Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Ask Chaviva Anything!: Of Observance and Conversion

Now, for another installment of ...

Don't forget to ask your questions, too.

The first question is bold (and a little presumptuous).
Given your many changes, what would you say to prospective in-laws who were questioning your ability to stay frum?
Simple: "Hello. I'm Chaviva. I want to marry your son just as much as he wants to marry me." What else is there to say? I don't think there's anything to say about my "ability" to "stay frum." I am what I am, and the right man and his family will take me for who I am, no questions asked.

The next question is a toughie, but a question that comes up a lot.
What is the most difficult thing about being a convert? 
Honestly I don't know how to peg just one thing. I suppose the easiest one to pick out is the feeling of never being completely up to snuff. At a recent Shabbat meal, we were discussing some of the bizarre traditions that it takes a while to get the hang of (let alone to seek out the origins of such things), and I quipped how for converts it's a long and dusty trail to get all of these things down pat with full understanding and comprehension. Someone pointed out that it's just as difficult for people who grow up Jewish or even for ba'alei teshuvah (people who don't grow up religious but "return" to religious Judaism). It was a true enough point, but what it doesn't account for is the fact that someone born Jewish who isn't quite up to speed on certain customs or traditions won't be scoffed at for his lack of knowledge. He'll be embraced, educated, and come out all the better for it. Oftentimes a convert will be scoffed at or questioned as to where exactly they did their learning and conversion. It's just not the same. Kiruv (outreach) is Jews converting Jews; it doesn't go far in the world of helping converts or wannabe Jews in fulfilling the calling of their neshamot (souls).

This last question is just as tough, and it hits on a problem with which I think all converts struggle.
One of the things I didn't expect when I started off the conversion process was the loneliness. I have great friends and family, but sometimes its hard for people to "get" it. What tips do you have for getting through without burdening the people around you with your kvetching about Jew-issues? 
I think one thing you have to do is establish your Jewish "family" and find a few individuals who can and will be there for you to listen -- not necessarily to say "I understand," because no one really can -- to the ups and downs and everything in between. There's a reason I set up a support group for converts at all stages of the journey, but even still, all of our journeys are different and because we're all in the thick of it, we're not always the best listeners. When I was going through my Reform conversion, I had an amazing rabbi and congregation (not to mention online community even back then) that helped me deal with some of the loneliest of moments. When I was going through my Orthodox conversion, a family sort of "adopted" me and took me under their wing every Shabbat and Jewish holiday for nearly an entire year. They listened to me kvetch, they listened to me kvell, they were there through it all and to this day I consider them my mishpacha (family).

No one will ever full "get" what you're going through; we all have such individualized experiences with conversion that the best we can do is try to listen and offer encouragement. That's what I attempt to do when people send me emails or ask me questions. You just have to find a safe space with non-judgmental people who will truly listen without attempting to understand something that they really cannot.

I don't know if that helps. I hope it does!

Have a question? Just ask online!