On Hair Covering and Hate Speech

There’s a disturbing picture doing the rounds on social media, showing a collage of women’s photos. These photos show frum Jewish women with beautiful shaytelach, along with a shocking caption calling these women sinners, and making some disgusting comparisons which I don’t intend to repeat. This collage shows real women, with real faces- not blurred or covered- whose images were used without their consent as part of a piece of propaganda which breaks every rule in the book.

It upset me deeply.

Not only did this person use horrible, stomach churning language, and steal women’s photos without their permission, but they completely forgot about the difficulty of the mitzvah which is hair covering. Simply put, it is hard. It makes your hair thinner and duller, it’s expensive (sometimes), and on a hot day it’s pretty much unbearable. And yet these women throw themselves into it, and buy beautiful wigs to make themselves and their husbands happy.

And then someone goes and calls them prostitutes.

After all the money spent, all the sacrifices made, all the frustration and doubt- they get slandered for their efforts and described using words which shouldn’t be applied to any women, never mind extremely modest ones such as these. Whoever created this photo should realise that they’re driving women away from a beautiful mitzvah; in fact, they’re driving women away, full stop.

There’s a saying that “he who is overly stringent on one mitzvah [in this case, tznius], forgets another mitzvah- that of Ahavos Yisroel”. It means that whenever we take halachos to the extreme, we risk hurting others. It’s perfectly fine for us to be extremely tzniusdik or keep kosher to a very strict level- but when we start imposing our guidelines on others- especially when we use disgusting language as used on this poster- we fail to fulfil the biggest mitzvah of all.

No mitzvah is so important that it overrides Ahavos Yisroel, and certainly no chumra. We need to remember this when we interact with others, especially when we consider ourselves “more observant” than them, because at the end of the day, our strictly kosher kitchens and bulletproof stockings aren’t going to distract G-d from the actions we take and the words we speak.

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Converts and How We View Them

Everyone has certain issues which are especially close to their heart. It might be a particular area of halacha, or a social issue; perhaps you are an advocate for furthering women’s involvement in communal life, or for eliminating child abuse in the Jewish community. For me, the issue is the treatment of geirim (converts).

The Torah is very clear about how we should treat gerim. We are not only commanded to love every Jew, but there is an additional commandment to love converts. We’re forbidden to remind them of their past, and in fact, we aren’t even supposed to remind them that they are converts. Their Hebrew names, ‘child of Avrohom v’Soroh’ remind us that they, too, are the children of our ancestors, and they, too, where there when the exodus from Mitzrayim took place.

So why is the reality so different for many geirim?

A part of my life in the Jewish community involves meeting and working with geirim. Many of my closest friends were not, in fact, born Jewish, and a number of others whom I have met have spoken to me about the struggles they face. Those undergoing a reform conversion often feel pushed away by orthodoxy. “I wish I could be modern Orthodox,” one friend told me. “But they’d never accept me as I am. My Jewish status is never going to be accepted by everybody, now”. Reform conversions are not halachically accepted. Although reform converts can make aaliyah, they cannot get married in Israel, or marry orthodox Jews.

I spoke to reform converts about how they feel about this. “I would never want to move to Israel, anyway,” one told me. “Why would I want to go there if they aren’t going to treat me as a Jew?”. Another told me that the issue of their Jewish status plagued them every day, and a third began an orthodox conversion, even though she disagreed with some social elements of orthodoxy. “I wanted to do a ‘proper’ conversion,” she told me, but she ended up quitting the conversion due to the shul’s treatment of her.

It’s easy for me, as someone who was born into this religion, to say that they aren’t dedicated enough. This is an exclusive club, and if people aren’t even willing to sacrifice corporeal pleasures, why should we be expected to accept them? But is that the reality- or are we making conversion unnecessarily hard?

When we look at Megillas Rus, the story of Judaism’s most famous convert, and the commentaries surrounding it, we find that conversion was probably a lot simpler ‘back then’. By today’s standards, it is unlikely that Rus would be accepted as a Jew! Understandably, things are different nowadays, and conversion requires a lot of dedication. This means years spent studying, shul attendance, and, of course, keeping the mitzvos. We also know that it’s forbidden to encourage conversion, and that it’s customary to discourage converts- but do we go too far in discouraging them?

The orthodox converts whom I have met largely agree. One told me that they are anxious every time they have a meeting or receive an email from the Beis Din, as they ‘just know’ that they will be rejected. I happen to know that they are extremely dedicated, but the fear remains. Another has been offered next to no support from their sponsoring rabbi, who seems to take discouraging conversion to an entirely new level. They shared their fears about what will happen after conversion, as well; “People have refused to accept me as a Jew, even though I converted Orthodox,” one told me. “I’ll never get married,” another wrote. “Who would want to marry a convert?”.

I think about some of the converts I know. Not only are they close friends, but many are, in fact, role models. They have endured not only the gruelling conversion process, but the ups and downs of difficult lives- and they have remained faithful throughout. They inspire me, but they also make me wonder if I could ever endure the prejudice they have faced. The most recent generation of converts, and those in the conversion process, seem worried about their future. They feel that people are not only making conversion as hard as possible- something they can almost understand- but they completely forget the mitzvah of never reminding a convert of their past, and allow prejudice to seep into their interactions with converts. Almost all of the people I have spoken to faced discrimination at some point, and others reported physical attacks in supposedly ‘frum’ areas.

So what exactly should we do?

I’m not asking for us to start encouraging people to convert. That would be forbidden. But I am asking us to look critically at the conversion process and ask ourselves, and our dayanim, if it is really necessary to make it so gruelling and drawn out, and so filled with discouragement and difficulty. Is this really what G-d would want us to do, when the potential convert already has a Jewish neshomo?

But above all, I’m asking us to look at the way we treat converts. If you’re reading this article right now, it’s unlikely that you contribute greatly to the issue, but the problem of discrimination against converts is very real, very widespread, and very ossur. Converts already have challenges. Many spend festivals alone, without families to go to; others lose their jobs for taking time off. Lots of them face anti-Semitism from family and old friends, and throughout, many feel that they lack a support system. We need to be that support system. Not just because it’s a mitzvah, but because the prejudice is real, and if we want to be good Jews, we need to recognise that, and counter it with true ahavos Yisroel.

Gut Yontiff!

As soon as Yom Kippur finished, many of us began preparing for Sukkos, by building (and in some cases, decorating) the Sukkah, purchasing the four species, and, of course, cooking special meals for the yontiff. Sukkos is an extremely joyous holiday, and after the solemnity of Yom Kippur (and to an extent, Rosh Hashono), the happiness of the festival is especially welcome.

The first and last two days of Sukkos are like Shabbes, on which we may not perform any work. The two exceptions are cooking and carrying, which are permitted if they are necessary. On the intermediate days- chol hamoyed- necessary work is permissible, but generally avoided in favour of taking pleasurable trips.

In London, candles can be lit tonight at 6:13 PM, and after 7:18 PM tomorrow evening. Shabbes starts at 6:09 PM on Friday, and ends at 7:14 PM on Saturday night. When lighting your candles, please keep in mind Chaim Elozor ben Baila, Shmuel Yosef ben Soroh Malka, Moshe ben Hadasa, Moshe ben Genya, Chashachana bas Bryna, Chana bas Mushka and Rivka Miriam bas Tsivia Bina. Thank you, and gut yontiff!

Gut Shabbes (And Gmar Chasima Toyvoh)!

Tonight, we enter what is known as the Shabbes of Shabbeses- Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, and the second holiest day on the calendar, after the little known Tu B’Av. We abstain from physical pleasure, in lieu of a lofty spiritual pleasure, and unlike Tisha B’Av, this is not a day of mourning, which is why it can occur on Shabbes. Starting tonight, we do not eat or drink, wear leather shoes, apply creams or lotions, engage in marital relations or bathe. Additionally, all of the Shabbes laws are observed- this means no writing, using electricity, or carrying.

Fasting is considered more important than davening in shul, so this should take precedence if you feel that you cannot get to shul. However, if you are ill, pregnant, or elderly, please consult with a doctor to see whether it is safe to fast or not. In London, the fast starts at 6:24 PM, when yontiff and Shabbes candles are lit. It ends tomorrow at 7:29 PM.

I would like to wish each and every one of my readers and friends an easy and meaningful fast, a gut shabbes and a gut yontiff. May Yom Kippur be filled with introspection and meaning, and may Hashem inscribe us all in the Book of Good life. Gmar Chasima Toyvoh!

Lessons Learned From Waiting

One of my very favourite blogs is Safek, written by a woman who is currently enduring the process of conversion to Orthodox Judaism, and who transcribes her experiences and what she’s learned from them in beautiful and transfixing articles. Today, I want to share her blog post, “What You Get With Waiting”. If you enjoy it, please follow the link to her blog and check out the rest of her work: I can recommend it to anyone!

“We had a good meeting with our sponsoring Rabbi last night who reassured us that he still plans on us converting in April 2018. He has plans and is confident that they will work out. So, we have only to trust him and continue doing what we’re doing.

While this has all been playing out, I have been thinking a lot about our process, now entering its 7th year and I’ve been looking at what we have gained by having a longer conversion process than is usual in the US. I think a lot of these benefits could apply to anyone who is going through a long process without a clear timeline to reach any goal, but perhaps they will be of particular comfort to anyone who is going through a prolonged Orthodox Jewish conversion.

My Children Will Be Unlikely to Take Their Judaism For Granted.

In our Chabad house, there are often teenagers who breeze in and out, the girls wearing leggings as pants, the boys casually taking an aliyah, grabbing some kiddush, and then breezing out. For these young people, Judaism is just one small part of who they are and often more of a burden to them than a blessing. Because our children have worked and waited to be Jews for most of their young lives, I have less fear that they will take being Jewish for granted. I can’t guarantee any more than any other parent that my children will always be observant, but I think the odds are probably better because of the process we’ve been through. It’s harder to walk away from something you’ve spent years working hard to earn.

Our Family Knows How to Be Observant

For better or worse, conversion candidates are required to really study the ins and outs of Orthodox Judaism, often in a more structured way than born Jews are given. In some ways, I feel like it might actually be harder for aspiring BT’s to become observant because there is less pressure from outside of them, at least in some of the communities I’ve been a part of. Because kiruv organizations are eager to make sure that newer BT’s feel welcomed, they often don’t tell them what they may be doing “wrong” or don’t feel like they can give too much direction at one time. Since Judaism is not obligated to accept converts and doesn’t seek them, there is no real fear of driving them away to hinder giving them direction when it comes to study or observance or giving them correction.

In many, many ways, this has been a great gift to our family in that we’ve been taught what we need to do in order to take on mitzvos and we were able to learn all that before we were obligated. We got years of practice time. 3 day yom tovim coming up? No worries, we’ve been through them before. Weird kashrus situation? Odds are that I’ve either been through it or I already know who best to ask. My husband who was raised in Orthodox day schools even learned a lot he didn’t know through this process, often when it comes to things that to him were things you “just do.” When I would ask “ok, why?” then we’d find ourselves going down a rabbit hole that led to us both learning a lot more. We wouldn’t have this kind of experience and confidence if we’d converted in just a year and we would have faced having to learn and make mistakes as we went along.

We Know Orthodoxy Is Where We Best Fit

Many converts wander through different streams of Judaism. In most cases, they convert Reform or Conservative and then later pursue an Orthodox conversion, often after they’ve discovered that an Orthodox community is a better fit for them. Sometimes, though, they wander in the other direction, which is more problematic from an Orthodox perspective. Our family has spent time in several different Orthodox communities as well as visited a Conservative community and spent a year in a Reform community. I actually recommend to people interested in conversion that they first visit as many different streams as they can before speaking to any Rabbi about the conversion process so that they can know where they will most likely be happy and only need to convert once. It also helps later no matter which stream of Judaism you choose because in smaller communities, you will often encounter and interact with people from all the major streams and it’s good to understand their perspectives a little better.

Every time we visited a Conservative or Reform Synagogue…it only made us want to go back to an Orthodox Synagogue more. It was like visiting a place that was close enough to home to remind you of home but just different enough to make you miss home. I would guess that Reform or Conservative Jews probably feel similar when they visit an Orthodox Synagogue. We also found that what we believed just fit so much better with Orthodoxy. I really think it’s so much better to take the time to make sure that you’ve found the right fit BEFORE you’ve converted and made a commitment!

In addition, we’ve gotten to experience different Orthodox communities. We’ve been to a more Modern Orthodox shul, a more religious Zionist shul, a Yeshivish shul, and plenty of different Chabad shuls as well as Dati Leumi shuls in Israel and seen how each different flavor has its own distinctive spin on Orthodox Judaism. On the plus side, we’ve found something to admire in all of them and I think we could find a home in almost any of them, except perhaps a really Modern shul. On the downside, I’m not sure I can give up some of the amazing things I’ve found in each of them. I love reading Rav Soloveitchik and Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, but I also enjoy mind blowing Tanya classes, and I really get into studying Mussar. I might not have been exposed to such a wide swath of Orthodox Judaism if we had simply stayed in one community and easily converted there and I feel like I might have missed out.

We’re Past Our Awkward Stage (Ok, Mostly)

All conversion candidates go through awkward stages. I’m sure BT’s also do, but maybe it’s less noticeable to me? I see a conversion candidate struggling to know what they should do in a situation and I try to quietly reach out and help because I know that feeling. There is an initial awkward stage around basic observance, but there are other awkward stages as well. There’s mispronouncing basic Hebrew and Yiddish words, the cringe inducing attempts to shake hands with the opposite sex, figuring out how to dress tznius in a way that is comfortable for you, and then those fits and starts of sometimes going too far in observance too fast. There’s also learning how to navigate Jewish culture and growing in confidence that yes, you belong here.

I could probably tell a dozen embarrassing stories from my own family’s experiences, just off the top of my head.

Our family has been gifted years to work through all this, sheltered from much judgment as we do and we’ll have few people who remember our awkward stages, at least until we hit our next awkward stage. I like to think we’re kind of at the level now of Jewish adolescents, so I’m sure we’ll make some more mistakes at times that will have our friends and family grimacing for us, but I feel like the worst is probably past us.

We’ve Grown Really Close

I beam with pride when people compliment me on our children and how close-knit our family is, but really…a lot of it is a result of how much we’ve been through together. When you can’t be invited for holidays, you spend them together as a family. There have been many times that the only people who really understood what we were going through…were the people living in our house, our family. We have comforted each other, watched out for each other, and learned with each other. My son has helped me with my Hebrew reading when he’s gone past my level in his studies. My daughter and I have stumbled over words together, learning to read at the same time. My husband and I have had to navigate challenges in our marriage that came from the conversion process and find our way through them together.

Yes, my kids are becoming teenagers and sometimes my son rolls his eyes at me, but he’s also such a thoughtful and kind young man. He’s come over and hugged me to cheer me up when he’s seen me looking down and left out at a holiday party. My daughter may be moody sometimes, but she’s also right there to pitch in and help me when I feel overwhelmed preparing for a holiday or Shabbos. Conversion has put our family in a pressure cooker…and we’ve been tenderized by it.

Judaism Is No Longer Something We Do. It’s What We Are

I think this might be the biggest gift a long conversion process will give you. At some point, when we’re talking just to ourselves, we stopped speaking of being Jewish as if it was something that might happen in the future. We stopped mentally cutting ourselves out of the stories in the parsha, reminding ourselves these weren’t our ancestors. My children, when talking, will say something and explain it as, “Well, we’re Jewish, so…” without any equivocation. We’re all aware that we’re halakhically not Jewish, but that difference begins to mean less and less on a daily basis.

At some point, we stopped striving and learning and studying to BECOME Jews and began just learning and observing because we ARE Jews, except for those parts we still need to keep because, technically, we aren’t. I know it might be a little confusing of a line, but I think it’s an important part of becoming a part of the Jewish people that we no longer stumble over the morning blessing where we thank Hashem for not having been born a non-Jew…because I really do feel like I’m just a Jew that needs some paperwork. When I read the parsha, I feel a connection to the Avos and Imas as real as to my blood ancestors and I read those stories as my history, no longer as the history of my husband’s people.

I do think that our family probably could have been ready to convert years ago and it might have saved us some heartache, but I also think that we have grown a lot through having a longer process. If you’re in the process of conversion and it seems like it’s going to take longer than other converts you have known, please do not lose heart. Hashem has a unique process for each of us and it’s hard to know what twists and turns you might encounter along the way. As hard as it is to wait, it may be exactly what is needed to help you reach where you need to be.”

Parshas Ki Teitzei: I Have No Answers

I am open about finding certain parts of the Torah difficult to understand and reconcile my own viewpoint with. I accept that the Torah is divine, and overrides any other values- but this week in particular, I find that hard to come to terms with. In the past, when dealing with the laws of neyderim (vows) and gender inequality, I was frank. I stated that I thought the laws were unfair, but that all I could do was learn and ask and question until I was satisfied.

What, then, can I write about the parsha which tells us, “if this matter was true, (and) no evidence of the girl’s virginity was found, they shall take the girl out to the entrance of her father’s house, and the men of her city shall pelt her with stones, and she shall die…”? And, even more problematically, “If there is a virgin girl betrothed to a man, and man finds her in the city, and lies with her, you shall take them both out to the gate of that city, and you shall pelt them with stones, and they shall die: the girl, because she did not cry out in the city, and the man, because he violated his neighbor’s wife”.

Dear reader, I have attempted for many years to explain away the things in this week’s Parsha. I have studied, and read commentaries, and all I learnt from sifrei was that in the latter case, it is the girl’s fault, because “she could have stayed at home”. I closed the book, and I tried desperately not to close my mind and turn against Judaism, because, quite frankly, I believe I have a Jewish neshomo. But sometimes, it’s difficult not to feel repulsed when you read such things.

I think a part of being an adult is sometimes accepting that you don’t know the answer, and in this case, that’s what I am doing. All I can say is- I am stepping back from the issue because, simply, I cannot solve it. I just hope that someone else can, and that the disturbing views which we read in tomorrow’s Torah portion are not representative of frum Jewry today.

At the end of the day, G-d knows best, and I know that if He is the G-d I pray to every day, He is not one to blame rape victims.

Parshas Shoftim: Justice and Responsibility

This week’s parsha, Shoftim, contains a famous phrase: “Justice, justice you shall pursue”. The repetition of the word “justice” is the subject of much discussion among scholars and commentators, and is thought to emphasise the importance of establishing a just legal system. Rabbi Bunim of Peshischa writes, “Why does the verse repeat itself? Is there a just justice and an unjust justice? Indeed there is. The Torah is telling us to be just also in the pursuit of justice—both the end and the means by which it is obtained must be just”.

Clearly, justice is of the utmost importance in Judaism. In fact, upholding courts of law is one of the Seven Noahide Laws which apply to all mankind, and the Talmud teaches that a righteous judge is a “partner” of G-d.

Also contained in this Parsha is the law of the eglah arufah, in which we are commanded to find a criminal and force him to atone for his crime, even though the murder took place outside the boundaries of the city. The responsibility falls upon the city’s elders, but the Rebbe develops this concept to teach us about individual responsibility.

We read in his teachings, “A person never has the right to say, “This is outside of my element. I have no obligation to deal with this.” If it is something that, by divine providence, one has been made aware of, that means that there is something one can, and must, do to positively influence the end result”. Clearly, the Rebbe believes that everything happens for a reason, and we can combine his viewpoint with the verse about pursuing justice.

These two concepts- that of pursuing justice, and that of dealing with things which fall outside of our comfort zone, or the domain where we are in control- overlap. In the search for justice, we must look past our boundaries, we must look past our routines and defined roles, to ensure that righteousness prevails.

So important is this mitzvah to pursue justice, that we are all responsible for it. In our day to day lives, if there is something we can do to lessen inequality, prevent cruelty or unfairness, or aid the legal system, we must do it. It might not be easy, and it might not seem necessary, but it is, or G-d wouldn’t have made us aware of it