Sunday, July 26, 2015

Lamentation for Faigy

in the spirit of Tisha b'av

Oy, Faigy.
Another sister gone, lost to suicide.

They ask:
But WHY? Why did she die? (whose fault)
Was it mental illness?
Her family and community who shunned her
for leaving her Hassidic life?
Her Hassidic life itself, as she indicated in a letter?
Pressures of the tech sector?

Thursday, July 23, 2015


This week I found myself embroiled in something that's been simmering for a long time - since I started this blog. I had been tagged on Facebook in a conversation on a group where someone mentioned that she'd been going through a hard time as her 11-year-old had just been diagnosed on the Autism spectrum; another reader linked my post on the subject. Another reader (herself on the spectrum) wrote that she hopes my son never, ever reads what I wrote.


Monday, July 13, 2015

How to Eat What You Love and Not Get Fat... even if you keep Shabbos and every holiday and have a bar mitzvah every week

Looks like this is "how to" month here on OOTOB, but this is a follow up from my post about intuitive eating, and I think it's important to address here because a few people have observed the "frum 10" (also known as the "frum 15") which is the weight you gain when you become Orthodox and start eating Thanksgiving dinner twice a week plus a bar mitzvah or wedding thrown regularly into the mix.

So I'm here to tell you that you can enjoy your Shabbos, and your holidays, and your bar and bat mitzvahs and weddings and engagement parties and fundraising dessert receptions and not get fat. It's true! How?

In my other post, I said this: basically involves paying close attention to your stomach and to how hungry you feel. If you feel hungry, you eat. If not, you don't. But you only eat things you really love to eat - and you stop when you're satisfied. It's not a weight loss program, it's a lifestyle. I've moved far away from calorie counting and am loving this. Don't eat dinner just because everyone else is, or because it's there. Wait till you're actually hungry and eat the things you love. I find I've become way less into food and way less likely to overeat. On Shabbos, I eat a little past "satisfied" - and that's OK too.
If you're a sugar addict or have an eating disorder, I don't know if these rules will work for you. Thank G-d I do not struggle with those things (just your garden variety doughnut obsession) so I can't comment. Otherwise, here's the drill.


Wednesday, June 24, 2015

How To Make Awesome Challah (even if you hate to bake)

Regular readers and those who know me in real life know that I'm hardly the domestic goddess. Yet, I must modestly confess that I make a mean challah. The reason I would like to share my challah tips with y'all is this: I don't make ANY food unless it's EASY. I don't have the time, interest, or talent. So if challah wouldn't be EASY I wouldn't make it. It's actually that simple. People have all these intimidational fears of challah and frankly I just don't know why. You don't even have to separate eggs.

Here's my step-by-step guide on making idiot-proof challah that tastes like you're a domestic goddess... even if you aren't. I'm giving you the recipe for the full 5 lb. batch. It makes six medium challahs, and it's the amount needed to "separate challah with a blessing" (more on this later). Feel free to halve, double or whatever. It's very hardy.


Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Where I'm At

Hey OOTOB readers,

Haven't blogged in a little while - for good reason. Here's what's been up.


My smart and my phone are getting a divorce. Kind of. I've been tinkering for awhile with the idea of separating my essential smartphone needs (phone, text, calendar, camera, sticky notes) and my non-essential-but-addictive ones (email, Facebook, Instagram, Words With Friends). In this way my phone with essential needs will be on my person, and my other items might be on another device that is available, but not tethered. I'm still working out the kinks and if I like it, it'll become its own blog post. If I don't, I'll skulk away in smartphone-addicted anonymity, if that's OK with y'all.


Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Orthodox Women Talk: Marriage

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I'm super excited to host this installment of "Orthodox Women Talk," a revolving blog-hosting co-op by some of my bloggie friends. Each session features a different question, and we all pipe in with our respective views. Today's question is:

How does Judaism shape your marriage?

Melissa Amster:

profile0891.jpgI met my husband shortly after I went to Israel on Birthright. I had put a note in the Western Wall asking for a good relationship and he came into my life less than a month later. Bashert, right?!? I had wanted to do more with Judaism after I came back and his friend (who set us up) told me he went to synagogue every Shabbat. At the time, I was Reform and he was Conservative. When we first started talking, he asked me if I'd like to go to Shabbat services with him sometime. After we had started dating a few weeks, we went to a Shabbat morning service together and then it just became a regular thing. We also went to a monthly Shabbat dinner program in Chicago called Makor and later tried to start a program like that for the suburbs. While the program we planned didn't work out as well, we eventually just hosted our friends for Shabbat meals every so often. We also started searching for a synagogue to start attending regularly. While all of this was going on, we had attended his brother's wedding in early 2003. His brother is Ba'al Tshuva and frum. We liked a lot of the rituals and traditions from his wedding and took on most of them for ours. We also started gradually easing our way into keeping Kosher after we got engaged. Our wedding was completely Kosher, as a symbolic way of how we wanted our marriage to start out. After we got married, I took family purity lessons from a local Chabad Rebbetzin. With family purity, we also slowly eased our way into the process. When we started having children, we gave them all Hebrew names and while we revealed my older son's name to a few close family members and friends, we didn't tell everyone we knew and let them first find out at the bris. When we saw how meaningful it was for my mother-in-law to first hear his name at that time, we decided to completely withhold our younger son's name until his bris. We also let our boys grow out their hair and had upsherins. The other process we slowly eased our way into was becoming Shomer Shabbos. After we moved to a more observant community, we became completely Shomer Shabbos and there was no turning back at that point. Overall, I love that our marriage has been so entwined with our Jewish growth. We grew together at a pace we were both comfortable with, which I feel allowed us to appreciate each step of growth along the way. I sometimes take it for granted how our marriage to each other and our path to our level of Jewish observance is all connected, so it was nice to have an opportunity to talk about it here, drinking in each step of the process once again and looking back at how far we've come in the 13 years of our courtship, engagement, and marriage.

Melissa Amster lives in Maryland (DC Metro area) with her husband, two sons and daughter. When she's not reading and interviewing authors for her book blog, she works for a Jewish non-profit. In her spare time (what's that?!?), she likes to watch her favorite shows on TV, bake challah and desserts, and host meals and other gatherings. Check out her personal blog and follow her on Twitter.

Ruchi Koval:

ruchi.jpgJudaism shapes my marriage in so many ways, I don't even know where to start.  

OK, I'll start with the value of marrying young.  Not everyone who wants to marry young can, but I was blessed.  My husband and I were each other's first date.  We literally grew up together.  I mean, I think we're grownups now... I was 18 and he was 22 when we  ventured on our first "shidduch" date - a date set up by family or friends, vetted by parents, for the purpose of marriage.

Here's another: the value of marriage as a holy thing, a thing of eternity, of supreme, spiritual value.  A thing that comes before your kids, before your friends, even before your parents. A thing that's worth working on every day.  There are literally hundreds of classes available in Jewish communities on marriage and working on it.  It even has a name: shalom bayis - literally, peace in the home, but used mostly to describe marital harmony.

Our marriage is compared in Jewish tradition to the Holy Temple, to the Divine Presence, to the giving of the very Torah at Sinai.  Whoa!  How does Judaism shape my marriage?  

How doesn't it?

Ruchi Koval is the co-founder and associate director of the Jewish Family Experience, a family education center and Sunday school located in Cleveland, Ohio. She is also a certified parenting coach, runs character-development groups for women, and is a motivational speaker, author, and blogger. In her spare time, she enjoys reading, writing, putting on an Israeli accent, playing piano while singing loudly, and organizing closets.  She does not enjoy cooking or sweeping the floors.  She loves doughnuts and is currently trying not to eat them. Ruchi's first book, "Service of the Heart," is due out this fall.

Find Ruchi on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Google plus, or email her at

Keshet Starr:

Judaism is the foundation underlying our marriage in a huge way. When my husband and I met, we were both ba’alei teshuva, or people who had decided as adults to live an Orthodox lifestyle. We were looking for someone to help us form the frum (religious) family we had never actually been part of, and talking about our religious values and how we wanted to live our lives was a big part of our dating process. 

I really admire the way my husband has taught himself so much about Judaism in just a few years--people usually have no idea that he didn’t grow up religious because he has “caught up” so much in terms of textual knowledge. Judaism is the shared dream we had in mind when we stood under the chuppah (marriage canopy) almost seven (!!!) years ago, and it’s the dream we still chase, day after day, even when life has gotten more stressful over the years and that dream can feel far away. Ultimately, the two biggest relationships of my life have been with G-d and with my husband. Both of those relationships have challenges, and ebbs and flows, but they are both the foundation of who I am and what I’m trying to do in this world.

Keshet Starr is an Orthodox wife and mom who works as an attorney and moonlights as a scrapbooker, blogger, photographer, baker, reader, writer, and lover of all things creative! She lives in New Jersey with her fellow-attorney husband and two young children. When she isn’t taking care of her to-do list, indulging in a hobby, or sipping a hot latte, she likes to think about the deeper things in life and connect with others. Keshet blogs at and Instagrams at @keshetstarr.

Rebecca Klempner:

Rebecca Klempner headshot.jpgI met my husband because we were two out of only three people who kept Shabbos in our teacher-training program. The program made a special make-up class on Sundays just for the two of us to replace a class that met monthly on Saturdays.

After the class was over, we stayed friends. My sister and I lived together at the time and invited my now-husband over for Shabbos along with other singles, and for holidays, too. When he finally asked me out, then popped the question, it was only after checking to see if we were on the same page in how we wanted to integrate Judaism in our lives (planning to keep a kosher home, keep Shabbos and all holidays, educate our children in day schools, etc.).

From the get-go, we attended classes about Jewish marriage and read books by rabbis and teachers with expertise on the subject along with the secular titles that our teachers suggested.

I have to say that a big difference in our marriage vs. the marriage a couple whose marriage isn't Torah-centered is Taharat HaMishpacha (the laws of family purity). Because we cannot touch for half the month (with exceptions like during pregnancy and nursing), we've had no choice but to learn how to communicate verbally. If we have an emotional need at those times we can't touch, it has to be verbally articulated, or shared in writing or in non-sexual action. Taharat HaMishpacha can sometimes be annoying, but more often it adds excitement to the "touching" half of the month.

Also, the existence of Shabbos makes sure we have a day every week to connect without distractions. My husband sings Eishes Chayil, and it makes me feel that the housework and cooking and childcare that I do is truly appreciated by him, even if some people look down upon these tasks as menial.

Something that observant Jews share with devout members of many other religions is that our marriage has a mission. In our case, that mission is to create a home that brings G-dliness into the world and for each of us to help the other develop our unique paths to serving G-d. While this mission-orientation is something we share with members of other faiths, my husband and I have largely worked on our mission through a particularly Jewish tool, the study of mussar.

Rebecca Klempner is a wife, mom, and writer living in L.A. Her picture book, A Dozen Daisies for Raizy, appeared in 2008, and her short stories and essays have appeared in publications including Tablet Magazine, Binah, Hamodia, and Ami. Her current serial for teens and tweens, "Glixman in a Fix," appears weekly in Binah BeTween.

Skylar Bader:

Skylar Bader.pngHonestly, I'm not sure how much it does shape it other than being a marriage made up of two orthodox Jews with certain religious obligations. Judaism shapes our priorities and our actions, but that would happen whether I were single or married. If anything, Judaism has provided the "do we make aliyah or not?" discussion, which continues to challenge us as a couple. If I were single, I could make my decision without worrying about someone else. I don't think many non-Jewish couples have to seriously face the question of whether they should (or may even be religiously obligated to) move to another country, language, and culture.

Obviously, Judaism does limit our physical relationship, but I think "how does niddah affect your life?" is a different question altogether and doesn't always involve my husband. Most of the problems there are solely in my head or alone in my bathroom.

Judaism affected how I dated and what I valued in a potential mate, but that's not specific to Judaism: the evangelical Christian movement for "courtship" reflects many of the same goals and expectations. I think that friends (and even my therapist) are surprised that such a short and non-physical relationship could create such a good match and happy marriage (which I'm very lucky to have!). But when I explain the emphasis on deeper issues and carefully considering whether this person is compatible with your future, they have all agreed that my approach sounded very pragmatic. Maybe not romantic, but practical. And there was still plenty of romance because you can never totally negate the effect of hormones! I'm lucky I found a great husband so quickly, but if it weren't him, I could have used the same strategies to find someone else I could love and respect the rest of my life and build a great relationship with. I believe love is grown over time, though I didn't expect to love my husband as much as I did when we married after knowing each other only 8 months. Was that a true love or infatuation? Probably a little of both despite the short timeline, since I knew I had found someone with good character and a compatible personality.

As always, I'll include the disclaimer that we don't yet have children. However, I don't see how children would change the perspective I describe above. We'll approach parenting in a Jewish way with different priorities and actions, but essentially no different from any other loving parent and no different than we would if we were single parents instead of a married couple.

Skylar Bader is an orthodox convert living in New York City. She wears many hats, which you can check out at She blogs at, teaches conversion candidates and kallahs, and is also a lawyer for small businesses. Originally from the South, she has four pets and an addiction to books.


Saturday, May 9, 2015

Are We Still a Light Unto the Nations?

The guest post that appears here was a very difficult one for me to post.  I don't like to share negative information about the Orthodox community with those who are not Orthodox, because the laws of lashon hara (gossip) teach that you should share negative observations only with those who are most likely to effect constructive change.  Airing it to others is purposeless and damaging.
Yet, the words that Tobey pens below are positive.  While they include negative experiences, they teach how to use those to rise above.  To transcend, and be a part of the conversation, and thus, part of the solution.
After some soul-searching I decided that the piece was an important one to share with my greater readership.  I trust you to see it for what it is: a complicated story of good and bad intertwined that ultimately arrives at joy and activism.  If in the journey you feel inspired to improve and correct, my choice will be vindicated.  I have not edited Tobey's words at all.  Below: Tobey Finkelstein.
Tobey Finkelstein is an independent Jewish crowdfunding consultant, collaboration groupie, and part-time Jewish day school administrator with more than 15 years experience as a Jewish non-profit professional and in ecommerce marketing. Her current gig is helping the Jewish community gain the most from innovative, efficient crowdfunding techniques to help them spend more time focused on mission, less on fundraising, while maximizing support and providing a shared experience in working together. She initiated the first joint Jewish Giving Day, raising $1.36M, with a second pilot: MillionsforChesed scheduled for June 2.

“Energy is the basis of everything.  Every Jew, no matter how insignificant, is engaged in some decisive and immediate pursuit of a goal… It is the most perpetual people of the earth…”- Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, German dramatist, novelist and poet (1749 - 1832)
Are We Still a Light Unto the Nations?

For a moment, the Jewish reader takes pride as Goethe recognizes our potential as a People. 

Meanwhile, in reality, it seems like every other month a new expose is being published about someone eschewing their Orthodoxy. How is it that the non-Jew looks in and marvels at the Jewish people, while practitioners within bristle to escape? Is one right, and the other missing something? 

I think it was Goethe who missed the mark. 

Yes. We personify creative energy. We are perpetual. But. There is no such thing as an insignificant Jew. Every single one of us is even more perpetual, more influential than he understood, making us even more prone to unraveling from within. 

High-Stakes Hypocrisy

I recently attended a talk given by Dr. Rona Novick, the Dean of the YU Azrieli Graduate School of Education and Administration. She reminded the audience that at about the pre-teen years, children are hyper-sensitive to adult hypocrisy. If we want to our children and students to accept our messages, we must practice what we preach.

For the Jewish post-adolescent growing up in an 'ultra-Orthodox' yeshivah community, the marks are set pretty high for Jewish integrity and character. We grow up inundated with lessons that our forefathers and Jewish leaders in Tanach were above reproach, bordering on infallibility- and if we question, it is we who do not understand. Our leaders' words are psak: literally stop. The general public cannot question them further. The problem is, each one of us embodies perpetual energy. Asking one of us to stop thinking and feeling and reacting is against our nature. And then the unthinkable happens: children becoming adults see how fallible the people held as communal role models can actually be. And instead of being able to question or worse, call anyone out - those role models are protected and their words defended. And as the reality of those role models becomes clear - the veracity of the 'saintliness' of our forebears and the truth of our teachings - all come into question. 

When the groupthink of a community hurts you, a significant Jew, while saying it values Torah, Shabbos, ahavas Yisrael, kiddish Hashem- you know something isn't right. You can't help but feel it no matter how hard you try to justify it intellectually. In fact, you recognize hypocrisy or feel betrayed. Some people in this position live with it quietly, while others leave screaming and shouting.

Sometimes, It Makes More Sense to Leave Than Stay

They say you can never judge a man until you've walked in his shoes. I'm familiar with this pair of shoes - the ones worn by people who want to leave Orthodoxy. 

My story is different from most. I was born in Korea and adopted by a single Jewish mother who was not Orthodox, but growing in her observance. After converting at age 11 and attending a community day school in Dallas, TX for four years, I entered a Bais Yaakov in 8th grade.  

When my mother first applied, my sister and I were rejected, because the school didn't think we'd fit in as a single-parent household. My mother holds two graduate degrees and helped pass US legislation in the mid 70s to bring my sister and me into the US as our adoptive single mother - she wasn't falling for that. Of course, the school was convinced otherwise, and the administrator graciously apologized.

I found my place there. I was popular, a good student, had many friends, started my share of harmless trouble, and my high school career was largely typical. Upon applying to seminary, I included my background as an adoptee from Korea in my application. I thought it would help me stand out in a good way. On the day of the interviews for my seminary of choice, I confidently walked into the classroom. Instead of questions about my knowledge of Tanach or my extracurriculars, the interview began with a story of a young boy who had been adopted and converted as a minor, who upon Bar Mitzvah chose not to be Jewish. "Didn't he make a good decision?"  

The conversation continued into my poor choice of trying to get into her seminary by trying to flaunt this difference. My friends were down the hall thinking I must be doing great, because she had kept me so long in conversation. Instead, I ran out crying and confused.

I got over her and assumed she was just one jerk in a sea of people who accepted me. Then it came time for me to date.

My friends were going to shadchanim. Often, they'd go in small groups, so I tagged along with one of my friends to the local yeshivah shadchan. After quite a while of conversation between my friend and the shadchan, it became quite obvious that I was being completely ignored. My friend even began mentioning that perhaps the shadchan might want to speak to me, as we were wrapping up. After a polite, "what are you looking for?" that was the end of my conversation, completely unlike that of my friend's. Again - just another individual. Then it happened again, in another shadchan's office. I stopped going to shadchanim, even though, supposedly, this was THE way to meet the type of people I wanted to date.

One afternoon, sitting in my friend's house, her mother mentioned, "Oh, did you hear there's a new Asian Jewish guy who moved to town?" Of course I had. "Why don't you go out with him?" While one of my best friends knew him and was pretty sure we weren't compatible, from what she had told me, he sounded like he might actually be compatible with this woman's daughter. So I said, "Actually, I thought he might be good for your daughter." Then she said, "You know I love you, but I wouldn't want someone like you in my family." I chuckled politely, because what else do you do when an adult you've known for years punches you in the stomach?

While many in the Jewish community will point to the sometimes obvious dysfunction in the authors' of these memoirs lives as the true cause of their disaffection for Yiddishkeit, I can't help but wonder if having looked around and seen overwhelming, accessible warmth, integrity, and beauty elsewhere in their community, they wouldn't have just left their bad situation and not their community. Finding the personal strength to stay when you know you're not welcome is not easy. When you look around and people you thought you knew or were upheld as 'the best of the best' weren't accepting you or betraying principles they espoused - it is not rational to stick around. Most of all, if they're hurting you or people you love, of course you want to leave.

I asked my friend to ask her rabbi father whether someone could go back on their conversion if they'd converted before Bas Mitzvah. No dice. My intellectual investment at that point was too great to believe dropping everything wasn't without true, spiritual impact. Plus, I couldn't help wondering why Hashem sent a single Jewish woman on an uphill battle against a prohibitive social climate and legislation to adopt my then deaf sister and bring her thousands of miles back to the US, later to become observant Jews. She actually hadn't intended on adopting two children - I was an unexpected surprise. During those years of disaffection, it actually felt really unfair - and completely accidental. Maybe I wasn't really meant to be here. But, I stayed in. 

Why I Do More than Just 'Stay In'

Now, I recognize fully that a large swath of people I consider 'my community' don't fully accept me nor will they accept my children - not based on halachah, but on small-mindedness and undeveloped ahavas Yisrael. I also recognize that they will not even recognize that they don't accept us or that this as a short-coming - and feel that I should accept this as normal. It still hurts. It will definitely hurt even more if and when my children experience it. So, I bristle at the vast amount of attention focused on the minutia of halachic technicalities of ritual practice - and not on scrupulous dinei mamanos, onaas dvarim, ahavas Yisrael, and the like. I am not satisfied with our communal religious priorities. But I don't want to get stuck in that space. I know my priorities; I love being here and a part of the Jewish community. Why should I lose out because of others' shortcomings; I want to stay and help improve the space. 

I'm not here begrudgingly, I'm here proudly. I recognize that we're ALL fallible. BUT. Our standards are high and our potential is vast. Including my own. If I step out, just shrug my shoulders, or become complacent with the niche I've carved out just for myself - I'm shortchanging myself, my friends and family, the entire Jewish community, and the world. Kol Yisrael areivim zeh bazeh. 

I have not stepped out of the community, because I want to be part of the conversation. In 2001, on the morning after 9/11, I delivered the world's largest Rosh Hashanah card to Israel from 40,000 Jewish children on six continents. In 2006, I designed a project that had 5000 Jews send Rosh Hashanah honey and cards to 5000 non-observant Jews through Project Inspire. In 2015, I helped 19 Jewish outreach organizations raise $1.36M in 24 hours. 

On June 2nd, I'll be running an online Giving Day that will invite the entire Jewish community to help Jewish Chesed organizations raise $4M in 24 hours online through MillionsforChesed. These beautiful organizations ensure that when we, our friends, or neighbors are in need, our community is there to help. In this Giving Day - ALL levels of donations are critical and impactful. Each organization will have three big matchers to match all the crowdfunded donations, effectively quadrupling all donations, but it's all or nothing. If the community doesn't meet their total goal in 24 hours, none of the donations will be processed.  As a Giving Day: ALL organizations must meet their goals, or none will collect. They become completely interdependent - as we all truly are. The model is Jewish: it's areyvus, and it's exponentially more profitable for organizations than any other crowdfunding model, which could help all kinds of non-profits improve on their efficiency and fundraising. However, this level of areyvus: all for one or none for all, I would never have dreamed setting as a condition in any other community. Deep down it's there, we just need more practice.

But my greatest contribution to the Jewish community to date: my three gorgeous, well-loved, creative-genius children, ages 8, 5, and 2. I can't wait to see how they contribute.

It's Not the Same Without Any One of Us

I would not be the same without the Jewish community, and it would not be the same without me. When it works, it's so sweet. It's worth the uphill battle. That goes for every Jew. Every Jew who sits next to me is a world of unlimited potential. They may not look like it - I sure don't. But whatever their shortcoming - even if it's one that hurts me - never discount their value to the Jewish community or to you. That disapproval must remain directed solely at actions - and recognize that it is just one part of a person- the not important part. True, it should be worked on. More important: accept and encourage the rest of who they are. Encourage every single Jew you know to excel in whatever he or she is doing that is Jewish or Godly, even if they're not excelling in "Jewish" areas. And of course, not everyone will do this or even agree. But for those of us who do see and understand it- then we have to be active in encouraging this potential in ourselves first, then our community. Each of us is great. We are perpetual energy. We can be a light unto the nations - and our own nation, but it begins with a single spark.

"Each individual has the capacity to build communities and endow communities with life... so that every community member becomes a source of inspiration." R' Menachem Mendel Schneerson.