

My colleague Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove of Park Avenue Synagogue has recently argued that the Conservative Movement should make conversion easier, with fewer demands on candidates, shorter study times, and a much more open attitude towards people who want to make their home in the Jewish community.  I couldn’t agree more.  Any rabbi will quickly tell you that people who have chosen to become Jewish strengthen congregational life, often becoming some of the most devoted congregants we are privileged to serve.   Some might believe that the Jew-by-choice is blessed, privileged to be granted access to a sacred community and ancient covenant.  In fact the opposite is true – when someone decides to become Jewish, it is the community that is blessed by that person’s commitment, caring, faith, and presence.

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A Strange Day at the Office

You just never know what (or who) will walk in to your office, and what they will be wrestling with.  In recent days, a young man who was raised as a Christian, but has always felt connected to Judaism.  He attended synagogue for years without converting to Judaism while growing up, then spent a number of years going to church.  Now he spends time at a ‘Messianic’ congregation (Jews for Jesus.)  But he wants to come back to synagogue life, and see if he can get it all settled in his own mind.  Where he will wind up at this point is anybody’s guess.  

Then a couple with two children, an older son and younger daughter, both in their early 30s.  The daughter is dating someone who is not Jewish, and the couple is worried – what will happen if they marry?  How will the children be raised?  What kind of home will they make?  Their son, on the other hand, is dating someone who is Jewish, but frum (observant).  The couple is worried – what will happen if they marry?  How will the children be raised?  What kind of home will they make?  This is the American Jewish community today.  Two young people raised in a Conservative shul.  One might marry a non-Jew, one might marry an Orthodox Jew.  What is the line in “If I Were a Rich Man?”  Posing problems that would cross a rabbi’s eyes!

But by far the strangest comes last.  A member comes to my office.  Toward the end of our conversation he reaches into a bag, takes out an envelope and says ‘Rabbi, this is for you.’  Clearly there is money in the envelope.  I feel like I am in a scene from ‘The Godfather.’  ‘For the synagogue?’ I ask.  ‘No, Rabbi, for you.’  I wait until the gentleman leaves.  Immediately I go upstairs to our controller’s office, and open the envelope in front of him.  There is … a lot of money in it.  In crisp $100 dollar bills.  (marked or unmarked?)  We decide to put it in the synagogue charity fund, where it will help someone pay rent, or a health or electric bill, or get medicine or food.   The gentleman will be sent a nice thank you note for his contribution.  You just can’t make this stuff up.

I am reminded of a poignant line from the late, great Harry Chapin, in one of his classic songs, Taxi.  A down on his luck taxi driver picks up a fare, who happens to be his old flame.  He drives her to her home, a fancy mansion, and they recognize each other along the way.  When they arrive, she hands him a twenty for a fare that was $2.50.  It is condescending at best, insulting at worst.  He swallows his pride, or more likely doesn’t have to, as it has been lost long ago in the painful arc of his life.  The end of the stanza:  I stashed the bill into my shirt.  

Can you imagine if the line had been ‘I stashed the bill into my pushke?’

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