Friday, August 12, 2022

Chaviva on the Parashat Ve'etchanan: Aliyah, Changing the Law, Prayer, and more

Many moons ago, I sat down and studied the weekly Torah portion (parashah). I started this when I was living in Washington D.C. right after college. I'd finish my shift at the Washington Post, head to a coffee shop in Dupont Circle, and dig into the portion to figure out "What's bothering Chavi?"

It's been a long time since I had the mental or physical space to do this. Being a full-time working parent means my week is filled with living on other people's timelines and managing other people's problems and needs. Now that we're living in Israel, I have Fridays off (for the most part), which means I'm trying to reclaim Friday mornings as my own. 

Sometimes, that will mean heading into Jerusalem to the shuk and sometimes, that will mean staying local and bumming it at an Aroma. Sometimes I'll drive around looking for plaques to understand what occurred in the lands around me and sometimes that will mean going to museums, and sometimes that will mean reading the weekly Torah portion to try and reclaim a me of a bygone era ... a me who learned voraciously. 

This week, it means the latter. This week's Torah portion is chock full of so many thought-provoking verses, but I'm going to try and stick to a few that sing to me at this moment. 

Devarim 4:1 Possessing the Land of Israel

וְעַתָּ֣ה יִשְׂרָאֵ֗ל שְׁמַ֤ע אֶל־הַֽחֻקִּים֙ וְאֶל־הַמִּשְׁפָּטִ֔ים אֲשֶׁ֧ר אָֽנֹכִ֛י מְלַמֵּ֥ד אֶתְכֶ֖ם לַעֲשׂ֑וֹת לְמַ֣עַן תִּֽחְי֗וּ וּבָאתֶם֙ וִֽירִשְׁתֶּ֣ם אֶת־הָאָ֔רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֧ר יְהֹוָ֛ה אֱלֹהֵ֥י אֲבֹתֵיכֶ֖ם נֹתֵ֥ן לָכֶֽם׃ 

Now therefore hearken, O Yisra᾽el, to the statutes and to the judgments, which I teach you, to do them, that you may live, and go in and possess the land which the Lord God of your fathers gives you (Devarim 4:1).

Here I am, living in Israel, re-fulfilling a dream I had a decade ago. This life is, without a doubt, filled with struggles and challenges and incomprehensible stumbling blocks. And yet, I'm also fulfilling what the Ramban considers one of the 613 commandments.

There is a positive, biblical commandment to dwell in Eretz Yisrael, as it says, "You shall possess it and dwell in it" (Devarim 17:14, 26:1). (Sefer Chareidim, Mitzvot Asei HaTeluyot B'Eretz Israel, chap. I, sec 15.) 

Chazal (חז"ל acronym for Chachameinu Zichronam Livracha, or “Our sages, may their memory be blessed”) say that the mitzvah of living in the Land of Israel is equal to all the mitzvot of the Torah (Sifrei, Re'eh 28). 

I suppose, then, that it makes sense that it's so hard. If one mitzvah can be equal to all the mitzvot, then surely there must be challenges and feats to overcome. Imagine taking 613 steps versus taking just one. Imagine answering a test with 613 questions versus just one. 

(The truth is that the Land of Israel is easy. It's the State of Israel that is the challenge.)

The sun rises over Neve Shamir in Ramat Beit Shemesh.

Devarim 4:2 Waiting for Revelation, Not Change

 לֹ֣א תֹסִ֗פוּ עַל־הַדָּבָר֙ אֲשֶׁ֤ר אָנֹכִי֙ מְצַוֶּ֣ה אֶתְכֶ֔ם וְלֹ֥א תִגְרְע֖וּ מִמֶּ֑נּוּ לִשְׁמֹ֗ר אֶת־מִצְוֺת֙ יְהֹוָ֣ה אֱלֹֽהֵיכֶ֔ם אֲשֶׁ֥ר אָנֹכִ֖י מְצַוֶּ֥ה אֶתְכֶֽם׃ 

You shall not add to the word which I command you, neither shall you diminish from it, that you may keep the commandments of the Lord your God which I command you (Devarim 4:2).

When I was in graduate school at the University of Connecticut-Storrs, I had a fantastic mentor and teacher named Stuart Miller. He was an Orthodox Jew who was also a professor, striking a challenging balance between "this is what I believe" and "this is what the facts tell me." And he was so good and managing that balance without the friction so many academics suffer while knowing what the historical and cultural record says and what the Torah says. 

This week's parashah is V'etchanan in which the pasuk (verse) above says the laws of the Torah are set in stone and must remain as they are literally written, period, full stop. The challenge here, obviously, is that time changes people, technology advances, and the world has become a different place. 

So how do we reconcile and balance the seemingly archaic and outdated laws of Torah with the way we live our modern lives?

What I learned from Professor Miller was that we cannot change the law if we are living Torah-observant lives. 

The Torah doesn't bend to us; we bend to the Torah. Over time, aspects of the law are revealed to us and re-revealed to the point where we can apply Torah to our daily lives in this modern world. The Torah doesn't have to change; we have to look harder and understand better. 

This is where the gedolim ha'dor (the big rabbis or thinkers of each generation) play a vital role. They see how the law applies to modern situations and advise accordingly. It's why there are Shabbat elevators and Shabbat lamps and why we can use timers and hot plates and other things that rabbis of generations gone by would have scoffed at, surely. 

Instead of saying "We live in a new world, the laws of the Torah don't fit with this modern world," we say, "How do these laws apply in our modern world?" 

Obviously, not all streams of Judaism or all flavors of Jews hold by this. In the Liberal world, much of the law has become optional and in the Orthodox world, some groups have taken the law and changed it to be more oppressive and hateful. Neither are what this pasuk says.  

Devarim 4:7 Waiting for Answers That Never Come

כִּ֚י מִי־ג֣וֹי גָּד֔וֹל אֲשֶׁר־ל֥וֹ אֱלֹהִ֖ים קְרֹבִ֣ים אֵלָ֑יו כַּיהֹוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֵ֔ינוּ בְּכׇל־קׇרְאֵ֖נוּ אֵלָֽיו׃ 

For what great nation is there that has a god so close at hand as is the LORD our God whenever we call upon Him (Devarim 4:7)?

When I was a little kid, I used to pray every night. I'd beg Gd to help me love myself more, for people to like me more, to not feel so sad, to not feel so alone, to be thinner, to be smarter, to be different, to be better. I never asked Gd for things. I was never the type of kid who'd say "I promise I'll be good for the next week if you convince my parents to buy me x, y, z. I was the type of kid who'd say "I promise I'll be good forever if you promise to convince more people to like me."

I was a depressed and sad kid. I was fat and unhappy and my journals from childhood are incredibly upsetting to read. Even as I continue to struggle with so many of these same issues today, I wish I had been kinder to myself. I was just a kid!

The hardest part of those prayers and being that kid was that I was never answered. Gd never responded to me. At least, that's what I thought and felt. There was no booming voice from the sky saying I was going to be okay or asking me to do something different to make my asks come true. As a kid who knew the stories of Gd talking to the prophets and Moshe, I thought maybe, just maybe, I'd hear an answer. 

At some point over the past 10 years, I learned that we always get answers to our prayers; they're just not the answer format we expect, need, or want. They don't come in the timeline we demand either. I spent my childhood asking for self-love and it wasn't until I was a fully grown adult human woman that I started understanding what it means to love myself.  It took until I was in my late 30s to learn that starving myself wasn't the way to happiness and health. I'm still working on it, and not doing a super-great job all the time, but I'm working on it.

So this pasuk (verse): Is Gd close whenever we call upon Him? Does he answer when we call upon Him? The truth is the verse says that He's close, but not that he answers. What does "close" mean? It means that HaShem neither slumbers nor sleeps and is always available to hear our prayers, our cries, our requests. 

The beautiful thing about Judaism is that the revelation at Mount Sinai/Horeb happened before all the Israelites. Everyone saw and experienced those moments. It wasn't a private revelation to one person. It wasn't a setup that said you have to rely on a specific person or persons as a channel to Gd. In Judaism, we all have access. Constant access. Because HaShem is close at all times and, as this pasuk says, aren't we lucky? 

And, indeed, in this parashah, the next several verses talk about that moment when HaShem appeared before the people and what they saw and experienced to serve as a reminder of this very fact. 

What did you see in this week's Torah portion? Do you have any thoughts about anything in this post? Share with me in the comments! 

And if you're curious what my TaNaKh of choice is, it's the Koren's Magerman Edition. I love all of the extra goodies in the back, the easy tabs, the two bookmarks to keep tabs on the weekly Torah portion and the haftarah, and more. Get yours here!

Thursday, July 28, 2022

One Month in Israel: Aliyah Without Aliyah

I thought I'd feel something ... something more. More deep, more powerful, more. Just more. 

When I made aliyah in 2012, I felt it all. I felt the air differently, the mornings differently. Every experience was like I was growing into a new and more meaningful life. I saw everything through new eyes, and those eyes felt and experienced things differently. Everything was shiny and new. 

I was a new Chaviva. A better Chaviva. A Chaviva more deeply in touch with her spirit, soul, and emotions. 

Moving back, I've realized I'm not that Chaviva anymore. I'm eight years, three kids, and so many life experiences (both challenging and rewarding) later. 

And I'm struggling with not feeling that ... feeling everything "more."

When we landed, Tuvia was on an energetic high. Every sight and sound was big and special and like coming home to him. I was in awe of him. I envied him. At the same time, I didn't understand why he was able to feel that way when I just felt like everything was dulled. The sights, the sounds appeared as if the shine and shimmer had been buffed clean off. 

Over the several weeks we've been here I've been waiting for that more, that shimmer to return. To look around and marvel. I've had a few moments when I step out on the balcony at sunset and the view sucks me into a world of quiet and light. But it's fleeting. It's so fleeting I don't even know how to describe the speed to you. It's shorter than the blink of an eye. 

You know when you live someplace a long time and it becomes comfortable? There's two types of comfortable you can feel: the type where it's easy and relaxing and always like coming home or the type where it's too familiar and thus uncomfortable. Somehow, that's how Israel feels to me right now. 

I know I should say I'm lucky to be here, and I am. I feel lucky and blessed and so happy to finally be home. But I want it to feel like it used to. I want to feel something about it. Anything really. It feels too familiar, too normal, too run-of-the-mill, too dull. 

I have a feeling it's because I'm working, and the kids are home, and it just feels like summer back in Denver in many ways. But I'm holding out for the moment, the feeling, the shimmer. I know it'll come back to me. 

I need to start learning again and find an outlet that is more than kids and work and marriage. Kids and work and marriage have been all I've had for so long now. I have nothing that's mine or for me. I have to find that something, and I have to find it soon. 

Anyone out there know the feeling that I'm feeling? Drop a line in the comments, please.

Thursday, June 2, 2022

Aliyah Part Deux: We Are Finally Moving Home

 It's been a while blog readers, but I've got some big ... nay ... huge news. 

Around this time in 2012, I decided to make aliyah to Israel. I sold everything, packed three suitcases, and moved in October 2012 to Nachlaot, one of the oldest neighborhoods in Jerusalem. 

A few months later, I met the man I'd marry (December 2012). 

A few months after that, we got married (February 2013).  

Many months later, we had our eldest child, Asher (December 2013). 

Then, unfortunately, for many reasons (chief among them my father's illness), we moved back to the states in April 2014. Our goal? To move back before Asher entered kindergarten (i.e., mid-2019). 

Obviously, life happens. Pandemics happen. Everything happens in HaShem's time and on HaShem's timeline. I accepted that a long time ago. 

And now? Now is the time. Everything is right. We are finally heading back to Israel!

It's not technically aliyah, because we are all citizens of Israel. But it feels like aliyah. We've been gone for more than eight years and the country has changed so much. We're moving to a new build in Ramat Bet Shemesh because I can't return to the Gush (I have my reasons, which I may explain someday). I'm keeping my amazing job at Bizzabo, which has HQ in Tel Aviv. Mr. T is interviewing with some solar companies. The kids are registered for school. There is so much moving and happening!

Are we ready? Yes! Am I anxious and nervous? Yes! Are the kids stoked? Absolutely! Is our home packed up and on its way to Israel? Yes!

Friday, December 31, 2021

Jews Are Not a Monolith

Back in 2019, Delish shared a coffee-and-cream colors chart. At some point, it was used to display the various colors of Indigenous peoples as a way of saying, "Indigenous people are not a monolith."

Now, here I am, using this clever image to say, "Jews are not a monolith." 

coffee in different shades with the word Jew on each cup

When I converted on January 1, 2010, I claimed my place among the Jewish people. I acknowledged the Jewish neshama (soul) that I was born with and set it free to grow and expand. 

Interestingly, while I was living the life of a Torah-observant Jew prior to my conversion and for a long time after my conversion, people were always surprised by me. 

"No Jews in your family? Well, you pass so easily!" 

"You look so Jewish, though! Pale skin, dark hair ..." 

"Are you sure there are no Jews in your family tree? You look more Jewish than some Jews!"

And I got this from Jews and non-Jews alike ... all because the assumption that all Jews are light skinned with dark hair because that's the stereotype. And for the longest time, I had such pride in the fact that I could easily pass when so many other converts I knew couldn't. 

Why? I was never questioned who I was or what I believed or how I observed. The only hiccups came (and continue to come) when people start playing Jewish geography. Only then does my past as a mildly non-denominational Midwestern Christian trickle out. 

But the reality? Jews come in all colors. I may pass because of stereotypes of what a Jew looks like, but there is no one way a Jew should or can look. 

And that's the post. Shabbat Shalom!

Friday, October 22, 2021

You Know You're Raising a Jewish Kid When ...

As you all know, I didn't grow up Jewish. The first 20 odd years of my life were spent living a generally midwestern Christian/secular lifestyle. So, watching my three kiddos grow up Jewish is fascinating to me. There's a lot that people who grew up take for granted when they look at the world, and I imagine things that are special or weird or amusing to me don't even faze my husband. 

Here are a few examples (yes, really) from today:

You Know You're Raising a Jewish Kid When ... 

Tirzah was sitting at the table coloring (this girl is as into art as I was at her age, which makes me so proud) and held up two markers. 

"Which blue should I use Mommy?" 

Me, knowing that she's still figuring out her left and right, pointed to the one in her right hand. 

"The one in my Shema hand?"

Yes, my 5-year-old daughter referred to her right hand as the Shema hand instead of saying "this one" or "the one in my right hand?" (Note: The Shema is a special prayer that pops up throughout the daily prayers and at bedtime.) I'm schepping nachas over here. (Or, if you like my autocorrect, "scheming nachos.")

You Know You're Raising a Jewish Kid When ... 

I took Zusha to get his flu shot this morning. The other two got their shots a few weeks ago, and it was an utter disaster. Luckily, Zusha was chill, didn't wiggle, make a peep, cry ... nothing. It was amazing. But because I'd bribed the other two with a Target gift card, I had to deliver with Zusha, too. (Had I known he wasn't going to freak out, I wouldn't have even brought the bribe!)

So we headed to Target and he picked out his Paw Patrol toy. We went to self-check out (obviously) and while I was ringing us out, a nice man checking out behind us asked if Zusha had a piggy bank. I answered that he did, and the man handed him about five little coins amounting to something like 36 cents. We hopped in the car and were driving home when ...

"Mommy, I want to open them!"

"Open what?"

"These! I want to open these!"

"Mommy's driving Zush, what are you holding?"

"The coins Mommy!"

"Sweetie, those aren't chocolate." 

Yes, Zusha, my little 3.5-year-old thought they were gelt, those foil-wrapped coins you get at Chanukah. He was legitimately disappointed that they weren't. But, we see so few coins and paper money these days, that he thought they had to be Chanukah gelt. Ah! I was giggling the rest of the way home. 

Do you have a "You know you'er raising a Jewish kid when ..." story? Share in the comments!

Thursday, October 14, 2021

Ask Chaviva Anything: The LuLaRoe Documentary

It's been a long time since I answered an Ask Chaviva Anything question, but this one came in and I thought, "Well, it's about time!"

Q: Have you watched the Lularoe documentary? If so, was it surprising/ upsetting/ validating/ etc. Thanks!

A: Yes. I watched LuLaRich. I binged every last minute of it, with the line "Oh my Gd, we're in a cult" ringing uncomfortable and accurately true. 

For those of you who forgot (or repressed), I drank the Kool-Aid. Yes, I sold LuLaRoe from August 2016 through August 2017. In fact, my LuLaRoe Instagram page is still up and so is my (overly) emotional "Why?" video. Yipes. 

I first heard about LuLaRoe in late 2015/early 2016 in one of the modest fashion groups I'm in on Facebook. Suddenly, Jewish women everywhere were talking about this affordable, fun, and fashionable clothing line and how they were making money as a side hustle. (Funny that they now sell shorts and crop tops!)

The company's model and fashion piqued my interest and I found a local seller in Spring 2016. She urged me along and I finally signed up, despite all the red flags and everything else that came along with it. 

When I was in it, I loved it. I loved the fashion and the ownership and I felt beautiful in the clothes. But it was a lot of work for very little return. Very little. As in no return. I was drowning in clothes no one wanted to buy because they were ugly. But I kept telling myself that it was worth it, that I was an independent, empowered women. And every time I was told that I wasn't working hard enough, I worked harder, because I'm a perfectionist! I was so deep in it ... getting out was a battle and it left me angry and frustrated. 

So, watching the LuLaRich documentary was definitely validating, with very little in the way of surprising. I did like finding out just why I kept getting bleached skirts (they sat out in the sun, ew). I also found it amusing just how completely detached Mark and Deanne pretend to be from the rest of the company. But what I found most upsetting was the whining and complaining from people who made bucketloads of cash on the backs of people like me. Yes, I feel bad that they suffered, but at the same time, they knew exactly what they were doing. 

But, truth be told, I'd go through everything (including the thousands I lost) with LuLaRoe again over ever doing Optavia again, because the latter caused more lasting and irreversible harm.

Honestly, it's amazing how I got duped into not one but two schemes that saw my insecurities and used and abused them. I keep telling myself: "Chaviva, you're a smart person! Why'd you let two toxic schemes suck you in!?" 

You see, both LuLaRoe and Optavia do the same thing: They tell women that if they don't see success, it's their own fault. If you can't hit your financial or weightless goals, obviously you're not working the system correctly. Nevermind that one is robbing women and the other is selling eating disorders. 

Anyway ... I could go on and on. But ultimately, I was glad to see the reality of LuLaRoe brought to the forefront. I'm glad that the world can see how this company is built on the backs of people who just want to get ahead and support their families but who end up drowning. I was elated that people could see how all of the "experts" running the company are beyond unqualified to do the jobs they're doing. I was happy to see that the true colors of LuLaRoe were revealed. 

All of that said ... sometimes, just sometimes, I really miss some of the clothes. I even poked around to find out my former mentor/coach is still selling and I almost bought one of the dresses. But. I didn't. Because, I'm still a little angry. 

Have a question? Ask your question here

Tuesday, October 12, 2021

Let's Talk About Conversion to Judaism and Whether a Conversion Can Be Revoked

conversion to Judaism Star of David necklace

For converts to Judaism, one of the ongoing topics that crops up every now and again is the risk of having their conversion question, revoked, canceled, or retracted after the fact. There is a lot of hype and misinformation on this topic, especially in recent years as Israel and Diaspora rabbinic courts vie for control over the challenging, confusing, and often mysterious world of conversion to Judaism. 

How a Person Converts to Judaism

There are a multitude of paths for conversion to Judaism, no matter whether that conversion is through a Reform, Conservative, or Orthodox bet din (rabbinical court). There are even more reasons that someone chooses to convert to Judaism: 
  • They grew up in a Jewish neighborhood or surrounded by Jews and felt a pull to join the Jewish people. 
  • They discover they have Jewish ancestors and feel the pull to realize their ethnic and ancestral religion and people. 
  • They have a Jewish father but not a Jewish mother and want to be part of the Orthodox community (patrilineal Jews are not considered halachic Jews in Orthodox Judaism and in some Conservative circles).
  • They have no connection and don't know a single Jew but learn about Judaism and feel like they're finally at home (hey, this is what happened to me!). 
No matter what draws an individual to Judaism or what stream of Judaism they choose, there are basic steps to complete the conversion process:
  • Learning: studying the laws, traditions, holidays, observances of Judaism based on whichever movement an individual chooses to convert within
  • Living in the Jewish community: most Orthodox conversions require that you live within a community for at least a year so you experience the full cycle of holidays and the Orthodox lifestyle
  • Bet din: meeting with a rabbinic court whose members' statuses vary from movement to movement, as some require three Shabbat-observant men while others simply require three individuals be they men or women (I had four rabbis on my bet din!)
  • Brit Milah or hatafat dam brit: for men, an actual or symbolic circumcision is required by some movements and not by others
  • Mikvah: a dip in the ritual bath is standard among all movements
Fun fact: When the Temple still stood in Jerusalem, conversion also included an animal sacrifice (Keritot 8b-9a)! Makes you wonder if, when the Temple is rebuilt, whether that requirement will be re-upped, right?

The Controversy About Converting to Judaism

Among the many difficulties with conversion to Judaism are the realities that Orthodox Judaism does not accept conversions that take place in Reform, Conservative, or other movements as halachic (legally binding).

The reasoning behind this is that conversion to Judaism, according to Orthodoxy, requires the basic commitment to the mitzvot (613 commandments of the Torah). Non-Orthodox streams of Judaism do not adhere strictly to following the mitzvot, so Rabbis Moshe Feinstein and Yaakov Ariel argued that non-Orthodox conversions are unacceptable according to halacha

There are also many complexities involved with the Orthodox conversion process, with standards varying from community to community. Some Orthodox rabbinic courts will accept conversion for marriage, while others will turn away an individual based on the desire to convert to marry a Jew (this goes back to the Talmud, Yevamot 24b).

For all intents and purposes, someone who converts with an Orthodox rabbinic court is fully and completely a Jew from the moment they visit the mikvah at the culmination of the conversion process. They're even considered a Jew if it turns out they did marry strictly for marriage or they stray from Judaism later. In the latter case, the individual should be treated as any other sinning Jew (Bechorot 30b).

However, in recent years there have been cases in which a conversion or a series of conversions performed by a certain bet din or rabbi are called into question. In these cases, an authoritative body has gone through the process of "reviewing" the conversion to determine whether it is, in fact, halachically valid.

The problem with this, unfortunately, is that — according to halacha (law) — only in very specific cases can a conversion be questioned and revoked. In many of these investigations, there is no grounds for an investigation, let alone talk of revocation.

Modern Cases About Revoking Conversions

Up until Emancipation (late 18th to late 19th century) and well into the 20th century, conversion to Judaism was rare and largely unheard of because, in many places, it was illegal to convert to Judaism. In most cases, a non-Jew converted to Judaism in order to marry a Jewish person, but, even still, it was rare. 

Following the Holocaust, conversion to Judaism blossomed and has continued to gain steam well into the 21st century, especially within Orthodox Judaism.

The entire issue of modern conversion nullification has an interesting background that stems from a revocation of a conversion 30 years after the fact so that two individuals with questionable Jewish legal status could legally marry. You can read more about this in the Rabbi Goren case.

Then, in the 1970s, Rabbi Betzalel Zolty nullified a conversion after the rabbinic court discovered that a certain group of individuals were Christian missionaries trying to move to Israel under the Law of Return. Rabbi Yisrael Rozen nullified a conversion after the Israel Interior Ministry found out that a convert was romantically involved with a non-Jewish woman during and after his conversion process.

In 2008 in Israel, a senior rabbinic court headed by Rabbi Avraham Sherman nullified a single conversion performed by a different Israeli rabbinic court. This nullification called into question thousands of conversions performed within the context of the Israeli army and began an investigation into conversion courses established by Israel and overseen by Rabbi Chaim Druckman.

So can you revoke a conversion or not?

Ultimately, the law on conversions and annulment is such:
  • If an individual converts under non-ideal circumstances (e.g., for marriage), he or she is still Jewish and the conversion is valid (Yevamot 24b). 
  • If an individual converts and sins or strays from the path of Judaism, he or she is still Jewish and the conversion is valid (Bechorot 30b,Yoreh De'ah 248:2). 
  • If the rabbinic court fails to investigate the intentions of the convert or even failed to give the individual a proper education prior to the conversion, he or she is still Jewish and the conversion is valid (Yoreh De'ah 248:12). 
The only way that a conversion can be nullified is in cases of fraud. In these types of cases, the individual converting knowingly misleads the rabbinic court regarding their intent to convert. Usually, these types of cases involve Christian missionaries attempting to convert for nefarious reasons, such as moving to Israel under the Law of Return to do missionary work. Talk about shady!

Although there are plenty of terrifying cases that have created uncomfortable situations for converts around the world in recent years, it is very rare and, in fact, highly unlikely that a conversion can or will be revoked.

Yes, plenty of conversions are questioned regularly by individuals who do not know the laws of conversion and how to treat a convert. In these cases, an individual may stray from Judaism following a conversion or do something that calls their knowledge/commitment to Judaism into question. 

But questioning a conversion and nullifying a conversion, are two very different things.

Have questions about converting to Judaism? Let me know! I'm here to help. 

For more about the topic of the nullifying of conversions, check out Shlomo Brody's A Guide to the Complex: Contemporary Halakhic Debates and read Rabbi Gil Student's article "Conservative Annulments."

Tuesday, May 4, 2021

This Truth? It Hurts: Michael and Amanda Elkohen

Well. The truth is often a hard pill to swallow, and this has been one of the hardest. Nay, most frustrating. Nay, most infuriating. This blog article is all about this earth-shattering news that came out a little over a week ago: Haredi ‘rabbi’ accused of being a covert Messianic missionary

For more than a decade, I'd called Amanda and Michael Elkohen friends. I "met" Michael online way back in 2010 (possibly earlier?) on the Jewish blogging circuit. We emailed. We became friends. 

When I traveled to Israel, I ate at their Shabbat table. 

Michael gave me and my ex-husband guidance on a family Torah scroll that was being fixed and checked. He was, after all, a scribe. A Jewish scribe. A sofer.

When I got divorced and struggled to find my place in the Orthodox world, Michael supported me. He even wrote a blog article about the treatment I was suffering at the hands of other converts. 

When I made aliyah, Amanda was there every step of the way. She offered to stock my kitchen with groceries, she checked in on me almost daily, and, again, I ate at their Shabbat table. 

When my stepson was to become a bar mitzvah, I immediately thought of Michael and Amanda, who, by then, in 2016 was going through chemo. I thought, we can support them financially and put Michael's skills as a sofer to work. We would all win! We paid more than $1,000 for those tefillin.

And then? For the past week I've read and re-read through emails, Facebook messages, blog comments, as many communications as humanly possible to try and answer the question:

How did I miss it? How did I miss that they were Christians in Jewish garb parading as something they most certainly were not? How did I miss that they were trying to missionize and convert Jews?

I grew up in the Bible Belt of Southern Missouri and then in Nebraska, where practically everyone is white and Christian or brown and Christian. I have a Mormon uncle. I have Evangelical friends. I know what missionizing looks like, and I've experienced a Christian intervention. 

So how did I miss this? 

Listen: This isn't about Judaism vs. Christianity. I've always said that we're all on our own journey and can't possibly know what's true and right for everyone. We only know what is true and right for ourselves. For me, that's Judaism. That's Orthodox, Torah-true Judaism. For others, that may be Christianity. 

But this? This is about lying, cheating, stealing. It's about being my friend and telling me you're one thing but you're another. It's about me giving you a bunch of money for religious items that are then completely null and void because the person who made them isn't even Jewish. That's lying, cheating, stealing. 

And for what?

While digging through old messages, I started to wonder if Michael's support after my divorce and subsequent foray into dating a nonJew for a short time was nefarious. Was he supporting me to pull me to the other side? 

I looked at the Facebook messages where Tuvia and Amanda arranged the tefillin and noticed that Michael originally added "Amanda Elk" to the chat before fixing it and adding "Amanda Elkohen" to the chat. Then I wondered: Did I not wonder why she had two accounts? 

No, I didn't. Because I trusted them. I trusted these people who said they were nice, good, Torah-abiding Jews. 

And it was all a lie. 

Now, all I can think about is those kids. Those children who grew up living a lie and lost their mom and now have no community. Will they be embraced by the Christian world? Will they be shunned by both worlds? Will Michael Elk end up in prison for all of the pain and suffering he's caused and all the money he's stolen? Will those children end up in the foster system and convert to Judaism or end up lost forever? 

I was so broken-hearted when Amanda died. She was young, she had a family, she suffered chemo for years. And the moment this story broke a week ago, my immediate thought was, "Thank Gd she's not alive to see this." But she was just as much a part of this as Michael was. 

So, I'm torn. I'm shattered. I've fallen down the rabbit hole every day for a week and started wondering if you can ever really know a person. Throughout the pandemic, I've realized that people I thought I knew and whose values and priorities I thought I knew ... well, I don't know them at all. 

Because you can never really know a person. Or can you?

This blog has graced the internet for 15 years. For 15 years, I've put my heart and soul on the internet and when I meet people who read my blog in person, the one thing they always say is this: Wow! In real life, you're exactly who you are on your blog. And that's always been my goal: To show you who I am, who I really am, because I want to relate to you and for you to relate to me. 

Do I share everything here? No, I haven't written extensively about my lichen sclerosis diagnosis or my anxiety or how the past year has shattered me, but that's less because I don't want you to see and understand me for who I am than it is about time and energy to sit and write. Are there things I don't write about and will never write about? Yes. Things like what really happened in my previous marriage, about Tuvia's stepson and his previous marriage, about my relationship with my parents, and other things that are, well, truly and undeniably private. 

And I thought that Michael and Amanda were those people too. They were so like who they were on Michael's blog and Facebook and other social channels. They were real, honest, relatable, down-to-earth people who you just couldn't help but love and root for. 

So I reached out to Michael:

I'm still waiting for the "truth" to come out. Because, based on the dozens of articles and the people I've spoken with who are close to the investigation ... neither Michael nor Amanda are descended from Jews based on America's very well-kept ancestry records. He's tied to multiple Christian organizations. They had duplicate Facebook accounts: one for Jews, one for Christians. 

I don't know if the "truth" will ever come out. I'm still sad that Amanda died from cancer. I'm still sad about those children and what the future holds for them. I'm sad about a lot of things. Where I was angry, I'm just sad now. Disappointed, defeated, and confused. 

How could someone lie, cheat, and steal for so long from so many people? All in the name of religion.

Wednesday, December 9, 2020

Ner Chanukah: A Mitzvah Chaviva

I wrote this little d'var Torah (thoughts on the Torah) for Chanukah for one of the local synagogues and thought I'd share here, too! Enjoy.

Rambam says that the Chanukah lights are a mitzvah chaviva hi ad meod, or an exceedingly precious or cherished mitzvah (Hilchot Megillah v'Chanukah 4:12). This description didn’t strike me just because, well, my name is Chaviva, but because this type of language isn’t used for other mitzvot (commandments). So why is lighting the Chanukiyah considered a mitzvah chaviva? We have to start by looking back at Aharon and the Menorah.

Bonus: What's the Difference Between a Menorah and a Chanukiyah?

In Parashat Behaalotecha, we’re told that Aharon is commanded to light the Menorah in the Mishkan, and that “he did so” (Numbers 8:3). Although Aharon’s tribe had been the only one not to participate in gift giving to the Mishkan, the Kohen Gadol had many other vital responsibilities and, let’s be honest, Aharon did sacrifice his sons in the process. But perhaps he still felt a little jilted. After all, the Midrash says that each gift was spiritually specific and significant to each tribe. Perhaps Aharon felt that others were more whole after giving, perhaps in a way that he couldn’t be despite his service. Enter HaShem, who tasks Aharon with the Menorah.

Aharon saw this mitzvah as chavivut and did exactly as HaShem commanded, which, according to Rashi, was a compliment to Aharon and signified that he was uniquely qualified for this job. Just as the Menorah is made from a single block of gold, so, too, do all Jews originate at the same source. By taking on the mitzvah of the Menorah precisely as HaShem commanded, Aharon embodied and delivered on the essence of what the Menorah symbolized — the unity of the Jewish people. As Pirkei Avot 1:12, says, “Be of the disciples of Aharon, loving peace and pursuing peace, loving mankind and drawing them close to the Torah.” 

woman lighting a Chanukah menorah

From Aharon and the Menorah to the miracle of Chanukah and the rededication of the Holy Temple, we have the Chanukiyah. Although the mitzvah of lighting the Chanukiyah could be performed through a spouse, partner, or shaliach, it's such a precious and cherished mitzvah that — like Aharon with the Menorah — we each want to perform it ourselves and thus are commanded to do so. We each want to feel responsible for this mitzvah and to embody what the Chanukiyah symbolizes. After all, this is the one time in the Jewish calendar that we can be a literal light unto the nations!

On this Chanukah, more than any other in recent memory, we must be a light and bring about the unity that this holiday symbolizes. We must light every night, with a care for our fellow — for their health and safety as well as our own. We must pursue justice and peace through a fire that brings light and guides all on the path forward and not a fire that burns down the world around us, leaving us in darkness and chaos. We must be the disciples of Aharon and fulfill the mitzvah of ner Chanukah — this mitzvah chaviva hi ad meod — with a sense of collective responsibility and the pursuit of a unified Jewish people.

May we all be safe, healthy, and content as we enter the darkest months of the year. Although we can’t be together as we would all love to be, everything comes from HaShem and everything that comes from HaShem is good. This, too, must be for the good. Chag Sameach!

Monday, November 30, 2020

The Difference: Menorah versus Chanukiyah

Every November or December, whenever the 25th of the month of Kislev falls in the Jewish calendar, Jews around the world celebrate Chanukah, the festival of light. Although many know Chanukah because of it's fried jelly donuts and games of dreidel, the main religious tradition of the holiday is the week-long lighting of a special item known as the chanukiyah (ha-new-key-uh).

Many know the chanukiyah as a menorah, but there's actually a large difference in the two pieces of Judaica. 
Both items are a type of candelabra, but the chanukiyah has nine branches while the menorah has only seven. The chanukiyah has eight candles in a row with a ninth candle separated or raised (depending on the style of the candelabra) and they come in all shapes, sizes, and themes. The chanukiyah represents the miracle of Chanukah when, during the rededication of the Temple, the oil that should have lasted just one night lasted for a miraculous eight nights. 

The ninth branch, known as the shamash ("helper" or "servant"), on the chanukiyah is used to light the other branches during each night of Chanukah. Each night of Chanukah the shamash is lit first and then the candles are lit one by one for each night, from left to right (unless you follow another tradition or opinion). 

The other candelabra, known as the menorah, is more of a symbolic object in Judaism. Dating to the time of the First Temple in Jerusalem, it comprises seven branches and does not have a shamash. The menorah was lit by the priests (kohanim), using olive oil every evening in the Holy Temple. 
"And you must make a lamp-stand of pure gold. Of hammered work the lamp-stand is to be made. Its base, its branches, its cups, its knobs and its blossoms are to proceed out from it. And six branches are running out from its sides, three branches of the lamp-stand from its one side and three branches of the lamp-stand from its other side. Three cups shaped like flowers of almond are on the one set of branches, with knobs and blossoms alternating, and three cups shaped like flowers of almond on the other set of branches, with knobs and blossoms alternating. This is the way it is with the six branches running out from the lamp-stand. And on the lamp-stand are four cups shaped like flowers of almond, with its knobs and its blossoms alternating. And the knob under two branches is out of it and the knob under the two other branches is out of it and the knob under two more branches is out of it, for the six branches running out from the lamp-stand. Their knobs and their branches are to proceed out from it. All of it is one piece of hammered work, of pure gold. And you must make seven lamps for it; and the lamps must be lit up, and they must shine upon the area in front of it. And its snuffers and its fire holders are of pure gold. Of a talent of pure gold he should make it with all these utensils of it. And see that you make them after their pattern that was shown to you in the mountain." (Exodus 25:31-40) 
This candelabra became known as a symbol of Judaism and can be found in nearly every synagogue around the world in the form of the ner tamid or everlasting light. In most synagogues, above the arc where the Torah is kept there is a light that is always kept on that represents the holy menorah from the Temple period. The ner tamid reminds us of the Holy Temple and the sadness of its destruction. Whereas it used to be a constantly lit flame, it is now typically an electric lamp that stays on at all hours of the day. 

As you can see, the difference in the two items is significant. Whereas the chanukiyah is used for the celebration of a specific festival, the menorah is more of an everlasting symbol of the Jewish religion.

What else do you want to know about Chanukah?