Friday, December 10, 2010

Illuminating the Answers

Well, it’s almost Shabbat and I haven’t posted a blog since Monday. It has been a hectic week but one filled with light…

During the work week I have been able to indulge myself a bit. This past week, I would head down to the lobby and slowly turn the next orange bulb, lighting the chanukiah. In a matter of seconds these moments passed but the feeling of bringing some small sense of light to the holiday lasted until I lit the next candle. With the last candle lit, I was feeling a bit down. I am not used to this as most of the time I begin the week on a down note (I know many people feel the same way about Mondays) and end the work week with the anticipation of Shabbat on Friday night.

However, as Chanukah drew to a close and my mood continued its downward trend I received some unexpected news. First, in the form of an email from my insurance company… it is dividend time again and, this year, we would be receiving a $136.04 credit. Woo hoo! One less payment I have to make.

But that wasn’t the event that really touched me. That came a few hours later.

Earlier in the week I had received my order from Artscroll. The previous week ended with me ordering a couple of books from them that I had been meaning to get for some time. Of course, 40% off had some influence as to my decision to order. Well, the box arrived on Monday but I didn’t open it until Thursday night. When I did, I pulled out the two books I ordered and realized that the box wasn’t empty. A third book had been accidentally placed in the box.

I admit that I was tempted to just put it on the shelf and not say a word about it but I couldn’t do that. Hashem has given me so much (including the means to order the two other books). I couldn’t steal from others and still say that I am putting forth ever effort to be a better Jew.

The next morning I put the book in my bag, brought it to the office, and got everything ready to go to ship it back. Unfortunately, there was no invoice included in my box and I wasn’t familiar with the return policy so I gave Artscroll a call. I explained the situation and asked what the return policy was. They seemed a bit surprised by my call so I was put on hold.

About five minutes later, a different woman picked up and asked me to explain the situation again. After that she asked me to confirm the order number and tell her what the extra book was that I received. She confirmed the order and then I asked what I needed to do. She began by thanking me profusely for calling them about the extra book and then said to me, “keep the additional book as our gift to you.”

Well, that got an immediate Happy Chanukah and then it was my turn to say thank you (multiple times). Woo hoo #2!

In the midst of the kindness and light of the holiday I feel as though I have been tested. I guess the more appropriate term would be questioned. We are tested throughout our lives, question after question, and we have to provide the answers and those answers are given directly to Hashem. What we have to remember is that we are not alone during this exam and we are never asked questions that we already have the answers to: G-d gave us the Torah for guidance and G-d has given us one another for support.

We have all of the answers we just have to be willing to listen and accept them.

Shabbat Shalom.   

Monday, December 6, 2010

More Than a Meal

On Sunday, my wife and I finally made it to the kosher deli on Main Street in downtown Metuchen called The Orchid. We were one of three groups partaking in the wonderful delectable’s they had to offer. On one side sat a completely secular couple while on the other was an observant husband and wife debating with a secular guest who, once the food arrived (in the middle of their conversation), got up from the table, washed their hands , and recited the bracha "Netilat Yadayim".

I noticed their act of devotion to G-d but it didn’t fully register until after the meal. As they sat quietly and said Birkat HaMazon to themselves, I felt my painful lack of gratefulness for the gifts from G-d that I still take for granted. I was confronted with my biggest challenges in my striving to become more observant: my lack of knowledge and awareness!

It is not simply a matter of learning the blessings; I can begin by reading and learn when and how to say them. My daily consciousness has to be shifted to see and acknowledge the presence of G-d in everything I see, everything I do, and every gift that is given to me. It is not just a matter of the blessings surrounding meals; it is a matter of thanking Hashem for another day, for another Shabbat, for life, for health, for the beautiful things in life, for Torah, for all the gifts that I am granted and all the opportunities G-d provides.

It is going to be a long process and a difficult transition to make but, no matter how many times the old habits breach the surface, I am grateful for the opportunity to learn, to be closer to G-d, to enjoy life. Sometimes, all I can say is, “Baruch Hashem!”

Friday, December 3, 2010

I Don’t Want to Be Homeless

I have been thinking about the conversion law being considered in Israel since we first decided to make aliyah in June and it has continued to eat away at me since. I remain optimistic that the Israeli Supreme Court ruling will hold but that fails to ease my fear. I am living in fear that my dream will be taken away from me and that the future that I was hoping to provide for my wife and our future children will disappear.

I can understand the need to oversee the conversion process as many such conversions in the US are lacking but many sincere converts have taken significant steps along the way to ensure that all the proper steps were taken. I have seen the extremes within the reform and conservative movements and can see, and to a certain extent agree, that some should not be recognized.  

However, if the convert is heartfelt in their devotion to Hashem and the Jewish people and is willing to shoulder the burdens that come with that I have no issue in welcoming them as a Jew. But, beyond the commandment of circumcision, the Beit Din, and the Mikvah, there are a few things that, I believe, converts should be required to agreed upon (some of which you have the right to disagree with):

1.      Acceptance of the Torah as the word of Hashem (I am a little lenient so divinely inspired is acceptable);  
2.      Acceptance the mitzvoth and the obligation to fulfill them and strive to do so throughout their life;
3.      Acceptance of the fact that learning never stops and they must strive to be closer to Hashem;
4.      Proclaim their willingness to join their fate with that of the Jewish people;
5.      Acknowledgement of Israel as the rightful home of the Jewish people;
6.      Pledge their willingness to defend Israel and its right to exist;

This is a simple, and incomplete, list but I think it is a decent overview and a reasonable starting point. With all this said, if you chose to make aliyah you should be held to a higher standard upon your acceptance into the Homeland (i.e. you shouldn’t walk around in a tank top and shorts every day, you must learn Hebrew and shouldn’t avoid speaking it by moving into an “Anglo” community, etc.) because one should show respect both for their people and their home.  

In the end, it is a give and take. Israel must adapt to the needs of Diaspora Jewry and those of us currently in the Diaspora must adapt to the needs of Israel and the Orthodox Rabbinate. We are one people with one home.

Hashem, please let us go home!

Thursday, December 2, 2010

From Jew to Zionist

A recent story by Ines Astrug published on The Jewish Agency’s website got me thinking about the price that many of us have paid over our love and support for our Homeland. Some have be fighting their entire lives on this subject while some of us are more recent entrants in the debate.

As many of you have read in my previous post, I completed my conversion in June 2008. I have been fortunate in that my family has been incredibly supportive (my parents even paid for the conversion class and were there when I went to the Mikvah) but I can’t say the same for many of my friends. Everyone had questions, friends and family alike, but once I sat down and answered all of their questions they were accepting of my decision and supported the choice that I had made.

However, other responses ranged from a simple piercing glare to downright refusal to accept the fact that I didn’t believe what they saw as the only “right” faith. Once the shock of these responses dimmed, discussions and debates ensued resulting in agreements to disagree and tenuous friendships at best.

Within the year, those relationships were destroyed. Operation Cast Lead brought about a change both in me and in my relationships with others. In the beginning, I kept my opinion to myself having the occasional mutually respectful conversation with coworkers.

As the media continuously blasted Israel as an “evil occupier”, the hibernating Zionist in me woke up. At the same time, pointed posts and emails began flooding Facebook and my inbox: anti-Israel and, sometimes, anti-Semitic. I was not going to just sit and listen anymore so I began calmly commenting and respectfully responding to their hate filled rants.

Almost instantaneously, my friends began to dwindle with nasty emails following suit as a going away present. They couldn’t accept a viewpoint that was contrary to the media… but “CNN said this” and “The New York Times printing this story”. Intelligent people simply reading a script and following the directions presented to them. No one stopped to question the facts; no one dared take the side of Israel. It was sad and, many times, surprisingly disturbing….

Not everyone relied on the media to form their opinions. Some people confided in me that they were having the same problems with, now former, friends while others reveled in the excuse to mask their anti-Semitic tendencies in the anti-Israel media circus. “Unfulfilled genocide” was a common phrase that peeked from behind the veiled argument.

This only got worse as the public was force fed leftist stories anchored by the Goldstone Report. The same people that wanted nothing to do with me before were now reconnecting because “now that their argument was supported by an UN report”, I would admit that I was wrong. They didn’t expect that my response would consist not only of defending my stance and my Homeland but would also address the inconsistencies in UN policy and the clear bias that exists in that institution. Needless to say, they didn’t appreciate my response and, once again, disappeared.  

It has been nearly two years and I haven’t spoken to any of those people since. They are intelligent people with which I miss having interesting conversations but I can’t compromise what I believe in nor can I forget the hurtful things they said. They would rather attack and accused rather than try to understand or see things from another perspective.

Do I hate them? No. I just hope that one day they will be able to see the other side of the argument. I don’t expect them to become Zionists I just want them to accept me for being one because I am not only proud to be a Jew but I am proud to be a Zionist.  

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

In the Beginning There was Rambling

In this first post I hope to offer a broad strokes background about myself and what I plan on writing about. As the title of my site suggests, it has been a long journey from goy to, future, oleh.

I was raised Presbyterian, shuttled off to Sunday school classes most weeks followed by church services. Just like most kids, I didn’t think about what I was doing, I just didn’t like getting up early on the weekends to sit in a classroom and a pew.

As I entered my teenage years I tried to embrace the faith that I was brought up in. I tried to believe in the things that were being taught. I even briefly turned to Catholicism for answers that eluded me in the Presbyterian Church. Without resolution I abandoned the Bible and explored eastern faiths as well as Native American spiritual belief systems. I began reading and exploring but I was never satisfied enough to practice any of them.

Lost, I took a step back and asked myself a simple question… is there anything from what you were taught growing up that you do believe?

At the time it was a simple assessment… I believe everything in the Bible until the New Testament. Too many things didn’t add up, didn’t sync. I was lost until the day I began writing about the Holocaust.

As odd as that sounds, it was when I began reading the diaries and studying the events around the Holocaust and writing about them that I began to find answers. It was the faith of the people and the deep understanding of who they were that resonated with me and satiated my longing.

It was at this point that I began my Jewish education. I first started reading and exploring in the comfort of my own home (and dorm room) looking for details and explanations to all the things that I felt and questions I had that had gone unanswered for nearly a decade.

I was fortunate at this time to have met my wife who supported my decision to pursue my faith even though she wasn’t as fervent in her views as I was quickly becoming… she was raised Reform while I lean heavily toward the Orthodox side of things. In the end, we met in the middle: Conservadox.

With some basic knowledge and a lot of support (even my Grandmother was all for it) I found a Rabbi to sponsor my conversion and a shul that was willing to take me in, Congregation Or Shalom.

Over the course of 10 months I went to conversion class on Wednesday nights and attended Graduate classes at Rosemont College on Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday night while working during the day. It was a trying schedule but by June of 2008 I had received my MFA as well as gotten snipped, questioned by a bet din, immersed in a mikveh, and cast my lot.

Later in the summer I decided to take a job in Manhattan and moved from the Philadelphia suburbs to a small apartment in the Ocean Parkway section in Brooklyn. That was an experience that not only allowed me to live in a different kind of environment but also expand my Jewish education by simply talking to my observant neighbors and Hasidim on the F train.

In June of 2009, my wife and I were finally married after being engaged for two and a half years. We had a wonderful wedding that, in my completely unbiased opinion, is the best wedding I have ever attended. What followed our wedding had profoundly altered the course of our life. When our plane kissed the holy ground at Ben Gurion International Airport, we were home. It is a feeling that is difficult to articulate. It is much more than returning to the house you grew up in. It is the feeling of being embraced by generations of longing and desire… a fulfillment of our prayerful declaration “Next year in Jerusalem.”

In the most basic terms, the feeling is like returning to the place of every happy place and time in your life at the same time.

In the eight days that followed, we lived without the weight that life places on you. During those eight days, we lived our faith, we lived with pride, and we felt like we belonged. Leaving left us on the verge of tears and, at that moment, we promised one another that we would return.

Throughout the rest of the year we made a few changes (i.e. moved to New Jersey and other minor things) as the longing memories became more and more intense. Eventually, we started having discussions about moving to Israel. What started as plans to go back every year or every other year quickly evolved into discussions of moving there someday, maybe after we retire. It finally got to the point that I asked myself, what would it take to make aliyah? The question lingered for a few weeks when finally the need for answers took over.

Both The Jewish Agency and Nefesh B’Nefesh websites answered many of the questions and representatives (via phone, email, and social media) answered the rest of them. I knew the time to move was now but I had to let my wife get there on her own so I presented her with the answers and information I collected and let her process.

The final decision wasn’t made until we attended The Jewish Agency’s Israel Planning Expo in mid town Manhattan on June 13, 2010. While learning about the ins and outs about employment opportunities, ulpan, the first home in the homeland program, taxes, shipping, aliyah benefits, healthcare, and cultural differences we became more and more excited about the opportunity of returning home. By the end of the day we decided that this is what we want to do, this was what was meant to be, this would be the best thing for us and our future family. So, we sat down with our Shlichat, completed our interview, and outlined the application process and the paper work that we need to pull together in order to make aliyah in the summer of 2011.  

With our decision made, it was time to tell the parents. We took a couple of month to brace ourselves and in September we told them. They had reservations about us going to Israel on our honeymoon (we were the first ones from each of our families to visit Israel) and now we were going to tell them that we were going to move there. Well, for the most part, things went smoothly… a lot of expected questions, surprise, happiness, worry, and a few freak out moments.

That is where we are at this point. Our family and friends know about our plans and support our decision and we are pulling together our application and documents. As we make our way through the process and grow in our knowledge and observance, I will open things up to discussion by posting my thoughts on this blog.

If you have any questions or comments please feel free to post them below and I will do my best to address them.