About Me

Rabbi Chaim Coffman
Rabbi Coffman has helped people from all across the spectrum to prepare themselves properly for Orthodox Conversion to Judaism. His students admire his vast knowledge and appreciate his warm, personal attention and endearing sense of humor.
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Welcome to Rabbi Chaim Coffman's Blog!

I would like to thank you for visiting my blog, Beyond Orthodox Conversion to Judaism.

The conversion process can be a lengthy and daunting one to say the least and I want you to know that I am here to help you through it.

I have been teaching newcomers to Judaism for over a decade and over the last few years I have seen that conversion candidates really lack the support and knowledge they need to navigate the conversion process and successfully integrate into the Orthodox Jewish community.

I created my mentorship program in order to help make this whole experience as smooth and as painless as possible! (Can't do much about the growing pains, though ;)

Feel free to get to know me a little through the posts on my blog and visit the mentorship and syllabus page if you are interested in possible joining us.

I sincerely wish you all the best in your search for truth and spiritual growth.

Looking forward to meeting you,
Chaim Coffman

My Rebbe, Rav Moshe Sternbuch

In case you were wondering why I have all of these articles written by Rav Moshe Sternbuch, he is my Rebbe, and one of the gedolei hador (greatest Rabbis of our generation).

Rav Sternbuch fully endorses me and supports my mentorship program.

He is the address for all of my halachic or hashkafic (practical and philosophical) questions that I or my students may have.

The articles are based on his weekly talks on the Torah portion that the Rav gives in Jerusalem in his kollel. As a member of the kollel I get first dibbs on the photocopies and I type them up for my blog so you can all benefit from the Rav's erudition and insight.
Saturday, January 29, 2011

10 Myths about Converting to Judaism

By Rabbi Chaim Coffman

Myth Number One: Judaism does not allow converts. Fact: Judaism allows anyone to convert who is serious and willing to uphold all the mitzvos. There is no obligation to convert and if one chooses, they can continue to be a righteous Gentile by practicing the seven Noahide laws. Orthodox Judaism does not allow for anyone to convert for ulterior motives like for the sake of marriage. The conversion candidate must move into a religious community and live within walking distance to a nearby synagogue.

Myth Number Two: I can learn everything on my own and I don’t need a mentor to teach and guide me. Fact: Although one can learn from many different sources and read lots of books, it is not the same as having someone who can guide you and take you every step of the way. Reading books and getting academic information is important but one can very easily get lost in the many details of Jewish law!

Myth number Three: I don’t need a community, I can do everything within the confines of my own home. Fact: As much as one learns on their own, even if they have a mentor who will teach and guide them, does not take the place of being part of a community. When one sees everyone around them striving for the same goals and having the same ideals, it puts what one learns into practice. It also helps getting the support and help one needs where one won’t be able to with family.

Myth number Four: Once I am accepted by an Orthodox Beis Din (rabbinical court) as a viable candidate, it is all downhill from there. Fact: Although one may be accepted and receive guidance from a qualified beis din, less than 20% of all candidates actually finish the process. Even after one has lived in a community and has taken many classes with a proper rabbinical authority, the beis din has their own criteria of what they are looking for and will determine when that candidate is ready to finish the conversion.

Myth number Five: The community is all-welcoming and makes it comfortable for the prospective convert. Fact: Although it is written in the Torah more than 30 times to love the convert, many communities are skeptical of converts even after the convert has converted! The reason is that throughout Jewish history, converts have not given the Jewish people a great name and caused serious harm. Therefore, many communities are skeptical of all converts, making the process even more difficult.

Myth number Six: Once a person converts, that will solve all their problems. Fact: Converting to Judaism or becoming religious does not mean that one’s life will become easier. Just because one has found the right path for themselves in no way means that life from no one will trouble-free. One will find more meaning in their lives but it is not automatically going to turn one’s life around.

Myth number Seven: Becoming an Orthodox Jew will not change my financial situation. Fact: There is an old Talmudic dictum called “Mitzvos cost gelt!” In other words, moving into an Orthodox community has varied expenses including higher prices for housing, kosher food and school tuition, not to mention food for Shabbos, the holidays…If a person wants to convert and become an Orthodox Jew, they have to be willing to pay the price!

Myth Number Eight: Now that I have started my path to conversion, I will have a better relationship with my family. Fact: Most converts inevitably have family issues in the process of conversion. If the family came from a religious past, especially Christianity, they will do their best to help and “save” you from your misguided ideas! This can cause added stress and make family situations sometimes unbearable.

Myth Number Nine: It shouldn’t be so hard to explain to my boss why I have to leave early on Friday afternoon and miss many holidays if I have not converted yet. Fact: Depending on how understanding your boss is, it may be hard for them to understand if you are not even Jewish yet why one should be taking such steps. In fact, there may be some non-religious Jews who don’t practice such things so why should you. This can also cause great amounts of difficulty!

Myth Number Ten: An Orthodox conversion to Judaism will be great for my kids. Fact: It may be, it may not be. It will depend on how old the kids are and how it is integrated into their lives. They may not want any part of it and for the parents that is a very difficult thing to swallow. The reality is that the younger the children are, the easier it is but even if they convert at a young age, when they come of age, at either 12 or 13, they will be asked if they want to stay Jewish or not.
Saturday, January 22, 2011

A Drosha by the Raavad HaRav Moshe Sternbuch Shlita on Parshas Beshalach

“And Moshe took the bones of Yosef with him”.

”With him” suggests that the bones were to be specifically kept close to Moshe Rabbeinu. This seems puzzling. The Torah is intimating the following message. Yosef Hatzadik served Paroh faithfully, making sure there was enough food throughout the years of famine and even subjugating the property and the very bodies of the Egyptians to the King. Yosef’s descendants were entitled to assume that they would always be treated well, since the King or any of its successors would not dare to forget what Yosef had done for the nation. However, they were quickly disillusioned and as soon as Yosef died, the process of persecution set in. Thus, Yosef’s bones were to serve as a reminder not to put our trust in anyone except Hashem.
Similarly, with all the Egyptians’ silver and gold, which the Benei Yisrael took with them, they would be tempted to believe that they no longer needed to worry about their material needs, and yet, they ended on having to stay in the wilderness for 40 years, where all their material possessions were of little use, and they became totally dependent on the mon for their most basic material needs. In order to remind them not to rely on anybody or anything except Hashem.

“Stand still and see the salvation of Hashem”

The story is told that the Vilna Gaon’s brother was very sick and when the Vilna Gaon went to visit him, his brother told him that he was not seeing any doctors at all, since he had to have complete faith in Hashem. The Vilna Gaon responded that if he displayed the same degree of trust in Hashem in matters such as his livelihood, then this attitude was appropriate, but if not, then it was merely laziness disguised as piety.
By contrast, the Peias Hashulchan relates a story about the Vilna Gaon himself. There was a fund to support people learning Torah, and one of the beneficiaries was the Vilna Gaon. However, his shamash suffered from dire poverty himself and embezzled the money designed for the Vilna Gaon, figuring that Hashem would take care of the Vilna Gaon. The Vilna Gaon got wind of hat was happening, but decided not to say a word, since embarrassing a fellow Jew is tantamount to murder. He and his family subsisted for a while from the remnants of garbage. Eventually the shamash became mortally sick and came to be the Vilna Gaon for forgiveness. The Vilna Gaon calmed him down and reassured him that he need not worry, and that he was in fact deeply grateful to him for having granted him the opportunity to withstand a nisoyon (test) and put his trust completely in Hashem. Rav Sternbuch relates that even in his lifetime he was witness to people who approximated this highest level of bitachon (belief) and who merited a corresponding hashgocha (Divine Providence)

“There did not remain even one of them” (“ad echad”)

The Medrash interprets the term “Ad Echad” to mean “but” one, that is, one did remain alive, namely Paroh. This Medrash seems difficult to understand. What did Paroh to deserve to remain alive? We can understand this through the Baal Shem Tov’s parable explaining the possuk, “Oh Hashem to whom vengeance belongs”. There was once a king who lost his way and when he claimed to be king, everyone made fun of him. When he found his way back to the palace one minister recommended that everyone who had failed to help the King be given the death penalty, but another minister suggested that a better punishment would be for the King to appear before all those guilty of showing disrespect towards him, since their resulting humiliation would constitute the most appropriate punishment. So too the ultimate punishment for those who fail to serve Hashem is for Hashem to appear in person kivyachol as a result of which transgressors will suffer unspeakable shame an dembarrassment. Paroh too was kept alive, so that he could suffer the torment of being the sole survivor and of being left with nothing after claiming to be an all-powerful being to whom were subservient.

“And they believed in Hashem”

Bnei Yisrael surely believed in Hashem even before this event, but until that time it was more of an intellectual belief, whereas now this was transformed into complete emotional conviction (emuna chushis). The Chosed Yaavetz (15th century gadol who died in 1507, not the son of the Chacham Zvi) who was born in Spain and left id during the Expulsion in 1492 wrote that during the period of the inquisition the Jewish philosophers were the first to convert, whereas the simple folk, imbued with simple faith, refused to succumb. The philosophers just used their philosophical knowledge to rationalize their actions. Whilst there is room for a philosophical appreciation of Hashem’s existence (as borne out, for example, by the Chovos Halevovos) experience shows that simple emuno chushis is the higher level to strive for, and one that is unique to the Jewish nation.

“…and in His servant Moshe”

A slave fulfills his master’s wishes only insofar as he is required to do so, whereas a faithful son desires to fulfill his father’s wishes beyond what he is actually asked to do. An ordinary yid should aspire to serve Hashem primarily with the level of a son, but Moshe Rabbeinu who handed down the Torah to us had to serve Hashem primarily with the aspect of a slave who does not move one iota from his master’s instructions.

“Then came Amolek and fought Yisrael in Refidim”

It is brought down that in the period leading up to the coming of moshiach Amolek will gain a foothold even amongst the Jewish nation. Unfortunately, Amolek can even take the form of a supposedly Orthodox rabbi. When a well-known Rabbi seeks to grant legitimacy to conversion, which he himself knows to be null and void, thereby tearing the Torah to pieces, we must be aware of this possibility and act accordingly.
Thursday, January 13, 2011

Jewish Education

By Rav Moshe Sternbuch

Children and Grandchildren

“In order that you should relate this story to your children and grandchildren, and you should know that I am Hashem”
The Torah equates relating what took place in Mitzrayim to recognizing the existence of Hashem. While the story of Yetzias Mitzrayim certainly is a vehicle to make the Almighty part of our lives, it is difficult to understand why this is the litmus test as to whether one believes in Hashem.
Herein, the Torah reveals something about a deep aspect of our neshamos. A person might be a practicing Jew and extremely careful about performance of mitzvos, yet, the level of his recognition of Hashem’s existence depends on how much effort he places into relating the story of the makkos (plagues) to his children and grandchildren, i.e. giving his offspring a Jewish education.
Sending our children to the best yeshivos and seminaries is not sufficient. If we do not speak about Hashem’s greatness then fear of Heaven will not be implanted in their neshamos. Constantly speaking about the Almighty’s kindness and might especially as it expressed itself during the ten makkos – is a sign that our belief in Hashem is strong.

Choosing Life

The Yerushalmi explains that all of the Aseres Hadibros (10 Commandments) are hinted to in Krias Shema. While some of them are quite clear, seemingly there is no direct reference to lo tirtzach, do not murder. Where do we find an indication of this prohibition in Shema?
The Vilna Gaon explains that veshinantom levonecha, ensuring that the Torah is sharp on the tongues of our children, is a hint indicating the prohibition against murder. Someone who does not put in the proper effort to provide his children with a proper Jewish education is, in essence murdering them. Taking the Vilna Gaon’s words to heart will help us ensure that our children grow up to be healthy, happy, Torah-observant Jews.
In this light, we can gain some insight into what the Torah means when it tells us that after Hashem spoke to the Jewish people, they bowed down and thanked Him. Rashi explains that this was in response to the announcement that they would have children. Many children are born every year and at first glance, this would not seem to be a sufficient reason to respond with such great gratitude to Hashem.
“Having children” does not merely refer to the physical act of giving birth to offspring. Rather, Hashem promised us that if we educate our children properly, the offspring we bring into this world will be considered “our children”. If we live up to the Torah’s expectation of educating our children, they will follow in the sweet ways of the Torah.

Living with Torah

We are instructed to conduct the Pesach Seder at a time when the matzos and maror are in front of us. This is more than a time limit for when the Seder can be performed. Chazal meant to tell us thereby one of the major principles, but then, when it comes time to put them in practice, to do nothing. Judaism shuns this approach as antithetical to the Torah itself. Hashem gave us the Torah to put it into practice and to incorporate all of its ideologies into our everyday lives.
For this reason, we may only relate the story of Yetzias Mitrayim during the evening of the 15th of Nissan, at the time when we can fulfill the mitzvos of matzah and marror shows that discussion and practical action are integrally bound. There is no getting away with long, ethical discourses without practical fulfillment of the mitzvos.
We see a similar concept illustrated by tefillin. Arm tefillin are symbolic of the fulfillment of mitzvos, while head tefillin represent the deeper understanding of the mitzvos. We are not allowed to wear the head tefillin unless we are already wearing those of the arm for this would represent thought without actions. In order for our thoughts and actions to find favor in Hashem’s eyes, deep understanding must be synthesized with practical fulfillment.
Friday, January 7, 2011

Seeing Hashem

By Rabbi Moshe Sternbuch

Miracles of Evil

During the period of Yetzias Mitzrayim, Hashem performed many miracles for the Jewish people. These signs helped us recognize Him as the Absolute Power in the world. At the same time, they bolstered our faith in Him and prepared us to receive the Torah.
In direct contrast to the miracles that Hashem performed, the sorcerers of Mitzrayim tried to copy these actions through black magic. To a certain extent, they were successful in duplicating these acts. However, when it came to the plague of kinnim (lice), they admitted that they could not replicate it, and even they acknowledged that these plagues were the Hand of Hashem.
We can understand why the Almighty performs miracles for Klal Yisrael, but it is much more difficult to fathom why He gives this potential over to evil individuals. What is the reason that Hashem gives them such power?
Miracles are a direct revelation of Hashem’s might, and to some extent they take away our ability to have free choice. The Almighty balances this out by giving a similar power to evil individuals. This returns to us the option of free will.
During the time of the Gemara, the Amoraim could perform miracles. Later generations fell, however, so now, we no longer have the ability to perform such acts. Since open miracles are highly uncommon today, there is no need to balance out free choice in this way, so the power of black magic and sorcery also decreased.

The End of Sheidim

The Gemara in Maseches Chagigah (15a) discusses a being called a sheid. These creatures have some aspects similar to man and some resembling angels. During the times of the Gemara, they were quite prevalent.
The Rambam, however, writes that there is no such thing as a sheid. This comment is extremely hard to understand, for it appears to contradict the Gemara. His words were so controversial that the Vilna Gaon wrote in response that the Rambam, in saying this, was misled due to his study of philosophy (Biur HaGra, Yoreh Deah 169).
However, once we accept that the power of sorcery and witchcraft have weakened today, we need not be troubled by the Rambam’s statement. The Rambam could also have accepted that there was once an entity in the world called a sheid, but today, and even in his day, when there already were no longer open miracles, this being was simply taken away from us.

I am Hashem

“One of the main reasons we received the Torah was in order to come to believe in Hashem” (Vilna Gaon, Mishlei). The main message of the Ten Makkos (plagues) was to recognize that Hashem is the one and only Power in the world. This is why the makkos preceded Kabbolas HaTorah (acceptance of the Torah on Mount Sinai).
Dovid Hamelach said, “Hashem is raised up above all of the goyim; His glory is in the heavens” (Psalms 113:4). The nations of the world believe that Hashem is a distant entity and that He is above worldly matters and has little connection to what takes place in everyday life.
We say, “He picks us up from the dust; from the trash heaps He lifts up the downtrodden” (Psalms 113:7). Hashgacha protis, personal providence for every Jew, is one of the foundations of Judaism. The Ten Makkos and Yetzias Mitzrayim help us recognize Hashem’s power and the effect it has on our personal lives.
Twice a day, we emphasize this when we recite Shema. “Hashem is One” implies that He alone controls the world and there is no other power besides Him. This is a pillar of our faith, and remembering Yetzias Mitzrayim helps us internalize that He is the only power Who has any influence on our lives.

Difficult Times

At times, we may not understand how Hashem is directing our lives. Everything might seem to be going wrong, as if there is no one in control of our destiny. What can we do to strengthen our belief during such periods?
The Chofetz Chaim compares this to a person who comes to visit a shul for one Shabbos. He sees the gabbai, “randomly” distributing honors. In his eyes, it appears as if everything is arbitrary.
His problem is that he only sees a small part of the picture. If he would come to that same shul every Shabbos, he would realize that there is definitely a system. So, too, we must recognize that Hashem acts in His infinite wisdom and we should not doubt the fairness of His ways.

Heartfelt Prayers

Broken from slave labor, the Jewish people cried out to Hashem to help them. Their prayers came directly from the heart, and the Almighty accepted them. This was the beginning of the redemption from Mitzrayim.
In Psalms 145, Dovid Hamelech contrasts similar concepts in the two halves of each verse, connecting them with a Vov hachibur (a connecting ‘and’). The exception to this pattern is the seventeenth verse: “Hashem is close to all those who call Him, to all who cry out to Him with truth”. What is the difference between this verse and the others?
Rav Elya Lopian explained that it is impossible to say that the Almighty is also close to those who call to Him truthfully, for Hashem can only be close to those who do so. Those who call on the Almighty without truth are totally distanced from Him, and Dovid Hamelech makes it clear that speaking to Hashem without truth is like talking to Him in a foreign language that He does not understand. Since Hashem recognizes our thoughts, we must even be carefully how we think during prayer.
The Polish government once tried to influence yeshivos to incorporate learning the vernacular into the curriculum of the yeshivos. Rabbonim thought that they should send a Polish-speaking rov to speak to them, but the Chofetz Chaim advised them not to. Hearing a rabbi speak Polish would just encourage them to go ahead with their plans.
Instead, the Chofetz Chaim went himself to speak to the Polish authorities. He spoke to them in Yiddish, and most of the time, he cried to them bitter tears over the impending decree. Although the government officials did not understand Yiddish, they understood the Chofetz Chaim’s message and immediately rescinded their plans.

Inheriting Eretz Yisrael

Hashem uses four different expressions of redemption when promising to take the Jewish people out of Mitzrayim. “After”, the Torah tells us, “He will take them to the Land that He promised to Avrohim, Yitzchok, and Yaakov as a morasha (inheritance)”. Why does the Torah stress that the Land of Israel is ours as an inheritance?
The word morasha can also be read as me’urasa, betrothed. If we maintain a relationship with the Torah as a chosson (groom) does to his kallah (bride), then we are deserving to live in the Land. However, if we forsake the Torah, then we no longer merit this privilege.
During these troubled times, our right to Israel is challenged daily. We must look at our relationship with Hashem and evaluate whether we share the close bond that we are meant to have. By returning to that special closeness of me’urasa that newlyweds share, we will merit to have the morasha, an unchallenged right to live in Eretz Yisrael.