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Challenges in Becoming Observant

May 9, 2009 | by Rebbetzin Feige Twerski

My family is very upset with my decision to become religious.

A reader writes:

I need guidance in my journey to become more observant. I was raised in a very Reform community in the South. For my family, being Jewish means having Jewish friends, going to shul for High Holidays and marrying someone Jewish. I have always wanted more. I have consistently been involved on a leadership level with Jewish causes throughout my life, so I feel that it was only a matter of time before the Almighty brought me back to a more traditional form of Judaism. I have always felt so connected and never knew why.

I have started learning and am working my way toward being Sabbath observant and keeping Kosher. I am dating someone who is also becoming observant and together we have found such amazing joy, fulfillment, peace, strength and excitement in learning Torah. I am now at the happiest I have ever been in my life.

However my family is very upset. My mother tells me she is "puzzled" as to why I keep Shabbas and asked me why I am doing something so extreme. I don't need them to change; I just want them to be happy for me and they currently cannot be.

I have spiritual needs and I need to listen to them. I am ready to move forward and learn full-time. I am a 3rd year attorney and I plan to leave my job and move to Israel to learn for at least a year. This is something I have wanted to do my whole life. I can't keep putting it off and waiting. I am 28 and I am ready. But I am meeting opposition not only from my parents - but from my siblings as well.

At first, they tried to be supportive. But last night they ambushed me by inviting me to dinner and then both started crying about how they are scared that I am brainwashed. They think that I will move to Israel and never come back, that I am abandoning my family, that other people are influencing me. They have three friends that became religious in college and moved to Israel and are now married with children and don't come to the U.S. much. They are scared this will happen to me. I tried to explain to them that the opportunities to learn are not available where we live. That I feel I need to focus for a while on learning to be able to provide my children with the life I want them to have and to be able to live my life in a way I feel is right for me.

They said if I leave they will not be able to handle it, that I am abandoning my family and that I will never come back. I feel helpless. I am so sad that I am making my whole family cry; my sister said she has been having recurring nightmares about me moving. It is so hard that they are not happy for me also. I don't want to run away to Israel, I want to be free to go with their blessing, but right now I know I cannot get that. HELP!

Rebbetzin Feige responds:

The Torah, the timeless wisdom and counsel of the ages, outlines for us the necessary steps in the journey towards Jewish identity and self-discovery.

Abraham, our first patriarch, earned his designation as "Ivri", Hebrew, because he was willing to stand alone against the entire world and the spirit of the times. The words in the verse of that defining commandment from the Almighty to Abraham were, "Go alone for yourself -- from your country, from your birthplace and from the house of your father to the land that I will show you" (Genesis, 12:1).

Rabbi S. R. Hirsh, a foremost commentator renders this: Go for yourself, go your own way, go the way that will isolate you from your land, from your birthplace, from your father's house -- from all previous connections. The land, the birthplace and home are the soil from which the human personality emerges. Such conduct, he asserts, demands courage and firm belief in the truth of one's inner convictions and one's awareness of God. It demands Jewish awareness, Jewish "stubbornness".

This was the first trial thrust upon Abraham, the father of the Jewish people. He continues, "This was the attribute demanded of Abraham at the starting point of his own mission and that of the nation that was to descend from him. True, strong ties bind a person to his homeland and to his family. Nevertheless, the bond that attaches us to God must be stronger.
How could we have survived, how could we continue to survive, had we not inherited from our patriarch, Abraham, the courage to be a minority?"

My dear reader, moving into a new lifestyle mode, changing your milieu and leaving family behind can be daunting under the best of circumstances. It is a passage and by definition every passage is fraught with emotional landmines. What you are experiencing, however, goes far beyond the "necessary losses" of leaving familiar territory, that of your home, friends and most significantly, your family. The fact that you don't have the support of your family at this critical juncture in your life is sad and unfortunate. But don't let these emotional roadblocks blindside you. Good things often come with great difficulty. "Commensurate with the pain is the reward," is the reassurance of our sages.

Your journey is not a departure. It is, in fact, a homecoming.

You articulated very clearly your longstanding and ongoing quest for knowledge and exposure to your roots. Your journey is not, as your family would like you to believe, a departure. It is, in fact, a homecoming. You are returning to who you really are -- to your legitimate birthright as a Jew -- to your exalted heritage. Your soul yearns for its rightful place of belonging and you have no choice but to respond by exploring your horizons.

The pain and disappointment you are experiencing because of your family's emotionally charged adversarial position will pale in comparison to the resentment and anger you would feel, down the road, if your journey to your true self is aborted or thwarted.

Assure your family that you are merely changing "containers" (the place you will occupy), but that your love and attachment to them will remain constant and consistent. Emphasize that nobody will ever replace them. Promise them that you will maintain ongoing contact (not like the three families they know whose experience gives them cause for apprehension). You will call, email, write and visit.

Tell them that their blessings will give wind to your sails and that their encouragement will give you the boost you need in order to better succeed. Include them in your journey -- try to make them a part of your dreams. Remind them that you are you because they shaped you by who they are and that you are grateful for it and always will be.

And remember: your character and humanity have to grow commensurately with the more observant you become. Don't posture. Don't adopt a "holier than thou" attitude. Don't behave condescendingly to anyone, least of all your family. Always try to find the beauty and the positive in every person. Don't ever to stoop to negatively stereotyping people regardless of where they find themselves on the spectrum of spiritual growth.

Finally, the likelihood is that if you take the above outlined counsel seriously, your family who, by your description seem to be people of merit, will come around when they see you thrive and will take joy in your achievements.

May God bless you and your journey.

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