beit din

Yesterday, I got an email at 7:30 a.m. from the rabbi who married me and for whom I do clerical work once a week (she has a private practice). She needed a third for a beit din and a witness for the concomitant mikveh. I had a meeting that ended when the event was supposed to begin, but I agreed to duck out early, grab a cab, and race north to Adas Israel, the location of the community mikveh in D.C. It wasn’t what I was planning to do yesterday morning, but I am so happy that I did, for many reasons.

The event was a conversion for a 13-year-old boy who was marking his bar mitzvah in Israel in two weeks. Neither of his biological parents were Jewish. His father died when he was very young, and his Jewish step-father adopted him at a very young age (the boy even had the stepfather’s last name). His mother is still not Jewish, but she and her husband have raised the boy so.

A beit din (literally “house of judgment”) for conversion consists of three individuals — generally rabbis, but two can be educated Jews as long as one is an ordained rabbi who is an expert in the rules of conversion. I served along with two rabbis.

adas israel mikveh

I was really impressed with the young man. He was articulate about his desire to affirm his Judaism — and he was honest (saying, for example, that he didn’t like his Hebrew school — hee!). The beit din was mostly just a conversation among everyone. We then headed to the mikveh. The male rabbi and his father actually witnessed the three immersions, but the door to the mikveh was slightly ajar so that we could all hear him say the blessings, including the Shehecheyanu, one of my favorite blessings. We threw candy at him when he emerged from the room. Unfortunately, the rabbi had brought (kosher!) taffy, which he couldn’t have because he had just gotten braces; I was able to scrounge up a piece of hard candy in my purse for him. At the end of the ceremony, the father asked if he could make a donation to a charity I cared about to thank me for my participation, and I asked for a gift to the D.C. Rape Crisis Center, where I serve on the board.

This experience was so amazing — very special to me and incredibly holy. I was thrilled that I made the effort to be there. Plus, the rabbi on the beit din who I didn’t know has already been super helpful. He was very encouraging about my rabbinical school decision, and we’re already having a discussion about a possible fundraising job during school!

I got to sign the conversion certificate, the same template that I received two-and-a-half years ago. (Also, it turns out that I have as much trouble writing in cursive in Hebrew as I do in English. Must practice!) Before the family departed, the father thanked me for participating, noting that “you always remember these moments and those who were there.” I smiled and flashed back to my own beit din, knowing it was true.

the test

I walk to an office building in downtown D.C. early on a weekend morning. I take the elevator to the second floor and enter a room where lots of other people are sitting on chairs, waiting. I show my ID to check in; the man at the desk scrutinizes both me and and the picture on my driver’s license, literally squinting and looking between both several times.

what my cursive looks like

Then he hands me a confidentiality agreement I’m meant to sign — but not before I write, in cursive, the three-sentence statement at the bottom of the page. I haven’t written in script since third grade, so I anticipate that this may be the most challenging part of my day. I began the laborious task of writing with loops and linking letters together; I can’t even get the sentences to fit in the space prescribed, and I am barely halfway through when he asks if I’m ready to move to the next step.

When I finally finish what cannot seem like an adult’s rendering of the statement, I’m directed first to put all of my belongings into a locker and then to proceed to the next room with only my ID and the key to the locker. I sit down in front of another man, who again checks my ID — and then asks me to stand up so he can wand me. He directs me to lift up my shirt so that he can see my waistline, then to pull out all of my pockets — why did I choose to wear cargo pants today? — so that he can verify that they are empty. He warns me not to make any unusual movements once I’m in the next room, and not to take off my sweatshirt. I begin to worry about whether it’s going to be hot in the next room.

He hands me back my ID, points to the line on the paper to sign in, and hands me approved pencil and paper. I enter the next room and am led to my seat by yet another staff member. I leave the room three times and return twice during my four-and-a-half hours inside, and each time I go through the same process of ID check, signing in and out, wanding, and pocket inspection. I’m also reminded that accessing my cell phone during these breaks will lead to my being kicked out of the facility. Finally, while I’m sitting in my cubicle, the innermost room staff periodically walks by to adjust the angle of the camera that is trained on various parts of the room.

And this is how you take the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) in the U.S. today.

Obviously I am terribly naive, because this shocks me. It beggars my belief that anyone would cheat on an admissions test, even as I question its value as a predictor of success in graduate school. But apparently all of this rigamarole is the logical response to past scam attempts, so I have to concede that it’s necessary.

You may be asking, “What relevance do analyses of your writing, verbal reasoning, and high-school math abilities have to do with rabbinical schools, especially since applications to those institutions are compromised principally of multiple essays?” And the answer clearly is, “Very little if at all.” Two of the schools I’m applying to require the GRE, but one does not; the fellowship I’d like to get only requires it if the school does. I don’t know what accounts for the difference between otherwise fairly similar schools.

I prepared for the exam in the simplest and cheapest way possible: I worked my way through the official GRE book published by the Education Testing Service. I’m guessing that the decision to admit or not admit me to rabbinical school will not hinge on my GRE scores; it seems most likely to me that it’s some kind of idiot check, which is still odd because it’s not like these schools haven’t already met everyone who is applying. I’ve certainly talked at length with the admissions directors of all three schools.

But I am a neurotic student, and I hate taking tests that I can’t fully prepare for. I found myself disagreeing with the “correct” answers of more than one “verbal reasoning” question and was annoyed that I won’t be given the chance to argue my point.

what quantitative reasoning looks like

The math drove me even crazier. I actually like math, and in high school, I was pretty good at it: I got a 5 on the AB Calculus exam. In college, I considered double majoring in math and Classics. So I was frustrated by my complete inability to figure out how to proceed on many “quantitative reasoning” problems. The book takes what in my mind is a puzzling attitude to this. First, I was never able to discern a pattern for the questions — but the book’s explanations were always of the sort, “Of course, it’s clear that you should do x  approach (and obvious from first glance that y approach is not going to work).” And there was no big-picture guidance whatsoever about how to recognize which approach — solving the equation, plugging in numbers, estimating, etc. — would be best. Maybe there are students who just get math — in the way I just get verbal reasoning — for whom this is not a problem. Ultimately, all I was able to do was to tell myself that it simply wasn’t worth the time it would take to get really good at the math section. Math, I’m guessing, is not going to be a large part of my rabbinate.

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