When I first starting flirting with Jewish observance, Jewish identity, Jewish life, I naturally gravitated toward the Reform movement, where my political and social attitudes fit in neatly. As I continued to learn and study more online and from books, however, I found that I craved more interaction with the religious aspect of Jewish life than I did with the cultural aspects, and I sensed that in the congregations I was frequenting, I would always feel like an outlier.
I was aware that there were other movements in the Jewish world, but Orthodoxy was quite far removed from anything I had ever encountered. It was undeniably other, which, on the one hand, made it intriguing, mysterious, culturally interesting.
It was probably that otherness that allowed me to look past so much of the cultural and social dissonances that were at direct odds with how I was currently living my life. I had read enough about the mitzvos to feel with all my being that this was the way I wanted, needed, to live my life. And I needed to live it around people who were as into it as I was. There were so many communally-based laws, it didn’t seem possible to observe it in a vacuum.
So I began my quest to become one with the Orthodox community, specifically, with a particularly yeshivish subset of the Orthodox community. I viewed it, in a way, as an anthropological experience, and was vigilant to observe all the details of this new, exotic culture.
For example, I had a bumper sticker on my car that read “well-behaved women rarely make history.” I noticed that the sticker resulted in the raised eyebrows of one of the first frum rabbis I encountered.
My reaction to those raised eyebrows was to remove the bumper sticker. I was so focused, so determined to blend in, to be accepted, to succeed at being part of the community, that it didn’t even occur to me to make any other decision. If that bumper sticker wasn’t the type of thing I was supposed to have, or display, or think, or feel, then I would change.
It was relatively painless to remove a bumper sticker, but questions kept coming up. What about things like what radio station to listen to? What kind of music was okay? What kind of hobbies were acceptable?
Then there were the deeper, more complex issues such as how do I interact with my family? With the non-Jewish world at large? How did I apply my fledgling Jewish knowledge to current social structures and human rights issues? How was I to understand the news, current events? How much was informed by my own feelings and history and how much was communally based?
Where was it supposed to stop? And if I didn’t do what everyone around me was doing, would I become an outlier?
That’s the power of community.
Shortly after I got married, we moved to a charming little community where I did not fit in at all. I was still freshly, fervently frum, still wearing the suits I had purchased in Williamsburg for the purpose of shidduchim.
The community was much more modern than any previous community I’d lived in. Everyone was wonderful and nice and kind and warm and I felt like a complete alien.
We were only there until my husband finished school, about five months, but I will never forget how lonely it felt to be so different from everyone. I was too fresh and new to observance to be able to find common ground, and it was hard for me to not look at everything and everyone with the judgmental lens of someone who is religiously strict without entirely understanding why.
When we moved to a more yeshivish community, I felt much more comfortable, though I still put an overwhelming amount of pressure on myself to fit in in ways that I thought were necessary. It would still be years before I was able to reconcile my past with my present and to see how they didn’t have to be mutually exclusive.
It was during our years in a bigger and broader community that I finally had the room to find myself. It wasn’t simply being in a bigger community where there was greater diversity and where I had greater anonymity, it was maturing in my observance, relating to my past and future through my children, and beginning to write for Jewish websites which caused me to reflect more deeply on my own relationship with Judaism and the Orthodox world.
By interacting with so many different kinds of people, I was forced to contemplate many of the hasty decisions I had made in my determined quest to be accepted into the Jewish people. My newly expanded community challenged my initially formed beliefs and compelled me to consider how many views were truly compatible with observance and how many were strange fragments formed by misunderstandings and personal opinions which I mistook as Torah thoughts.
That’s the power of community.
My desire to fit in has never really left me, though over the years I’ve come to see the incredible array of nuance that exists even within the relatively black and white community I call home.
The cocoon of community keeps me tethered to the values that I adopted all those years ago. It keeps me grounded, keeps me in check when I’m feeling less centered, less content. When I’m annoyed and uninspired and disillusioned, my friends and neighbors serve as reminders of the society I chose to join.
Of course there are times when I chafe against limitations and perceived social judgments. Who doesn’t? But the thing I have found most stirring is the reality that everyone is struggling with something, and that being part of a tight-knit community means that we are all struggling, more or less, toward similar goals.
This makes us accountable for each other in a way that is uniquely geared to support each other, to listen when things are hard, to give advice when requested, to provide a listening ear when needed, and to remind each other of the things that we value and that are good about our lives.
Over the years, as I’ve shared more and more of my past and experiences, as I’ve written about things I used to fear ever telling anyone, I have received overwhelmingly more support than criticism, and have rarely regretted sharing the things that I assumed I shouldn’t share.
My biggest mistake when coming into this world, when trying to be the best, most Orthodox Jew ever, was the assumption that I had to be a certain way. Obviously I am limited by halacha, and by communal customs, but I found that the only person who was expecting me to be the “same” as everyone else was me.
When I finally tapped into the positive aspects and support of communal structure, I found that the freedom to discover and actualize my truest self is unlimited.