Nov 8, 2009

Chavi Goes to the Beth Din: The First Meeting

Wednesday night, I was exhausted. We got into New Jersey, and I planted myself firmly into the plush bed that I call my own when we stay with Evan's family. The World Series was on its way toward the finale, and I issued a "Wake me if they lose, or rather, wake me if they win" to Tuvia and went to bed. Supposedly he came in and let me know that they'd won, but I didn't recall it. I was exhausted. The anticipation of my RCA beth din conversion meeting had turned my brain to mush. To feed my nerves, I had a nightmare that night. How appropriate, no?

The dream? Well, I was in a bookstore or library, attached to the building with the beth din meeting room. I was chatting with people, occupied, when my mother walked in and yelled "you're late to the beth din meeting!" I knew the meeting was at 3 p.m. (in the dream, that is), and my mom let me know that it was already 3:05 p.m. Then she said that they'd been waiting for a half-hour for me. So not only was I late, but I had the time wrong. So I ran to the elevator, where they informed me that I didn't have the right barcode to board the elevator. I started crying, explaining my situation, and just when they let me on, I realized that I was wearing the worst thing possible: capri pants and a short sleeve shirt. I freaked out, yelled to everyone that I'd be right back, and ran to the car where I found a long jean skirt and threw it on. When I woke up, I was standing in the elevator nervously pulling it on.

Tuvia and I drove the car into Jersey City, dropped it off at his dad's car place, and took the PATH in. I had a meeting in the morning at NYU regarding a few of their programs (more about that later, of course), and because I was anxious and fearful about showing up late, I insisted we take a cab from NYU up to Yeshiva University -- a whooping 30 something buckaroos right there.

We got up to YU plenty early, spotted the building, and then went in search of food. We ended up at Golan Heights (thanks to @Mottel and a few others), where I ate too much and anticipated vomiting on the shiny, black shoes of the beth din. Tuvia and I spent the rest of our time (and there was a lot of it) sitting in the YU student commons, where I happened to be spotted by one Twitter user (nice to meet you @steinberg!). I was busy Twittering, airing my anxiety to the world as I've been known to do. The support I received that day from my Twitter friends was ... well, I'm speechless. If you guys were on the beth din, I'd be a quick sell. Too bad you can't bring witnesses, right? You guys provide a service, I guess you could say, that is incomparable to anything. You offer me kind words, comforting thoughts, boosts in esteem, you name it. You guys are my bubble of comfort, and for that? I love you. But now to the (not-too-detailed) details.

The Meeting
We arrived at the beth din room about five or so minutes early. No one was in the room yet, which made me even more anxious. I didn't know where to sit, whether to sit, whether I had something in my teeth, or whether the noises in my tummy were going to settle themselves. I was talking nervously to Tuvia about their being a one-way mirror built into the wall when a rabbi walked in, greeting me in a jovial and kind way as Chaviva. He said that the furniture in the room was brand new, which I took as a good omen in my favor for some unknown reason (the furniture gods smiling upon me? har har.). We sat down and got to chatting. Then another rabbi showed up, and another, and finally a fourth. Yes, there were four rabbis at my meeting. Each of them brought something very different, I think -- good cop, bad cop, the jokester, the inquirer. Each posed different questions, and each had their own approach to my situation.

We started with the basics -- how'd you find Judaism in Nebraska? (This was intermixed with a bit of Jewish geography to see if they knew any Nebraskans, of course.) Then came a question I hadn't really thought about: If I was set on converting Orthodox before I moved to Connecticut (which I was), why did I sign up for JDate and start dating someone? I hadn't really thought about it before. In one of the very first emails that we exchanged (Tuvia and I), I stated my trajectory and told him that if he was down on the Orthodox journey, he and I could keep talking. Otherwise? No sir. Of course, as we're still together, I think you can see how that went. But it was an entirely valid and important question. A lot of converts, especially those who go Orthodox, often come to it for marriage. I'm not saying that's what the focus is in the end, but it tends to be a spark for the journey. I'm confident that the rabbis knew I wasn't doing this for Tuvia, but that I was most certainly and definitely doing it for me.

The conversation moved on to a variety of things -- my family and how they feel; my friends and how they reacted to my choices when I was in high school, college, and even now; the geographic conundrum that is my situation (I live in Storrs, Tuvia in Manchester, we daven in West Hartford). We hit a few very contentious points that I won't delve into here because they're even too personal for this space, and I was nearly in tears over them. I imagine the rabbis saw my face go from "elatedly excited" to "downtrodden and depressed." The great thing about it, however, (if I can even say great) is that the rabbis were encouraging and incredibly explanatory about why the issues were important and necessary to be discussed. It's amazing how you don't think about things until someone else mentions it and you find yourself saying, "Duh. Why didn't I think about that?"

The rabbis also asked Tuvia plenty of questions about his observance, his history as a Jew, his family, and more. After all, as they explained, there are two of us involved here and my conversion -- assuming we'll be staying together (and we will) -- affects the both of us.

After about an hour of the down-and-dirty talk of getting to know me (and Tuvia) Jewishly, the rabbis turned to some quizzical questions. I'll be completely honest: I froze. When it comes to talking about my journey and my Judaism and how I do my Judaism in a general and broad sense, I'm all about it. Passion oozes from my pores. But when we get to the b'racha bee type situation? Chavi is the proverbial popsicle.

It started out simple enough: "I had you a pretzel, what do you say?" I should have said "Thank you!" as some friends joked over Shabbos, but instead I answered appropriately with "mezonot." But then they wanted the full b'racha. Now, I know the b'racha. But when just saying the b'racha, it's important to avoid the use of HaShem's name, so you fill in "HaShem" and "Elokeynu" in the appropriate places, and that just froze me up like you wouldn't believe. Finally they said to simply say the b'racha as I would -- which makes sense considering it was technically for study, which means it's okay to say the b'racha as you would normally. The stumbling over words that ensued made me look like I was drunk on Manishewitz after a long night of Purim partying.

A series of further questions were what to say over the Shabbos candles, Yom Tov Candles, to list some of the other b'rachot, and then some questions about the recent holidays. They asked me what Simchat Torah honored, and instead of answering the simple "we end and start the Torah!" answer, I tried to search for something deeper. And then I got all caught up in my head. I'm guessing the entire room was spinning around me, and that the rabbis were wondering what was going on. I had my head in my hand, and was mumbling to myself about the Torah. I said something, and it was wrong and I felt humiliated. Me, the Judaic studies student, fumbles over a basic Judaism question that I've known since at least 2004 or 2005. Then, well, this is funny.

We ended up talking about the "holiday of the giving of the Torah." So the rabbi asks me about the name of the holiday. My answer: "Oh it's ..." Insert awkward silence here. Insert head into hand here. Once again, I was mumbling to myself. "There's Pesach ... then there's the omer ... then we eat lots of cheesecake. We ate so much dairy." The rabbis, reassuringly told me that they knew I knew it, and I responded that I knew I knew it. Finally, one of the rabbis says "It's often the feast of weeks." And I resignedly said, "Shavuos ... I knew that ... Shavuos." Let's just say that was followed by a long sigh.

It was reassuring to know that my anxiety -- and there was anxiety like you wouldn't believe -- was necessary. It's almost required. If you go in without anxiety or nervousness, you're probably not jibing right with the beth din. The rabbis constantly reassured me that it was okay that I was so anxious.

The meeting ended shortly after the quiz-like questions. The rabbi said they needed to talk, and that someone would get back to me soon. The rabbis are aware of the time constraint leading up to my trip to Israel, and I told them that to daven at the Kotel as a halakicly Jewish woman would be the zenith of this entire experience so far -- of being Jewish. I explained that this is the most important thing, and the most difficult (in a good way) experience in my entire life. At the same time, I have to say that if it doesn't happen in the next 2.5 weeks, I'm committed 100 percent to the RCA process. When looking at everything going on in the world, I need to have confidence in my conversion beth din and the rabbis therein.

The Outcome?
I think that I can say, with confidence, that the rabbis that I have on my beth din (the three, that is -- the fourth seems to have come to speak to me about my 11-page essay, which he said was an incredibly well-written odyssey [publish it!], which put my mind at ease and made me feel so confident in myself, especially considering who he was) are kind, understanding, yet firm Orthodox rabbis who know their stuff. Immediately after leaving the meeting I was embarrassed, I felt humiliated regarding my poor performance in the basics (am I overreacting? ask Tuvia, I was outside myself and he was watching it all happen), and wasn't sure how to feel. After calling a very close friend to talk about the meeting, I started to feel better. I was reflecting on how the rabbis approached me, how they reacted to my answers, and how warm they were about everything. It was then that I started feeling more confident about the experience, and it's probably why right now I feel fairly good about the entire experience.

So now? I'm waiting. I've heard from one of the rabbis a few times since the meeting regarding various issues, but nothing regarding where I go from here. Friends inquire, offer words of kindness, and check in often asking whether I've heard anything and what I know. Let's just say, folks, that as soon as I know something, you'll know something. You've all been with me this long -- I won't leave you hanging, I promise.


abby said...

yasher koach! it is so hard to have to ask for something you want so much, from strangers (even kind ones). al ti dagi, chavi! it could only get easier from here.

Anonymous said...

it all sounds very encouraging. I was on the other side of this kind of meeting. we had a friend who was converting, and we were her sponsor family. they asked us to come up, the Bet Din, to talk about her and her Jewishness and whether we thought she was ready to convert. it was a new way for me to see the process.

No one is more ready than you, Chavivah!


Me and the KoD

Bethany said...

As someone who is about to start this process, I will always be thankful to you for posting your experiences. I look forward to your next posts about this journey!

N said...

Wow... Your commitment is inspiring C!

Daniel said...

Saw your post through twitter, very impressed by your efforts and honesty, thanks for sharing.

YC said...

From where I am sitting- very humbling

Elianah-Sharon said...

I think you aced it. Had you gone in with everything smoothly in place...nah, probably not so much. But you went in genuinely as YOU. I am SURE you aced it.

Daniel Saunders said...

From what you write, it sounds like you did better than you think you did, if that makes sense. Interviews are always tough anyway. I thought I did pretty badly at my university interviews, but they still let me in.

I'm rooting for you.

SusQHB said...

@RavTex's reaction when I told him the meeting was at YU: "Ooooohhhh the Brand New Beit Din room!!! She's sooo lucky! Might be the 1st meeting in there." Hopefully that bodes well for you buddy! Looking forward to hearing good news!

Gruven Reuven said...

Yasher Koach!

I'm sure everyone is nervous, and that's to be expected. I wouldn't worry about it.

I just hope they complete the process before your trip, as that would be wonderful.

Your next post should be you telling us the amazing news!!

Chaviva said...

@Abby @Daniel @N @YC Thanks :)

@Hadassah I *so* need you to come talk for me. They should ask me for references, lol.

@Bethany That's what I'm here for. I'm so glad I can help provide some insight. I'm always honest, always candid.

@Elianah-Sharon You know, that makes sense. My flaws are part of who I am. My anxiety, my insecurities -- they are SO Chaviva.

@Daniel S Thank you :) And I'm sure you did a lot better than you thought!

@SusQHB You have no idea how loud I laughed when I read that. Seriously.

@Reuven I hope so, too. That would be the most ... most ... most something for me. You know? Davening as me. Truly me.

nmf #7 said...

Reading this now- yasher koach!! That must have been a very stressful occasion- but probably also a happy one, as they were so ecouaraging.
Hatzlacha rabba on the rest of your journey!

KosherAcademic said...

Chavi, with all the stress you were under, it sounds very encouraging. I don't think they wanted an expert, but someone who they can tell is dedicated to learning and Torah and mitzvot -- all of which you are. Yasher Koach, and keep us updated!

Yerachmiel Lopin, blogger, frumfollies said...

To your credit it sounds to me like you weren't studying for the test and the grade. You were studying for living a life Jewishly. I would be surprised if the beit din did not see that. We will be blessed and enriched by your decision to join klal yisroel. Yasher Koach.

Anonymous said...

my mother found your blog entry for me as i'm preparing for my second meeting with the beit din. my situation is a bit unique, or not, in that my mother is jewish, but we don't have "documents" (or anything tangible, really) to prove so, as everyone was assimilated and americanized and not observing anything. i met a woman whose grandmother (maternal of course) is a shoah survivor, who hid the jewishness from the family for years just as my grandmother did, and not only did this woman have to nevertheless go through a giur, but it took her two years! and she started off the process, like myself, as already a frum woman! in any event, i loved this post, thank you for sharing your anxiety and worry, i found it to be such a comfort, especially as i've been agonizing over all the could-have-answered-so-much-better things that i said last time. (when they asked what i ate i started listing actual foods--soup, rice, vegetables--before i realized, of course, i needed to let them know that, of course, i only eat kosher!) hag sameach/happy chanukah, all the best to you, and yasher koach! i hope your friends and family are dancing at your wedding soon. ~batya

Anonymous said...

oh, i forgot to add the main thing that i wanted to share, which is that feeling humiliated is such commonground! it's a word that i, too, have used to described the experience (also positive, too, of course, but trying to prove that you are who you are to someone that you don't know? daunting!) ~b

Brittni said...

I have my beit din today (leaving for it in a half hour! Eek!) and I had a dream about being late last night, too. Thanks for posting this. Reading about your experience has calmed me down incredibly.

Chaviva said...


Nu!? How'd it go!? Let us know! Feel free to email me privately, too.

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