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Confessions of a Flaming Baal Teshuva

November 17, 2011 | by Mindy Rubenstein

Living an observant life is beautiful and it needs to be expressed in an atmosphere of love and respect.

I am learning Hebrew along with my children, flipping through my daughter’s second grade workbook, trying to make sense of it all. My son who is in kindergarten seems to still be about at my level. Part of me is frustrated that I didn’t learn more when I was their age, but then I remind myself that it doesn’t do any good to second-guess your past. I went to Sunday School and Hebrew School at a Reform Temple, and then chose to continue on for the scarcely attended confirmation and senior study programs.

For me, learning 3,500 years of Jewish laws, traditions and language didn’t continue much past childhood. As far as I know, our rabbi didn’t keep Shabbat or kosher, nor did anyone else I met growing up, except for a man who protested the shrimp appetizer served at our wedding. At the time, I balked at such a thing. Who keeps kosher?

As a young adult, I met several times with the Reform rabbi in his office. I said I felt like something was missing and wanted to do more – though I didn’t know at the time exactly what it was. I tried the social action committee and helped lead services and then – at the rabbi’s suggestion – got an application for rabbinical school. But after having a baby, I turned inward, neglecting the little Judaism I had experienced up till then – and even considered going to church to find the spirituality and meaning I so craved.

Then it happened. One Friday night, we shared a traditional Shabbat dinner with a local Chabad rabbi, his wife and children, complete with prayers and songs and delicious kosher food. It was my first-ever immersive Shabbat experience. My head was spinning and my soul was alive with the sounds and smells and stories. Later, I scoured the Internet, wanting to know more about my religion of birth. What have I been missing? What is Shabbat and kosher? How can I make up for lost time and teach my children?

I devoured articles and found an organization called Oorah. They matched me with a learning partner who lived on the other side of Florida. She’s a young mom, like me, and we spent weekly phone calls discussing the basics of Judaism, the holidays, the details. She treated me with respect and answered my questions with kindness and patience.

I wanted it all – the life, the rituals, the holidays, clothing and prayers. I discovered that being Jewish is a wonderful thing – we are to serve as a light unto the nations. But first, we must have the knowledge of what that means.

Related Article: My Son, the Fanatic

One of my husband’s Jewish coworkers remarked at the time: “It can’t be done; it’s a completely different way of life.” That may have been just the challenge I needed to continue head-on into the life I saw as beautiful and holy and authentic.

My husband tried to help keep me grounded, but I was heading towards the finish line of “religious life,” often insensitive to those around me.

My husband tried to help keep me grounded, but I was heading towards the finish line of “religious life,” often insensitive to those around me. I judged our families for not doing more, and genuinely wanted to share our newly discovered Judaism with them. Both of our brothers married outside of the faith, so for us, instilling Jewish pride in our children was essential to the continuation of our faith, as they are the only remaining Jewish children on both sides of our families.

During our first few years, we encountered much hesitation, and sometimes hostility, from friends and family over our changing lifestyle. They saw what we were doing as a sort of “cult,” while we felt isolated and scrutinized. Living in an area with no observant communities within a five-hour drive, we constantly felt like we were swimming against the stream – with our entire family there to witness the process. As one of the only Shabbat-observing families in our area, we realized how it must have looked. It took a long time for us to feel confident enough in our new life to not be so combative with the questions and opposition.

I learned later how important it is to be sensitive to loved ones, who, in many cases, may simply feel like they’re being judged or left behind. It’s a personal journey, and while the life is beautiful and the Torah is magical, it doesn’t seem that way if not expressed in an atmosphere of love and respect.

Over the years, we took on more and more aspects of Shabbat, kosher, and other laws, until it became integrated, more naturally, into our lives. What started with fumbling through the prayer over bread one Friday night at home has led us to a rich life, full of meaning and constant growth.

My husband and I have traveled to other, larger communities with our children, spending Shabbat with wonderful, religious families and learning by experiencing first-hand. He was matched with a learning partner through Oorah who continues to help him in many ways, practically and religiously. We tried several years ago to move to a Jewish community in Maryland, but it wasn’t the right time or place for us, so we went back “home” and continued to grow, two steps forward, one step back. I often doubted our decision to return to Florida, berating myself for giving up so easily. In hindsight, it would have helped to have a mentor to guide us along our spiritual path – or A Baal Teshuva Guide for Dummies.

After a lot of searching, trial and error, we recently found our way to a religiously observant, vibrant community in Atlanta. I am learning how many shades of grey there are when becoming more religious. That you can’t judge someone simply by their appearance. And there are many, many other people, like us, who are also new to this path and relishing their newfound Judaism. The classes here abound, and people are genuinely interested in learning and growing. Our own collection of Jewish inspirational books continues to expand, replacing our television set as the focal point of the home.

There is no point of arrival. It is a gradual process that should include a lifetime of learning.

Our children attend the Torah Day School of Atlanta and are learning Hebrew, along with the breadth and depth of all Judaism is meant to be. For them, it is not a burden – not something done once a week or once a year. And I think that pride strengthens them in other areas of their lives. I am finding that the study of Torah and the learning of mitzvahs is a never-ending process – and it is the right of every Jew. We all have our own struggles and start at different points along the ladder, but the results are immeasurable, affecting generations of Jews to come.

One thing I have learned: There is no point of arrival. No imaginary line to cross from one way of life into another. It is a gradual process, and if done right, should include a lifetime of learning. And it should be done with joy and respect. I haven’t always succeeded at that but the struggles and successes are all part of my journey.

As I help my children with their homework, it is evident that my husband and I will have to constantly work to keep up with them. He just enrolled in classes at the local kollel and is getting a taste of what Talmud learning is all about. Though challenging at times, it is keeping our minds fresh – and I think the kids like that they get to teach their parents. Maybe that’s the way it’s supposed to be after all.


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