By Tamara G.
I guess I am not your typical Chabad-goer. Ok, there probably is no such thing, but if there was a typical Chabad-goer, I would definitely not be it. I grew up frum. I was raised in Flatbush, Brooklyn. I attended a strong all-girls Orthodox school all my life. I didn’t need help lighting candles; I’ve been lighting since before my Bat-Mitzvah. I didn’t need to learn how to pray; I’ve been praying at least once a day since I was a little girl. I was Shomer Shabbat and strictly kosher. Also, thankfully, I didn’t struggle with any deep emuna or betachon issues. G-d and I were always on pretty good terms. We were, as the kids say, “tight.”
And then I moved away…
I moved away to attend Cornell Law School, in upstate New York. I had just turned 21. This was my first time living out of NYC. I was starting a rigorous academic program, and absolutely everything that could possibly have changed in my life, did. What became clear to me fairly quickly was that this new locale of mine would be a climactic moment in my religious life. This would clearly be my spiritual desert, and I erroneously forgot to pack my holy water.
Luckily, Cornell has a strong OU presence. There’s a kosher dining hall, Shabbat meals, amazing JLIC (Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus) representatives, and the list can go on. I really am not in a position to complain here because almost everything that I needed, I had. For many, these were resources they never had growing up.
You also need to understand, however, the world I was coming from. Flatbush. The capital of kosher restaurants. Shuls every two blocks, or more accurately, every two feet. Regular shiurim being given by incredible scholars on a daily basis. I was completely out of my religious comfort zone and I knew it.
The first Yom Kippur away was the hardest. It felt strange not being in my family’s shul and I didn’t appreciate walking to and from services via massive hills. I do not miss those hills. Ok, that’s obviously not the point of this article. But trekking up those hills, I felt disconnected and spiritually alone.
Then, right before the first night of Sukkot, my friend suggested we go to Chabad for “Sushi in the Sukkah.” I like sushi, I needed a Sukkah, and so go we did.
It was packed. I could barely find a space next to my friend and he could barely find room for his absurdly long legs. We ate our sushi, heard the rabbi speak, benched, and quickly left. On our walk home, I tried to memorize the way we took. I didn’t exactly know why, but I knew I’d be back.
Back we were. I made my friend join me at Chabad regularly for the next few Friday nights. Then I started going alone. Then I started going Shabat mornings. It was delicious (duh), and comfortable. It reminded me of Shabat at home and so I became a regular.
Slowly, I started speaking to the people who were providing me with such yummy and warm meals: my shluchim. I know how everyone in the world thinks their shluchim are the absolute best shluchim, and I don’t mean to be one of those people, but I have to be. My shluchim are actually the best shluchim. At least for me. If you ever met Rabbi Eli Silberstein, you would know that he quite frankly, and I hope he won’t be mad at me for saying this, knows everything. I don’t mean that in a “he knows so many cool things” sort of way. I mean, literally, everything. His wife is also the smartest woman I have ever met, other than my own mother. A year and a half into my stay at Cornell, Rabbi Dovid and Miri Birk joined us. Miri is now one of my closest friends.
Over time, it started dawning on me:
These people know stuff. Stuff I don’t know. I would like to know this stuff.
Because for the first time in my religious life, I felt completely ignorant. Yes, I can read a Rashi fairly easily, and yes I have some chazals permanently engrained in my mind from my 11th and 12th grade Chumash classes. I received an excellent Jewish education and I know halacha. But there was so much that I didn’t yet know.
The Tanya. Yes, I learned about the Alter Rebbe and his work briefly in historia class but I didn’t know what was inside the text and that there was an entire class of souls, the benonim, out there. Male-Female principles of Divinity were not something I grew up reading about. I never learned Gemara. Tzemach Tzedek, who? Wait, my soul mirrors ten emanations of G-d? For 22 years, nobody ever mentioned to me the logistics of the brutal spiritual path my soul travelled through to get to my body. Needless to say, my soul and I are far better acquainted now.
Knowing there was so much I didn’t know, kept me close to my shluchim. I learned as much as I could in between my law school classes. I knew I needed to learn more and so during winter-break, I travelled to Israel to study at Mayanot. I am pretty sure I was the only non-baal-teshuva there, but so much of the learning was completely new to me. Somehow, I made it on time every morning to my 7:30 a.m. Chasidus lecture, which turned out to be my favorite class. And I also loved learning Gemara for the first time. Aside from the brief excerpts of Targum Onkelos I had studied in school, I never read Aramaic before.
Through these revelations, I was not renouncing my upbringing. I was not “becoming Chabad.” I was just learning. I was trying to grasp onto information and concepts. Even while at Mayanot, I would spend several afternoons a week at Neve Yerushalayim. I told Rabbi Levinger, the Director of the Mayanot program for women, from the get-go that I would need my intellectual space, and he was very understanding. And my shluchim were too. They never made me feel that I had to give up anything about myself. It was fine with them if I also affiliated with my “Litvish” upbringing. It was ok that I wasn’t all Chasidus, all the time.
Admittedly, my friends back home were confused. It seemed strange that I spent so much of my time discussing and studying these new concepts. And they didn’t really understand why I spent so much of my free time at Chabad. I think the first Shabbat I spent in Crown Heights was the turning point of my religious odyssey. It made it clear to others, as well as to me, that I was fully embracing my newfound love for Chabad. And everyone else would have to be ok with that.
Because it frustrates me that we divide ourselves. As Orthodox Jews, we are already a tiny, miniscule percentage of the world population. But for some inexplicable reason, we keep dividing, splitting up, cutting, and boxing. Frum-from-birth v. Baal Teshuva. Chabad v. Litvish. Ashkenazi v. Sephardi. Modern v. Ultra. I am so grateful that my spiritual mentors, the Silbersteins and the Birks, never made me choose or group myself under any of the above.
I am not expecting us to all hold hands and sing songs. But it would just be pleasant if we learned to appreciate the beauty each one of us brings to the theistic table. After all, we are Ovdei Hashem. We are here for the same purpose. And we only lose strength in our distinctions. Of course, I am not about to turn my back on the community that raised me, but I also need to look forward to discover more. Personally, I’ve been really enjoying checking off the “Mixed/Other” classification on the fictional religious affiliation checkbox.
Overall, Chabad has taught me that no matter where I go, no matter what edge of the world I might travel to, I need not worry. Not just because there’s a Chabad house nearly everywhere, but also because I know that it’s all within me. My spiritual affiliation is not tied to any distinct community or my current physical location. I have the ability to define my own spirituality. I can stay connected. I am always plugged in.
I now live in Manhattan and on Friday nights, I go to the community synagogue, where most of my peers go. On Shabbat day, however, my friends know I will probably be running late to the meal, and if I’m not there by 1 p.m., they should make kiddush without me. And if they need to find me, they know where to go.
I’ll be at Chabad.
Tamara grew up in Brooklyn, NY. She recently graduated from law school and now lives in Manhattan.