Let's talk conversion (2)
Updated: Jan 24, 2019
(Might I suggest a washroom break here if you're still reading from the last post in this series? No? Ok then - on we go.)
If you missed the last post in the series you can find it here.
Let's Try This Jewish Conversion Again
In our last 'episode' I had just had my first experience with a 'Reform Rabbi' and the process of conversion. I was quite disappointed in the experience, and trying to figure out my next step, which naturally lead me back to my contact on the topic - our wedding planner...
I communicated my disappointment to the wedding planner - to which she replied "No problem - I know a couple of other Rabbi's who do conversions and are more 'Orthodox', I think either one should be able to help you. This will take a bit longer, but we'll deal with that later".
Ok fine. We just had a little derp. Nothing to be too concerned about, we have options and a plan and we're moving forward. So I booked the appointments with the two other Rabbi's who lead some of the largest congregations in the city, and looked forward, with dread once again, to the meetup.
In the meantime my, at the time, fiancée M started doing some research on different types of conversions and their implications. I recall we had several conversations about the difficulty of the 'Orthodox conversions' - about how ridiculous it was that here I was - wanting to do the right thing, wanting to learn what was necessary to be Jewish, and they made it so hard just to even understand what the bureaucratic process was like, let alone the years of work involved in completing it! How crazy is that? Ugh.
We also started to listen to some lectures to begin the learning process because we reasoned I would likely be tested on certain subjects, so it was a good time to get the learning underway. At one point M came to me and asked me to listen to a particular lecture without giving much context -just that it was a good lecture and I agreed, listening to several minutes of it. She asked me my thoughts - and I told her that if such a Rabbi were around our area I would want to go in person to listen to his lectures because he was (and still is) such an incredible teacher. I was genuinely impressed. Here was someone who was telling the truth, had integrity and was clearly very knowledgeable.
M told me that I was in luck - he was close by and we could go see him. So smart of my fiancée and now wife was and is. She knew just how to position the bait in order to get me to bite - because she knew how reluctant I was to go see Rabbis in person - it felt so awkward - like you're that kid in the schoolyard - 'Derrr - can i join your team? *herpderp* No I don't know you. Nope, not related to you - but your team looks.....good? Canibelikeyou?' asoidfn2u9p3nfawefd'asoidfnioasjdf!!!!!
Anyhoo - so M called him - this Orthodox Rabbi from the lecture - let's call him Rabbi H.
He didn't want to have anything to do with it.
Ya that's right. Nothing. To. Do. With. It.
"I don't do conversions." is what I think Rabbi H said. Of course, at the time I didn't know that he had said that. She didn't tell me. Also very smart of her.
In the meantime - I went to see the two 'Conservative' Rabbi's for an initial discussion. I'm going to summarize those pretty quickly, just to speed this rather lengthy post up a bit.
The first Rabbi I went to see...it started out nicely. He invited us into his office, and he had lots of books, and it was very nice and respectable. He asked me why I wanted to convert, and I fumbled through the response, not having my elevator pitch down yet (this is sarcastic - I don't think anyone doing a conversion should ever have an elevator pitch). I was still trying to understand myself why I wanted this. I knew I did - but I was having trouble articulating it. At any rate - the conversation turned from me to his congregation and how he interacted with his shul members. He said me something along the lines of:
"I have congregants who play tennis on Shabbat, or they go shopping – whatever they think gives them 'rest' – it's not up to me to judge them, I just try to support and guide them."
It kinda of felt like I just ran over a curb at high speed. Excuse me, you what? Doesn't the Torah say that keeping Shabbat is probably the most important thing a Jew can do? At least that's what the lectures I had listened to had taught me. This didn't feel right. Again - I nodded my head politely, and thanked him for his time, and concluded that we would not be a good match. Rabbi encounter # 2 was concluded.
Who is a Jew? Let's Start With: Who is a Rabbi?
Later in the same week I met another 'conservative' Rabbi on my own in the office of his Shul. M had other things to do that day so I had to manage the stress by myself. Just like the other times, I was once again quite nervous about explaining all over again to yet another person why I wanted to convert. I really disliked this part - and it was almost enough to make me not want to do it. Nevertheless, I went through with it in the hopes that this would be the 'right' match. Where is the conversion shidduch site when you need it?
Upon entering his office I noted that things seemed to be on the up and up;
appropriate books? check
appropriate office? check
appropriate responses to questions? In progress
He told me that he was 'Orthodox trained' in Jerusalem - and could make the classes as 'Orthodox as I wanted them to be'. I told him I thought I was more leaning towards that side of things but wasn't quite sure, and would appreciate instruction along those lines. He told me that it would take a year to do the conversion, and at the end of there would be a test I would need to pass. Nothing particularly controversial came up in the meeting and we seemed to have a match. Hooray! We set a date for the start of the classes, and I left feeling content that I had some progress.
In the mean time...... M was busy still working on another path, likely due to my reaction to the first 'conservative Rabbi'. She used AskMoses.com to ask a Rabbi a conversion question regarding another family member but also mentioned her fiance was perusing conversion. A Rabbi from Argentina – whom we'll call Rabbi A – carefully listened to the details but then pressed her with asking if the conversion of her fiance was Orthodox. When he found out we were in the middle of determing the right path to take, he said: "I know the Rabbi you should contact...Rabbi H". (That's the 'I don't do conversions' Rabbi). Then added: "tell 'Rabbi H' that I sent you".
M contacted Rabbi H again, with the new message, and this time he decided to discuss the situation. He informed her that if I started the conversion under Conservative or Reform, the view of the Torah was so different it may be very difficult later to make a transition to Orthodox. He invited us to join an all night Shavuot lecture that he was giving, where he could meet us. M brought the offer to me, and I agreed that it would be a good opportunity.
I drove us to the 'all night Shavuot lecture', and I was blown away. I loved it. It was exactly what I wanted – the truth. It wasn't held back, it wasn't sugar coated – it was just given, with proof, and kindness. Answers I had long sought, which raised many more questions I was keen to get the answers to. We stayed for most of the night, at the end of which I finally got a moment to talk to Rabbi H. He welcomed me and informed me that he wasn't a "conversion Rabbi" – however if I was intent on this path – I needed to move to the community. Yes, that's right, pick up and move. He invited me to continue coming to his lectures in the mean time and to bring M, and that we would see where things lead.
I was exhilarated after attending the all night Shavuot lecture. It was like finally drinking water after walking in the desert for a very long time. M and I were both fired up and we discussed next steps for hours.
At the same time, I had kept my appointment with the conservative Rabbi and I felt awkward leading up to it. I felt like I had 'cheated' on him with another Rabbi. My heart was already given, and here I was still going to his lesson. I wasn't sure what to say. I didn't want to be rude, or ungrateful - so I decided to attend anyways and see where it lead. Maybe they would be the same after all because he was going to teach me the 'Orthodox' approach.
I entered his office, and sat down and he thanked me for coming and I told him about the various lectures I had been listening to in order to get up to speed. We discussed this briefly, but then suggested that we get started; there was no time to lose. He told me he would "teach me his general philosophy on the Torah first - after which everything else would follow". I nodded, feeling anxious as I rehearsed my 'breakup speech' in my head, feeling like a horrid 'cheater', but also curious about what he was going to say.
"Something happened in the desert" he began. "We don't know what it was, but we know 'something' happened, and from there we have all of these laws about how to live. We have very similar artifacts and activities to other cultures in the area."
I started my polite nodding routine, and then I thought to myself: hold up – I know he's wrong, but what if what I have to say will impact him in a good way? I resolved to say something, for once in my life. My heart pounding, my mouth dry I asked him
"Rabbi, I don't mean to interrupt your lesson, but don't you think that's perhaps a little glass half empty?"
"Trust me, I've seen the archaeological record. I also have an interest in archaeology – so I've investigated this topic thoroughly" he stated and proceeded with his lesson.
I wasn't done yet.
"Don't you think that might be part of the point? To redeem these things and make them holy? They were used for unholy purposes, and now they are used with their correct intent? Isn't that also a possibility?" I pressed
"Yes – that is possible, but not my viewpoint. My viewpoint is..." and he continued to elucidate his approach to the Torah. We spent most of the lesson debating his philosophy to the Torah. We ended the lesson a little early, and scheduled a second lesson. I left feeling unsettled.
The second lesson I attended with more trepidation because I knew I had to call an end to this. It just wasn't working, but I wasn't sure how to say it or how to do it. Much like the first I came to his office, and I sat down - and we started to review from the previous lesson. To his absolute credit, he stopped reviewing and looked at me and said:
"I think you've found what you're looking for somewhere else – and I think you should take it. This isn't where you want to be." There was no irritation in his voice, or aggravation – just sincerity and compassion. He was happy for me that I found a path that I wanted.
I thanked him, and left. That was the last time that I saw or met with him. I often wonder the path he took in life, and where he went.
The next part of this series *should* contain the actual conversion process itself at a high level.
Read the next and final post in this series here.