I’m Becoming More Observant – Does it Ever Get Easier?

Dear Jew in the City,

My cousin showed me your page when I started becoming interested in Orthodox Judaism. Since then (that was over 6 months ago) I started learning with someone, which is going great. I was just curious of a simple yet not so simple question. Is it always this difficult? (And I mean that in the nicest way possible.) This question is more geared toward family and friends. The learning part I find interesting and love to learn so that isn’t difficult to me. But lately I have been having trouble incorporating shabbat in my house because my family is not shomer shabbos and not always so welcome of the idea of me becoming shomer shabbos either. When I am at friends or other areas where the people are shomer shabbos I love it and want to do it every weekend. But when I am at home it is very difficult. How can I incorporate shabbos when I am home so I can keep doing it and eventually become shomer shabbos no matter where I am? Also, do the issues of becoming Orthodox with your family (conservative jewish family) ever get any easier?

Thank you so much for your time. I truly love your videos, articles, and Q&A.  It is a huge help and is such a welcoming and awesome website.

Thanks again and I hope to hear from you soon.

Cara
Dear Cara-

Thanks for your question.  Things will get easier, but you will need both patience and determination to get there. What you’re experiencing right now are growing pains. Just as a child gets physical growing pains when she physically grows, so too there are spiritual growing pains when we develop ourselves spiritually. Avraham Avinu (Abraham our forefather) experienced them as he changed his life in order to connect with the Almighty and every ba’al teshuvah (returnee to observance) since then has undergone a similar struggle.

Your family and friends most likely see your exploration of Torah Judaism as a rejection of them and the way that they live.  They’re probably also afraid that you’ll turn into a person they’ll no longer recognize and that religion will drive a wedge between you and them.

If we go back to Avraham as our model of how to grow in observance, we see that God’s first instructions to him were “lech l’cha” – “Go out from here.” I would suggest, that as soon as you can, you follow Avraham’s footsteps and make your way to Israel to learn. This will solidify your knowledge, your commitment, and give you a network of friends and teachers to lean on when you return to your family.

That’s not to say that you can’t become more observant at home, but if your family is right under your nose to watch, comment, and argue with every change you make, the process will be treacherous. Until you get to Israel, though, I’d recommend doing a few things to make this time easier and to keep your relationships as healthy as possible.

First, you need to sit down with your family (and whichever friends you think will listen) and explain to them that you’re not going to flip out and become a different person. Some people do. They lose themselves in the observance. This is a bad idea for many reasons. First off – halacha (Jewish law) doesn’t ask us to lose our personality as part of observing mitzvos. If anything, there’s an idea that every person should use his unique talents and strengths to improve the world and serve God. You can’t serve God uniquely if you’ve lost your uniqueness. There are many parts of the old you that can be held on to or slightly modified where necessary as you become more religious. Retaining your “youness” in this journey is also the best way to make your observance last, because if you have room to be yourself you’ll be comfortable in your own (religious) skin. If you try turning yourself into someone else, you will likely wake up one day, not recognize the person you became, and run away from Torah. I’ve seen this happen on more than one occassion.

So explain to your family that you are not looking to become a different person – you’re looking to become a better person. Also, assure your family that you still respect them. Even if you feel the urge to look down on someone less observant, stop yourself from doing it. It’s not up to us to make cheshbonos (calculations) as to what other people’s deeds are worth in God’s eyes.

And finally, explain to them that you want to remain close and the best way to achieve this is for them to come along on your journey. It’s like meeting a man that you fall in love with. You could run off with him and leave your life behind, or you could bring him to your family and friends and have your different loves get to know each other and ideally love each other too.

Coming along on the journey means that your family (and maybe friends) will take the time to join you when you go to Torah classes, away for Shabbos (I’d recommend going away for Shabbos whenever possible until you go to Israel), and when you meet new Orthodox friends. There should be no expectations on your part as to what they believe or observe as they begin to explore with you, but they should be by your side so they can at least be on the journey with you.

They will likely object or balk at such a suggestion, but don’t be afraid to challenge them. Jews normally love education and are known to be open-minded! Ask them what’s the harm in learning or experiencing something new to better understand the things that are motivating your choices? I did the same thing with my family. My father was the most resistant, and at a certain point, I convinced him to start learning as a means of saving me and his unborn grandchildren!

If he was so convinced that I was on a bad path, then he should come along and prove to me (from the inside) why what I was doing was wrong. I explained that he was only entitled to an opinion if he had knowledge to back it up. (P.S. My father, mother, and both sisters are totally observant today!)

You may lose some friends along the way as not all friends are meant to be lifelong friends anyway and there’s only so much you can ask a friend to do for you. But fight to keep your family close and fight to live the life you believe you were put here to live.

Wishing you much success on the road ahead,

Allison (aka Jew in the City)

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  1. Beautiful answer!

  2. Cara, you did not state your age so I have to make some assumptions. If you are over 18, have you considered living with a friend or other relative who shares your level of observance? You two could reinforce one another and serve as support for each other. If you are still a teenager have you considered spending Shabbat with your friends or relatives who are observant? At least a few times per month? Maybe there are other family rituals you can incorporate into Shabbat like family game night, or ending Shabbat together with a Havdalah candle, wine and incense. Sometimes family will bend a little, start small.

  3. Hi Cara. I’m currently a freshman in college. I started becoming religious about 5 years ago and I lived with my non-religious family until last year when I was given the chance to go to Israel.
    I kept most of Shabbos until I went away, and now, thank G-d, I get to keep Shabbos every Shabbos no matter where I am. I went through many ups and downs over the last 4 or 5 years. I decided to do something, then decided that was too difficult, didn’t do it…started doing it again, etc. It’s been a long process. I can tell you what I did to keep Shabbos in my different increments. Some of the steps were for my own adjustment, and some were for my family’s adjustment:
    When I was 14, I decided I wasn’t going to use the tv or computer on Shabbos if I were home. I wouldn’t use my phone unless I were going out. This didn’t really work well at all and didn’t make any sense to me because I would do nonJewish things on Shabbos.
    Later the same year, I decided I wouldn’t do what I considered “work” at home on Shabbos. I didn’t straighten my hair (with a flat iron) nor did I do my homework. This continued for a while.
    At some point I started lighting two candles every Friday night, before sunset. My mother probably blew the candles out soon after, but I lit them for myself.
    My sophomore year of high school, I stopped going out to non-Jewish things on Shabbos. I wanted to keep Shabbos but I couldn’t. So I just didn’t go out of the house unless to shul or a Shabbos meal. But while I was home, I would still watch tv or use the Internet.
    That summer I went on a Jewish summer program. I kept Shabbos six weeks in a row for the first time in my life. I had no intention of stopping that…so I decided I needed to become shomer Shabbos. At some point it just became harder to not do what I believed in.
    So I came home from camp. I spent hours every Saturday reading. I didn’t go to shul because my mother would have had to drive me. I was really lonely and unhappy. But I kept Shabbos. For the last two years of high school, I kept Shabbos by staying in my room with books. I would read several every weekend. I would still go in a car to shul or to a kosher Shabbos meal, but only if my mother asked me if I would go. I wouldn’t ask her to take me. (There probably isn’t really a practical halachic difference though. )

    Really what I’m saying is that there are many small steps you can take. If you really want to and need to keep Shabbos, you might need to go away for the weekends. If you’re at the level where you want to remind yourself that it’s Shabbos even though you’re not ready to keep it, try out something smaller. Turn off your cell phone. Don’t do school work. Light candles. Do havdalah on motzei Shabbos (it turns out my mother really likes havdalah and appreciates when I’m home to say it for her). Cook for both meals before Shabbos, get a hot plate, and have a nice dinner and a nice lunch with your family (or whoever is home on a Friday night/Saturday morning). There are many options. I’d love to speak with you if you’re interested…
    Ariella

    PS. It’s gotten plenty easier. But there are always new issues that come up. It’s life. Thank G-d that I’m way past the struggles I had three years ago and three years ago I could not comprehend the struggles I’m having now.

  4. Baalat Teshuva says:

    As a baalat teshuva myself, I can tell you that it definitely gets easier. Being observant, just like everything else, is a learning process. As for your family, always be as respectful to them as possible. And remember, they will probably be the most resistant at the beginning – meaning it can only get better from here. Most parents (including mine) get used to their children being observant and eventually learn to respect (if not agree with) their children’s choices.

  5. To Jacob- I am 21 so I am in college but I commute. However I have had some really good conversations with my family which have helped. for shabbos I have been going to campus and a community close by.

    To Ariella- Thank you so much for sharing your story it was so nice to hear someone had a similar expierence and that it got easier!

    To baalat teshuva- the respect part has been a huge help that and being open and honest has helped alot.

    thank you so much for all your helpful comments!!!!!!

  6. Cara,

    I hope things are going well! I’m a bit more religious than my parents, and it can be challenging at times. I would recommend…

    1) Definitely connecting with a synagogue/community outside. Judaism and its customs are about community, and while its important to practice on your own as well, its about the support. Don’t rush the process; if you can’t celebrate a holiday at home because it would not fly with your family, make sure you have a community to celebrate with.

    2) Add one step at a time at home, and choose the nicest or easiest steps first. For example, you can always choose how you dress without bothering anyone. You can also offer to cook dinner on a friday night, and while your at it, set out challah, wine and candles and say the barucha. Believe me, no one will complain!

    3) Help out as much as you can, and be a lovely, giving family member. The more you give, the more others will appreciate that this change is truly a blessing for everyone. And the more you help with the cooking, cleaning and grocery shopping, the more kosher your parents kitchen will be.

    4) Don’t try to change your family, or act as if you judge them in any way. They are your family, they made you who you are, and if you do this, it will drive a wedge between you and them. This is what they are worried about.

    5) Keep your priorities straight. “Honor your father and mother’ is a commandment; the rest are simply mitzvot. For example, last week, for Yom Kippur, my parents asked me if I was coming up to visit. When I asked if they had found services to go to, they said no. I told them that I would love to see them more than anything, but I could only visit if we attended services this year, and could they check the Chabad schedule? They agreed. We ended up having a lovely meal, fasting together and attending services. We did, however, serve break- fast meal four hours before sundown. Instead of skipping the meal, or being upset, I decided that, to me, the blessing of having my parents eat, fast, attend temple, and break the fast together as a family (even though the fast was shortened) was more important than attending services or breaking the fast alone or with acquaintances, as I’ve done other years. This is, of course, your choice, and you may want to consult your rabbi.

    All the best in your process!

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