jewish, jewish conversion, Judaism, shabbat

Chaya Sarah

A few weeks ago, I was doing some Sunday morning shopping. While puttering abound the store, I noticed a lady was sort of following me around the store. This is not completely unusual when you are identifiably Jewish. A lot of people have questions about Judaism and they ask them in unusual places. Sometimes it is in the copy room, the clothing department or even the frozen food section. I finally turned to the lady, greeted her and asked if I could help her. I mistakenly assumed she had a question about something kosher. Instead, she asked my name, took a deep breath and said, “You did my niece’s tahara.” I am certain there was an audible “crack” as my jaw hit the floor.  I am used to odd questions and unusual conversations, but this was a first.

Rewind. Five years ago, I received my first assignment as a math teacher.  It was in a rural county and the test scores were the “second lowest” in the state.  It was one of those places where people made a living from growing tobacco and cotton and where a full set of teeth was as rare as an Ivy League education. My commute was nearly two hours away and I would stay at least one night a week at the home of a fellow teacher. My classroom was in the basement. It was the old shop room, and when I spoke, the echo was so bad, my voice could be heard in the next county. Of course, I was the only Jewish teacher, something that became clear by the days I took off, the way I sped out of the parking lot on Friday afternoon and the book of tehillim on my desk. One of my collleagues was a minister, whose mentor used an ArtScroll tanach to help deliver his sermons. He would come to me with his “old testament” religious questions. I have always wondered why I wound up in this district, but now I think I know the answer.

Fast forward. Since the frozen breakfast aisle was not the place to continue this conversation, I invited the aunt to a coffee shop. For the next two hours we hugged, cried and held hands. She told me her niece had long ago left behind her Jewish identity and her family. She settled in the same community where I was a teacher. Several months ago she found out she was ill, and contacted her family. They had not heard from her in years.  As the end came, she decided against cremation, but didn’t want to be dressed and made-up either. She said she wanted to die as a Jew although she had not lived as one. My former colleague was a neighbour who visited her during her illness. She told him she wanted a Jewish burial, and he gave my name to the funeral director. He didn’t know anything about Jewish burial. He did not know that I had been a part of a Chevra Kadisha since I was 20.  These are things that do not enter polite conversation. He just assumed that as a practicing Jew, I would know what to do. Like a lot of non-Jews, he assumed just being Jewish makes you an expert on your religion.  We should be so lucky.

After I was called, I drove two hours away on an erev yom-tov to meet a group of women. We had one purpose. We were to  quietly assist a woman whose Hebrew name was Chaya Sarah leave this world and enter the next.

As we drank coffee and shed tears, I was afraid that Chaya Sara’s aunt would ask me specific questions I couldn’t answer. Fortunately, she sensed that modesty, privacy and dignity were all a part of the process and left it at that. I was grateful for that. All she wanted was someone to listen to her.  I could do that. During that time,  I remembered something the Rav who oversaw my conversion told me. All Jews are ambassadors for our people.   That precedent, he said, was set by Sarah imenu. I was very uncomfortable, but for better or worse, I was now an ambassador.  It was my job to make sure she appreciated the people she belonged to.  We talked about life and death, religion and philosophy. For a while I forgot that I had not completed my lesson plans, or finished my Spanish homework. The laundry would wait and the Challot for next Shabbat would rise without my nudging.

When we parted, we hugged and I invited her for a Shabbat meal. I have checked with her a couple of times to see how she was doing. We how have a dinner date.

I am writing this because it has been on my mind all week. This week’s parsha is called Chaya Sarah, even though it begins with her death. The parsha recounts the “days” her life. Sarah was irreplaceable.  She converted the women as Avraham converted the men.  She was not just the wife of Avraham and the mother of Isaac. As a Jewish woman, she taught us that we have a role beyond wife and mother. We are ambassadors, a unique role within the Jewish people.  Sarah was taken from her comfortable home, and from her comfortable world. She was placed on a journey that led her to set the world on fire. She left her comfort zone to reach out to the world.  In doing so, she reminds us that the “world” is relative.  Sometimes it is as close as the neighborhood coffeeshop. May her memory continue to be our blessing.

Have a peaceful week.

Judaism, Uncategorized

Hashem Yikom Damam

I was watching the football game between France and Nigeria, cheering for “Les Bleus” as LeMonde reported the awful news. The bodies of Eyal Yfrach, Gilad Shaar and Naftali Frenkel had been discovered near Hebron in the West Bank. As I write this, the boys have been buried, and condolences offered. One the way to the cemetery, an ambulance carrying the body of one of the boys was attacked. This is clear message that they will not even let us bury a murder victim in peace. The Israeli army has destroyed the homes of the pieces of garbage that murdered these boys and the necessary manhunt is on.

For nearly two weeks we waited for our president to make a statement, anything to make it sound like he gave a damn about the kidnapping of an American teen. He didn’t of course. That would require a mensch. The same president who traded terrorists for an army deserter said nothing. Now he has sent his condolences and is calling upon “all parties to practice restraint.” What he really means is that Israel should do nothing, because as we all know, Jewish blood is cheap. Do our political jack-asses even read the newspapers? A “caliphate” now exists in Iraq, and the sole purpose of it is to bring the world to its knees, and use whatever force is necessary to make the rest of the world practice their twisted form of religion. Those who wish to destroy us have become increasingly brazen. There is no restraint Mr. president. It is time for you to put on your big boy shoes, grow a pair and behave like a man.   I know that won’t happen.   Just as it took a Churchill to follow a Chamberlain, it is going to take more than what we have in our pathetic congress and White House to deal with what is being unleashed upon our world. One politician who did get it right was Mike Huckabee, the former Governor of Arkansas. On a visit to Israel this week, he met with families, expressed his own outrage, and felt that Israel had the right to do whatever was needed to bring these boys home.

At a time like this, I do look for spiritual guidance, and words I can understand.  I found them with the ever eloquent Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. He explained that while we believe in an afterlife, resurrection of the dead and in Gan Eden (paradise), we do not place our emphasis on those things because we believe in life. We desire life. Each week we recite words that ask for life. We do not dwell on the afterlife because if the focus is solely on heaven (remember those 72 virgins every suicide bomber gets?), one can justify every kind of evil on earth. Historically, the Church justified burning at the stake, drowning and slaughter of innocents to “save their souls.” Today, it is the Christian world in the Middle East and Africa that is being wiped out by those who desire death, but whose leaders hide so they do not face it themselves. They rely on fools who are willing executioners. Christian leaders are unbelievably silent (but are hell bent on punishing Israel for not practicing “restraint”). I respect Rabbi Sacks, but I also believe that there are those who just delight in the suffering of others. These are the people who enjoy kidnapping and killing teenage boys.

I also learned that we say, “Baruch Dayan HaEmet” when we are able accept death. However, as decent people, we cannot accept what happened to these three boys. For this we say, Hashem Yakom Damam. May HaShem avenge their blood. We must pray, we must daven, but now, it is time to ask Hashem to back it up with an army. We have that right.

Hamas says that if any action is taken they will, “open the gates of hell.” Seriously? They opened those gates a long time ago. They have terrorized our world to suit their desires and bend it to their demands. They do not want a state. They don’t need a state, and they do not deserve a state. They are successfully taking the Middle East and Europe threat by threat, attack by attack. In time, they will have the U.S. as well, because we are “restrained.” People who hate us more than they love their own children take advantage of our “restraint” and desire for peace, to plan and carryout their next attack. There is a question we need to ask our president and leaders. What say you? Do we die on our feet, or live on our knees?

Judaism, Uncategorized

When a door is closed, G-d opens a window; The Neighbourhood Shiksa

The past couple of weeks have been amazing. I had no idea my blog would have the impact it did. The phone calls, texts, emails and visits I have received in the past few days have left me a very humble person. I was emailed or called by people from Europe, Israel, Mexico and the U.S. I was also asked to be a speaker for a women’s event. I was contacted by two Jewish newspapers and asked to give interviews about the “Conversion Crisis.” I declined to do this because there is no crisis. The personal prejudice of individuals does not equal crisis. A conversion is either valid or it is not. I knew the real goal of the interview was to get me to trash traditional Judaism. I also received an apology and was told that they never intended to question my conversion.

When I went to shul on Shabbos, I received hugs and was told how nice it was to see me. Nothing says, “I care about you” like a hug. My little Kiddush partner told me she missed me. Another young man asked my son if I could make challah for Shalosh Seuda (the third meal, often eaten in shul, on Shabbos afternoon) as I have done in the past (when I make challah, I think of Sarah; it is more than flour, water and yeast). Several people came up to me and told me they had no idea I was a convert.

On the other hand, I was completely ignored by one person who is normally very friendly to me. I learned she had left a very nasty comment on the page of another convert (making the individual cry). The comment was something to the effect of “you don’t agree with me, therefore I deem you not to be Jewish.” Sometimes people have problems that are theirs and theirs alone, and you can’t fix stupid.

It is this attitude that one can independently determine who is and who not a Jew that was the subject of a phone call I had with my Rav. He told me that people who are born into the Jewish religion have to rely on their mother’s word that they are Jews. I on the other hand, he said, am without a doubt a Jew. I have the Rav, witnesses and schtar (document) that prove it. He also told me that prejudice and stupidity are independent of religion. He is spot on there. We talked about our personal struggles as Jews that exist no matter how you come into the religion. He also told me that I am a leader, not just a participant.

The comments I received fell into two distinct camps. Some people felt that I had been treated badly because I am a strong woman and had nothing to do with my status as a Jew. I do not consider myself a particularly strong woman. Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who (to my complete embarrassment) was recently denied an honorary degree from Brandeis University, is a strong woman. I am a shrinking violet.

The other comments were from people who were either converts or married to converts. They confided to me what they or their loved ones have been through. I can understand.

I received pleas from several people encouraging me to make Aliyah. They felt things are different if Israel. I doubt this. Israeli’s are like the French. They do not hide their opinions, and if you get two of them together, you get at least three opinions and when the third person shows up, you need an intervention.

I remember being told that, “there are only three things I require from a convert: they must keep Shabbat, keep kosher and provide their children with a Jewish education.” These are the cornerstones of Judaism. In other words, with these three requirements, everything falls into place. They are magnets for Jewish existence. I get really hot under the collar when a person, who has properly converted, through a proper Beit Din, under the supervision of a competent rabbi should continue to be questioned. Several people who contacted me told me they had been asked to undergo subsequent visits to the mikvah, because Rabbi Ploni2 didn’t trust Rabbi Ploni1. A rabbi who felt that I made rabbis into “the enemy” contacted me. He told me he requires a three-year commitment as part of the conversion process. He had been burned. I can understand that. Several people told me their own conversions had taken several years to complete. We should not be performing drive-through conversions. G-d placed many tests on those who became the first Jews. He made the Hebrews wander for 40 years before they could immerse and accept the Torah at Mt. Sinai (please, do not make the process take 40 years!) My first conversion through the RCA took over a year, and my second took two additional years. This included weekly meetings in which I had to learn Shulchan Aruch, and be able to field whatever questions I was asked.

I do not wish to blog a book here, but an individual from Belgium contacted me. A few weeks ago, four innocent people were gunned down at the Jewish Museum in Brussels. This event has left the Jewish community reeling and he asked me is being Jewish was “worth” all of this. It is, but I will write about this in the future.

Jews are facing several crises, but conversion isn’t one of them. The constant threat of annihilation from those who wish to physically destroy us remains. The destruction from within through intermarriage has destroyed more Jews than Hitler and his minions ever imagined. We are being loved to death by those who have traditional sought to destroy us. “Messianic Judaism” is seeking to become the fifth movement of the Jewish community. They are watching us, studying us and they are coming into our shuls and schools. They are incredibly well funded. They are taught to lie and “fit in.” They want to convert us, not through the sword, but through “love,” (when that doesn’t work, they will return to the sword), because they believe that the Jewish remnant must exist to welcome their “messiah.” I was walking down a street in old town Alexandria, when a young chap who was wearing a kippa and tizizit handed me a flyer. I looked at it and immediately confronted him. The flyer was all about how the Jewish messiah had already come, and was waiting for us. I flayed every “proof” he gave me. He in the end, he admitted he was not Jewish (despite the kippa and tzizit), but he was attending a local shul, and was appalled that I didn’t embrace him, because he “loves” us and had been welcomed by the community. I was stunned. He admitted he didn’t tell anyone his motives, because “Jews are still looking for the messiah.” He looked “right,” he was a nice guy, but no one in the shul had ever really talked or questioned him. He learned to “fit in.” Unlike a convert who wishes to become a part of the Jewish people, and is willing to go to unbelievable means to accomplish this, he just slid under the wire. This is a crisis we cannot ignore. We continually question the motives of people who properly convert, but we say nothing to a boy whose church has sent him to become a part of our community? We are ignoring a crisis that is not at our doorstep; it is sitting next to us.

Please daven for the safe return of:

Yaakov Naftali ben Rachel Devorah

Gilad Michael ben Bat Galim

Eyal ben Iris Teshura

Please recite Tehillim 120 and 130.


Judaism, Uncategorized

Never Jewish Enough: Reflections of the neighborhood Shiksa

Never Jewish Enough: Reflections of the neighborhood Shiksa


One of the stark realities of being a convert to the Jewish faith is you are never really Jewish.  In spite of having two conversions (through the RCA and through a Chassidic Rav, who felt my RCA conversion might not be universally accepted), I found out again this week, that I am just the Shiksa in the neighborhood.

Last year, the Jewish community of Richmond participated in a program to Israel for Jewish women whose children were under 18.  There were no other requirements.  The women who were handpicked by our rabbi ran the gamut of the Jewish spectrum.  I was not asked to participate even though I met all of the requirements.  When I confronted the rabbi, he apologized, told me he made a “big mistake” and that if he “had it to do all over again, you would have been the first person I would have invited.” I told him I expected to be included in the upcoming trip, and his reply was, “you got it!”

This has been an unbelievably difficult school year.  Failure rates are up, despite watering down the curriculum.  When I was contacted by the school district about teaching summer school because, “we need a really good math teacher who can deal with these kids,” I declined because I would be in Israel during the summer session.

Stupid me.  A few weeks ago a member of our community came to me and said, “I thought you were going on “the” trip this summer.”  I replied that I was, and they told me that my name was not mentioned (did I mention that the participants are hand-picked?).  When my name was brought up not only as a participant, but also as part of the leadership, the rabbi replied, “I have someone else in mind.”  It was clear, once the rabbi apologized, and I had accepted his apology, he forgot about the commitment he made to me.

The women who were offered leadership positions have something I will never have, a Jewish mother (my mum is a French Protestant).  It did not matter that I have two degrees, speak several languages, have been involved in kiruv or in my former community gave weekly parsha shiurs that grew so large they had to be moved from homes to a shul.  It did not matter that I have been published and have given lectures to hundreds of people.  The women chosen have never been outside of their cloistered Jewish homes, but it was clear, they are real Jews.  I am not.

I don’t mind stepping up to the plate.  I work a midnight bingo game to help fund my daughter’s school, a kiruv organization and local food bank.  I bring meals to people in the community who are ill, in mourning or have just had a child.  I am thrilled to host a family who realizes at 5 p.m. on a Friday afternoon, they will make it to Brooklyn in time for Shabbos.   I enjoy working with every kind of Jew from every kind of background because it gives me an opportunity to share that Jews should be inclusive.

This week however, it was made clear to me that our community is exclusive, and I am not a part of it.  I am not welcome or wanted.  I will not be a part of a community whose rabbi thinks I am their Shiksa.

I went to the summer school director and groveled for a position.  After having my head handed back to me, “We really needed you to teach math! We had to find someone else.  We count on you….” I received a contract to teach English (I have multiple endorsements).  I also signed up to take a class that will be taught entirely in French.

I want to leave, I want to move. I know I will face the same prejudice in any community.   When I told my daughters what happened, they cried with me.  Of course, they wonder if their mom is not considered Jewish, are they? The Orthodox Jewish world is the only world they have ever known.  I hate the thought that their identity as Jews will be questioned.  They are really good girls, but I wonder if they ever be anything more than bastards at the family reunion?