Friday, December 21, 2012

Merry Christmas

Trust South Park to hit the nail on the head when it comes to being a Jew on Christmas. Now add to all that the fact that up until two years ago you celebrated Christmas, your family still celebrates Christmas, and your favorite movie is still It's a Wonderful Life. Welcome to my life every December.

Last year was my first Christmas as an official Jew and I celebrated the Jewish way: Chinese food and a movie. This year I am going home to see my family (and by extension celebrate Christmas).

After telling my mom that I might be coming home for Christmas, I got the following text message:

I am beyond lucky to have such supportive parents and I am excited to go home and see them. We'll figure out how to celebrate Christmas while respecting my Judaism. So, here's to the balancing act that is life as a Jew by Choice.

Merry Christmas, movie halls!

Friday, December 7, 2012

Monday, December 3, 2012

Quote of the Week: If God did not exist

"If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent Him." -Voltaire

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Quote of the Week: Jerusalem

Ain't no one gonna break my stride, 

Ain't no one gonna pull me down

Oh no, I got to keep on moving
Stay alive
Matisyahu, "Jerusalem," Youth

This week especially, I hope you will join me in praying for the peace and security of Israel.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Friday, November 2, 2012


Last weekend, as we discussed Lech Lecha in my new Torah Study group, someone asked why God would require circumcision. After all, he argued, God is omnipotent, so if God doesn't want man to have foreskin, then God could just make man without foreskin.

But I don't think that's the point. Circumcision symbolizes the covenant between Jews and God. It is the act of circumcising someone (more than the end result) that matters here. God always requires action of us, because actively engaging with something makes it more ours and actively engaging with someone makes that relationship stronger. When we interact with God (through Torah study, prayer, ritual, or however else you do it), we are building a stronger relationship with God and with the others who participate in those activities with us.

We see the necessity for action all over Genesis. God couldn't just spare Noah's house; Noah had to build an ark. Despite being promised a child by God, Sarah believes that there is still action required on her part to produce that child (whether or not letting your husband sleep with your slave so you can adopt the resulting boy as your own son is the action any of us would take is a separate matter). And now God requires circumcision, which is just the beginning of many more mitzvot - actions that will solidify our covenant with God.

The group leader took this one step further and said that it is not only action, but choice, that builds strength and character. Lech Lecha not only means "go" for Abraham, but "choose." In leaving his home, Abraham can and must choose a new life for himself. As a stranger in a new land, who will he be and how will he define himself? This struggle for definition in choice is what makes Abraham and Sarah the spiritual parents of all Jews by Choice. Abraham chooses to act in some pretty impressive ways and Parsha Vayeira this weekend will highlight some of his best moments. Hopefully we can all follow Abraham's example - to defend our friends and family (Gen 14:14), to treat the stranger with kindness and generosity (Gen 18:2), and to stand up for justice (Gen 18:25).

What better time to act generously and kindly than now, in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, when so many friends, family and strangers throughout the Northeast are without homes and without power?

To those affected by the storm, I wish you a speedy rebuilding.

Shabbat Shalom

Monday, October 22, 2012

Quote of the Week: Horses and Bayonets

‎"There are also a lot less horses and bayonets than there were in 1916." -President Obama
This is my quote of the week, because it makes me laugh. Enjoy this tumblr to laugh along with me.

On a serious note, though, I have to quote the candidates on Israel:
"Israel is a true friend. It is our greatest ally in the region. America will stand with Israel." -Obama
"If I'm president of the United States - when I'm president of the United States - we will stand with Israel." -Romney

This was supposed to be a foreign policy debate, and while the candidates got a little off topic with a lot of domestic policy talk, there was plenty of talk about the international scene. Almost all of that talk focused on the Middle East and, not surprisingly, Israel. This is a topic I have been waiting for all month and both Obama and Romney expressed unwavering support for Israel, as quoted above. I wouldn't expect anything less, since I don't think you can win a debate without expressing unwavering support for Israel. Because of this, I was listening for how the candidates spoke about Israel. To explain my understanding of the Israeli mindset, here is a story from my days teaching Jewish Sunday School pre-k:

The smallest boy in our class was also the youngest and newest, having just moved to Nashville from Israel. One day, while the other teacher and I were setting up for snack time, this boy and the largest boy in class (who had some aggression issues) got in a fight on the other side of the room without us noticing. We noticed quickly and broke it up. The first reaction of the Israeli boy's father was not: "How could you, as his teachers, let this fight break out in class?" or "How did this start?"

His first reaction was: "Son, when we get home, I'm going to teach you how to fight."

The Israeli mindset is self-defense. The Israeli mindset is not to confer with others when something happens; it's to react tough, immediately.

Here's what stuck out to me about the candidates' Israel rhetoric:

Romney, on one hand, seems to think he has a good enough relationship with Israel and Bibi that Israel would call him before deciding to defend itself militarily. I don't claim to have any great and deep understanding of the Israeli mindset, but what I do know is that Israel is proud, independent, and progressively defensive. I think Romney is kidding himself if he thinks Israel would include him in a decision-making conference call.

Obama, on the other hand, steered clear of talking about "what Israel would do" in any given situation. Instead, Obama spoke about visiting Yad Vashem and meeting the victims of terrorist attacks on Israel's border.

What do you think about Obama's and Romney's views on Israel? Who do you think has a better understanding of the Israeli mindset?

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Quote of the Week: Binders full of women

"They brought us binders full of women." -Mitt Romney, Presidential Debate at Hofstra University, October 16, 2012
While answering a question about gender and pay equity, Romney attempted to explain that when he was Governor of Massachusetts he actively sought women for his cabinet. Romney found these women by approaching women's groups to find appropriate female candidates for the cabinet positions. The fact that those groups gave him "binders full of women" to look through really wasn't a necessary detail and only detracted from his point, but it is an excellent example of the laughable/frustrating way Romney talks about women. The substance of his statement was great - he made a "concerted effort" to diversify his all-male pool of applicants and include women. I'm glad. If he had stopped this story there, that would have been weird, but fine. Instead, he went on to talk about understanding the needs of women in the workplace. His example: women need more flexible hours so they can come in late when they have to get the kids to school in the morning or go home in time to make dinner.

First of all, I would prefer to hear about Romney's plan (if he has one) to close the salary gap between men and women. Second, I can't cook, so my husband will be the one making dinner. Most importantly, even if women can't have it all, that's not something I want Mitt Romney (or any man) to tell me or even hint at.

Want a good laugh? Check out:

Friday, October 12, 2012

Shabbat Shalom

Shabbat Shalom everyone! From my home to yours, have a restful Shabbat.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Quote of the Week: A Bunch of Stuff

Biden: "This is a bunch of stuff!"
Raddatz: "What's 'a bunch of stuff'?"
Ryan: "It's Irish."

The Vice Presidential debate tonight was fast paced and exciting, with a qualified moderator. Even more exciting for me, there was a question about religion in today's debate! Ryan and Biden were asked how their religion would inform their vice presidency.

Ryan said that as a Catholic and a father, he believes that life begins at conception. He wants to see the abortion issue addressed by laws, not the "unelected judges" of the Supreme Court.

Biden said that as a Catholic he follows Catholic doctrine regarding abortion, but he wouldn't impose his religious beliefs on "equally devout Christians, Muslims, and Jews."

What role, if any, do you think religion should have in politics? If you watched the VP debate, who do you think won?

Monday, October 8, 2012

The Etrog

A Sukkot story, courtesy of Rabbi Fred Kazan at Kesher Israel in Philadelphia:

Once upon a time, there was a king who was unhappy. One night, the king had a dream in which God told him that he would be made happy again by a citrus fruit. In the morning, he summoned his advisors and asked them to find him this fruit. The advisors put their heads together to think about which fruits brought the most happiness and they came back to the king with a round orange fruit.

"Oranges," they said, "are the happiest fruit. They smell good and taste good."

So the king ordered orange trees planted throughout the land and soon he had orange groves and became rich(er) off the sale of orange juice. But the king was still unhappy.

His advisors thought some more and came back with a large round fruit. "The grapefruit is healthy and will help lower your cholesterol," they told the king. So the king had grapefruit trees planted throughout the kingdom. Eating the grapefruits helped him lose weight and he became more physically fit. But the king was still unhappy.

His advisors brought him one last fruit. "This one is great," they said. "You can put it in your water and use it to season chicken or fish. It is zesty!" The king had lemon trees planted and they did put zest in his life. But he was still unhappy.

The king's advisors were out of ideas. "Isn't there anyone in this kingdom who can help me?" the king asked. His advisors responded, "There is a man, a Jewish sage. He is a learned man who has a close relationship with God. He may know the fruit you seek." They brought the sage before the king and the king said, "I am unhappy and God has told me that only a citrus fruit can restore my happiness. Do you know of such a fruit?"

The sage smiled. "Of course," he told the king. "The answer is obvious - the fruit you want is named for citrus. It is called a citron, or an etrog."

"Perfect! What will it do for me?" the king asked.

"Nothing. It can't be used to cook. it doesn't taste good, and it won't help your diet."

"I don't need any of those things," the king said. "I have become wealthy from orange juice sales, my health is excellent because of all the grapefruit I eat, and I feast on lemon chicken every night. This etrog can't do anything else for me?"

"No," the sage responded. "The etrog is a fruit for the man who has everything."

The king thought. He had wealth and health and delicious meals. He did indeed have everything. So he took the etrog and he was happy.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Quote of the Week: The Role of Goverment

"The first role of government is to keep the American people safe." -Obama
"The role of government is to protect and promote those documents [the Declaration and Constitution]." -Romney

I jot down random words that catch my attention as a listening tool. Here are my notes from tonight's debate:

Presidential Debates 2012, October 3
I did notice that there was very little mention of religion, except when Romney quoted the Declaration ("that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights") and talked briefly about the importance of religious freedom. What did you take away from the debate?

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Election Season

On my two mile walk to work, I am bound to be stopped and asked "Are you registered to vote?" "Yes," I answer proudly. I don't claim to be the most informed voter out there, but I try. As a registered voter, I fall into three voting blocs, each with their own set of issues that will affect my vote:

The Youth Vote

As a young adult, I am concerned about the state of the nation I am inheriting. Are we where I want us to be socially, financially, and environmentally? Not right now. Socially, I want a future in which everyone has access to legal health care, in which this article from The Onion is a reality, in which your gender or race does not affect your job opportunities or level of pay. Financially, I want to see a level-headed approach to balancing the budget, where you are taxed more if you earn more and where spending on education and infrastructure is seen as an investment in my generation and the nation's future. It would be nice to have a structurally sound road in front of me and a well-educated generation behind me. Environmentally (and along the financial investing-in-our-future lines as well), I would love to see us take a serious look at wind, solar, and hydro power on a larger scale. I am particularly fascinated by windmills. I know people complain that windmills are eyesores, but when I see a wind farm with dozens of windmills spinning together in a field, a blue sky overhead and the earth stretched out before me, it is an awe-inspiring display of the interaction between humanity and God.

Windmills in Southern Illinois

The Women's Vote

Dear Congress, please collectively enroll in a biology course. At the very least, it would teach you that your foot and your mouth are two distinct body parts that don't belong anywhere near each other. As an added bonus, you might also learn how the female body works. In lieu of this course, I suggest you keep your uninformed opinions about us to yourselves and stop trying to limit our healthcare options. Thanks, a female voter

The Jewish Vote

This is my first election as a Jew, which means I am now officially on the lookout for the candidates' commitments to the state of Israel. I haven't been to Israel and, as a convert to Judaism, I can't (even in theory) claim an actual ancestral connection to the land. But I have a spiritual and religious connection to it and a vested interest in its security and continued existence as a Jewish state. I hope to visit Israel someday and wander as Abraham and Sarah wandered when they became the first Jews.

My views on Israel really deserve their own post and I will eventually sift through my feelings and make them coherent enough to post. For voting purposes, however, I can set aside my thoughts on Israel's internal politics, the difficulties of being a democratic and religious state, the religious clashes, etc. The presidential election, for me, is not about Israeli politics, but about the US policy towards Israel and with the recent events involving Iran, this is shaping up to be an important issue.

The presidential debates start this Wednesday. So register to vote, be informed, and don't forget to vote on Tuesday, November 6, 2012!

Monday, September 24, 2012

Beginning Hebrew

I am officially signed up for a beginning Hebrew class! It starts in October! Wish me luck.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Quote of the Week: Etz Chaim

"The Torah is the tree of life to those who hold fast to it and whoever holds it is happy. Its ways are ways of pleasantness and all its paths are peace." -Rabbi Fred Kazan, Kesher Israel, Philadelphia

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Quote of the Week: Eternal Life

"Eternal life does not grow away from us; it is 'planted within us,' growing beyond us. The world to come is therefore not only a posthumous condition dawning upon the soul on the morrow after its departure from the body." -Abraham Joshua Heshel, The Sabbath

Sunday, September 16, 2012

How should I mourn?

As a Jew by Choice, how should I mourn my lapsed Catholic grandmother (z"l)? If I were going home for the funeral, I would have to sit through a Catholic mass that she would have hated and file past her open casket and explain why I want to throw some dirt on her coffin after they've lowered her into the ground. I would also have to explain why, after traveling close to 800 miles to be there, I would be skipping her wake to go to synagogue for Rosh Hashanah. But I am not going home for the funeral, so I won't have to explain these things to anyone. Instead, I am left to wonder how I should mourn (from 800 miles away) my non-Jewish grandma in a Jewish way and how I will mourn others in the (God willing far distant) future.

For answers, I turned to the internet with search terms like: "Jewish convert mourning non-Jewish relatives" and "Jews by Choice in mourning." It was generally unhelpful, with answers ranging from: "Converts shouldn't mourn non-Jews" to "Do what you want" to "You're required to practice the Jewish mourning rituals in full."

If my internet search has taught me anything, it's that how you will mourn is something you should think about before you are thrown into mourning. This is especially true for Jews by Choice. Since there is no consensus among Jewish authorities (even within the same movement) about how a convert should mourn non-Jewish relatives, it seems that we are left to piece together our own Jewish mourning rituals from a mish-mash of conflicting suggestions across the internet. I have posted some of the more helpful links I found below. If you have tips for me and other mourning converts, please leave a comment. Thank you.

Resources for converts in mourning
  • The Rabbinical Assembly's (RA) position on converts mourning non-Jewish relatives is an interesting read, ultimately concluding that we should be required to follow all traditional Jewish mourning practices.
  • Rabbi Gershom Bernard of Northern Hills Synagogue in Cincinnati offers a brief overview of the different schools of thought on this topic, ultimately agreeing with the RA's ruling.
  • Tablet Magazine published this personal reflection from a Reform Jewish convert working out for herself the appropriate ways to mourn and remember her non-Jewish mother.
  • Rabbi Ruth Adar, a Reform rabbi, has addressed this problem multiple times on her blog. With so few resources on this topic, her posts are a welcomed, insightful source of information and guidance.
  • Chabad offers suggestions for converts to mourn non-Jewish family in a "markedly Jewish" way while distinguishing this mourning from mourning the death of a Jew.
  • Anita Diamant, author of Choosing a Jewish Life and other great resources for converts and others hoping to build a Jewish life, has a book about mourning, with an excerpt available here. The excerpt doesn't really provide any answers on how to mourn, but offers a number of thought-provoking questions about the mourning process for converts. If you have the foresight to think about how you will mourn before you are actually mourning, these questions seem like good things to think about. I assume the book actually does answer some of them, since Diamant is usually good about that. 

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Shul Shopping

I have become a perennial shul shopper; blame it on being young and mobile. This will be the fourth year in a row that I am spending the High Holidays at a new synagogue. Looking for a shul right before the High Holidays is probably the worst time to look for one - attendance is higher than it will be for the rest of the year, the rabbi is usually busy preparing for the holidays and won't have much time to discuss the synagogue with you, and you feel rushed to join a place in time to get tickets for Rosh Hashanah. My husband and I have moved every July for the past four years, meaning we have had just 2-3 months to figure out our temple options, visit, and narrow down the list, before committing to a place for the year. Based on our previous synagogue experiences, this is what I was looking for in our most recent venture:
  1. A Traditional Egalitarian service. For me, this means mixed seating, the majority of women wearing kippot and tallit, and women on the bimah either as clergy or for an aliyah
  2. Potential to make friends. Am I the youngest one there by 20-30 years? Are there other young couples without kids? Who are the regulars? Are the members inviting or clique-y? 
  3. Torah study. I want a group that meets once a week, though I'll take what I can get. The format should be discussion-based and thought-provoking and cover a wide range of issues and biblical theories. I don't want to study with a group of people who will only treat the Torah as a 100% recounting of actual people and events any more than I want to study with people who are only interested in the proven historical (archaeological) record. Historical analysis can have its benefits, but the Torah is a religious text and should be treated as such. 
  4. An intellectual rabbi who leads by example. I want a rabbi who makes it easy to follow the service without treating the congregation like we're completely clueless. I want a rabbi who gives interesting d'varim on the portion and covers a diversity of topics over the course of the year. Listening to a d'var about the State of Israel week after week, for example, gets boring pretty fast. 
  5. A cantor or song leader I can sing along with. A cantor can have a wonderful voice, but if they are all over the place with the melodies so that no one can sing along, then it's not for me. 
  6. Location, location, location. Preferably, I'd like something within 20 minute walking distance or 15 minute driving distance of my home. I belonged to a synagogue a 30 minute drive away for a year and an hour commute both ways at least once a week for services is just too much. 
  7. Spiritual surroundings. I am not looking for a beautiful sanctuary. Architecturally and stylistically, I don't care what it looks like. Whatever it looks like, it should maximize the sense of God's presence and minimize distractions. Anything about the surroundings that will detract from my spiritual connection with God (creaky seats, really low lighting, etc) is a negative in my book. This is not necessarily a deal-breaker in my synagogue search, but certainly something to consider. 
This list will continue to grow as our experiences and needs grow, but it has served as a good starting point in our search this year. What do you look for in a synagogue or other house of worship?

L'shana tova! Happy New Year!

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Judging a Book by its Cover

Earlier, while waiting for my plane at the Memphis Airport, I walked around the airport bookstore looking for some light reading for my plane ride home from a business trip. While browsing the different sections, I picked up a few books that caught my eye: Unholy Night by Seth Graham-Smith, the autobiography of a woman who escaped Germany in the late 1930s, and a short book about Abe Lincoln (I am a sucker for anything Lincoln). I was always told not to judge a book by its cover, but that's really the only way to browse for a book when you're in a hurry. I wound up giving up on my book hunt and working on this blog post instead. My failed search for a book made me reflect on my business trip, where I spent the last 3 days celebrating Judaism and sports and recruiting Jewish athletes for the Maccabiah Games.

You've heard the joke: "Do you have some light reading? Here's a pamphlet of great Jewish athletes."

Putting aside the fact that that is a terrible joke, that "pamphlet" is due for a serious upgrade to book status and deserves an eye-catching cover. This week, I met some amazing kids and athletes, commemorated the Munich Eleven, and watched with fellow Jews from around the country as Aly Raisman won the gold in the Floor Exercise to the tune of "Hava Nagila." So judge a book by its cover if you have to, but don't judge an athlete by his/her religion.

Memphis JCC Maccabi Games Opening Ceremony

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Cable Guy

Just got to explain Judaism to the cable guy. Awesome!


Q: "What are those fringes that some people wear?"
A: Tzitzit

Q: "What about the curls?" Motions to the side of his face.

A: Payos

Q: "What does the bone on the seder plate on Passover represent?"

A: The shank bone represents the Pascal lamb

Monday, July 9, 2012

My Conversion, Part 4: Conversion

This post is part of a series. Please start with Part 1.

My tentative interest in converting began sometime in late 2009 or early 2010. I bought a number of books on Judaism and converting to Judaism and thought really seriously about how converting would affect my life. I would go from the Protestant majority to an historically persecuted minority. I would have to tackle a new language, new culture, new foods. I would be giving up many of the childhood traditions I knew and loved. It would be a serious refurbishing of my identity on many levels. If I was going to put all that effort into a religion, I expected to get everything I wanted out of it - and I was quite demanding.

My new religion had to make sense to me theologically and if I had a question, I wanted a real, thought-out answer. Its values had to align with mine. Most importantly, I wanted a religion that could make me feel closer to God. For a long time, Judaism fulfilled everything for me except the God connection. I continued to go to services and learn more about Judaism because I enjoyed it, but I wouldn't seek to actively start the conversion process without that final piece.

I participated regularly in Jewish services, holidays, and study for over a year before it finally all clicked for me. Looking back on it, it makes sense that I would only feel a connection to God through Judaism after becoming comfortable with it in all the other aspects I was exploring, but at the time it seemed like I suddenly felt closer to God out of nowhere. So I went to my rabbi in Nashville to start the conversion process.

There are no set regulations for conversion (different movements have some loose guidelines), so each rabbi may do it differently. After talking to me about why I wanted to convert, my rabbi handed me a list of requirements for her conversion candidates. I had fulfilled most of them before I even talked to her about conversion, despite only moving to Nashville a couple months before. The requirements were:

A Conversion Class, which met monthly and included readings about theology, holidays and practice, Israel, and Jewish culture.

Living Jewishly through Shabbat observance and testing out other halachot (keeping kosher, holiday observance, picking up Hebrew, etc). I had been slowly incorporating these things into my daily life since my first encounter with Judaism the year before.

Tikkun Olam/Volunteering, at least part of which had to be within the Jewish community. I had already signed up to co-teach the synagogue's pre-k Sunday school class, which was a complete blast. The kids were great and I got to learn basic Hebrew phrases, like b'vakasha (please) and todah (thank you).

Keep a Personal Journal for reflection on my religious choices. I didn't have to share this with the rabbi or anyone else, but it helps to write that kind of thing out and I continue to use it.

Finally, Membership in the synagogue was required. We had already joined shortly after moving to the city, so this wasn't an issue.

How long the process takes depends almost entirely on the conversion candidate. It's up to you to tell your rabbi when you feel ready. If the rabbi disagrees, he or she will talk to you about it. Traditionally, the rabbi is supposed to turn away a conversion candidate three times, just to be sure they're really committed to converting. I set a date for my conversion ceremony about 6 months into my official conversion process, but most things I've read and heard say that it typically takes someone a year. Again, it varies depending on the person. I converted on a Friday afternoon. I took a half day at work and met my bet din (a court of three overseeing Jewish leaders, in my case the synagogue's two rabbis and the Sunday School director) at the Orthodox synagogue in town, because that is where the mikveh (ritual bath) is located. The bet din seems like it will be scary, but then it's not really. There's not really a good way to prepare for the bet din. There is a section about it in Choosing a Jewish Life by Anita Diamant that runs through the basics of how it works, but it's going to be different for everyone. Your rabbi really shouldn't let you get to that stage if he or she doesn't think you're ready. During my bet din, I basically reiterated why I was converting and explained how I chose my Hebrew name. They asked me some follow-up questions and reminded/warned me that Judaism can be hard. After that, I went to the mikveh.

The mikveh is hard to describe. In a literal sense, it is a ritual pool (for more on the mikveh, see Chabad's explanation). For a convert, immersion in the mikveh represents rebirth into the Jewish people. I walked into the water down seven steps, while my rabbi explained that they represented the seven days of creation. The water was warmer than I expected and it almost came up to my shoulders. I fully submerged three times, reciting a blessing each time. Something about this process is said to ignite the Jewish soul in a convert, so when I came out, I was Jewish. It almost felt anticlimactic to do regular things, like get dressed and brush my hair. Afterwards, in the hall, one of my rabbis declared "Congratulations, you look Jewish!" and I went home to prepare for Shabbat.

My parents and my then-fiance-now-husband's parents came down for the weekend and came to Friday night services with us that night. In the middle of the service, I gave a short speech about why I converted, chanted Hatzi Kaddish, and was presented with my conversion certificate, which is now proudly framed in my apartment. My life since then has been an attempt to figure out my new identity, learn Hebrew, and come up with new blog posts.

Monday, May 14, 2012

My Conversion, Part 3: Deciding to Convert

So, I have realized that in my haste to post the previous segment of my Jewish journey and to keep it brief, I neglected to actually tell the story of my connecting to Judaism. And what fun is this if it's not a story, but just a series of my thoughts on Judaism at disjointed moments in time, taken out of context? So I am giving myself a do over.

As always, I encourage you to start at the beginning and follow the links back to this point in the story.

To recap briefly, I left my Lutheran roots and became agnostic. After a lot of serious thought about my beliefs in college, I decided to look into Judaism.

I have always been really uncomfortable with the unknown and Judaism had a lot of unknowns: different theology, rituals, traditions, melodies, prayers, and language. I think Hebrew is the hardest part about Judaism for a newcomer. Hebrew puts up a barrier to engagement that cannot be quickly overcome. Luckily, I started out in the Reform Movement, where the entire prayer book is transliterated (written as it sounds with English letters), so I didn't actually have to learn Hebrew right away to participate. Still, I was frustrated that I couldn't make the "ch" sound that is so prevalent in Hebrew and non-existent in English and that I couldn't understand what was actually being said. My choices were to follow along silently with the English translation or try to participate with the transliteration - I couldn't do both. I might have given up on Judaism just because of Hebrew if it hadn't been for Lecha Dodi. The song welcomes Shabbat on Friday night and the melody got stuck in my head every week. Humming a song always makes me want to sing it, which involves knowing the words, so I learned the chorus to Lecha Dodi. From there, I managed to learn the Sh'ma (the central prayer in Judaism) and random phrases from other prayers and songs. The more Hebrew I picked up, the more I appreciated the language and its continued use as an integral part of the religion.

Connecting with Judaism wasn't just about incorporating new customs and ideas into my life, but letting go of some childhood customs as well. Christmas was particularly hard to let go of. What kid wouldn't find Christmas fun? Gifts, lights, Santa, magic, and family. Even as I got older, Christmas was still the family holiday in my family. We basically celebrated it as a secular holiday (using a Santa hat as a tree topper instead of a star or angel and such) and when I started to become seriously interested in Judaism, I still hoped to hold onto Christmas in that secular way. Unfortunately, my goal was to find a theologically satisfying religion, which kind of conflicted with this desire to ignore the theological underpinnings of a holiday just because I liked it. I couldn't make a theological exception - although I tried anyway - and reconcile that with my overall goal. Christmas 2010 was my last Christmas before I converted (I was in the conversion process at that point). I went home to celebrate with my family and the family time was nice, but it didn't feel like my holiday anymore. This past winter was my first Jewish Christmas and I went through a weird wave of emotions. Between moving 750 miles from home and starting a new job in the Fall, I chose not to travel home for Christmas. When I made the decision in late October, I really thought it wouldn't be a big deal. I would be home around Thanksgiving; I could see everyone I wanted to see then. I was fine until about two weeks before Christmas, when I suddenly felt this huge loss, like I was going to be missing out on something important. I didn't miss the tangible stuff, like the lights or gifts, but the intangible family moments. Christmas itself turned out to be a non-event, just like I originally thought it would be. My fiance and I rented a movie and ordered Chinese food for my first authentic Christmas as a Jew. Here's hoping that next year I remember that everything was fine and just skip the sad part in the middle.

Another problem I had connecting to Judaism was fitting myself into the idea of l'dor v'dor, "from generation to generation." Judaism is a religion and a people (more on this in a bit), which means that it has been passed down from generation to generation, at least theoretically, beginning with Abraham and Sarah. When I first started thinking about conversion, this was one of the major things that held me back - for two reasons. I didn't think I would ever feel fully Jewish without that family connection. Family history plays a big role in Jewish life. Your Hebrew name is "YOUR NAME daughter/son of DAD and MOM". Converts take a Hebrew name ending with "bat/bar Avraham v'Sarah" (daughter/son of Abraham and Sarah), which is designed to fit them into the family tree. The flip side of that is taking on your Hebrew name without feeling a little like you're dropping your own family. The whole generational thing does not seem to be explained very well to potential converts and after having finally gotten it, I can see why - it's a confusing concept. Abraham and Sarah are not meant to replace your parents; they are your spiritual progenitors. Your relationship to Abraham and Sarah and your relationship to your parents only makes sense if you don't think about it too much. The second you try to really focus on what those relationships mean to your potential Jewish identity (if you're thinking of converting), it gets confusing again. Being comfortable with dual-natured relationships like this is important, because Judaism is full of them.

Another one of those dual-natured relationships is that Judaism is a religion and a people and culture. No one was ever able to satisfactorily explain how Judaism can be both a religion and a people. It's something that just is. But I grew up thinking of religion and culture as two completely separate things. My Lutheran religion had (seemingly) nothing to do with my Midwestern American culture; there is nothing specifically Lutheran about apple pie and baseball. The idea that Judaism could be both was something that just suddenly made sense to me. Overnight, I went from not getting it to being one of those people who gets it and can't explain it to anyone else.

Figuring out all of these things was really important to my decision to convert. Read about that decision and the official conversion process in Part 4, the final part of my conversion story!

Monday, April 16, 2012

My Conversion, Part 3: Introduction to Judaism

***Note May 14, 2012: I was unhappy with the way I rushed through this segment, so I rewrote it.***

Shalom and welcome to Part 3 of my conversion story! Please read about my childhood and college years first.

We pick up the story in the summer before my senior year of college. After giving Christianity another chance and then taking a serious look at my actual beliefs, I found I had a lot in common with Judaism and decided to check it out.

Marc (my boyfriend, now fiance) and I were spending the summer at school in Galesburg, IL doing research and working. Galesburg is a town of 35,000 located a three hour drive west of Chicago and about 45 minutes from the Quad Cities on the Iowa border. Luckily, Galesburg has a synagogue, because western Illinois is not filled with them and the closest one outside of Galesburg was a 45 minute drive. We started going to Temple Sholom in Galesburg, where they got just over ten people (a group of ten Jews is a minyan, required for certain prayers in Judaism) every Friday night and had a rabbi who drove in from out of town once a month to lead Saturday morning services.

There were four major barriers I had to get over before I was ready to pursue conversion:

  1. Hebrew was (and continues to be) a problem. Language barriers are tough and not quickly solved. I have been actively engaged with Judaism for close to four years now and I'm still working on learning Hebrew. Fortunately, I started out in the Reform Movement and their prayer books are completely transliterated (the Hebrew is written out like it sounds in English), so I was able to follow along and participate without knowing Hebrew. I've discussed the pros and cons of transliteration before.
  2. Christmas was hard to give up, but I wasn't going to let one holiday get in the way of a religion that had everything else I wanted. Giving it up wasn't easy though. Christmas was always my favorite holiday, not to mention it's the family holiday for my family. My family celebrates Christmas basically as a secular holiday and I'm still trying to figure out how I'm supposed to interact with it now that I've converted. This year was the first year in my life that I wasn't home for Christmas. I really thought it wouldn't affect me, but then out of nowhere a couple of days before Christmas, I got really choked up about missing it. I'm struggling to build a Jewish identity for myself out of my past. Sometimes I look at my experiences before Judaism and think they fit really well with who I am now or, in some cases, seem to have foreshadowed my conversion. But then there's things like Christmas and I'm not really sure what to do with them. When Christmas actually rolled around this year, I thought I would really miss it, but I was completely fine. I called my family to say hi and then Marc and I got some Chinese food and watched It's a Wonderful Life.
  3. Judaism puts a great emphasis on the fact that it is a generational religion. It's passed down from generation to generation from Abraham and Sarah to today (theoretically). Before I converted, it was hard to think I would ever feel fully Jewish without that family connection. Taking a Hebrew name ending with "bat Avraham v'Sarah" (daughter of Abraham and Sarah) is designed to give a convert that familial connection. The flip side of that is taking the name without feeling a little like you're dropping your own family. Abraham and Sarah are not replacements for your family; they are your spiritual progenitors. Being comfortable with dual-natured relationships like this is important, because Judaism is full of it.
  4. Along those lines, religion and culture was the final hurdle I had trouble with before I decided to convert. Judaism is inexplicably both a religion and a culture simultaneously. I was raised to understand religion and culture as two separate things. Growing up, I didn't think of Lutheranism (my religion) as having anything to do with my Midwestern American culture. I didn't really jump this hurdle so much as it just disappeared. I woke up one day and the religion-culture thing just made sense. It's like light being both a wave and a particle (this lesson is the one part of high school physics that I remember).

Learning Judaism for me was mainly about learning to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. I was going to stumble over the Hebrew (even with transliteration), run into conflicts between beloved childhood traditions and Judaism, and have trouble with theological concepts and I wouldn't have gotten anywhere if I wasn't ok with stumbling sometimes. Throughout my life, I tended to avoid uncomfortable situations or situations where I might embarrass myself, so sticking with Judaism long enough to become comfortable with it was a big accomplishment for me in and of itself. Over time, I came to see these four things as positive attributes of Judaism instead of issues standing in my way.

Continue the story here!

Sunday, April 8, 2012

My Conversion, Part 2: College and My Spiritual Awakening

One year ago today, I converted to Judaism! Below is part two in a series detailing my religious story. Please start at the beginning.

Part 2
If you don't leave college with a better understanding of yourself, then you missed a major part of college. College is great because it throws you into a bubble with brand new people from all over the map and that's bound to cause cultural and social learning opportunities without even entering a classroom.

I didn't go to a religious school, but I got an excellent religious education starting almost right away. In my required first year course the discussions were usually dominated by two students - a devoutly Christian man and a woman who was raised atheist. Their arguments really crystallized the religious limbo I had been in for the last five years. I couldn't agree with the religious perspective advanced in class which excluded non-religious people from being moral. At the same time, I instinctively rejected the idea that God doesn't exist. This was the first time that I felt certain about anything religious in a long time. It took me another year to actively seek out a new religious identity, but having one clear belief that I could stick to, even something as simple as "God exists," was a good place to start.

My sophomore year, I gave Lutheranism another chance, this time with a slightly more progressive brand of Lutheranism than the sect that I was raised in. It was better at first and I thought maybe I could be this forever, but something still felt off. I tried a few different Protestant denominations to see if I felt at home in any of them. Finally, I decided Christianity wasn't for me.

*Side note: Before I explain why Christianity isn't for me, I want to emphasize that this is not an attack on Christian beliefs. Just because I found these aspects of Christianity religious deal breakers doesn't mean others can't find faith and meaning in them.*

I wanted a religion that required me to be more thoughtful. All I heard at Christian services were lines about giving my life over to Christ and pure faith is not an answer to the theological questions that still nagged me. I wanted a religion that would challenge me to think about my beliefs on an intellectual level, a religion that would answer my theological questions with something more than, "because."

I decided to start from scratch. You have to know what you want before you can find it, so I enlisted my boyfriend's (now fiance, Marc) help in talking out what I believe. He was raised Jewish and was going through a religious search of his own at the same time. He had tried church with me and decided it wasn't for him either. We spent an entire summer just talking out what we believed and what we wanted to find in a religious community. We covered everything from the nature of God to our purpose on Earth and the afterlife. I didn't have defined beliefs about everything we talked about, but just talking it out gave me some direction. Marc mostly listened while I tried to explain what I thought and posed the occasional question for clarification. It was incredibly helpful. By the end of the summer, Marc was somewhat surprised to find himself saying, "Erin, what you believe sounds a lot like Judaism."

Then we found the "Belief-O-Matic," which asks you a series of questions about your religious and social beliefs and then tells you which religions most match your answers.  Judaism was my highest match.

Next week, watch for Part 3: my introduction to Judaism! Happy Easter and Happy Passover.

UPDATE: Part 3: My Introduction to Judaism

Friday, April 6, 2012

My Conversion, Part 1: The Way I Was Raised

This month, I will celebrate the one year anniversary of my conversion. In honor of this occasion, I have decided to share exactly how I got here in a short blog series.

Part 1
I used to have moments of pure awe and amazement at creation. They usually happened on Sundays in the Spring when the sun was shining and the birds were singing and I was leaving church.

I was raised in the Missouri Synod Lutheran Church, a conservative denomination of Christianity. I never really liked church - I found it restrictive and confusing. It only got worse as I got older. In Junior High I started confirmation class, which is supposed to teach you the foundations of the religion, but the more I learned, the more I just didn't get it. It made me feel stupid, like the theology was obvious and I just wasn't getting it. Everyone else seemed to understand it, but even the foundational underpinnings of the religion didn't sit right with me. I completed the confirmation class, but didn't actually get confirmed. I left religion instead, just in time for teenage cynicism to set in. Those moments of awe I experienced as a girl were replaced with skepticism and anger. I was angry at the world for being so full of hatred and violence, angry at religion for being illogical, and angry at God for letting terrible things happen and leaving me without a religion to have faith in. Forget religion and forget God, I thought. Who needs them anyway? They only cause confusion and divisions and animosity without providing anything tangible in return.

I replaced God with superheroes. Later in high school, while I was still angry with God and boycotting religion, I came up with a theory about my sudden interest in superheroes - they were a substitute for God. The world of superheroes is generally a world of good and evil, right and wrong. A fictional person's faith in Superman is rewarded by at least a glimpse of his red and blue blur in the sky. The real world has more gray areas and the reward for real life faith in God isn't so concrete. This self-assessment might have pointed out my need/desire for faith and meaning, but it didn't lead me back to religion. Rather than grapple with beliefs, faith, and organized religion, I decided the unknowable wasn't worth worrying about. By the time I started college, I was agnostic.

Part 2 coming soon! Shabbat Shalom and Happy Passover!

UPDATE: Part 2: College and My Spiritual Awakening

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

We will do and we will hear

Last week in the Torah's Parsha Mishpatim, while the Israelites were wandering in the desert, God stopped them at Mount Sinai to give them the Ten Commandments and a long series of other laws. After receiving these laws, the people responded, "naaseh v'nishma" which means "We will do and we will hear/understand" (Exodus 24:7). 

This one phrase in the Torah has sparked years of theological discussion. Shouldn't the phrase be flipped around? How can you do something before hearing what it is and understanding it? So at Torah study, we talked about rituals - those things in our lives, religious or not, that we do without ever having been told and without quite understanding why. What do you do regularly for no discernible reason? How many things do we have to do first in order to understand them? Before I had ever heard this line of Torah, the philosophy of doing before hearing/understanding was the guiding force in my conversion.

It took a year and a half of regular Shabbat observance, theological study, and cultural immersion before I felt comfortable and at home in Judaism. I progressed from awkward newbie to "hey, this is fun" to spiritual frustration as I failed to connect on the higher level I was hoping for to desperate prayers to God for a connection with a religion until, finally and suddenly, everything clicked. I "did" Judaism and then I understood it, connected with it, and heard God's response to my prayer for a religious home. I don't think it could have happened the other way around. To hear/understand and then do is logical. Faith is not.

Friday, February 17, 2012

By Choice

I spend a lot of my time thinking about the "by choice" part of my Jewish identity. When should I mention that I converted? How will people react to the news and how will I handle those reactions (externally and internally)? If I don't mention it, am I hiding it? To illustrate why I am so preoccupied with it, here are a few interactions I've had:

I am forthcoming, then defensive
I love talking about religion and I'm happy to answer questions about why I converted. These conversations go something like this:

Me: "I converted" (somehow this is part of the conversation and not just blurted out)

Other person: "Cool, what made you want to convert?"

Me: Short explanation of my religious upbringing, dropping that religion and all religion, deciding years later that I was missing that spiritual element in my life, searching for a religious home, finding Judaism, becoming comfortable with Judaism, and everything finally clicking. Somewhere in there, I mention my fiance.

At this point, whoever I am talking to will ask two perfectly fair questions with offensive implications:

1. "How did your family handle your conversion?" My family was awesome about the whole thing, but most conversion books and discussions you come across will warn you about all the terrible reactions you may face when telling your family about your decision. You are leaving the religion they gave you, which some can take as a personal rejection. You are taking up a religion with a different culture, religion, diet (if you follow kashrut), etc, which can make them feel distanced because they don't understand your new religion. Depending on their religious beliefs, they might worry about your soul in the afterlife. Anita Diamant has a great chapter on talking to your family and handling their reactions in Choosing a Jewish Life. I generally respond to the family question with a list of specific ways they have supported me, even though a simple, "They have been completely supportive" would suffice. I feel like I have to prove that my family isn't like all of those families, as if people wouldn't believe me otherwise.

2. "Is your fiance Jewish?" My answer: "Yes, he is, but that's not why I converted." Some people (maybe most people, but I'm not sure) really want to know if I converted for my fiance. My fiance gets asked more directly if I converted for him when he tells people that I am a Jew by Choice, so I assume that is what people really want to know when they ask me this. That idea offends me, so I react to this question very defensively. I want to be considered on my own Jewish merits, not as an extension of him. Converting for him implies that I am indifferent to my religious identity (that I would be whatever he is), or worse, that I am insincere in my Judaism. This may not be what people mean when they ask me this, but that is the implication as I see it.

Whenever the differences between Christian and Jewish beliefs are brought up, everyone who knows that I converted looks at me
I am uncomfortable in this situation because I am not the right person to ask for the Christian perspective. First of all, I am not a Christianity expert anymore than the average Jew is a Judaism expert (probably less so). Being raised in a religion doesn't mean you understand it. I didn't attend Sunday School regularly and I stopped going altogether in junior high, so what I did learn and remember is juvenile at best. Christianity doesn't make sense to me either; if it did, why would I have gone looking for another religion? I don't want to misrepresent Christian beliefs - there are enough misunderstandings of Christianity among Jews as it is. When I do compare how I was raised to Judaism in a discussion, I always say, "My experience with Lutheranism" or "in my opinion." I don't represent Christianity, I don't want to, and I wouldn't be good at it anyway. Even if I wanted to, there is no way to represent all of Christianity - there are so many denominations and their beliefs are extremely varied. That said, I am more than happy to talk about my religious upbringing and the differences I see between Christianity and Judaism, as long as it is understood that I am not trying to speak for all of Christianity.

People mention all the other Jews by Choice that they know and how great/smart they all are
It seems like almost everyone knows someone they like who is a Jew by Choice. This is nice. There are a lot of things Jews by Choice have to deal with: playing catch-up on a Jewish education, learning Hebrew, learning to like lox if you didn't already, making time for a Woody Allen movie marathon/understanding Jewish culture, figuring out what Yiddish phrases mean, trying to learn how to daven without sticking out like a sore thumb, etc. Being reminded that there are other Jews by Choice out there (and that they are awesome) makes me feel like I'm not trying to do all this stuff alone.

I've often thought there should be some kind of Jew by Choice support system for the times my born Jewish fiance or friends just doesn't understand my frustration or I want to ask a question without seeming dumb. I'm not sure what a Jew by Choice support system would look like or really what I would want it to do, but I came across this blog by a twice-converted (Conservative and then Orthodox) Jew by Choice the other day that does the trick.

The fact that I converted actually comes up in conversation more often than you would think, so these scenarios happen all the time. I've tried all sorts of things to make these conversations easier or smoother, from honing my "why I converted" story to a two minute explanation to combing the internet to see how other Jews by Choice deal with these situations. If I bring up my conversion, I am just as likely to be asked about my family or fiance as I am to be compared to other great converts, so each conversation is a gamble that can end with me being either offended or flattered. This is what has me so preoccupied.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Torah Study would be easier if I knew Hebrew

I'm leading Torah Study in a couple weeks for Parsha Bo (the portion that covers the last three plagues and the exodus from Egypt), so I was reading it online at work today during my lunch break. I get an hour for lunch and I spent the whole time doing this:

This was my attempt at figuring out the Hebrew word for "harden," as in "God hardened Pharaoh's heart." Since I don't actually know Hebrew (I'm working on that), I try to read the portion with multiple translations. I have three different translations at home (JPS, WRJ Women's Commentary, and Robert Alter), plus the translation that I linked to above. I don't always read them all every week or I don't think I would do anything else, but in preparing to lead the discussion for Bo, I am trying to read them all. I have seen "hardened Pharaoh's heart" translated a number of ways in the different translations of the Torah, including "made heavy," "strengthened," "stiffened," and "toughened." Usually when I want to figure out what a word is in Hebrew, I find the word in English in two different verses and then compare the Hebrew to look for words that look the same.

Above, I wrote out Exodus 10:1 ("Come to Pharaoh, for I have hardened his heart and the heart of his servants, in order that I may place these signs of Mine in his midst") and Exodus 10:20 ("But the Lord strengthened Pharaoh's heart, and he did not let the children of Israel go out"). I know some words in Hebrew, like: God, Pharaoh, I, and, to, for, and so that.  Sometimes I use the internet to translate a word for me and sometimes I guess based on context clues. When all that fails, I ask my rabbi-in-training friend, Noah, to translate.

This convoluted attempt at Hebrew text study usually works in the limited way that it can, but today it didn't. As it turns out, the two verses I chose don't even use the same Hebrew word to express the hardening of Pharaoh's heart. The word with a question mark above it in my translation of verse 10:1 is hichbad'ti, which Noah (after I gave up and asked him - thanks Noah!) says comes from the root meaning "heavy" or "to burden." The first word in 10:20 is vaychazak which is basically "to strengthen." This translation is also from Noah, though I should have recognized it from the chant when we finish a book of the Torah "Chazak chazak v'nitchazek" which means "Be strong, be strong, and may we be strengthened." Ah, the fun of Hebrew. I guess my next step is to see where chazak is used and where hichbad'ti is used and try to see if there is any pattern behind using two different words for the same general sentiment. More to come on that idea if the theory pans out. Either way, I can use the different language to add to the discussion I am sure we will have about why God hardens Pharaoh's heart.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

World Trade Center

The World Trade Center site is the quietest place in New York.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Letting Go

This is mostly going to be a post about my sorority, but it fits in so nicely with the end of Genesis that it seems appropriate for my blog.

*Note: In comparing my experiences with my sorority to those of Jacob, his sons, and the House of Israel for generations after that, I am attempting to relate the Torah to my life. I don't mean to put the story of the Israelites entering and leaving Egypt on the same plane as collegiate sorority drama. This should be obvious, but just in case.

Summary of Vayechi, this week's Torah portion and the end of the book of Genesis:Jacob has spent the majority of Genesis building a large family clan, thus kick-starting God's repeated promise of uncountable descendants. Through Jacob's efforts - and the efforts of Isaac and Abraham before him - his family clan will come to be known as the House of Israel. In the preceding portions of Genesis, Joseph saved Egypt and the world from starvation, making the Israelites pretty awesome and important. Skipping ahead a bit: generations later, when these people are all gone, the Israelites will still exist, but in a radically different position. After a long period of slavery, after the Exodus, and after witnessing the power of God countless times (in the ten plagues, the pillars of fire and smoke that led them through the desert, and the revelation of the Torah at Sinai to name a few), these Israelites will not say with the degree of certainty that Jacob and Joseph did, "God exists and is watching over me" (not a direct Biblical quote). They will be a different people and yet, the same.

Jacob, in this portion, is about to die and leave his hard-earned, angel-given name (Israel) to his sons, who don't always do the right thing and may not always represent his name in a way that would make him proud. But you can't live forever and creating something that will exist beyond you has to come with the understanding that you will one day pass the torch and it will be out of your hands.

It's similar in a sorority. I am an Alpha Sig, specifically a founding member of the Theta Nu chapter. The talented group of women I called "sisters" in my time there are vastly different from those women who make up the chapter today, but we are all Alpha Sigs.

Some background information:In 2008, I joined a new organization of bright, quirky women dedicated to strength, scholarship, and service. The goal was to build this organization, ATP, into a force on campus, a home for women with shared interests in things like superheroes, tea parties, and Harry Potter. Ultimately, we strove to join a national sorority and give the women of Knox College a fourth option for Greek life.

After getting caught in the middle of a war on Greek life for two years, we succeeded in reaching official sorority status and became the Theta Nu chapter of Alpha Sigma Alpha (ASA). ASA values strength, scholarship, and service with the added bonus of encouraging spiritual, physical, and purely enjoyable pursuits. Of course, when transitioning from one organizational structure to another, some things will be lost and some added, but overall, the ideals seemed to fit and I really felt this was an organization that could carry on in place of ATP. One month after our installation as an official chapter of ASA, I graduated from Knox with the sense of accomplishment that comes from graduating and leaving something tangible behind. That organization and fantastic group of ladies enriched my experience at Knox, gave me lifelong friends, and pushed my personal growth in ways I couldn't have imagined. All I wanted was for that feeling of happiness, pride and accomplishment to touch the lives of future Alpha Sigs.
My Alpha Sigma Alpha badges
As it turns out, however, letting go is easier said than done. I want to want nothing more than happiness for my future sorority sisters, but I have this nagging feeling of ownership over something that is now rightfully theirs. After all, you can't pour two years of your life into something in the face of constant adversity and then just let it go at the drop of your graduation cap. Rationalizing to myself that organizations grow and change all the time doesn't make the news of certain changes sting any less. For example, in ATP we placed a great deal of importance on academic achievements and professional conduct. We wanted to come across as the brainy (nerdy was ok too) and organized girls. One of the great things we gained by joining ASA was the official motto of "Poise and Purpose" which we reflected in ATP, but never officially adopted. So it hurts to hear that the new body of women who make up ASA have lowered their academic standards (only one member made the dean's list last term) and that they tend to come across as loud and a bit obnoxious (not all the time, but enough that it's noticeable to me over the internet).

To by fair, this happens with sorority sisters; we get on each others' nerves. My time in ATP and ASA, while highly valuable to me overall, was also filled with times when we didn't all like each other and when being part of it stressed me out more than anything else. We had our share of obnoxious moments and times when we didn't live up to the high standards we set for ourselves. We had our share of fights, both at chapter meetings and in the privacy of our own dorm rooms. But as an active collegiate member, I had a say in the organization. If I didn't like something, I could confront it and combat it. As an alum, I can't do that. It's not my organization to run anymore. I spent the majority of my college career creating this organization, just as Jacob spent the majority of his life creating a people/family/religion.
Here's what I've learned from all this:
I helped to create an awesome organization. I did my job and reaped some of the benefits of it before graduating. Now I need to let go. In order to grow and thrive, they will have to adapt the organization to a constantly-changing campus community (after all there's a complete turn over of the student body every four years) and who am I to judge how best to adapt when I live 900 miles away and can only keep up with campus activities through the student paper?

On the other hand, in joining ASA and becoming my new Alpha Sig sisters, these women took on the responsibility of representing not only themselves and the organization in their time, but of representing the organization overall and the memory of their alumnae. In the three-year span while ATP was struggling to become a national organization, a lot of women graduated, so when it came to choosing a national sorority to join, it was our job to consider what our alumnae would want. We didn't necessarily consult them about our choices, because we understood the situation on the ground better than they would, but we did take a good hard look at the goals they set out to achieve and tried to find an organization that would reflect what ATP was when they founded it and what ATP had become under our leadership.

To any Knox Alpha Sigs who may have found this, please don't get too personally offended. I don't mean this rant as an attack on any of you. I just needed to talk it out for myself in a public setting so I wouldn't stew about it to myself.

Alpha love and mine,