judaism

Tales of Jewish Dating, Part II: Lessons Learned

wejewish dating

In my last post, I told many stories about the less-than-perfect experience I had with shadchanim and Jewish dating. I’d like to speak about some things I learned from these experiences.

Not All Shadchanim are Created Equal

First, not all shadchanim are made equal. Some really take the time to get to know you. It doesn’t feel like a matchmaking factory, where they’re sending you out constantly, hoping if you go out enough times you’ll hit pay dirt. They actually want to connect people for whom they perceive a logical connection. And their heart is in the right place. Your long-term tranquility and happiness is the center of their concern.

Others… not so much. It’s a numbers game. They toss people out, knowing full well that if you shoot enough times at the target, you’re bound to graze the bullseye a few times. The elephant in the room is that this type of dating is horrendous, with potentially disastrous long-term results. Dating can get very expensive, and it’s really difficult emotionally. Jewish dating in my crazy city is not fun. It’s often a highly pragmatic marriage interrogation. If it works out, great. If not, you have nothing to show for it. Just lost time and money. No new friend or connection. No amazing experience. Just another failed attempt to find “the one”.

And what happens when it does work? What happens when you toss people together enough times and at some point they do get married? Are you creating healthy, long-lasting relationships based on trust, shared values, and quality communication? Or are you just tossing people in the same room and letting the chips fall where they may? And then abandoning these young, ill-fated couples to figure it all out on their own?

I’m sure there are shadchanim out there who are skilled and thorough. And I’m sure there are those who just have a knack for what they do. The others should stop. They’re doing more harm than good, all positive intentions aside.

Interpretation

Another lesson I gained is about terminology. There are phrases I would use to describe myself that I would never use again in front of a shadchan. I consider myself to be extremely open-minded, especially relative to a lot of folk in my immediate vicinity. However, I quickly learned that whereas I mean that I am open to all sorts of different thoughts and ideas, and I’m willing to try many things in life even way outside my comfort zone, the term seem to get misconstrued by shadchanim as “has no standards”.

So, if you want a shadchan who goes through a list of those who as of yet no one wants to date, by all means tell them you’re open-minded. Please be aware: The damage to your self esteem upon seeing the type of people you get set up with could crush your soul.

Jewish Dating, a Bit Too Serious

A final lesson I culled from the Jewish dating process is it saps your will. It could certainly be expensive. It is most definitely time consuming. But more than any of that, the emotional drain is severe. Keep in mind, this is a very serious form of dating. You’ve got two people interacting, both who wanted to be married yesterday. Hell, they want to have three kids by now! There’s no time for letting go and just enjoying the moment.

In fact, the best date I ever went on was, by Jewish dating standards, an absolute failure. We learned very quickly that we had certain values and lifestyle choices that didn’t mesh correctly. Marriage was out of the question, therefore so was continuing to date. However, we were already there and enjoying each other’s company. I recall very little about this young lady. I don’t even remember her name or what she looks like. But I will never forget the hour and a half we sat just chitchatting on a bench in Jerusalem, eating sunflower seeds and spitting shells all over the place (Israel’s simultaneously most revolting and most amazing custom). The conversation was fantastic. All pressure was 100% gone. And we sat there with the ability to enjoy ourselves, without a care in the world.

It’s actually funny. When going on a date in any capacity, the advice everyone always gives you is to be yourself. And yet with this style of dating, it’s so rigid and uncomfortable that being yourself ceases to be a viable option.

What’s next?

And when all the smoke clears, the date usually ends one of two ways: You either continue on the marriage trajectory, zooming your way to a new apartment filled with wall-to-wall children. Or you have nothing. Nothing at all. No friendship has been created, nor do you have a long-term, meaningful connection. No adventurous story has been added to your life. You just move on to the next uncomfortable moment, hoping that this one will be different. And you try to forget this lousy moment, and the time from your life you will never be able to get back.

Again, I’m sure there are those who try and set people up with the finest of intentions, and who are thoughtful and caring about really trying to put two people in the same room who actually should be. And thus quality dates and marriages might result.

That was not my experience.

Nope. I met my wife on a bus. And sure, it didn’t work out in the end. But we hacked 13 years together. Seems better than most this day and age.

And I’d still take a bus over a shadchan any day of the week.

In my next post I’ll talk about some more important lessons I culled from these last insane 20 years.

 

Anything you learned from your experiences?

 

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Posted by jaffeworld in divorce, Israel, judaism, personal story, 1 comment

Tales of Jewish Dating, Part I: Shadchanim and Beyond

shadchanim

In The Beginning…

Almost two decades ago, I started dating with a fury. I was visiting shadchanim and going on dates just about every week.

And I was miserable.

At the time I was living in Israel, watching all my friends getting married, and itching to find my own soulmate. Arguably pathetically desperate.

I went to many, many shadchanim. This word loosely translates to matchmakers (and very humorously is also the word in Hebrew for staplers). No, they’re not what you might picture from Fiddler on the Roof. It’s a fairly modern version of a similar idea. They’re simply people who maintain lists of guys and girls, and try to attempt to intelligently pair them up.

I don’t want to crap on the profession (or hobby). But I can definitely say it was a system that failed me terribly.

To start my tale, I want to tell a few stories from my pre-marriage attempts to meet people through the “system”.

Shadchanim and Common Character Traits

I recall sitting in a hotel lobby with an Israeli girl. We attempted polite conversation, but failed miserably. And to make matters all the more uncomfortable, she was very clearly a gold digger. I don’t really have a problem with that per se… however, at that point in my life I was working as a sofer (scribe), and living on scraps. How do you tell your gold digger date that you’re living in a caravan for $90 a month, and still sometimes struggle to make rent?

Afterwards I went to the shadchanit (female matchmaker) and politely asked her what she saw that made her think we would be a good match. And that’s when she said two words that will forever live in my mind in infamy:

“Mostly age.”

I still get angry even typing the words.

For God’s sake, if the only thing you can find in common between two people is something wildly trivial, and you completely ignore all other details that show the match is not a good one, get another hobby!

Common Philosophical Outlook

Another odd moment I had involved a young lady who sat across from me and stated without a shred of irony that she can’t believe how anyone can call themselves Lubavitch and not believe the Rebbe is the Messiah.

Now for anyone who has no idea what I’m talking about, the Rebbe is a reference to the leader of a Chassidic group (Lubavitch or Chabad) who died in 1994. A rapidly quieting faction decided that despite his death, the Rebbe was in fact the Messiah. There is a minuscule portion of the Jewish population who believes this. And then there are the rest of us, who find the idea to be anywhere from inane to repellent.

My thoughts upon hearing that my date held this position with extremely aclacrity:

“Well… I guess the rest of this date’s a formality… ”

Shadchanim and Looking for a Little Growth

Once I went to a shadchanit who sat with a little rolodex of eligible guys and girls. You would tell her a little about yourself and she would flip through her little card catalogue from an era gone by, trying to see who might be a fitting match.

I described myself, as one might in their early 20s, as being very spiritual. Constantly searching. Looking to grow and become a better person every day of my life.

At least twice during our little meeting, she said something along these lines:

“Oh, this is a very lovely girl. She’s a nursing student. Very pretty. Extremely nice attitude. And… oh wait, sorry. She’s not into growth.”

And then she would continue fiddling with the rolodex looking for the next candidate.

And I just stood there. Dumbfounded. Wondering what their conversation must have looked like.

“Hi, my name is Samantha. I would like to find a person with whom to stagnate and stay the same forever.”

Nearly two decades later, I still have no words.

And along with the no words, there is no segue that does this final story justice.

What’s a Little Hair Pulling?

Many moons ago I was hired to work as a security guard at a festival in Jerusalem. The workload was very light, but it is not within the capability of an Israeli boss to just to let you sit there and do nothing. When in doubt, they make up stuff to do.

And there I was. Appointed to stand next to the stage, and told my sole responsibility was to arbitrarily tell people they couldn’t walk past the area I was blocking.

And then, of course, everybody and their sister not only needed to walk through that area, but there was no other choice. And it was a matter of life and death.

One young lady stood in front of me. She gave me a sob story about how she had asked the people at the front entrance to use the bathroom, all so she could sneak into the concert. But alas, now she had a change of heart and wanted to leave. However, if she went out the way she came, they would know what she did. The ONLY way she could go to avoid trouble and embarrassment was the path that I was blocking.

Meanwhile…

Two other folk were screaming at me to let them by, as if my preventing their doing so was preventing them from curing cancer.

And the anger and emotions pouring from the three of them stood in stark contrast to my one and only responsibility.

This went on for what felt like a year, until while I was dealing with the screamers, the young lady decided to dart right past me.

I recall the next part in slow motion. I shouted, “Nooooo!” and reached in her direction… and before I knew what was happening, she was staring at me in pain. And I stood there with a fistful of her hair in my hand.

I awoke from my stupor, released my grip, and she ran off into the night. Never to be seen or heard from again.

At least that’s what I thought…

Two years later… I was walking along on a date… and I really thought the girl looked familiar…

Yes. That happened. It really did.

Suffice it to say, there was no second date.

 

So… it would appear that the road of shadchanim was not the right path for me. What’s next?

 

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Posted by jaffeworld in divorce, humor, judaism, personal story, 0 comments

My Overwhelming Dilemma: What Would You Do?

dilemma

The First Dilemma

There are a lot of reasons I am writing this post. However, the biggest reason is to just get some things out into the open. Things I’ve been bottling up for way too long, all starting with the first dilemma.

Many years ago I worked at Cornell University. I was in charge of a Jewish outreach program there.

My wife was running an incredibly important program, sadly filled with complications and controversies. The extraordinarily noble goal was to unite the different elements of a rather divided community in a program that was educational, fun, enriching, and spiritually invigorating.

We had a special guest visiting from Israel, who would be leading a musical prayer service followed by a communal meal. The dilemma? We wanted to try and get all the different elements of the community to join together for the prayer service.

This issue was not just one of preference. There were countless philosophical and theological issues and concerns at play here.

The stricter elements of the group (orthodox) pray with what’s called a mechitzah, a physical separation between the males and the female. The purpose is essentially to improve concentration on the prayers. The other groups not only do not pray in this manner, they find it anywhere from antiquated to offensive, and would never willingly pray in such an atmosphere. And neither group is known for making a lot of concessions on their beliefs or practices.

But the whole program hinged on getting everyone together. And it was my responsibility to figure out a way to make it work.

The Solution

I contacted an authority on Jewish law in Israel, someone I knew and greatly respected. And he had a solution, which seemed to be a great idea. There would be three sections: A men’s section, a women’s section, and a section where people could sit how they choose. The ideas was simple. From the strict perspective, we just needed to give the ability to do the “right” thing. From the less strict perspective, they just needed the option to do things the way they preferred and were used to.

This seemed to solve all problems. And I flew with it.

But not without serious trials ahead of me. I fought battle after battle with many people over the course of well over a month. However, when all the smoke cleared, I was on top of the world. I had conquered every objection.

I even recall a student who vehemently and vigorously argued with me about the permissibility of the mixed section. After he couldn’t take it any more, he contacted his own religious authority… who confirmed everything I said.

I fought and won an uphill battle. It wasn’t easy, but I prevailed.

Now all we needed to do was survive the nightmarish logistics and we were on track to have an epic program. We would unify the elements of a fragmented community, and inspire a multitude of students hungry for such inspiration.

And then my phone rang…

Through the wild Jewish grapevine, my boss had heard about the program we were running, and the solution we had devised in order to make the program work effectively.

He told me in no uncertain terms that the solution was completely unacceptable. And for all issues like this one, we were now required to ask him and only him. He even approached the rabbi who I had spoken with and requested he no longer answer my questions, thus closing off a major resource in my life.

The Big Dilemma

There I stood, stuck with an insanely difficult challenge.

I could uproot things as they were and try and see what new solutions we could come up with on short notice. It is fairly likely I’d find no viable alternative in time, thus in essence destroying the program we’d been working on for months.

The inevitable results of doing so would be personal and professional embarrassment. A community that liked, trusted, and respected me would need to rethink their position, since I had stood so firmly behind this idea, and cancelling the program would just be a giant declaration that I was wrong and had been the whole time.

I would watch endless hours of hard work coming crashing down beneath me, as our program gets projected toward certain failure. I can only imagine how great our international visitor would feel, knowing that he arrived to work with a mere fraction of the students he was expecting, and would only be reaching a very limited population.

And let’s not forget the potential marital discord that could erupt. My wife had put everything into making sure the program was all set up and ready to go.

Or…

I could just ignore the phone call, run the program, and risk the overwhelmingly likely consequences that would arise.

And I chose the second option.

I took the phone conversation and just bottled it up inside me. Until now.

The Future

My contract for that job was not extended for a second year. I’m sure this “incident” was hardly the only reason for my dismissal, but I’m certain it was a hefty contributing factor.

This story has been eating at me for over a decade.

Sometimes it’s healthy and healing just to get these thoughts and feelings outside of you. I wonder all the time if I did the right thing. I wonder if it was wrong to place the health of my marriage and my personal integrity ahead of job concerns. Or if abiding by my employer’s wishes would have ultimately been healthier for both of these things. I wonder.

 

What would you have done?

 

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Posted by jaffeworld in career, judaism, opinion, personal story, religion, 8 comments

Six Things I Love About Israel

Love about Israel
So… anyone who’s been paying attention for a bit may have noticed I’m a bit harsh in my criticism of Israel. Well, that’s not likely to change anytime soon. However, recently a friend of mine challenged me to come up with ten things I love about Israel.

I love a good challenge… and this certainly was one. And sadly I wasn’t able to come up with ten, but I think six is a healthy place to start.

Please please give me more ideas. I can’t tell you how much I want to love living here!

1) The Produce

When I arrived in Israel in 1997, there were several types of vegetables I did not like, and some fruits I had nothing interesting to say about.

That was until I took a bite of some of them in the Holy Land. One bite and I realized why I didn’t like the cucumbers and tomatoes in the States. They taste awful! Flavorless at best. The produce in Israel may not look the part. The colors aren’t as vivid. The shapes are often funny. And there are plenty of items not available year round.

But the flavor is off-the-charts incredible. And the prices are uncharacteristically amazing. One of the only things cheaper in Israel.
If you’re here in the fall, try a mango. You won’t regret it. It’s like eating candy. It’s the way they’re supposed to taste!

2) Ease of Religious Lifestyle

My last year in the States was pretty rough, as far as scheduling was concerned. The last two jobs I had were for major corporations, but I was a contracted employee. This had a lot of complications, the biggest being that I was paid hourly and received no paid holidays or vacations. What this meant was the company was closed for every American holiday and I was not paid for those days, and I needed to take off and not get paid for all the Jewish holidays as well.

Every once in a while the same companies would give us free food, food that was very much not kosher. One of the companies had a program where different employees would give a lecture and the company would then give everyone a free lunch. Even when I volunteered to give the lecture, the food was still off limits to me.

I can go on and on about the complications in trying to make it in the professional world out there when you have a whole assortment of religious restrictions. But I’ll leave it as this: One of the biggest advantages to Israel is that the country’s system and schedule is by and large based on Judaism and the Jewish calendar. I’m never rushing home on Friday to make it in time for Shabbat. Nor do I miss out on countless activities because they’re all on Saturday or Friday night. Nope. Things here are designed around my schedule, and I absolutely love it.

3) A Walking Culture

I’m aware there are places in the States where people still walk, but for the most part, it’s a rarity. I grew very accustomed to driving everywhere, even relatively short walks. I even drove to my gym that was a 20 minute walk away. To my gym!

Now the old train tracks in Jerusalem are essentially my backyard. I walk on them about an hour every day, and it’s always filled with people doing the same. I’m a happier person if I avoid cars and buses here. They are stressful and can get quite expensive. And with traffic and a whole lot of other variables, they strip you of control of your schedule.

Not only can I walk to every place I every want to be, but I’m joined by others doing the same. I love living in a culture that encourages and normalizes the best method of transportation ever created.

4) Dealing with the Big Stuff

Years ago I sat next to an American doctor who led a team of medical professionals to Haiti to deal with a humanitarian crisis following a giant earthquake. The team got together, and showed up with pride and joy to save the day… only to find Israel had long ago sent a team that was fully up and running and making the world a better place.

I’ve had enough experience here to avoid doctors’ offices to the best of my ability, but I can’t imagine a place I’d rather be if true tragedy struck. Perhaps Israel became what it is because of necessity, but there’s a reason this tiny nation could mobilize instantly and help another country across the world with seemingly no effort. It’s become a part of the country’s DNA.

When I see something terrible happen here, the first response time is off the charts and the quality of service is second to none. Years ago in Baltimore we rushed my son to the Emergency Room because of a possible broken nose. Six hours later, and $800 poorer, he was admitted so we could indeed find out his nose wasn’t broken. My experience in American Emergency Rooms is they’ve kind of forgotten the definition of the word “emergency”.

I hope I never need first responders or an emergency room… but if I do, I hope I’m in Israel.

5) Freedom of Children

I love that children seem to be released from their parent’s shackles a lot younger in Israel. I mean, they might still end up 30-year old adults who frequently go home for some home-cooked dinner and laundry, but that’s not what I’m referring to. I’m talking about walking around the streets and seeing young, young kids walking freely, without a care in the world, sometimes picking up groceries for the house or watching their even younger siblings.

It’s kind of like an even better version of what I remember from America in the 80s. Better because it’s even younger. Growing up we went to parks by ourselves and played on old, splintery contraptions, and had the time or lives. All of that has been replaced by boring, plastic monstrosities, and helicopter parents fearing child abduction. Nothing’s actually changed, except attitudes and perspectives.

Kids need freedom to enjoy life and grow into well-adapted adults. A little goes a long way.

6) Hosting Couch Surfers

I haven’t been able to bring all of my hobbies with me from the States to Israel. But of everything that I did bring over, there is one that I’ve certainly made the most of in Israel, and that’s hosting Couch Surfers.

Don’t get me wrong. I loved hosting people in the States. And I certainly loved the people I met. But most people in Kansas City were just passing through, and unfortunately the biggest thing I was providing for them was safe lodging. In Israel I can provide an experience!

I have now taken countless people to see the Western Wall for the first time, showed them all around the city, and given insights into the culture and customs of the country.

Almost everyone who passed through my home in America was from the United States, whereas here I’ve hosted people from over 20 countries. I’m making interesting and incredible connections all over the world.

I’m no one’s first choice to be Jerusalem’s Ambassador, but for these scores of guests who stay in my home, I am committed to making sure their visit to Israel is as incredible as it could be. And watching people fall in love with Jerusalem makes me like it here a lot more as well.

 

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Posted by jaffeworld, 0 comments

Where Has All My Faith Gone?

faith
I have no delusions that writing this post will solve the many issues swimming around in my brain right now. I write because it’s cathartic, and occasionally doing so is literally life changing for me. However, sometimes issues are bigger than can be resolved in a thousand words.

My mind and spirit were damaged about two years ago. I have by no means recovered. I’m not even sure if I’ve progressed.

But who knows? Maybe writing about what’s happened to me will be the next (or first) step in a long recovery.

Divorce is Humbling

Getting divorced is a very humbling endeavor. It forces you to think about any and all events that happened up until that point. If something were different, could the marriage have been saved? Did I do something wrong? Are there marriages that were never meant to be, and thus divorce or unhappiness are basically inevitable outcomes?

Searching deeper, the questions become even more painful, as you realize you may have done everything correctly, or at least to the best of your ability, and still had the nasty and painful outcomes. Such a question shines a light on a part of faith that’s troubling to examine. There are no guarantees. Anything could happen. And you can do everything by the book, with passion, excitement, and devotion, and everything could regardless still come crashing to an excruciatingly violent crescendo.

It’s naive to think that if you do things “correctly”, everything will go well. Worse things have happened to better people; worse outcomes have happened to those who worked harder and better than I did.

How to Survive?

But how does one survive such a blow to the ego 100% intact? Especially when you consider that a divorce is only the beginning of the crazy that is about to happen. Separation from children, social confusion, financial woes. All starts to pile up, and you can’t help but notice that everything you ever dreamed life would be like is crashing down around you.

No one sets out to get divorced. No one sets out to see their children part time, or to have money leave their bank account to pay the mortgage for the house they don’t live in, or to go from a large home to an apartment with psychotic people living beneath them (true story). Life is often a series of a few steps forward and few more steps backwards. But no one ever plans for this many steps backwards!

But it was fine. All was well. I was enjoying my newfound freedom. I was rapidly learning how not only to be on my own again, but how to thoroughly enjoy the situation. And things quickly became some semblance of normal.

Until They Weren’t

I received a phone call, and a proposal to return to Israel. My older two children were already pumped and excited about the idea. But I was unsure.

I had lived in Israel for eight years, and I had spent ten years contemplating those eight years. What I liked, what went wrong, and where I wanted to be and what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.

I then spent the next two months trying to make a decision, objectively the hardest two months of my life. Would I block my children leaving, crushing their dreams (or at least the fantastic ideas they had built up in their heads? Would I once again make the trek across the ocean, knowing full well I was not ready to do so, professionally, financially, practically, emotionally, or in any way whatsoever? Or would I wave goodbye to my children indefinitely, and relegate my relationship with them to Skype and highly infrequent visits?

For two months I could not be alone with my thoughts. I agonized over the decision, and every moment was painful. Sleep was hard. Prayer was impossible. It was just too quiet, too inactive. And I physically felt my faith eroding away.

It was like being in a violent car crash in slow motion over the course of two full months. I knew no matter what I decided, there was no chance of me coming out unscathed.

Who Receives Problems?

I used to believe people only received problems they could handle. Used to believe, since I was placed in a situation I could not handle.

My choices were causing my children to hate me, inevitable financial devastation, or separation from my children. Who alive is equipped to make that call!?

And after endless personal debate, I chose what I thought was the best option at the time, even though it meant saying goodbye to children.

I am not a deadbeat dad. Sadly, I know many women whose ex-husbands are entirely out of the picture. Some have children who have never met or have forgotten their biological father. I find this wholly unnatural. No one–no one–should ever be placed in a situation where they need to say goodbye to their children, not knowing when they will hug them again.

And I Sunk

My life was good. I was doing just fine professionally. I was keeping myself busy and meeting new people. But my every action felt empty. It felt like something was terribly lacking from my life, no matter what happened.
And it called into question every choice I had ever made. How could my decisions have been correct if this was the ultimate result? How could a God who is good, who I felt I had served proudly and faithfully, have placed me in this untenable situation?

I’m with my kids again, thank goodness. I never kept my eye off the prize. I came back to Israel not because of a deep-seated religious desire, but because my four precious gems were here waiting for me.

But the damage was done.

I’ve said before that I believe with perfect faith that nothing happens without a reason, and if you don’t know the reason, it’s because not enough time has passed.

But sometimes it’s much easier to say than to actually act upon.

And here I am, with a giant crack running down the side of my faith. Hoping for clarity. Hoping for a comeback. Wondering what the future holds.

 

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Posted by jaffeworld in judaism, opinion, personal story, religion, 0 comments

Don’t Call Me Rabbi

rabbi
If I want to be honest, the next nearly two decades of my religious development are a blur to me. I recall pockets of influence and impact along the way; but, I was essentially on a powerful upswing until recent years.

Sometimes I was strong, other times I was stronger. I was always learning and growing, until one day I wasn’t anymore.

Rabbini Ordination

In 2005, I received a rabbinic ordination from Yeshivat Hamivtar. I worked hard for three years, passed all my tests, and then headed out to America to “change the world”. I was on a bit of a religious high, and all I wanted to do was share any knowledge I had with others. And that’s what I did for the better part of the next decade.

When I moved to Kansas in 2013, I had already switched my mindset around a bit. I was veering out of religious education, and entering the realm of teaching computers and working with educational technology.

Yeah, I had earned that “rabbi” title, but I had spent the previous eight years being a rabbinical educator and role model, and I was getting a bit tired of it. Sometimes it’s more fun to just be “one of the guys”.

Two noteworthy moments in my time in Kansas

Once I was invited to someone’s home for a Shabbat meal. Someone introduced me as “rabbi” and I told them they should call me “Yitzchak”. Someone across the table from me leaned over and whispered that people don’t like that. They want to call me rabbi. In fact, I learned as time went by, the community was nearly obsessed with showing off how many people had the title. They never tired of pointing it out, even if some of the titles were never technically earned, but just given due to a person’s nature or stature.

The other time was rather comical.

I was sitting and playing Card Against Humanity with a group of friends. This was the second time we had all played together. If you’re not familiar with Cards Against Humanity, it’s pretty much a (very) adult version of Apples to Apples. Lots of fun. Not very appropriate.

As we were playing one of my friends kept on calling me rabbi. I requested she use my first name, and she said she wasn’t so comfortable and asked when was the appropriate time to make the switch. I smiled and said that when playing Cards Against Humanity for the second time is a pretty good time to start.

Difference Between Rabbinic Ordination and PhD

Anyhow, it needs to be noted that there is a drastic difference between getting a rabbinic ordination and, say, getting a PhD.

There are two primary differences in my mind.

First, yes, to get the ordination, you are usually in some type of study program. You must pass a battery of tests. But I think most people familiar with this field of study know that it’s a means to an end, and highly unrepresentative of knowledge in the field.

There are countless reasons why this is the case. There are many who spend their lives immersed in Torah study, without any intention or interest in receiving a piece of paper that said they did so. And whereas ordination covers a limited batch of topics on Jewish law, there are vast other subjects out there that one can study. And many of those topics are far more useful out there in the “real world” than the ones covered in an ordination program.

Therefore, it is not uncommon that one who is immensely knowledgeable or uses their knowledge impressively gets referred to as “rabbi” by many around them. Nor is it uncommon that one who simply “passed the tests” either doesn’t go by the title, or people might feel uncomfortable using the title.

One who receives a PhD in literature earns the title “doctor”. And even though there might be someone out there with more literary knowledge, without a PhD they do not get the title. The title follows the path of study and completion of the program, not the quantity or quality of the knowledge.

Expectations of the Ordained Rabbi

Second, a rabbinic ordination comes with it an expectation of behavior. A professor of any subject need not like the subject matter for which they received their doctorate. There is no expectation of a moral lifestyle. Nor an expectation they will attempt to impart their knowledge upon others. And even if they were to speak out against the subject matter for which they received their degree or were to live a wildly immoral lifestyle, the fact that they earned their title means it will stay with them forever.

This is not the case with a rabbinic ordination. There are countless requirements that determine whether or not the credentials still remain. The least of those requirements is living up to the ideals of the Torah. If someone speaks out against the Torah or its values, practices a different religion, or is generally a lousy role model, leading an inappropriate and base lifestyle, they are behaving within their rights as a human with free will, but they are forfeiting their right to be called “rabbi”.

Rabbinic ordination is not just a piece of paper and a permanent title. There is an expectation of belief, behavior, lifestyle choices, and appearance to the outside world.

And here I stand

I received my piece of paper. I did the work and earned my title. And I worked in the field for years, and deserved any honor that came along with that.

But times have changed.

Any knowledge or skills gained through my studies are still intact, for the most part. But I am not who I was then.

My beliefs are ever changing. My actions and behavior are in flux.

And I sit and do customer support for a living.

I am not acting in any rabbinical capacity. And, frankly, I’m at a low point in the intensity and depth of my beliefs and practices (with the hope of a future comeback). To call me “rabbi”, thus, is essentially downgrading what the title means to me.

In the spirit of Grouch Marx: Why would I respect the rabbinate that claims me as a member?

Please, then, don’t call me rabbi.

 

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Posted by jaffeworld in judaism, opinion, personal story, 2 comments

Three Radical Shocks to My System

identityConfused Identity

So there I was, trapped again with a confused identity. But with my eyes wide open to any and all influence that might come my way.

I’d like to explore three extremely memorable moments over the course of the following year, three moments that would have a permanent impact on me.

1) Am I a Temporary Breakaway?

I took an interesting class my first college semester. It was a survey of the entirety of Jewish history.

My knowledge was extremely limited, and I was so excited to absorb everything.

As the semester progressed, I started noticing some patterns. For one, the Jewish people always survived against all odds. However, not every element of the people survived. There was sort of a central stream that would always manage to hang on, while other elements fell to the wayside as time progressed.

These breakaway elements fell into one of three categories. There were groups that entirely disappeared, such as the Tzidokim (Sadducees) or the Hellenists. They’re gone forever, not a trace left. Other groups survived, but were barely noticeable many generations later. This would include groups like the Shomronim (Samaritans) or the Karaites. They’re still around, but who ever hears about them? They’re tiny and lack any significant influence. The third group would eventually find itself no longer identifying as Jewish anymore, most notably the Jewish Christians who eventually just became the early Christians, a whole new and separate religion.

Watching the history progress fascinated me.

It almost felt like a movie, and this one invincible central stream represented the good guys, who I cheered for.

Modern Times

And then we arrived at modernity. And the new breakaways from the central body of my people were the Reform and Conservative Movements of Judaism. I felt mighty confused. Historically, these groups are still young. If the patterns continued as they were, these movements would eventually disappear or lose any and all influence, or would cease to identify as Jewish.

But I was a Reform Jew. And I sat there confused as I was inadvertently rooting against myself.

Was I on the wrong team? Had I aligned myself with just another historical breakaway?

Was I setting myself up for future insignificance?

Further exploration was certainly necessary.

2) Judaism is like an Apple

In my previous post, I spoke about how I accidentally walked into Shabbos House, the local Chabad of my university.

I knew I’d return there after my first accidental visit. It was written in the stars. What I didn’t know was my next trip there would be just two weeks later, and it would become my second home in Albany. I jumped camps and became a loyal, semi-permanent fixture.

I went to SUNY Albany hoping to soak up information. I’m from the last generation of Americans who still believed knowledge lay in the hands of professors at universities. My greatest fascination was Judaism, and I was studying the subject voraciously in my classes.

Shabbos House

But then there was Shabbos House.

I sat across from Pinchas, explaining my life, my studies, and my aspirations. And he looked me in the eyes and said:

“David, Judaism is like an apple. You can study the fruit in every way imaginable. You can take it to a laboratory and evaluate its color, shape, and smell. And you can analyze its chemical compounds and observe its discoloration. With time, effort, and expertise, you can basically know everything there is to know about this apple.

But David, you see, you will never truly know and understand the apple until you pick it up and take a bite out of it.”

These words were extremely meaningful to me and went straight to my heart. I was “studying” Judaism in the most incomplete way possible.

In order to really understand and appreciate my people and our practices, I would need to dive in. I would need to spend my time with those who were knowledgeable and active, and immerse myself in their world. I needed to see and experience everything up close and personally.

So much to learn. So many things I had yet to really experience.

It was time to take yet another plunge.

3) Shabbat is a Beautiful Painting

It’s been so long since some simple words on paper had this much impact on my life. It’s one of the things I miss so much about youth. Words had more immediate impact. Influence hid around every corner. Cynicism had not fully reared its ugly head. And I could change on a dime with minimal to no consequences.

As part of a Jewish Philosophy class, I read Mordechai Kaplan’s words in “The Meaning of God in Modern Jewish Religion”:

An artist cannot be continually wielding his brush. He must stop at times in his painting to freshen his vision of the object, the meaning of which he wishes to express on his canvas. Living is also an art. We dare not become absorbed in its technical processes and lose our consciousness of its general plan… the Sabbath represents those moments when we pause in our brush-work to renew our vision of this object. Having done so we take ourselves to our painting with clarified vision and renewed energy.

I was already curious about what it would mean for me to begin observing Shabbat (Sabbath). This passage put me over the top. And I gave it a go.

And I quickly fell in love with just about every aspect of Shabbat.

Over twenty years later, despite any and all questioning I’ve done or religious mini-crises I’ve experienced, Shabbat went nowhere. It is just as important to me now as it was then.

No Longer Reform

And there I was, heavily questioning my Reform “roots”, throwing myself into unknown waves of religious observance, and accepting upon myself the extremely challenging rules of Shabbat.

Yet I still considered myself a Reform Jew.

It was not I who declared something was different. As far as I was concerned I was just repeatedly opening up my menu of informed choice, and gorging myself on all the options.

No. The Reform Movement decided I no longer belonged.

 

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Un-Informed Choice

informed choice
It was a dark and damp Friday evening at SUNY Albany.

Every Friday night I attended the reform services on my campus. It was pretty much the only thing we consistently did, so I took it very seriously.

However, that fateful evening I made an error. There was a poster showing the times for the different prayer services. I scanned quickly, and must have read it wrong.

When I arrived, I watched  as everyone from the reform services were already leaving. It was disheartening, since this meant I was holding at 0% of my obligations to be a part of the community.

What to do?

I decided to make a huge sacrifice. To go way outside my comfort zone.

I would stay for the conservative services!

If you recall from my last post, joining the reform movement was already exceeding my norms by leaps and bounds. And I was scared off a bit by the word “conservative”, not to mention I distinctly recalled a moment from my summer camp when a camper said he was conservative, and the people around me literally hissed at him.

But I was stuck.

I either needed to do something challenging, or risk feeling like a failure in the current path I was on.

So I walked in, and sat down… With about three or four other people.

We uncomfortably stared at one another.

For the uninitiated, Jewish communal prayer requires a minimum of ten adult Jewish males (called a minyan). Some more modern groups require any ten adults, gender is irrelevant. No matter how you did the math, we weren’t doing so hot.

They kept on talking about their backup plan of “walking to Shabbos House“, which meant absolutely nothing to me.

But I had already chosen to go along for the ride, still in a panic at falling short on my one and only responsibility.

Plan C

After the group gave up on getting their requisite numbers, they all got up to start walking toward this mysterious “Shabbos House”.

I recall vividly as we neared the location. There he was. I saw a man in full chassidish getup bowing back and forth in the window, and I felt panicked and jittery. I had heard about the Chassidim before, but I had never met one. All my knowledge of this group was from the media, who did not paint a very likable picture.

But I braved my qualms and concerns, and walked in.

I was very much not dressed the part. Most inside were dressed quite nicely, and it was a pretty conservative looking group. I, on the other hand, had shorts and a t-shirt, sneakers, long hair, an earring, and nothing covering my head.

Yet it seemed like the only one uncomfortable with my presence was me. Everyone in the room was fantastic, almost as if they were preparing for someone like me to show up. They patiently dealt with my complete lack of knowing what was going on, and helped me with everything.

After the services were over, everyone began preparing for a festive meal. There was some singing, a blessing made over wine, and then everyone lined up to wash their hands.

Something Happened

And this was the key moment for me.

Someone explained to me what we were doing. Others explained some of the historical significance. And everyone in the room knew exactly what was going on and what to do.

Except for me.

This was apparently a ritual done all the time, sometimes multiple times a day. It was commonplace and ancient. And yet somehow in all of my inquiries and studies, in all of my time working so hard to be an exceptionally knowledgeable and active Reform Jew, this simple and ubiquitous thing just never came up.

And this, yet again, threw my whole existence into question.

I walked away from “Shabbos House” early. There was just too much to take in, and I was barely ready for what I had already absorbed. I knew, however, that I would be back. I had to return. There was knowledge to be acquired that I had up to that point never been exposed to.

But if I want to be true to myself, more than anything, I felt angry, and more than a little betrayed.

Was I informed?

I spent countless hours with people who were supposed to be teaching me anything and everything about Judaism, so I could make an intelligent and informed decision about what I would practice and what I would leave behind. Could it be they forgot things as simple as a daily hand washing ritual, and my lack of informed choice was just an oversight? Or could it be that knowledge was intentionally withheld from me?

The Catholic Church spent much of its existence withholding knowledge from the masses. The average person was unable to decipher the complex texts in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, and were left vulnerable to the whims of the clergy, since they were the bearers of all wisdom or the tools to gain or interpret further wisdom. But this can only go on for so long. And when the information became accessible, and the Protestant Reformation stormed its way through Europe, Christianity was changed forever.

Was I about to change forever? Was information intentionally withheld from me? If so, why? Why would something so innocuous never even get a slight mention? What exactly was the fear? What was the danger in my exposure to practices not common among most Reform Jews?

My conclusions did not make me happy.

Informed choice?

Unfortunately, I believe the information (and lots more) was, in fact, intentionally withheld from me and many others. There was an agenda. Judaism’s Reform Movement has principles and has a platform. They have beliefs and practices they wish for their practitioners to adopt, and ones they wish them to steer clear of. And if they are among the latter, it is not uncommon simply not to expose people to them.

I’m not saying I don’t understand or sympathize with the practice. I’m a parent and a former teacher, and to a certain extent I think we need to withhold information. Not forever. Just until the moment is right or until the child or student brings it up on their own. But even then, it is a thoughtful and intelligent process.

But this was different.

What did they have to gain by never telling me of an age-old hand washing ritual? The only answer I can come up with is they were gearing my actions and practices. They wanted me to behave a certain way. They were creating people who behaved within the manner they hoped for. Again, I understand the idea. But to claim this is a process of liberal thought is inaccurate, at best. And to claim that its members are acting based on informed choice is downright dishonest.

To my great regret, up to that point my decisions had not been guided by informed choice, but by uninformed inertia.

And I would never let that be the case again.

It was time for yet another change in my life.

 

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The Beginning of the Beginning

beginning

Beginning

I spoke in my last post about how the beginning of my Jewish journey: my chance invitation to a youth group meeting followed later by accidentally wandering into a Chabad House.

I want to take the next few posts to take an in depth look into my religious journey, really turning over all the pieces and exploring how they got me to where I am now.

First, a bit about my religious background.

There’s very little to speak about. In my household, we had a pretty simple Jewish upbringing. Judaism was certainly a part of our lives, and we by no means identified by any other religious group.

However, synagogue attendance was not in the mix. Israel never came up. And I don’t believe I had ever even heard the terms “Sabbath” or “Shabbat” as a child.

Searching

I can’t say I felt much Jewish pride. But Jewish is all I ever was, and I never had a yearning to be part of any other group, religious or otherwise. But I was definitely searching. There was most certainly a piece of my soul that wanted something different. Something bigger and better.

Unfortunately, children have a painfully hard time searching. Most families inundate their children with ideas they “need” to believe, which goes completely against the concept of belief in general.

One of the greatest gifts my parents ever gave to me was encouraging me to be open-minded and curious. These precious qualities have been there since the beginning. I will take them along wherever life brings me, and I hope I can do half as good a job imparting these treasures upon my own children.

I found myself ravenous for knowledge and spirituality in my teenage years. But young people are notorious for being clueless about how they do… well… everything.

I didn’t look for knowledge in my school books. I didn’t look for wisdom from enlightened or intelligent people. All I wanted from life was happiness, with no clear definition, and a less clear path for how I would seek it.

Hurting

And then tragedy struck my life and sent me in a whole new direction.

There are many ways to respond to tragedy.

We can crawl into a corner and give up, and we can drink ourselves into oblivion. We can progressively allow things to worsen and worsen, and watch as our live’s tragedies pile up on one another.

Or we brush the dirt off our shoulders, stand up with pride, bandage our wounds, and get back to living life again.

But now it will be better than before.

Why? Because we have learned a powerful lesson. There are errors we refuse to ever make again. We see life from a stronger, more informed perspective. And everything moving forward will be better than it had been before.

Trying

So when someone suggested I give a Jewish youth group a try, my new self said that I had nothing to lose. It would be different than anything I’d experienced up to that point. And that was exactly what I needed, since the results of what I was already familiar with were hardly pleasing.

It took no time at all before I immersed myself completely into my new youth group. The people I met were fantastic. The conversations I had were unbelievable. Everyone was deep, passionate, and knowledgeable.

I found my niche.

Thriving

Attending local youth group meetings led to my trying regional youth group meetings. Even better! And this led to my attendance of NFTY’s Kutz Camp, since now I had to try everything on the national level.

Now I was at the highest point of everything. And loved every moment I got to spend with my newfound passion.

Before I knew it, I was so heavily involved, my childhood dreams of one day being a professional wrestler were pushed aside for my imminent goal of being a rabbi, the peak of learning and influence in Judaism’s reform movement.

There were two guiding principles in reform Judaism’s philosophy that escorted me every stage of the way, but were also my undoing as far as staying on this path.

Learning

The first principle was an ultra-powerful intellectual honesty and curiosity, where wisdom could and should be absorbed from any and all sources, Jewish or not Jewish, believing or non-believing. We were at the forefront of liberal thought, which meant all opinions were to be respected and honored.

The second principle is what they called “informed choice”.

This was a bit of a mantra in the Reform Movement, and it’s the movement’s pride and joy. This was the basic explanation given to me at the time:

Judaism was like a large, open menu. We search through this menu, deliberating on the many amazing choices before us. We research and explore and ask questions.

And we try things out, see if we like them.

And ultimately we decide which items on the menu we wish to retain and make parts of our lives, and which are items we will leave behind due to lack of interest or because the item does not match with the outcome of our intellectual rigor.

So in the end, each member will create their own unique version of Judaism, pulling from the same basic group of choices that mainly stem from Judaism throughout its existence.

Growing

In lots of ways, “Informed Choice” is a lovely concept that I still believe in to this day, despite the fact that it’s been two decades since I’ve had any connection to Reform Judaism (outside of maintaining some lifelong friends, and a really hefty nostalgia).

These two ideas are very special to me, and took me quite far.

However, I do believe many wield them around inaccurately and dishonestly. If one maintains that all opinions are important, but shuts out certain perspectives and/or prevents access to them, this is the opposite of intellectual honesty, and it’s like taking the aforementioned menu, ripping out a page, and hiding it in the basement.

It’s because of this that major changes would need to occur in my life, which I will be speaking about at length in my next post.

 

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I Was Attacked… The Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me

attacked
My faith has been interfered with multiple times in my adult life. However, one thing has never wavered, not even for a moment.

I believe wholeheartedly that all misery, suffering, and hardships I have or will ever endure, will result in a positive outcome. No matter how hard things may seem at the moment, only one thing stands between the troublesome feel of the current misery and the clear outlook that everything was meant to be.

Time.

Sometimes you will have the luxury of looking back just a day or two later and knowing why seeming tragedy has entered your life. And sometimes you need to wait many years.

But the end result is always the same. At some point along the spectrum, if asked if you would prefer that the terrible event never happened, seeing everything in retrospect with a more refined perspective, you will understand what would be missing from your life and the world had something “bad” not occurred.

The Blessed Miscarriage

One of my favorite parts of being a teacher was when I would ask open-ended, extremely challenging questions to young students. The brilliance and depth of the answers would amaze me every time.

When teaching this concept, I went straight to the heart of the matter:

“What could possibly be good about a miscarriage?”

Of course the answers were always fascinating. Teachers rarely give students the opportunity to freely think through complex problems. When they do, students seldom disappoint.

When the answers slowed down, I would always say:

My parents planned on having three children. My two brothers were born close together, and over the next six years, my mother had several miscarriages.

And then I was born.

If it weren’t for those miscarriages, I would not be here.

Attacked… the “Worst” Moment of My Life

The single worst moment in my life was saying goodbye to my children, and watching them travel across an ocean to live apart from me indefinitely. The wound is still fresh. I can see bits of positives that have come from the whole experience, such as it ultimately bringing me closer to my son. However, I still have plenty more to process and plenty of time to do so.

But I have had twenty-five years to process the other most obviously traumatic moment in my life.

When I was just fifteen years old, I was at an outdoor gathering. I shouldn’t have been there, for multiple reasons, but alas, I was. I had lied to my parents about my whereabouts, and my company was shady at best.

A large group approached ours, clearly intending to start a fight. Fighting was hardly my thing, and I had a fair amount of alcohol in my system. I walked away hoping to avoid what I thought was inevitable violence.

But people followed me.

A group of six people pursued me down an ally and beat the ever-living hell out of me. While I was attacked, a well-meaning person brought me into their home and contacted my parents. They came and brought me to the emergency room, where I needed to get stitches for a giant gash in my hand.

I needed to spend the next few weeks on pain killers for my injury, and tranquilizers to calm my nerves, since I was still shaking and sleeping poorly. I had months of physical and emotional suffering ahead of me.

The Good in the Bad

But two great things came from this experience.

The first is simple to explain. We parents know that we can tell our kids all day long how we would do anything for them; however, there is no way to prove it outside surprise adversity, which we hardly want.

Parents often give speeches to their kids, things they’ve thought about for years. I would unquestionably put my life on the line to protect you. If you get in trouble for defending yourself against a bully in school and they call me to come pick you up, first stop is to get you ice cream. Even if it’s the middle of the night and you lied to us about how you got to where you are, if you’re only option to get home is to get behind the wheel with someone who has been drinking, you can call 24-7 and we will pick up, no questions asked, no repercussions.

We say these things. We say them often. But do our children really believe us?

I wouldn’t wish upon any parent the opportunity to “prove” themselves to their children; however, when my parents came to get me, and brought me to the emergency room, not only were they angelic from start to finish, but 25 years later I have never been criticized for my lying nor my underage drinking.

I have never forgotten how they handled the situation. I never will. And my love for them increases daily.

The second result of my attack took me many, many years to realize. And I still realize new things about it all the time.

Change is in the Air

Being attacked made me change several aspects of my life. I realized if I wanted these kinds of things to never happen to me again, I needed new friends and different life experiences. Almost immediately upon opening myself to such changes, a friend invited me to a Jewish youth group meeting, and I decided to give it a try (eternal gratitude to Faith Zuckerberg Fisch).

I became insanely active in my youth group. I met some friend who are still my closest to this day. My interest in Israel was first piqued in a brilliant class I attended (eternal gratitude to David Frank). And my newfound love of Judaism had tremendous impact on my college choice, since I needed a place that could accommodate my passion, as well as a possible semester abroad in Israel.

It was at SUNY Albany that an accidental trip to a Chabad House changed everything I knew about Judaism, and set me on a whole new life trajectory (eternal gratitude to Pinchas Schreiber). I eventually took that semester trip to Israel, which became a full year, and magically turned into eight years. There I met my wife, had four precious children, and the rest is history.

I would get attacked a thousand times over if it meant my children would be in my life.

That evening, there was no fight. Only one person was attacked, only one person hurt.

Me.

I owe everything in my life to those six, sadistic bastards who followed me down the street that night.

The best thing that ever happened to me.

(Where I went from there)

 

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Posted by jaffeworld in judaism, opinion, 0 comments