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How to Avoid a Victim Mindset: A Brief Primer for Converts to Judaism


By Johan (Yoel) Schaper

Being a convert to Judaism is not always easy. After having established that Judaism is the true religion and that you should join it, you suddenly realize that you are getting more than you bargained for. The religion comes together with an entire culture that you didn’t sign up for.

It is often this culture that creates trouble for the convert. Not all cultures are compatible; a convert’s upbringing can clash with the new Jewish one.

Take a Southern Baptist who grew up with the non-confrontational Southern culture. She rejects the New Testament, keeps the Old, and embraces Rabbinic Judaism. To convert, she moves up North to be in a larger Jewish community where she suddenly is thrown into this extremely forceful Jewish environment, filled with the usual teasing and in-your-face confrontational disagreements. All the poor gal did was change some core doctrines and add a boatload of practices. Now she has to deal with all this.

Or take a convert raised with the proud Protestant work ethic. He moves upstate to New York where his Rabbi advises him to mess around a little with his taxes because “it’s no big deal, even the goyim do it.”

Or the African American convert who has to deal with casual frum racism.

Or the working class couple who joins a New Jersey Modern Orthodox community where everyone is a lawyer, a doctor, or nebbach, an accountant. The only people on their income level are the non-tenured academics, and they share no culture with them either!

And then there is the xenophobia and, let’s be honest, sometimes the abuse.

We can’t change people’s cultures, but if I could give my fellow converts just one piece of advice, it would be this: “Do not identify as a victim.” Once you don’t see yourself as a victim, things will be much easier. Here are some insights on how to accomplish this.

1. DON’T BE SWEPT UP BY JEWISH NEGATIVITY

This is somewhat of a generalization, but Jews are a dramatic people who like to emphasize the negatives. Communal problems are not just issues to be solved, but full blown crises. During and after the conversion process, people will start overloading you with stories of how terribly converts are treated in the Jewish community. For Jews, this is just another ordinary day of complaining, but to many converts, this negativity can really shape how they interpret even benign encounters.  Converts should be aware of this national sport and not to let it influence their experiences.

2. DON’T REMAIN IN CONVERSION MODE

A person who wants to convert has to go through Beis Din. Hence, they have to submit themselves to the rule of the rabbis. This is only natural. The potential convert wants something that only the Beis Din can give her, and the Beis Din on the other hand has the great responsibility of making sure that this potential convert is serious. This creates a situation of submission that could last years.

Such submission comes with all kind of emotions. It sometimes includes hopelessness, born of wanting to be Jewish so badly but having nothing in your power to make it happen. It can also create resentment. I have seen strong individuals unused to any kind of submission crumble like a cookie over time.

In many cases, the Beis Din itself don’t really know the person. You are just one in many, so they don’t feel your pain. You just have to plod through it. But once you are Jewish, you should start to consciously rebuild yourself.

Analyze if you have any mental scars of this trial; namely, conversion mode. Get out of it! You do not have to submit yourself anymore. You don’t have to fear communal scrutiny. You have to move on.

3. DON’T INTERNALIZE THEIR SOCIAL HIERARCHY

The ultra-Orthodox have a clear social hierarchy based on family lineage, public perception of religiosity, and money. This hierarchy plays a major role in who you will marry. In the u-Orthodox world, a marriage is between two families, not just between two individuals. We converts rank somewhat below baalei teshuvah and above mamzerim and jobless drug addicts (although it’s debatable; if the drug addict is from a prominent family, he or she might still rank above us).

Although the social hierarchy often plays little to no role in daily encounters, just being aware of it can really damage a convert’s self-worth. Converts can internalize this low rank and end up marrying someone based solely on social status and not commonalities.

I have found some of the most miserable and also some of the most impressive converts in the ultra-Orthodox world. Without exception, the impressive ultra-Orthodox converts all exhibit great independence, a realistic awareness of their community’s flaws, and a rejection of the whole idea of social hierarchy. This seems to me the only way to make living in those communities possible.

4. IDENTIFY AND IGNORE THE BULLIES

There is a particular type of person, often ranking very low in the social hierarchy, who feels a need to lord his higher ranking over you. This can express itself innocently, with him setting himself up as a potential mentor to boost his own self worth, or it can turn into bullying. The bullying can vary from questioning your Jewishness and constantly mentioning that you are a convert, to asking strange questions about your parents’ assumed anti-Semitism, or saying that you can’t have an opinion in learning because you are an Am haAretz.

If you don’t realize that this is driven by low self esteem, it can be extremely damaging and leave a lasting negative impact. I found that once I realized this is part of the hierarchy cultural phenomena, I could easily place most of my negative experiences in that context. Next time it happens, I suggest being graceful and disengaging as soon as possible.

These are just four pointers that I think can be very helpful. They certainly helped me. Of course, it does not mean that you won’t encounter any bigotry, but it is a tremendous help. We can’t change our community, but we can change our own mindsets.

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THE WANDERING CONVERT, LOOKING FOR COMMUNITY Part 2: Individualism and philosophy 

By Johan (Yoel) Schaper 

In Part 1, I recounted my post-conversion search for the ideal Chassidic group. I tried Breslov and Satmar, but the cracks were already there, waiting for that final push away from Chassidus. Now in Part 2, I will discuss how I left the Chassidic path, and eventually the idea of groups in general.

The years I spend in Tzfat are filled with crazy stories. A brief overview includes a Breslov friend who swore he would not leave the forest until he had forced God to bring the Messiah, only to return three days later with pneumonia. Or the crazy old Karaite who thought God instructed him and tried to stab my Lubavitcher friend in his sleep. Or how during the second Lebanon war, after a Katyusha rocket exploded right next to me, I left Tzfat and worked as a body guard in Jerusalem. To this day when recounting the many bizarre stories with my old Tzfat friends, we shake our heads in disbelief. 

But Tzfat was also great. I made many friends and was even semi-adopted by a wonderful family who eventually walked me down the chuppah. But all this is for another time. The person most relevant to my hashkafic journey was Rabbi Eshel. 

Rabbi Eshel was and remains an interesting individual. Born in the USA and moving to Israel as an adult, he is a shtickl contrarian: a staunch critic of the Jewish religious establishment and a lover of Zion. After having spent his student years at the rationalistic yeshiva of Rabbi Yisrael Chait in Far Rockaway, New York, he was then studying the words of mystics like the Ramchal and Ramak in Tzfat. This made him an interesting mixture of several schools of thought, soaked with a whole lot of personality. Perhaps most importantly, he did not identify with any group. 

In our yeshiva, while every non-Talmudic class was entertaining the ideas of one acharon or another, Rabbi Eshel gave an evening class on Tehillim and other Biblical texts. He would often speak about the medieval Jewish philosophers and the importance of using reason to shape our religious worldview. These were the ideas that had originally brought me to Judaism. We quickly became friends. 

Rabbi Eshel did not hide his skepticism of the Chassidic lifestyle. Combined with my own disenchantment, it didn’t take me long to get rid of my Chassidic garb. Subsequently, Rabbi Eshel became my main teacher. We even opened a short-lived yeshiva together a few years later. This period began a slow deconstruction of my worldview that would last for years, even into my marriage and move to the United States. 

After abandoning Chassidus, the next to go was Kabbalah. Here is not the place to share my evolving view on Kabbalah other than the facts that at the time I was (1.) Becoming familiar with arguments that brought into question the purported ancient origins of Kabbalah, and with that, its authority, (2.) Being exposed to more eloquent Rabbinic thought, both old and new, that did not take Kabbalistic metaphysics into account. There was a period where I deligitimized what I saw as more irrational forms of Judaism, a childish habit that took a while to die.

Most crucial to the topic at hand, I started to develop a stronger notion of the importance of the individual rather than the group. I was part of the Jewish people and belonged in Orthodoxy, but no longer cared about particular groups, gedolim, or minhagim. After I lost the Satmar attire and identity I decided that since I was Dutch, I would take on the minhagei Amsterdam, the customs of the traditional Amsterdam community. I never looked back at customs again.

Five years after my conversion and four years after moving to Tzfat, I found and married my American wife. Marrying this wonderful person is undoubtedly the best decision I ever made. The irony is that she is from a Chassidic rabbinic dynasty on both sides and the granddaughter of a Brooklyn Chassidic Rebbe. This was something that would have been very impressive had I met her as a chosid, yet at this point, it was merely cute trivia. She herself was no longer a chassidiste, and like me, interested in the more philosophical side of Judaism. It was a match made in heaven.

After several months of living as a married couple in Tzfat, we went to the United States for the wedding of her brother in Brooklyn and then to Memphis, Tennessee for a “quick summer job.” We stayed there for five years. It did not take long for me to appreciate the United States and I quickly felt at home. It was in Memphis where I was exposed, for the first time, to American Modern Orthodoxy. 

American Modern Orthodoxy is hard to put your finger on. They seem to reinvent themselves in every generation. As is typical of Western religion and ideologies, they use abstract and descriptive labels to describe their particular movements and ideas: Centrist Orthodox, Open Orthodox, Torah u’Mada, Orthoprax, Religious Zionism, or Modern Yeshivish. This is unlike the Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox who name their movements and institutions after their European towns of origin. 

The Modern Orthodox spend much time justifying why not being ultra-Orthodox is valid. To me, Modern Orthodoxy is simply American Orthodoxy. They are cultural Americans who practice Orthodox Judaism, just as the traditional Dutch Orthodox Jewish community has always been culturally Dutch, valued college, held regular jobs, and had university educated Rabbis. No further abstract labels or ideological justifications were needed. 

All that aside, this American style Orthodoxy is where I have found my home, first in Memphis, Tennessee and today in Linden, New Jersey. I don’t always relate to it, but I do share their Western lifestyle and approach to religion. 

In Memphis, we joined the ASBEE synagogue, whose Rabbi is Rabbi Joel Finkelstein, a man of great learning and warmth. He is the kind of Rabbi who gives as much time to the low income Dutch convert as he does to the wealthiest donor.

After receiving my green card, I started my first full-time job in a long time. It didn’t take long before my daughter was born. A year later, my son was born. One would think that now that so much time was spent on making a living and raising children, the period of exploration would have ended, that I would settle down, pay the bills, go to Daf Yomi, and call it a day. 

Nothing could be further from the truth. It was in Memphis where my worldview was most rigorous shaped. I put effort into understanding the historical method. I began seriously engaging with secular academic literature on Judaism. And perhaps most importantly, I discovered analytic philosophy of religion. I no longer cared about belonging to this group or the other, but completely deconstructed Judaism down to its epistemological level and built it back up from there.

I asked questions such as: Is there an objective reality that can be understood by human reason? Is there a God? Are we justified in believing in revelation? To what extent, if any, is the Bible historically reliable? Is Rabbinic Judaism a legitimate continuation of Biblical Judaism? 

All the questions I once approached as a young man, I now approached as an adult. I now acknowledged my own limitations and was more patient and willing to listen to the ideas and arguments of others. I developed a great interest into philosophical naturalism, secular humanism, and Christianity. While continuing to observe Judaism, I took a fresh look at these worldviews, fully aware that if any would seem more plausible, I would eventually have to make some difficult life decisions. In the end, Judaism came out on top. Involving myself in such a challenging and massive project is by far the most enjoyable thing I have ever done. 

Right at the beginning of this new quest, a Chassidic couple moved from upstate New York to the Memphis area. In order to be within walking distance from a shul on Shabbos, we arranged to co-rent an apartment, where they would join us nearly every Shabbos and Yom Tov. As it turns out the husband, Eliezer, was not only a scholar, having spent many years in Kollel, but also was in law school and also university-educated in medieval Jewish and Islamic philosophy, and to my great joy, was familiar with modern philosophy of religion. Needless to say, this was a very fruitful relationship for me. In Eliezer, I found guidance and someone with whom to discuss my ideas.

After I established the foundations of Judaism to be reasonable, or at least more plausible than opposing worldviews, I reconstructed Judaism from the bottom up.  The Judaism that emerged and still is emerging is much simpler than the one I started with. It takes a minimalist approach to ikkarim and a nuanced approach to the mesorah. It is a much more individualistic approach to religion in general. 

Now more than ever, I have a desire to seek a relationship with my newly rediscovered Creator. Clearly this involves following halacha, something I always have done since my conversion. Beyond law, I am not fully sure what else this actually entails. This is the question that occupies me now. Certainly the last thing on my mind is joining a particular group or Jewish subculture.

We have come to the end of this two part series.
I know this is incomplete and leaves many questions unanswered. What happened to the anti-Zionism? What are the actual arguments for the reasonableness of Judaism? What about Biblical criticism? What about the Oral Torah? How did I find Judaism in the first place? How do I deal with my own cognitive bias? 

Stay tuned—all this and more will be addressed in upcoming blog posts. Y

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​THE WANDERING CONVERT, LOOKING FOR COMMUNITY: AN HASHKAFIC HISTORY (Part 1: From Breslov to Satmar)

By Johan (Yoel) Schaper

Great—so you found Judaism and figured out that Orthodoxy is the way to go. That’s it, right? Wrong. We converts soon discover that there is a whole world of different Orthodox flavors out there. There are, of course, the dominant voices in the Kiruv world that we, although not their targets, are exposed to online. Soon we figure out that Chabad is not the only Chassidic group, that Litvish and Yeshivish are synonymous, and that Open Orthodoxy is something you want to avoid because you don’t want to invoke controversy on your conversion. Then there are the Sefardim, that group of exotic mysterious people from the Middle East and Brooklyn. Let’s not forget about that whole slew of other ideological movements, organizations, and individuals, some of which only exist online.

Where do you belong? Should you even care? As a convert myself, I went through this stage. It was quite the quest, and often a rather silly one. In this two-part series, I would like to share with you the story of my Jewish communal search among ideas, movements, and groups.

I converted 13 years ago in Bnei Brak while living in Mea Shearim in Jerusalem, the two bastions of over-the-top-mega-ultra-Orthodox. At the time, this was where I was ideologically ‘holding,’ as they say in Jinglish. I picked the Hebrew name Yoel after the late Satmar Rav, who was, in my mind, the last of the lions and my platonic ideal Jew.

As I rose out of that conversion Mikvah, I was a fresh religious fanatic ready to do the battle for the Lord. I also was completely at a loss as to what the next step of my life would be. But that is for a different story.

At the time, I had all the outward trappings of a Chassidic Jew: the long peyos, untrimmed beard, flat bieber hat, and long black coat. These were, of course, clumsily thrown together the way only converts, baalei teshuvah, and Hollywood can spectacularly fail at getting those darn dress code details right. Despite my garb, I did not bother putting in any effort to assimilate into a Chassidic community. For me, it had always primarily been about ideas, not culture and community. The cultural stuff was sometimes fun and sometimes annoying, but always secondary.

Looking back, this Chassidic stage lasted for a relatively short period. I did not start out that way, and I did not end up that way either.

My Background

I was born and raised in the beautiful Kingdom of the Netherlands. Although my mother had strong neo-pagan and New Age leanings, the world we grew up in was that good old classical Western European secular humanism. Like many converts, I found Judaism while sitting at home reading books. Exploring religions through books is advantageous in that you will be exposed to the ideas of the religion without the muddling of the ill-informed lay practitioners of said religion. The down side is that without real world context, you might cobble together a religion in your head that doesn’t reflect anything existing in the real world. The invented Judaism I was attracted to in that early stage was not the one I eventually converted to.

After visiting the real life Jewish community in Amsterdam, I was blessed to find myself a teacher, a yeshiva and kollel trained Lubavitcher who was himself also a convert. Besides for him being a knowledgeable person, he also had that no nonsense down-to-earth Dutch personality and was willing to answer even my most ridiculous questions. He was a real mensch. I met him once a week at his home. Those few precious hours probably shaped me not only as a Jew, but as a human being.

Chassidus

I had a strong attraction to Chassidus. First, it appeared to me to take Judaism much more seriously than the plain Orthodox Dutch Judaism in the synagogues around me. Second, it seemed much more spiritually engaging than the dry yeshivish Judaism I saw in the local Amsterdam kollel. Chabad Chassidus had a strong appeal in that it presented a clear systematic theology. It has its own philosophy of the Divine, the Universe and the role of a Jew in the world. Even today, I can only think of Maimonides and Ramchal as having as complete and systematic an approach to Judaism as that of Chabad.

Breslov

Another appealing Chassidic group, introduced to me in the writings of the late Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, was Breslov. Breslov was far less systematic than Chabad, but had a path of personal devotion and study that was compatible with my western individualistic sensibilities. Ultimately, Breslov gained the upper hand, and when I moved  to Israel to convert, I joined Rabbi Avraham Greenbaum, who at the time had a Breslov yeshiva in Mea Shearim. There, in Jerusalem, I explored a whole smorgasbord of Jewish movements and ideas.

Although the core teachings of Breslov—hisbododus (improvised prayer) and serving God with joy—were and are very uplifting, there was much I could not commit myself to intellectually. First and foremost, Rabbi Nachman, the late 18th century founder and only Rebbe of Breslov, radically rejected philosophy. Although it was on a very low burner at the time, it had still been philosophy that had initially brought me to Judaism. A second obstacle was the Breslov doctrine of the tzadik ha-emmes, the true righteous man. This idea places Rabbi Nachman as the fifth and final revelation until the coming of the Messiah. Such metaphysical importance is given to Rabbi Nachman that a popular Breslov pamphlet claims that anyone who does not know Rabbi Nachman in this lifetime must be reincarnated again and again until they know him (Seven Pillars of Faith, 7:19).

The great codes of Jewish law never lay down an obligation to seek this one elevated tzadik. True, Rabbi Nachman’s own teachings clearly point in this direction about himself, but this only made the Rabbi suspicious in my eyes. Also, as a group, Breslov had a certain radical emotionalism that almost glorified irrationality. That was very off putting, to say the least.

Anti-Zionism

Mea Shearim is known as the stronghold of ultra-Orthodox opposition to Zionism and the State of Israel. As a post WW2 European, the idea of nationalism, even Jewish nationalism, was intuitively repulsive to me. Hence I had no cultural blockage to keep me from exploring religious based anti-Zionism, which at the time made a very strong and coherent case to me. I became interested in the person and teachings of the late Satmar Rav, Rabbi Yoel Teitelbaum (1887–1979), arguably the most prolific anti-Zionist Rabbinic scholar in the Jewish world. The Satmar Rav was also interested in the teachings of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov but seemingly without feeling the need to elevate him to a new level of divine revelation. Such an approach allows one to take the edifying parts of Breslov without having to commit to the more cultic aspects. I am probably the only person in Jewish history who wanted to be Satmar because it seemed like less of a cult.

By the time I finished the conversion process, I was conflicted as to whether I should identify as Satmar or Breslov. I decided that if I chose Breslov, I would name myself ‘Yoel’ after the Satmar Rav, and if I would go for Satmar, I would name myself ‘Nachman’ after the Breslover Rebbe. Before I went into the mikvah, I decided to be a Breslover chosid, and named myself Yoel. It was only several months later that I dropped Breslov and started identifying as an aspiring Satmar chosid.

Looking back at it now, there was no real systematic approach to my quest for authenticity. I was not only lacking in maturity, I was lacking in education and rigor. I didn’t know enough about Judaism and I did not know how to properly analyze a subject. I walked around playing Satmar without any real interest in joining a Satmar community, a group of people so alien to me that I just allowed them to be exotic from afar. I certainly did not need Satmar for a social life; I had my own friends and books.

Tzfat

After having been in Jerusalem for a year, I spent a couple of weeks back in Netherlands and then moved to the mystical city of Tzfat in northern Israel, where, of all places, I would be demystified. I joined Yeshivas Shalom Rav, a hippie yeshiva originally meant for baalei teshuvah, but when I arrived, was filled with FFBs trying to figure out their own relationship with Judaism, aided by alcohol and marijuana. It was a blast.

It did not take long before I had become a real Tzfat character. I was that tall Dutch Satmar guy. My combined knowledge of Dutch, broken German, and Hebrew jargon allowed me to fake a decent Yiddish. You know, to people who didn’t actually speak Yiddish. It was fun but silly. The highlight of my silliness was probably when the previous Satmar Rebbe had passed away, and two of his sons were fighting over who would be the next Rebbe.

Being Satmar, I figured I should pick one. So I called up a Satmar posek I respected to ask him who I should pick. The posek gave me a politically correct answer that left me with nothing. The absurdity, of course, was that I had called someone I met once to have him tell me who of two people I never met, who lived on the other side of the world, should be my official Rebbe. The whole thing was meaningless and completely self-imposed.

Doing the Satmar thing, I really enjoyed getting into Zionist vs anti-Zionist debates. Like a Christian missionary memorizing Old Testament proof-texts I had memorized every Chazal, Rishon, and Acharon I could get my hands on to support the Satmar claim against the State of Israel. This was all in good spirit; it never got antagonistic. Until this very day I don’t know if there is really anything more to the Satmar derech. Certainly my spirituality came from other Chassidic literature such as Breslov, Slonim and Kotzk.

In part 2, I’ll take a look at how I came to leave Chassidus, matured a little, and embarked on a new journey exposing me to a more philosophical Judaism, and how I eventually came to deconstruct my entire worldview to rebuild it again from its most fundamental level.

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No, Judaism is Not That Obviously True

by Johan (Yoel) Schaper

One of the strangest claims I have heard since my conversion to Judaism is that people who leave religion do so solely for emotional reasons. People attribute others’ attrition to negative experiences in the community or lusts they could not control.

This assumes that those who leave Judaism are always irrational actors. Besides for being condescending, this conflicts with our own personal experiences struggling with our faith. Many of us religious folk have had and continue to have questions about a slew of Jewish truth claims, questions which are not easily brushed away with quick kiruv arguments or slick mystical illustrations.

Knowing this about ourselves, it should be no leap to realize Judaism is not so obviously true that only a disingenuous person can be convinced that it is false, or at least not compelling enough to require life encumbrance. Further, the reasons given by those claiming intellectual justification for leaving Judaism aren’t simplistic at all. These reasons include lack of evidence for the existence of God, the problem of evil, academic objections to historicity of particular Biblical accounts, forced Talmudic legal reasoning, external influences on Rabbinic decision making, contradictory theological claims, and more.

Having said that, I do not deny the role of non-rational influences in human decision making. But even if it were true that some or most people begin questioning religion due to emotional factors, intellectual objections cannot be resolved by pointing at their initial emotional cause. Doing so would commit the genetic fallacy, which attempts to invalidate a person’s view by showing how the person came to hold that view. Arguments are not refuted with fallacious reasoning.

Saying “I also don’t believe in the God you don’t believe in,” recapitulating a grand rabbi’s clever comeback to an atheist, is not relevant to those who reject the existence of God based on a lack of evidence. Cute stories are not arguments. Appeals to Jewish continuity, national heritage or ancestral self-sacrifice also do not provide a solid foundation for religious practice.

This knife, though, cuts both ways. I often hear nonreligious individuals claim that the sole cause for anyone becoming or remaining religious is purely emotional. They contend that others are religious due to sentimental attachment to their upbringing or some fear of death. When religious people give reasons and arguments for their faith, the arguments are brushed away and labelled kiruv or apologetics. Labelling an argument does not negate it. As with intelligent people who reject religion, the reasons intellectual religious people give for their faith aren’t simplistic at all: philosophical arguments for the existence of God, defense of the Tanach, reasonable objections to philosophical naturalism, or the general coherency of theism as a worldview and more.  Each of these ideas deserves contemplation beyond a 1,000 word article or YouTube video in favor of or against it.

Good arguments for and against religion are nuanced. Judaism is not so obviously true that we can dismiss anyone who rejects it as an emotional fool. Neither is it so indefensible that no reasonable person can accept it. ‘
Exploring ideas and following the evidence where it leads are essential to my own personal development. I am a religious Jew because my reasoning points me toward it. Yet I find intelligent people, familiar with the same data and arguments, who disagree with me. This does not make me give up my intellectual endeavor, but it does forces me to take a humble approach. Intellectual humility is crucial when joining the conversation at the table of ideas.

In the lasting words of Moses Mendelssohn:

“[…] I cannot judge the truth on the basis of the views of other people. If am to accept, reject, or defer judging a proposition, I must do so on my own. I will not force any rational creature to adopt my judgement as a guiding principle. Who am I, a miserable creature, that I should presume to do so? But I cannot do otherwise than to judge according to my own reason, and the Omnipresent Searcher of Hearts knows that I sincerely seek the truth.”

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