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Pros and Converts

A newly minted Orthodox Jew discovers the promise and perils of blogging her religious journey.

Megan Greenwell is an Angeleno and a senior editor at ESPN The Magazine.
Dylan C. Lathrop is a designer that thought it was yesterday all day.

Original?2012

A decade ago, Amanda Edwards was attending Christian youth meetings at the University of Nebraska. Today, her name is Chaviva Galatz. She is one of the most prominent Orthodox Jewish bloggers in the world and a recent immigrant to Israel, alternately hailed as a poster child for conversion and vilified as a false prophet.  

A casual reader of her blog, which includes nuanced examinations of complicated Torah passages and critiques of people who talk in synagogue or don’t keep fully kosher, would assume she’s been Orthodox since birth. Watching the 29-year-old fluently recite Hebrew prayers at a Seder, even a rabbi likely wouldn’t guess that she grew up nominally Christian and had never heard of Passover until sophomore year of college. They’d both be wrong—a fact that illustrates a centuries-old debate over the role of converts in the strictest branch of Judaism. But Chaviva’s story has a 21st-century twist.

Judaism, one of the only religions that prohibits proselytizing to nonbelievers, has always had a fraught relationship with converts, particularly in the Orthodox tradition. Even the Talmud itself, which is formatted as a discussion among ancient rabbis, is inconsistent on the merits of conversion. In some sections, the rabbis suggest converts occupy a privileged place in Judaism because they chose a Jewish life instead of simply inheriting it from their mothers. In others, the tone is grave: Converts are a blight on Israel. The uncertainty lingers to this day. The conversion process can take years, and many of those who have completed it successfully say they’re still forced to prove themselves to born Jews suspicious of their intentions.

The rise of social media has complicated matters further. Potential converts are no longer reliant on religious leaders or scholars for information. A blogger who’s only been reading about Judaism for a couple of years can become a trusted resource for those starting the process. That enables people to build informal support networks and ask questions they might be too intimidated to take to a rabbi. Yet empowering lay leaders without divinity degrees or years of experience also creates the potential for spreading false information.

And sets the stage for a deep sense of betrayal when a blogger doesn’t want to be a role model anymore.

Chaviva’s path to Judaism began as a search for a new family. When she was growing up in Missouri and Nebraska, her family lived in near-poverty. They had their car and furniture repossessed when Chaviva was 12. She began working at fast-food restaurants at age 14 so she could lend her parents money. When she was 17, they asked her to sign up for a credit card because they needed to fix the family van and couldn't get financing themselves.

Her mother, Debbie, who had struggled with mental illness for years, buckled under the stress. One night, the family was driving and Debbie and Robert were fighting in the front seat. Chaviva can't remember the subject all these years later, but she knows it was at least tangentially about her. "And my mom turned around and looked right at me and said 'I wish you'd never been born,' " she recounts. Sitting in her living room under a framed piece of Hebrew calligraphy and a poster proclaiming “I love you blogs and coffee,” she tells the story calmly, her huge brown eyes betraying no hint of pain. Sharing the most intimate details of her life has always come naturally to her.

So years later, when she learned in a Jewish history course at the University of Nebraska that every Jew is considered a son or daughter of Abraham and Sarah, the teachings spoke to her. An online "What Religion Are You?" quiz she took in high school had suggested she might be Jewish at heart, but she forgot all about it until she began exploring Judaism in college.

Jews aren't common in Lincoln, Nebraska, and her one Jewish friend stopped accompanying her to synagogue after a couple of trips. She marked Passover 2004 by eating matzo alone in her dorm room, having already decided to convert and move somewhere with a larger Jewish family to join.

Because she had always been a curious student, reading about Jewish history and learning Hebrew were a major part of the appeal, so she sailed through the study process with a rabbi in Lincoln and converted to Reform Judaism, the religion’s least observant branch, in 2006.

"I suddenly belonged, I had people, I had a history, I had a shared dream. I had a home," she wrote later on Kvetching Editor, the blog she started around that time to chronicle her conversion process.

I suddenly belonged, I had people, I had a history, I had a shared dream. I had home.

But joining a family involves taking on its squabbles as well as its celebration dinners, and choosing Judaism dropped Chaviva into long-running dispute over the role of converts—especially after she decided to pursue a full Orthodox conversion in 2008. Because Orthodox Judaism is the only denomination that holds strictly to Talmudic principles, and because neither Orthodox rabbis nor the Israeli government accepts Conservative or Reform conversions, the debate over the validity of conversions is largely limited to the strictest branch of the religion. And although technically all Jewish people are descendants of a convert—Ruth, the great-grandmother of David—that hasn't made it much easier for her modern-day followers seeking an Orthodox life.

Just 13 percent of American Jews identify as Orthodox, which requires dedicating one's entire life to religious practice through 613 commandments, or mitzvot. Women must dress modestly, forsaking pants and covering their elbows, knees, and—if they are married—hair. Services and even parties are gender-segregated, and people are not allowed to touch non-family members of the opposite sex—which means couples have no physical contact until their wedding day. Keeping kosher requires not just abstaining from pork and shellfish, but owning separate dishes for meat and milk, buying only ingredients certified by licensed rabbis, and not eating out at restaurants or friends' homes that don't follow the rules. During the Sabbath, which runs from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday, Orthodox Jews may not handle money, drive a car, ride in an elevator, or use a computer. The rules have not changed in centuries and can make Orthodox followers feel isolated from mainstream culture and even other Jews.

Until 2006, requirements for Orthodox converting were largely left up to individual rabbis. That year, the Israeli Rabbinate, which controls all matters of Jewish law throughout the world, announced a new, more restrictive standard for conversions, calling into question thousands that had been completed and hundreds of rabbis who had performed them. To comply with the new restrictions, the Rabbinical Council of America mandated a new curriculum. Potential converts now must undertake months (sometimes years) of study with a rabbi. They must appear three times in front of a beth din, a panel of three rabbis aiming to weed out people who aren't doing it for the right reasons or who they don't believe will follow all the laws. (There are only 11 authorized beth dins in America.) Male converts must be circumcised.

The conversion process can cost hundreds of dollars—or more, for people who don't live near an established Orthodox community. But Rabbi Barry Freundel, who oversaw the revision of the standards as chair of the RCA’s conversion committee, says the results have been wholly positive. “There were wildly divergent standards, and that's not good for anybody,” he says. “Now, if someone moves to a new community, their new rabbi knows that conversion has been done the right way.”

The move called into question conversions that didn’t live up to the new standards, and upset many rabbis, who argued they were the best judges of how to convert members of their own communities. Among many converts, a culture of fear set in. At any moment and for any reason, they fret, the Rabbinate could invalidate their conversions. Nobody knows if that’s a real possibility, and that’s part of the problem—the RCA isn't known for its transparency or clarity. Whispered accusations of breaking the rules are enough to earn a conversion candidate an interrogation from the beth din.

As she worked toward acceptance in the Jewish family. Chaviva had no trouble following the rules. Around the time she started exploring her options for an Orthodox conversion, the readership of her blog began climbing steadily. People began asking for her advice, and Chaviva began offering more unsolicited opinions, too. “I get all tingly and excited when I talk about my blog and how I’ve managed to help people get through the conversion process, how I've been able to calm fears,” she wrote.

Between 75 and 100 Americans successfully convert to Orthodox Judaism each year, so the community is tight-knit. And when a convert—especially a prominent one—breaks the rules, many others take it personally.

After a little more than a year of study, Chaviva’s beth din declared her ready to convert to Orthodox Judaism on New Year's Eve 2009. The next day, the first of 2010, she arrived at a nondescript building on Manhattan's Upper West Side to enter the mikvah, the ritual bath that signifies purity. The years of preparation culminated in a process that took just a few minutes. She verbally committed to lead a Jewish life, then entered the water and dipped three times, reciting blessings in between. And then she was an Orthodox Jew. 

“I stand firmly by the idea that my entire life I have carried within me the Jewish neshama that has shined so brightly these past six or seven years,” she wrote. “But standing there, looking into that mirror and later listening to the rabbi bestow upon me my name as a Jewess, I felt different.”

Chaviva embraced her status as a role model for aspiring converts. In May 2010, she married a man she had met on the Jewish dating website JDate and moved to Teaneck, a heavily Orthodox community in northern New Jersey. She earned a master’s degree in Judaic studies from the University of Connecticut and soon started working toward a second master’s at New York University. She wanted, she wrote on her blog, "to throw myself into the tidy box of Orthodoxy—Get Married, Move to a Big Orthodox Community, Have Only Orthodox Friends, Dress the Part, Wear the Headcovering, Go to the Mikvah, Live and Breathe the Box of Orthodoxy."  She wanted to show converts that they could be just as Orthodox as someone born in Teaneck.

By 2009, Chaviva's Kvetching Editor blog was drawing several thousand visitors a month. Bethany Mandel was one of them. She frequently emailed Chaviva with questions about conversion and always received a response. But Chaviva also demonstrated a stricter side, warning her, for example, that there were no exceptions to dietary laws. "She relished in it, and she was good at it,” Mandel says. “She was judgmental, but she knew her stuff."

Chaviva admits she was occasionally harsh on her fellow Jews. In one post, she confessed to thinking badly of friends who didn't uphold the strict kosher standards she maintained in her own home or didn't dress as modestly as she did. "I go through these phases of feeling like a horrible person because I don't feel comfortable being around people that a year ago or even six months ago I was completely comfortable around," she wrote. " Have I become a monster? To look at my fellow Orthodox Jew and think, Shame on you."  In a follow-up comment, she added, " Hypocrisy in all things bothers me in a way that nothing else bothers me."

Several readers responded that Chaviva had crossed a line. "Who the hell are you to judge your fellow Jew like that? This kind of attitude will be your downfall in the Jewish community, or perhaps your ticket to ultra-Orthodoxy. You make the call," wrote someone using the pseudonym Tamar Halivni. Three weeks later, when Chaviva took offense at the opening of a Manhattan pork-centric restaurant called Traif (which means non-kosher), other commenters said she had become what she had always claimed to hate: a self-appointed judge of whether other people were "Jewish enough."

The accusations underscored a paradox created by the combination of the new conversion rules and the rise of social media. Though Orthodox Judaism is officially governed by a handful of Israeli rabbis, their secrecy empowered Chaviva to pass judgment on what it means to be Jewish after just a few years in the faith. ”You chose to be what you are,” one commenter wrote on her blog. “How is it right to judge those who had no choice?

Between 75 and 100 Americans convert to Orthodox Judaism each year, so the community is tight-knit. And when a convert - especially a prominent one - breaks the rules, many others take it personally.

Last fall, Chaviva asked for a divorce after just 16 months of marriage. The week the divorce was finalized, she packed her car and drove to Denver, where she had once spent a summer, to escape the Orthodox bubble of Teaneck. Naturally, she blogged the entire journey, leaving out only the intimate details of her marital problems. She moved into a sprawling apartment complex on the decommissioned Lowry Air Force Base, where much of Denver’s small Orthodox community lives. But unlike in Teaneck, living among Orthodox Jews in Denver does not mean living exclusively among Orthodox Jews. Walking around Teaneck, "there were a lot of strangers, but they were always Jewish strangers," Chaviva says. In Denver, the strangers came in all religious affiliations.

Including the attractive, charming strangers. Chaviva had noticed the barista with the spiky hair and the wire-rimmed glasses at her local Starbucks, but didn't think much about him until he started flirting with her about a month after she moved to town. Though that branch of the coffee shop is so popular with the Orthodox community that it's known as "Jewbucks," it didn't take much sleuthing for Chaviva to realize that Taylor Hibbs wasn't Jewish. But she didn't have a ton of friends yet, and none of the 613 commandments prohibit talking to a nice guy in a public place. Having him over for dinner, though? Kissing him? Spending the night together? The Talmud is pretty clear on the answers to those questions.

For weeks, she didn't tell anybody, including her best friend in Denver, who lived just across the parking lot from her. But the rumors didn't wait for an official announcement, and they spread all the way to Teaneck. So, fittingly for someone who had chronicled six years of her life on the internet, she wrote a post titled "The Big Reveal."

"Right now, he's perfection for me. He makes me laugh, he makes me smile, he makes me feel okay being me," she wrote. She also confessed that she had begun eating out at non-kosher restaurants—first, only vegetarian ones, then others that had good vegetarian options—though she still maintained a kosher kitchen. She would watch TV or use the elevator on the Sabbath if Hibbs pressed the buttons.

Nobody from her congregation back in Teaneck has gotten in touch since she moved, she says. Just under two years after her Orthodox conversion, she removed the word "Orthodox" from the header of her blog, relabeling herself "Underconstructionist." "I don't want to be in a box," she says, though she went through years of study and hardship to earn entrance to that box just two years ago. " I've sort of seen the fluid nature of what I believe and what I practice."

For many of the people who had seen Chaviva as a role model for a perfect post-conversion Orthodox life, the news hit like a bomb. In blog comments, Facebook wall posts, and emails, people told her that her actions were chillul Hashem, a desecration of God’s name. That she was lost and they’d pray for her to find her way back. That she was setting a bad example. Some friends stuck up for her, but others turned their backs. The woman she had once referred to as her “Yiddish mama,” a friend from Teaneck, sent her an email expressing disapproval, then stopped talking to her—except for a text message sent from Chaviva’s ex-husband’s wedding.

Devoted readers of her blog, including many Chaviva had helped guide through the conversion process, were also worried. They’d heard stories of Jews whose conversions were invalidated or questioned, and they feared a prominent Orthodox blogger’s fall could undermine their own conversions in the eyes of the Rabbinate. “Your actions, especially after conversion, matter,” Skylar Curtis, who was converted by the same beth din as Chaviva, wrote on her own blog. “We rely on each other to be good Jews and give converts a good name. When one convert ‘goes bad,’ we all suffer for it.” Mandel says she doesn’t care who Chaviva dates, but wishes she didn’t feel compelled to spill the details on the internet. “You’ve been warning for years about people setting a good example for just this reason.” The outcry prompted Chaviva to temporarily disable her blog.

Rabbis agree that highly public cases like Chaviva’s give the conversion process a bad name, but they say Israel would never revoke other people's conversions based on her reveal. They emphasize that once a conversion is completed, that person is Jewish no matter what. “The hardest test of a convert is not when they’re going through the classes; it’s after they convert, because then nobody's checking up on them,” says Rabbi Chaim Coffman, an American living in Israel who runs online classes for conversion candidates. “She’s not the first to violate her conversion so soon after the fact, but the fact that she's this public figure who’s still offering to help people while living off the derech is really a problem.”

Meanwhile, Chaviva is reconsidering her definition of family. In April, she broke up with Hibbs—she was frustrated with his lack of career ambition and decided she needed more time to recover from her divorce. She stopped going to synagogue while they were dating because she felt judged. Since the breakup, she’s only been to services a handful of times. Sitting among happily married couples and their parents at a Passover Seder, she says, made her feel like an orphan.

So now she's back on the Orthodox path. She’s starting to think about how to create her own family in Jerusalem. She’s looking forward to meeting an Israeli man and remarrying. And although she’s still blogging, her writing these days focuses much more onA the events of her daily life than on analyzing the Torah or other Jews’ behavior. For the moment, at least, she’s happy to leave role modeling to the professionals.

End