Let's talk conversion (3 - final installment)
So where were we? Right, so we had the big dramatic break-up with the 'Conservadox Rabbi' - but also I had met an Orthodox Chassidic Rabbi who I was very impressed with, and felt I could learn from and go through the conversion with. If you missed part 2 you can find it here.
Now if you had asked me a few years before that event, while say attending house parties downtown Toronto if I ever thought that learning from a Chassidic Orthodox Rabbi was ever in the cards, I may have answered - 'possibly in the 'chill room' at a rave, but that's about it'.
So to say that I was surprised where my heart was leading me - that would be an understatement. And yet here we were.
So Rabbi H had told us that we had to move into the Jewish community in order to progress in the conversion, which made a lot of sense to me once I understood a little bit about how deep and involved being Jewish was - and more importantly - 'why' that was the case.
Time to Move: Lech Lecha
At the time he had told us this - we owned a fancy loft downtown, which we had moved into about a year earlier. Funny story about that loft - around the time when I had purchased the loft, I worked for a software company that had started to grow rather significantly. The amount of money I needed for the down payment was exactly the amount I could get if I sold the maximum number of stocks possible (my first 'vestment' of stocks) at the current stock price. I had no other savings of any kind, nor money from family. I of course sold my stocks and noted the oddness of the numbers - how they lined up so closely. When it came to the final amount I needed as a down payment, it was the same situation. Just enough, to the dollar as I recall. After that - the company stock crashed into nothing (it went from $32/share to $.50 cents a share within a couple of months of me selling for the final down payment), and it was the loft that allowed us to have enough capital to make the move into the Jewish community.
Anyhoo, M and I did some renovations on the Loft, a few small things here and there to finish it off and we sold it. In the meantime, we started a regular 1 hour + drive up north to attend Rabbi H's lectures. To provide a time reference - it was just over a year from the time when we started attending classes with Rabbi H to the first meeting with the Beis Din (more on that below).
After selling the loft, we bought a small townhouse about a half an hour's walk from the Shul. It was a fixer-upper, but we didn’t mind.
Looking back on it - I think the Rabbi was a little shocked at the speed at which we did all of this. At the time I couldn’t understand - he said we had to move, so we did; however now having encountered other potential converts, and heard more stories from other Rabbi's, I have begun to see that its very common for potential converts to suddenly drop out of the process. Many start, very few complete.
So now we could attend the classes more easily, which was good. I could walk to Shul on Shabbos which was also good. Gone were the days of looking for the pink bus on the Gardener Expressway out of our loft window which marked the ending of Shabbos (it was oddly enough always on time - pink bus came, and Shabbos by the official time, was nearly over).
When I started attending Shul on Shabbos - I believed that the population of the Shul would be large enough that no one would notice me and play the dreaded 'Jewish Geography' game, but alas that was not possible.
For those that are reading this and are Jewish, and have not experienced that level of discomfort, I can assure you, it is quite acute. With very good and sweet intentions, they start with asking 'so what is your last name?'. I would usually tell them, and my unease would grow as with a puzzled look, they would then ask where I grew up. I would usually tell them that too with increasing trepidation realizing I would likely have to eventually explain, and sure enough, a remark such as 'Must be hard being Jewish in that location!' would inevitably come out, hoping for some sort of elucidation on how this came to be. Either I would nod my head and carry on or just gently let them know I wasn’t born Jewish. Usually that would stop the conversation rather quickly. Initially, my efforts to 'blend in' didn’t exactly go as planned.
Despite my discomfort (and I emphasize the *my* part) over Jewish Geography, I found the people of the community very friendly, and welcoming. I met some rather nice regulars who took me under their wing. While their observance and outlook on Judaism was different than mine, they were welcoming, supportive, and made abundant jokes that I could laugh at.
So I started to 'blend in' to the community to a certain degree after all. M and I continued to attend lessons, and I traveled the 3 hours round trip to and from work (1.5 hours each way). Luckily there was still a kosher restaurant downtown at that time that I could eat at.
Life was hectic, but moving forward.
Changing Your Entire Life: Painful and Hard
We didn’t have an end date, or a progression date specified, and by and large I was ok with that. Others in our life were not ok with that, but they weren't making the decisions. We were. There was so much to learn. I felt like I was almost 'starting life lessons over again' - and again - I was happy with that because most of what I had been bequeathed and learned along the way was not terribly useful.
As a whole, I found the conversion process to be, in a word - stressful. I would like to make sure its abundantly clear (and I covered this in another post) - I wouldn’t suggest it change in any way shape or form. I'm not going to go into the 'why's' here because it's covered over here.
Converting to Judaism is about changing your entire life. It's not just about changing what you do, but also how you think, what you value, who you associate with, and possibly the most difficult, who your family is.
I remember the first time I went to my mother's house for 'X-mas' during the conversion process. It was on a Saturday. I naively thought I could still make it work. I didn’t want her to be alone on such an important family day for her. She was, and is divorced, and let’s just say family relationships are strained at best. I was the only child she had consistent contact with, and so M and I packed up food, and everything we would need to make a 'kosher' Shabbos at my mother's place…on X-mas....
It was painful, and hard. There's no other way to describe it. I couldn’t eat her food, which obviously upset her and my brother (we brought kosher Chinese instead). I couldn’t eat the deserts that she had made for me, and I had more than enjoyed over the years. I tried to rationalize in so many different ways why they might be ok to eat, but luckily M was there to help me through it. On Shabbos day, I sat on the couch while my mother watched TV; X-mas specials, which for me was part of the enjoyment of the day in the past, but really not kosher for someone converting. I tried to explain why I couldn’t use the remote, why I couldn’t eat her food, why I couldn’t do the things that she wanted to do, but it was no use. It was difficult and heart breaking for both of us. It tore me apart.
Generally when we are stressed we revert to known behaviors, in some cases toxic ones, which is why it can be exceedingly difficult to make such a huge change in your life. This is also why going to my mother's place on X-mas was probably just about the worst idea I could have had despite the good intentions behind it.
'But Judaism isn't about tearing families apart!' I hear the Jewish leftist heart-bleed warriors saying.
While true that is not an objective of Judaism - overall you are incorrect poor Jewish leftist heart-bleed warrior. Why? Being Jewish is in a large part about being 'separate' and distinct from the nations and their culture. You aren't supposed to blend in to the nations or sit down and eat a nice meal with them. You aren't supposed to celebrate their holidays with them. Holy means separate, apart, and this goes for converts too. They are choosing to leave all of this behind to join the Jewish people and Hashem.
'Where does it say that?!' I hear someone asking. The Talmud, in many places. In fact there is even a lengthy debate in the Talmud, tractate Avoda Zora which discusses whether its even permissible to repay a loan to someone from the nations before one of their major holidays.
The Beis Din: Tests and Judgement
After about 6-8 months of keeping Shabbos, the Yom Tovim and living in the community, we were invited to have our first meeting with the Beis Din. Big moment. I was quite nervous.
For those that don’t know - a Beis Din is a Jewish court. It consists of 3 Torah scholars, or at the very least, very observant and Torah knowledgeable men who render judgments or decisions which are legally binding.
In order to preserve the nature of the Orthodox conversion process I don’t plan to reveal details of the discussions that took place during the Beis Din meetings with the exception of a few key items, which to me were very memorable and are particularly poignant. The reason is that I don’t wish for potential converts to read this and attempt to 'game the system' either knowingly or unknowingly. Conversion should be free from motivation other than to learn the truth and serve Hashem.
With that being said - I recall an encounter before my first meeting with the Beis Din with another potential convert. I was lined up in the hallway, early, waiting to be called to the Beis Din, which was already in session. Also waiting in the hallway in front of me was a man who looked to me to be in his early to mid-fifties.
He asked me what I was coming to the Beis Din for. I told him I was here for conversion. My mind was occupied with the meeting ahead and I didn’t have spare cycles to consider avoiding the topic. He told me that he was there for the same too, which was immediately intriguing to me. I asked him how his process had gone, and what stage he was in.
He told me something to the following effect; he had been in the process of conversion for approximately 2-3 years at that point, and he was very frustrated with it. He had been told almost 2 years ago that he needed to learn various halacha - which they would ask him questions about at each of his Beis Din meetings. The options given to him at the outset of this phase of the conversion by the Beis Din were to either attend classes locally, and slowly acquire the knowledge through various free lectures held by local Rabbi's, or he could have a paid tutor - someone that the Beis Din would assign, and they would teach him what he needed to know. He had decided he wasn’t going to pay for classes - it was far too expensive.
The last time he had come to the Beis Din he said they had "asked him ridiculous questions about how to change a diaper on Shabbos".
He said to me: "What do I need to know how to change a diaper for on Shabbos? I'm 52, Im not going to have anymore more babies, so it’s a pointless question."
I made a mental note at that point - 'Take the paid lessons'.
I also realized that he had missed the point, and that the question was valid. The evaluation on a spiritual level was how much he cared to learn the halacha. For a non-Jew pursuing a conversion who in reality isn't interested in Judaism - its just something they simply 'must do' to get married to the woman they love, and the details of what they must do or must not do aren't important. It's not about serving Hashem, it's about serving themselves, and acquiring what they 'want' or think they 'need'.
On a practical level - it could be that he will encounter a situation where he can teach someone else how to properly change a diaper on Shabbos. One never knows where they may find themselves, where they can share a halacha, or the light of Torah.
I never did find out what happened with the other convert. I never ran into him again at the Beis Din meetings, which, looking back on it is a little odd. Hopefully he was able to adjust his outlook on Judaism and complete his conversion with the Beis Din.
For the next few months M and I had some meetings occasionally with the Beis Din. It wasn’t on a set schedule that I could discern. They would evaluate our knowledge - both of us, and then they would ask us to take on more mitzvot and then ask us to come back another time.
Eventually we got to an important step in the conversion process after we had been attending classes for about a year, and keeping Shabbos for about 6-8 months. We were asked to start learning in a more concerted effort in preparation for a test. We would need to pass the test in order to complete the conversion.
They asked if I would like to have a Rabbi work with me in scheduled private lessons, or whether I would like to attend random classes locally and attempt to learn what I needed that way. It wasn’t a decision for me. I had learned my lesson from the 'hallway convert' (B"H), and I immediately said I would prefer the private lessons.
What happened next lead me to believe that they don’t often get potential converts requesting the private lessons, which is just plain odd to me. We discussed that there would be some sort of formal curriculum, which would be included in the fees to receive the lessons. What ended up happening is that they (B"H) simply taught me the test. Literally. Taught me from the test.
Now to clarify when I say 'test' what I mean is the 'marathon exam' - because it’s a 12 hour examination. Yep you read that right, it wasn’t a typo - 12 hours. We were allowed to divide up the exam however we wished, it didn’t have to be in one 12 hour sitting, it could be 6X2 hour sessions, 4X3 sessions and so on.
I had the privilege of being taught by a very sweet and patient Rabbi who would meet with me one to two times a week and cover the content. He patiently answered my questions, and we discussed various halacha to prepare me for the test. This continued for about a year, during which time we met with the Beis Din occasionally, and they again tested knowledge, and asked us to take on additional mitzvot.
I recall the Rabbi I was working with in private classes warning me at one point that the Yetzer Hara of a Jew was much different and stronger than that of a Non-Jew. I didn’t really pay much heed to his warnings about it at the time, thinking that it can't be *that* different. It's not like it had been easy street thus far.
At about the year mark (2 years in total) we met with the Beis Din, and they decided that we had come to the next step in the conversion process. It was time for my then fiancé and I to not live together for the remainder of the conversion, and could only live together again once we were married. My fiance moved in with her parents, who lived about a half hour to forty five minutes away, and I stayed in our house. We reasoned that this would be easier for us - as I had no family to live with.
My fiance/wife would come down to 'our area' each Shabbos and would stay with friends in order to go to Shul. For a whole year this went on. She would then shlep back north afterward Shabbos and live with her parents during the week. This of course put a fair bit of strain on us and our relationship, but was a necessary aspect in the conversion process.
We continued on in this way as I mentioned above, for about another year. When we started to come a bit closer to the end of the classes - meaning we had covered all of the curriculum, M and I started planning our strategy for writing the test.
To say that we had our 'tests' through out the conversion would be an understatement to say the least. I myself started suffering from chronic migraines, about 20+ a month, in addition to various other temptations and stresses we had encountered. There were times when I wasn’t sure I could make it through. I recall that after 3 years my endurance was fairly sapped. It wasn’t the workload necessarily, but all of the stress from the dramatic changes in my life. They had taken their toll.
I was working 12+ hour days between the commute and the actual work, and of course I had to study 1-2 hours a day, attending Torah lectures as well, fighting off migraines, doctors visits, and then the planning for the wedding on top of that. The were other things as well that we had to do in order to make sure we were living an appropriate life. For example, we had to have our entire kitchen koshered 3 times during the course of the conversion. I had to explain to my employer(s) why I could no longer work Friday afternoons and Saturday's, and why when I took time off for vacation I couldnt pick up my phone.
While we weren't nearly as busy then as we are today, the change was what really wore me down. It's like trying to change the direction of very large boat; it takes time, and a lot effort. As a result, it took nearly 3-4 months to prepare for and write the test. I recall that I used up all of my strength to limp across that finish line and write the various sections, but we did it. I was mentally and emotionally exhausted.
After we had written the test, the Beis Din contacted us to discuss the results. This time was different however. We were to meet with the Senior Beis Din. Up until this point, I didn’t know that there was a junior Beis Din and a Senior Beis Din, I just had thought there was a 'Beis Din' and that was it.
So in we went, and I was very nervous to say the least, and the feeling in that room was very very different from what we had experienced before.
First, they gave us the good news; we scored about 97% on the test. They were impressed with the results, but that wasn't really the final test.
What proceeded to occur is what I can only describe as someone reading and probing my mind. M had the same feeling, like our thoughts and feelings had been laid bare to the Beis Din, and they were reporting on what we were thinking and feeling, and asking us questions about it. How did this occur? The senior member of the Senior Beis Din would ask a question, usually a deep probing question, and as we would start to answer, he would then tell us what we were in fact thinking, feeling and what subsequent questions were that came up in our minds, and he answered them. This was all very fluid, and quite frankly, scary. It was not typical, or normal. If I were to describe it like a chess game - the Beis Din was operating as One, and they were 10-15 moves ahead, and could see all of the outcomes of their questions, and were leading us through it.
I also recall something else that left a deep imprint on me that day. One of the Talmud Chacham - a member of the Beis Din, turned to me and looked deeply into my eyes and said "I have made a mistake you know?".
What am I supposed to do with that???
I didn’t know how to respond to that - when a Talmud Chachum turns to you tells you he has made a mistake!!!
I didn’t know, and I still don’t know. I simply asked:
"What was the mistake Rabbi?"
He said to me with deep sadness:
"One time a man came to me for conversion, like you have come, and I asked him (I have purposefully withheld the question to protect the Orthodox conversion process), and he didn’t know the answer by heart. He stumbled over the answer, but I converted him anyways. It was a mistake. I don’t want that mistake again."
His sadness and regret sucked the air out of my chest. I didn’t know how to respond. I felt badly for him that this had caused him such a great deal of pain, but I also felt a profound amount of respect for him that he cared that much.
It gave me a lot to think about - whether I could really continue to live as an Orthodox Jew even after the conversion. It wasn’t a question for me whether I thought it was the right thing to do or not, or whether it was the truth or not, but rather whether I had the stamina to do it.
About a month later we met with one of the members of the Senior Beis Din in his office to go over the answers we had gotten wrong. While during the course of the Senior Beis Din meeting this Rabbi had seemed like the smartest human being to ever walk the planet, capable of reading minds directly. Our meeting with him 1:1 was much different. He was obviously very intelligent, but the experience wasn’t even close to what we had felt during the Senior Beis Din meeting. We covered the answers, and had a nice discussion with him
Perhaps a month and a half later, the Beis Din contacted me to schedule the appointment at the Mikvah. This of course was the really big moment.
Halachic Conversion: The Long but Short Path
I'm not going to go into the details - other than to say it was done professionally and respectfully, and most important - halachically. What the kind sweet Rabbi had taught me during the course of the private lessons about the Yetzer Hara of a Jew being much bigger than a non-Jew was right. It hit me like a bolt of lightning less than a day after the conversion. It was like going through severe turbulence on an airplane. It wasn’t easy to get through. The wedding almost didn’t happen, but we made it.
Since then, with a lot of work and patience, it's not only gotten better, but it's become amazing. Yes, there have been some very hard times, and scary times, however I've found that it's continued to get better and better. More than I could ever have hoped for. I remain convinced that if I had not gone down this path, my life would have ended up much much differently, and for the worse. I wouldn’t have had my children (I had plans to have no children previously), and I certainly wouldn’t have found the answers that I was looking for, that I only found through Judaism.
It's not an easy path, but it's a path of rewards for those that do.
Said Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chananiah: "Once a child got the better of me."
"I was traveling, and I met with a child at a crossroads. I asked him, 'which way to the city?' and he answered: 'This way is short and long, and this way is long and short.'
"I took the 'short and long' way. I soon reached the city but found my approach obstructed by gardens and orchards. So I retraced my steps and said to the child: 'My son, did you not tell me that this is the short way?' Answered the child: 'Did I not tell you that it is also long?' I kissed him on his head and said to him: Happy are you, O Israel, for you are all exceedingly wise, from your old to your young." (Talmud, Eruvin 53b)