Monday, November 9, 2009

Chavi Goes to the Beth Din: The First Meeting

Wednesday night, I was exhausted. We got into New Jersey, and I planted myself firmly into the plush bed that I call my own when we stay with Evan's family. The World Series was on its way toward the finale, and I issued a "Wake me if they lose, or rather, wake me if they win" to Tuvia and went to bed. Supposedly he came in and let me know that they'd won, but I didn't recall it. I was exhausted. The anticipation of my RCA beth din conversion meeting had turned my brain to mush. To feed my nerves, I had a nightmare that night. How appropriate, no?

The dream? Well, I was in a bookstore or library, attached to the building with the beth din meeting room. I was chatting with people, occupied, when my mother walked in and yelled "you're late to the beth din meeting!" I knew the meeting was at 3 p.m. (in the dream, that is), and my mom let me know that it was already 3:05 p.m. Then she said that they'd been waiting for a half-hour for me. So not only was I late, but I had the time wrong. So I ran to the elevator, where they informed me that I didn't have the right barcode to board the elevator. I started crying, explaining my situation, and just when they let me on, I realized that I was wearing the worst thing possible: capri pants and a short sleeve shirt. I freaked out, yelled to everyone that I'd be right back, and ran to the car where I found a long jean skirt and threw it on. When I woke up, I was standing in the elevator nervously pulling it on.

Tuvia and I drove the car into Jersey City, dropped it off at his dad's car place, and took the PATH in. I had a meeting in the morning at NYU regarding a few of their programs (more about that later, of course), and because I was anxious and fearful about showing up late, I insisted we take a cab from NYU up to Yeshiva University -- a whooping 30 something buckaroos right there.

We got up to YU plenty early, spotted the building, and then went in search of food. We ended up at Golan Heights (thanks to @Mottel and a few others), where I ate too much and anticipated vomiting on the shiny, black shoes of the beth din. Tuvia and I spent the rest of our time (and there was a lot of it) sitting in the YU student commons, where I happened to be spotted by one Twitter user (nice to meet you @steinberg!). I was busy Twittering, airing my anxiety to the world as I've been known to do. The support I received that day from my Twitter friends was ... well, I'm speechless. If you guys were on the beth din, I'd be a quick sell. Too bad you can't bring witnesses, right? You guys provide a service, I guess you could say, that is incomparable to anything. You offer me kind words, comforting thoughts, boosts in esteem, you name it. You guys are my bubble of comfort, and for that? I love you. But now to the (not-too-detailed) details.

The Meeting
We arrived at the beth din room about five or so minutes early. No one was in the room yet, which made me even more anxious. I didn't know where to sit, whether to sit, whether I had something in my teeth, or whether the noises in my tummy were going to settle themselves. I was talking nervously to Tuvia about their being a one-way mirror built into the wall when a rabbi walked in, greeting me in a jovial and kind way as Chaviva. He said that the furniture in the room was brand new, which I took as a good omen in my favor for some unknown reason (the furniture gods smiling upon me? har har.). We sat down and got to chatting. Then another rabbi showed up, and another, and finally a fourth. Yes, there were four rabbis at my meeting. Each of them brought something very different, I think -- good cop, bad cop, the jokester, the inquirer. Each posed different questions, and each had their own approach to my situation.

We started with the basics -- how'd you find Judaism in Nebraska? (This was intermixed with a bit of Jewish geography to see if they knew any Nebraskans, of course.) Then came a question I hadn't really thought about: If I was set on converting Orthodox before I moved to Connecticut (which I was), why did I sign up for JDate and start dating someone? I hadn't really thought about it before. In one of the very first emails that we exchanged (Tuvia and I), I stated my trajectory and told him that if he was down on the Orthodox journey, he and I could keep talking. Otherwise? No sir. Of course, as we're still together, I think you can see how that went. But it was an entirely valid and important question. A lot of converts, especially those who go Orthodox, often come to it for marriage. I'm not saying that's what the focus is in the end, but it tends to be a spark for the journey. I'm confident that the rabbis knew I wasn't doing this for Tuvia, but that I was most certainly and definitely doing it for me.

The conversation moved on to a variety of things -- my family and how they feel; my friends and how they reacted to my choices when I was in high school, college, and even now; the geographic conundrum that is my situation (I live in Storrs, Tuvia in Manchester, we daven in West Hartford). We hit a few very contentious points that I won't delve into here because they're even too personal for this space, and I was nearly in tears over them. I imagine the rabbis saw my face go from "elatedly excited" to "downtrodden and depressed." The great thing about it, however, (if I can even say great) is that the rabbis were encouraging and incredibly explanatory about why the issues were important and necessary to be discussed. It's amazing how you don't think about things until someone else mentions it and you find yourself saying, "Duh. Why didn't I think about that?"

The rabbis also asked Tuvia plenty of questions about his observance, his history as a Jew, his family, and more. After all, as they explained, there are two of us involved here and my conversion -- assuming we'll be staying together (and we will) -- affects the both of us.

After about an hour of the down-and-dirty talk of getting to know me (and Tuvia) Jewishly, the rabbis turned to some quizzical questions. I'll be completely honest: I froze. When it comes to talking about my journey and my Judaism and how I do my Judaism in a general and broad sense, I'm all about it. Passion oozes from my pores. But when we get to the b'racha bee type situation? Chavi is the proverbial popsicle.

It started out simple enough: "I had you a pretzel, what do you say?" I should have said "Thank you!" as some friends joked over Shabbos, but instead I answered appropriately with "mezonot." But then they wanted the full b'racha. Now, I know the b'racha. But when just saying the b'racha, it's important to avoid the use of HaShem's name, so you fill in "HaShem" and "Elokeynu" in the appropriate places, and that just froze me up like you wouldn't believe. Finally they said to simply say the b'racha as I would -- which makes sense considering it was technically for study, which means it's okay to say the b'racha as you would normally. The stumbling over words that ensued made me look like I was drunk on Manishewitz after a long night of Purim partying.

A series of further questions were what to say over the Shabbos candles, Yom Tov Candles, to list some of the other b'rachot, and then some questions about the recent holidays. They asked me what Simchat Torah honored, and instead of answering the simple "we end and start the Torah!" answer, I tried to search for something deeper. And then I got all caught up in my head. I'm guessing the entire room was spinning around me, and that the rabbis were wondering what was going on. I had my head in my hand, and was mumbling to myself about the Torah. I said something, and it was wrong and I felt humiliated. Me, the Judaic studies student, fumbles over a basic Judaism question that I've known since at least 2004 or 2005. Then, well, this is funny.

We ended up talking about the "holiday of the giving of the Torah." So the rabbi asks me about the name of the holiday. My answer: "Oh it's ..." Insert awkward silence here. Insert head into hand here. Once again, I was mumbling to myself. "There's Pesach ... then there's the omer ... then we eat lots of cheesecake. We ate so much dairy." The rabbis, reassuringly told me that they knew I knew it, and I responded that I knew I knew it. Finally, one of the rabbis says "It's often the feast of weeks." And I resignedly said, "Shavuos ... I knew that ... Shavuos." Let's just say that was followed by a long sigh.

It was reassuring to know that my anxiety -- and there was anxiety like you wouldn't believe -- was necessary. It's almost required. If you go in without anxiety or nervousness, you're probably not jibing right with the beth din. The rabbis constantly reassured me that it was okay that I was so anxious.

The meeting ended shortly after the quiz-like questions. The rabbi said they needed to talk, and that someone would get back to me soon. The rabbis are aware of the time constraint leading up to my trip to Israel, and I told them that to daven at the Kotel as a halakicly Jewish woman would be the zenith of this entire experience so far -- of being Jewish. I explained that this is the most important thing, and the most difficult (in a good way) experience in my entire life. At the same time, I have to say that if it doesn't happen in the next 2.5 weeks, I'm committed 100 percent to the RCA process. When looking at everything going on in the world, I need to have confidence in my conversion beth din and the rabbis therein.

The Outcome?
I think that I can say, with confidence, that the rabbis that I have on my beth din (the three, that is -- the fourth seems to have come to speak to me about my 11-page essay, which he said was an incredibly well-written odyssey [publish it!], which put my mind at ease and made me feel so confident in myself, especially considering who he was) are kind, understanding, yet firm Orthodox rabbis who know their stuff. Immediately after leaving the meeting I was embarrassed, I felt humiliated regarding my poor performance in the basics (am I overreacting? ask Tuvia, I was outside myself and he was watching it all happen), and wasn't sure how to feel. After calling a very close friend to talk about the meeting, I started to feel better. I was reflecting on how the rabbis approached me, how they reacted to my answers, and how warm they were about everything. It was then that I started feeling more confident about the experience, and it's probably why right now I feel fairly good about the entire experience.

So now? I'm waiting. I've heard from one of the rabbis a few times since the meeting regarding various issues, but nothing regarding where I go from here. Friends inquire, offer words of kindness, and check in often asking whether I've heard anything and what I know. Let's just say, folks, that as soon as I know something, you'll know something. You've all been with me this long -- I won't leave you hanging, I promise.