How to become Religious without Losing Yourself

By Mindy Rubenstein

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See original article here.

About 10 years ago my husband and I, along with our two toddlers, attended a beautiful Chabad Shabbat dinner, where I fell head over heels in love with Judaism. I admit, initially it was not a mutual infatuation. I saw a holy, meaningful—and exciting—lifestyle, and wanted to jump in with both feet.

My husband, however, was respectful yet hesitant. Together, over the next decade, we navigated what would become an all-encompassing lifestyle. We started somewhat slowly, from lighting ShabbatIt was not a mutual infatuation candles and having challahand chicken soup, to eventually fully observing Shabbat, keeping kosher in and out of the home, and adhering to family purity laws. We also had more children, in essence doubling the family size to which we were both accustomed.

In time, we acted and dressed the part of observant Jews.

Looking back, however, it was not the most seamless and thought-through transition. I was at times judgmental of our extended families, for example, for not having given us “more Judaism,” and then for not embracing our newly found nirvana.

Those of us who “find” religion often go through changes, as we examine parts of our inner selves we didn’t know existed, says Rabbi Aron Moss, co-director of Nefesh Shul in Sydney, Australia, in his article Is Judaism a Cult? As a result, we may re-evaluate ourselves and our lives. All growth is accompanied by some upheaval and instability. But when we make sudden changes, we may leave part of ourselves behind.

This is not the Jewish way, Rabbi Moss says. Any life changes should be done gradually and with thought, as they integrate with your personality rather than overcome it. In other words, religion should enhance and deepen your identity to make you a better you. That’s what G‑d wants, I think. To serve Him, but not to lose yourself in the process. And since I was already married with children at the time, it meant also preserving and respecting my relationship with my husband. To work together in slowly and methodically embracing the mitzvahs in an effort to retain peace within the home.

When we started keeping kosher, I was very vocal at our families’ homes about it, essentially using food to separate myself from them. I have learned over the years, through my mistakes, that there are ways to keep kosher yet still participate respectfully and lovingly in family get-togethers. Observing mitzvahs shouldn’t be a source of stress or contention—if it is, it’s not being done the right way.

Partway into our evolution, when I announced proudly that I wanted to stop driving on Shabbat, my rebbetzin warned me, “Don’t take the decision to keep Shabbat lightly. Once you cross that line, you don’t want to give it up because it becomes too difficult.” So we waited until the right time.

I understood her wisdom when, early on in my observant lifestyle, I went and bought a wig, the traditional way many Jewish women choose to cover their hair. It was gorgeous. But I didn’t consult my husband first, or a rabbi or rebbetzin, or make a plan for observing the mitzvah. Over the years that followed, I struggled with this mitzvah. Because it wasn’t done gradually, with thought.

As I look at myself in the mirror, sometimes I don’t recognize the free-spirited, creative, earthy young woman my family once knew. And now I understand better why they may have balked at our new lifestyle. It wasn’t so much that we adopted unfamiliar Jewish rituals, but rather that I had in essence closed a door on my former self, rather than integrate her into my new life.

As someone once told me, “It’s better to be on the outside looking in than on the inside looking out.” After working so hard to be in the fold of observant Judaism, I suddenly found myself staving off a feeling of resistance. As if these mitzvahs, this lifestyle, were being forced upon me, even though I had so passionately embraced them. Perhaps I had left behind, or ignored, parts of myself that needed tending.

This may be the reason that some baalai teshuvah (returnees to observant Judaism) veer off the path completely. It’s so important to find a rabbi or rebbetzin to guide you, and to consult with them throughout the ongoing process. And I don’t think we are all meant to jump so fully into a life-transforming version of Judaism. Learn about the mitzvahs, about Judaism and Torah, and surround yourself with growth-minded people. But go slowly, and do what makes sense for you. And, most importantly, whichever mitzvahs you choose should be done with love and respect for those around you.

For me, I think the key to embracing my identity as an observant Jewish woman was to create a balance, where my old self could come back again, but with an enhanced depth and direction. I realized that my creativity and talents should not be shunted away, but should be utilized within a framework of Torah to reveal the unique aspects of myself and the role G‑d has placed before me.

Sometimes, it seems, you do have to lose a bit of yourself to really find yourself again.


Mindy Rubenstein is a freelance journalist and publisher of Holy Women Magazine.

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