Once upon a time, in a land not too far away…
That’s how every fairytale princess journey is supposed to begin, right? How much more so when it’s the story of how one came to embrace being the daughter of the King of all kings? I can’t think of a more fitting start to my story—a fairytale that got mixed together with a comedy of errors.
I’m what is known to many as a ba’al teshuva (or BT)—someone who, for whatever reason, ended up finding herself moving into the world of Orthodox Judaism. We are a unique group of people, in a league of our own, each with our individual struggles and journeys. I have been encouraged by many to tell my story and to share it…and for a while, I did. I went around to different religious girls’ schools and spoke about how I got here. I hoped my tale would inspire and bring awe. And it did—my story caught people’s attention and resonated with them. So, I call that a win. That being said, writing it out in its entirety is something powerful and cathartic, and it is an honor to be able to share it with the readers of Nashim.
I suppose you could say my journey to teshuva began at the tender age of 15. There I was, just a young girl on a trip to New York with 20 of my peers. We were being shown how Judaism had arrived in America. One day, we were given the pleasure of being taken on a walking tour around Boro Park (the epitome of “ultra-Orthodox” when you’ve only known the reform world your whole life), and I fell madly in love. The modesty, and the beautiful way in which these women conducted themselves, how the men always looked like they had somewhere important to be, the grandeur of it all. I never knew this side of Judaism, and I fell in love. I came home wanting to look like the people I had seen, but all I got was $20 and a ride to Goodwill to find myself “suitable” clothing. That lasted a solid 6 months. Public high school isn’t the most conducive place to figure out where you stand on things like religion or modesty.
I spent a “normal” few years doing the high school thing. I lived, and I learned. It was definitely one of the simpler times in my life.
The summer between my junior and senior years of high school ended up being the foundation and safety net for something I didn’t even know I needed. I spent four days in Poland, and the remaining 5 weeks of summer in the Holy Land, Eretz Yisrael. This is the first and only time I’ve gotten to go there, but it changed and bettered my life. Being in a place as holy and surreal as Israel is like a dream, and I miss it so much. I came home from this trip with a renewed energy and love, and a need to delve into my Yiddishkeit. Unfortunately, since it was my senior year, there were a couple of other things that took a higher priority over my new infatuation.
Trying to take mitzvos on, but not fully taking them on, is a weird feeling. I remember trying to adapt my own version of modesty into my secular high school and feeling out of place. My life was kosher…ish. Modest…ish. I had no clue who I was at that point. But, G-d had plans.
It was the day before winter finals, December 13th, and I had decided I wanted to go home early and look into keeping Shabbos. It was going to be a long shot, but I’d done it in Israel and wanted to try it at home. I left the school building, waved at a fellow classmate, and continued home to this potential adventure.
It wasn’t even thirty minutes later, and I received a text from a friend, “Hide under your desk—there’s a shooter in the school.” My heart dropped. This type of thing doesn’t happen at elite award-winning suburban high schools…right? But it did. One day we were teenagers, the next, we had every shred of innocence stolen from us. I was called back to the school, as they needed to do a head count and follow SWAT/police instructions. Going back there, and standing in a huddle with some friends I had found, we sought solace and comfort in each other.
Later that evening, I discovered who the shooter was. He was the fellow classmate I’d waved to on my way out of the lot. He was the guy who’d taken friends of mine to dances. He’d been in my classes. He was in our social circle. To find out he had killed a friend of mine—who had tried to stop him—was devastating. Just 24 hours prior, she and I had made pizza together during home economics. Just that morning, we had been joking with each other in another class. The world around me was crumbling. My school, community, friends; it was a very difficult time in all our lives. Six years later, the sting is still there.
These events opened my eyes and shook me to my core. Why did we wave to each other? Why had I chosen to try to keep Shabbos this day? Was it because I was actually dressed in proper tznius clothing? Was it the Tefilas Haderech (Traveler’s Prayer) I’d gotten in Israel? There were so many thoughts spinning in my head, but in that moment, I knew that I owed a very large debt to Hashem, and I was filled with so much gratitude. While everyone leaned into their own religions, I did the same.
Some people say that if you keep Shabbos, Shabbos will keep you—well, Shabbos kept me. Six years later, I repay the One Above by keeping Shabbos every week. It will forever be my savior and special connection.
Hashgacha Pratis (Divine Providence) was the first thing I learned about when I moved to New York, and now, when I look back at my story, I see that it’s inundated with it…
After that horrible day, I decided to jump into the deep end with my observance. I didn’t learn to crawl or walk first. No—I sprinted and cannon-balled right into it. I took everything upon myself at once, which has a much different meaning when you know nothing and Chabad.org and Aish.com are your sole teachers. I spent the rest of my senior year trying to become more observant, and by the time I graduated, I had decided I wanted to try and insert myself into an Orthodox community.
Denver has a fairly thriving Jewish community, with three of its areas distinctly Orthodox. So, I made calls—lots of them—to a variety of shuls to attempt to figure out my place. Well, Chabad was the only shul which answered the phone that first day, and as they say…the rest is history.
In reality, it was the start of a beautiful journey. The first time I went to Chabad for Shabbos, it was right before Gimmel Tammuz. Gimmel Tammuz is the yahrzeit of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, and I use that as my time gauge of when I really found myself connected.
It all happened very quickly from there. By September I was in New York, hand-delivering my application to the menaheles (principal) of a seminary, and two weeks later, I was packed and moving to Crown Heights. This was the most outlandish thing I’d ever done, and my parents were panicking. I was moving to an unknown place, into a community so different from anything I’d ever seen, and I was only 18. I couldn’t have been more thrilled to finally be living in the city of my dreams—New York! Well, a 15-minute subway ride, but who cared? I was free!
Those two years of seminary were filled with more growth, happiness, and adventure than I could have ever expected. They were also filled with ups and downs, which turned me into the woman I am today. I met some of my best friends in those two years, and was warmly welcomed into the Crown Heights community. I grew into a confident Lubvatich woman—one who was changed from the inside out.
It was difficult for me when it came time to return to Colorado. A very wise rabbi here said to me, “Welcome back! You’re off the ventilator that is Crown Heights. Now, the test is to see if you can breathe.” Meaning, now that I was out of “town” and not in a bustling Chabad community, time would tell if all I had learned was internalized and ready to be put into practice. I no longer had the comfort of living in a place which readily had all the help and answers I needed, but in time, I have learned to ask for help, made good friends, and found my stride.
Moving back home, I now have my little daled-amos to cook in and such, and I watch my family get excited over Shabbos and other mitzvos, as I continue doing what I do. Their support has been nothing short of incredible, and Hashem has really blessed me with parents and a family who have accepted me and all that comes along with being a BT. Their biggest complaint is that we only have two kosher restaurants, so I think they’ll be fine.
Through bumps in the road, tears and questioning, frustration and more…I’m still here. I’m still living my beautifully disheveled Chassidic lifestyle in the middle of suburbia, and my heart has never been so full or at peace. While the journey didn’t begin in a good way, it has molded me into who I am today, and for that, I am grateful.
Every single one of us has a story, and we should all recognize the beauty of embracing it and how it has made us who we are.