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.