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!