Sunday, March 6, 2011

A Response: Dating During Conversion

I've been pondering a response to Kochava's Why You Shouldn't Date During Conversion blog post, and I think I'm finally in the right mood to write it. In short, I almost completely disagree with just about everything she wrote (but I do adore her, so it's no personal :D).

The long-dating couple before my first beth din meeting in NYC in November 2009.
As you all know, I converted Reform in 2006, many moons before meeting my now husband Tuvia. I started attending an Orthodox shul in Chicago in 2008, many months before meeting Tuvia. I moved to Connecticut, and almost instantly I met Tuvia, who at that time was in a sort of religious oasis -- he'd grown up in a religious community, gone to a Conservative day school for 15 years, been incredibly active in Hillel during college, and after college even attempted to find a Conservative synagogue, but with no luck. When I met him, he was in what I like to think of as an "either way" kind of space. But in one of our first conversations, I told him plain and simple: I'm a Reform convert going Orthodox, and if you're not going in that direction, then let's not waste each other's time. Tuvia was willing to go on the journey with me, and that journey had a lot of challenges, but none that I regret.

I knew about the complications of dating while in-process, but after speaking with a lot of people and doing my own research and soul searching, my conclusion was that you're damned if you do, damned if you don't. I frequently tell those in-process that this is how it works:
If you're dating a Jew while in-process, the community and rabbis will think you're converting for marriage. Some will be okay with that, some won't. If you're not dating anyone while in-process, the rabbis will be highly concerned over how on earth you'll ever land a husband, being a convert and all, and post-conversion will insist on setting you up with other converts (which is fine, but it pigeonholes converts, much like the Jews of Color community, which often gets set up with other Jews of color -- again, fine, but pigeonholed). Catch 22!
Tuvia and I started studying with a rabbi for my Orthodox conversion in January 2009. It's funny how it was all a review for me, but it was largely new to Tuvia, who really enjoyed learning. I struggled for many months with whether Tuvia was doing Orthodoxy for me or for himself, and I didn't want there to be a developed resentment in our relationship where I became the religious zealot of a convert and he became the unwilling participant in a love conquers all situation. (This falls under what Kochava wrote as "if your new partner isn't orthodox but you're in the orthodox conversion process.") We had a lot of discussions about it, and Tuvia assured me that he was doing it because he wanted to -- not for me. And things moved forward. (Although, let's be honest, this still haunts me, and Tuvia knows it.)

Perhaps we were blessed, but our community had zero problems and didn't react negatively at all to our situation. In fact, many people in the community thought that Tuvia was the one going through the conversion process -- not me. The decision to start observing shomer negiah was largely mine, but Tuvia understood the importance and was more than willing to go along with the observance. Was it easy? No, but for us, it was a powerful mitzvah to take on in our journey together. Many in the community were actually impressed/shocked/flabbergasted that a young modern Orthodox couple would even observe shomer negiah, believe it or not. But we held to it, because it was powerful spiritually for us (well, at least me).

We never faced chastisement, and we were upfront and honest with the beth din about everything.

The only major problem that ever came up, in the entire time of our dating and studying and going from community to community and Israel and to the two beth din meetings I had leading up to my Orthodox conversion on January 1, 2010 was the following question, posed by my beth din during the first meeting.
If you knew you were going to convert Orthodox, and you'd decided to do so before moving to Connecticut, why on earth would you join JDate (that big, ugly, non-Orthodox dating service) with the intent of meeting someone? 
Talk about a great question. Mad props to my converting rabbis. This is a great question, and the funny thing is, I really don't have a good reason. I hadn't been on JDate for probably a good two years, back when I was living in Washington D.C. from 2006-2007. But there was this funny feeling I had, especially after my good friend Reuven visited the Lubavitcher rebbe's ohel and davened (prayed) for me to make a shidduch (match) with a nice fellow. I moved to Connecticut mid-August 2008, and I joined JDate almost instantly when I arrived. Within a few days, Tuvia had contacted me, and the rest is history. It just felt right, oddly enough.

When I explained this to the rabbis, they sort of cocked their heads sideways at me. But they understood. If anything, they understood that I'd helped bring one Jew -- Tuvia -- closer to mitzvot and observance through my own actions and passion for Judaism. I think that this, above all else, allowed my beth din to see that I wasn't doing this for marriage, and that if anything, I was bringing a little light into the world through Tuvia. They asked Tuvia, many times, what his background was and how he'd arrived at Orthodoxy, because they also wanted to know that he was truly into Orthodoxy and not just along for the ride with me. But neither of us had a problem with this. (This also falls under what Kochava wrote as "if your new partner isn't orthodox but you're in the orthodox conversion process.")

All this being said, I understand where Kochava is coming from. It doesn't always work out so swimmingly. Plenty of people drop out of the process, plenty of people intermarry when they get fed up with the process, and yes, it happens. But, and I believe this firmly, if you meet someone while you're in-process, and you fall in love, and you know that this person is your one, then the passion that existed before you met that person will shine through, and your beth din will be beyond cognizant of this. It's all about planting your feet firmly and saying, "I am a Jew, I am meant to be a Jew" and your story will tell itself.

Does this work for everyone? No, but I'm not a believer in sacrificing your happiness for an assumed opinion of the institution of Orthodox conversion. Believe it or not, conversion still works on a case-by-case basis (except maybe in California, but in all things, exceptions exist ... it is Judaism after all). To write off your happiness for fear of chastisement by a rabbi or the community just means you're letting yourself be bullied. Be happy, be confident. It can be worth it.