‘I can’t finish my conversion because of Covid’

(This first appeared in my Mixed and Matched column in the J-weekly)

ear Dawn: After I formally prepared for more than a year, my beit din and mikvah were going to be scheduled for this spring. Now they are postponed because of the shutdown. I’m grateful for many things, and I continue to study. At the same time, I’m disappointed. There’s no way to do the mikvah now. Standing in my shower while holding a cellphone with the rabbi officiating from afar will not be adequate! As for the beit din, conducting it on Zoom seems so impersonal — even if that were possible, I’d rather wait. I feel lost, not being an official member of my Reform synagogue in Oakland. I feel lonely. I yearn for the time when we can resume Shabbat and other communal gatherings together, not online. Getting closer to age 60, I am so eager to fulfill what I know is right for me. I’m trying to be patient! Would love to hear your thoughts. — Beth


Dear Beth: I am sorry you are having an especially tough time. I respect and agree with your assessment that an “electronic” mikvah would be less than satisfying. And a beit din on Zoom would lack the warmth of an in-person dialogue.

Here are a few things that I hope will help.

First, your rabbi certainly considers you a part of their community whether you are a member or not. He/she probably has spent more time with you than the average congregant due to your studies. Additionally, the only thing you can’t do that a congregant can do right now is vote. Come the High Holidays, you’ll be there! I am confident your rabbi wants to be sure you are staying connected to your Judaism.

I’ll bet your feeling of loneliness would be there at this time even if you were a member. The inability to be with others and not being able to go to the mikvah are feeding into each other.

Let me tell you a story that’s been helping me. A member of my congregation survived the Holocaust as a hidden child. She was around 10 years old and was hidden in a bathroom. For years she saw little more than the bathroom.

Talk about boring and lonely. Yes, there was a family in the house around her, but no friends, no outdoors, no school, no peers.

When I feel like crawling the walls, I think of her. She is one of the sunniest personalities I know. Clearly her own character traits served her well at that time and in the decades since, as she has not carried a disabling grief with her; I’m not sure I could do that. In tough moments I try to emulate her and to find my own internal strength.

Here are some suggestions to help you move forward.

• Go for social-distancing walks with friends. Being in the physical presence of people who love you will help
• Email your rabbi and tell him/her of your difficult emotional status. I’ll bet the rabbi can connect you with other members online (or by phone) who would enjoy being in touch.
• Be firm with yourself and use the internet as much as you can bear. I know it is not at all as good as real people, but it is what we have right now. It is our safe “bathroom.”
• Create a calendar of scheduled activities that you tell yourself you must do (even though they are online).
• Attend your congregation’s online services and Torah study.
• Get on email lists that are helping members keep in touch. (I can help you with this.)
• Take a class online. (I can recommend some.)
• Consider creating a daily prayer regime. You might add the Modeh Ani in the morning to get you off on the right foot.
• Get on email lists that send out interesting information frequently. Certainly your synagogue newsletter, but also My Jewish Learning, one of the major movements’ e-letters, whether Reform or other. Get this newspaper’s e-newsletter to be aware and a part of local Jewry, and perhaps the Times of Israel or New York Jewish Week to get an expanded look at Jewish life beyond the Bay Area.
• Find things you enjoy online — theater shows, reading groups, gardeners exchanging wisdom, etc. Put them on your calendar.
• Set up Zoom or Skype visits with a friend at least every other day.

I want you to open your calendar each day and see things you must do for yourself. Treat them as seriously as you would for someone you were caring for.

Finally, keep a notebook of your Jewish practices and learning. I want you to be aware of how much you are already being Jewish!


Postscript: A woman emailed me after this article appeared, telling me that she works with conversion students and during the virus had taken a student to the Pacific Ocean for mikvah. The ocean is a wonderful natural mikvah. However, Beth, author of this letter, told me she preferred to use the indoor mikvah when the time is right.