It was the lowest point in my life: I was in the middle of a messy divorce, on the brink of bankruptcy, and everyone was against me. I blamed God. In a fit of anger, I tore the mezuzot from my doorposts, took them to the barbecue outside, poured lighter fluid on them, and watched them burn. I was through with God.
I had had a rocky relationship with God for years. I grew up in the heart of Boro Park in an insular Orthodox Jewish community. To make ends meet, my family would often host Meshulachim (professional fundraisers), who would come from Israel to fundraise for various charities and organizations. Most of them were honest, hard working people, but not all. Some had less than noble intentions. This was my first encounter with those who looked pious on the outside, but in reality were not.
As a child, you see things in black and white terms. There are good people and bad people. When you see bad people who pretend to be good, it throws off your perception of everything. From a very young age, I became obsessed with seeking out these anomalies. The more I saw, the angrier and more rebellious I grew.
Then there were the religious men, dressed in full garb, who would expose themselves to me, while I walked down 13th avenue on Shabbos afternoon. This happened multiple times between the age of 7-13. There was also the infamous Yeshiva school principal who called members of my family disgusting names and treated them like filth because they could not afford to pay tuition. Years later, he was convicted for extortion. The irony of his ultimate fate did not escape me. There was a disparity of wealth in my community, and I witnessed the wealthy consistently evade the ramifications of their actions, due to their status and ability to donate large sums of money.
All around me, I only saw hypocrisy, and it made my head spin. My thoughts were venomous. How could a God choose a people who acted this way? If these were Orthodox Jews, why would I to follow in their footsteps? What if there wasn’t even a God? What if it was all just made up to keep us in line?! Once I started falling down the rabbit hole of doubt, there was no turning back.
Like most anguished children, I started to rebel. My deeply religious family did not take kindly to this. I vividly remember being chased around the house by female relatives who were brandishing scissors, because I wanted to wear a skirt to a Bat Mitzvah that was one inch too short. They overpowered me and destroyed the skirt. I was on a downward spiral from there. I did everything I could to rebel.
Although my rebellion seems mild to some, it was a big deal in my community. I started getting a reputation. Not a month went by when I was not sent home from school for one transgression or another. My infractions including wearing nail polish, not wearing a shirt under my sweater, wearing makeup, and listening to non-Jewish music on my Walkman. In my 8th grade yearbook, they nicknamed me “Mrs. N’s favorite student” because I was in the principal’s office so many times. The straw that broke the camel’s back was when I was caught by a school “spy” talking to a boy in the pizza store. I was expelled. Since no other school would take me, because of my “reputation,” I finished the last year and a half of high school in a public school.
One day, I brought home non-kosher food, flaunting it as I ate it. My father threw a fit and kicked me out of the house. At the time, I was dating a non-Jewish guy, and I moved in with him. We were very much in love. On Christmas, he took me to his family’s home in Titusville, Pennsylvania (pop. 5,323). Christmas that year coincided with Buck hunting season. In Titusville, when they killed a Buck, they would mount the carcass on the hood of their car, and drive around town, honking their horns to flaunt their kill. I remember his uncle walking into the house, still dressed in full camo, casually holding a shotgun, deer carcass probably still mounted on his hood. “Yer a Jew?” he asked. “Um, yes.” I laughed, nervously. “Well, were’r yer horns?” he said with a big grin on his face, as he patted the top of my head. “Jus messin with ya, yer alright,”he said, still chuckling, as he walked away. For the rest of the Christmas holiday, I felt numb. They were lovely people, but I was a Jew, and I did not belong there.
As soon we got back to New York, I broke up with my boyfriend, hopped on a train, and went home. It was Friday evening – Shabbos. As I knocked on the door tears were streaming down my face. My family, shocked at the sight of me, invited me in. They had not seen or spoken to me in almost 2 years.
Six weeks later, I was on a plane to a girls’ seminary in Jerusalem, where I made a complete 180 under the loving guidance of an amazing rebbetzin and the rest of the staff. When I felt confident enough to leave, I bid them adieu and headed back to the states. My family, with the best of intentions, quickly coaxed me into a shidduch that I was not emotionally ready to enter. The marriage brought its own challenges and ended in a horrific divorce.
The ensuing divorce and custody battle ended up lasting for almost 3 years, bringing me to the brink of bankruptcy and insanity. Once more, I turned my spitefulness to God. How could a kind and merciful God allow this to happen to me? I was done with God. I threw out all of my Torah books (and burned my mezuzot). I spent the next few years doing everything in spite of God. I boisterously ate pork, partied on Yom Kippur, engaged in risky behavior, and had the time of my life. I was partying constantly, but felt empty inside.
One Friday night, I drove to the beach and decided to take a long walk. I realized that if I continued on this path, I would surely die. I had nothing to live for. I felt like a shell. I started crying. Soft tears at first, which turned into uncontrollable sobs. The pain I had been pushing down bubbled up to the surface, and I broke down into a crumpled mess. “Why God? Why me? Why did you do this to me? Why did you let this happen to me? I hate you! I hate you!”
I cried until I could not cry anymore. I have not been able to shed another tear since that night. But I also came to a resolution: I would start speaking to God, even if He did not speak to me. I missed him, like a child misses a parent.
Less than a month later, I happened to come across a video about an organization called Project Makom. I was skeptical to say the least, but decided to fill out the application, anyway. To my surprise, I got a quick response. I was invited to their upcoming Shabbaton.
Saying that I was hesitant about the Shabbaton is an understatement. It was an hour away from home, and I would not know a single soul. I would have a roommate and sleep in a strangers house. Ummmm, no thank you. I turned the invitation down, twice. I don’t remember what compelled me to finally accept the offer. I rationalized that if I was having a bad time, I could just drive home.
Boy, am I glad I went. I found a mentor in Zeldy Trieff, the director of Project Makom, who shared some of my struggles in her own journey. I found a cheerleader in one of our hostesses, who I am still close with today. That weekend, I also formed a tight bond with an amazing group of friends. We were all trying to find our way, but we found familiarity in each others challenges. We formed a Whatsapp group and still speak to each other on a daily basis. If I am struggling, they give me strength. They have truly become like family. I could not imagine what my life would be like if my Makom friends were not in it.
When some of them visited my home and noticed I had no Mezuzot, I sadly retold my story. The next day, they surprised me with brand new Mezuzot and helped me hang them back up.
I’m still not religious in the conventional sense. I continue to struggle every single day. The only difference is that now I am at peace with God. I am not alone. Through Makom, I am finally learning to see the beauty in Judaism at a pace that works for me. In less than a month I will be 34 years old, but I am once more a child, learning to love Judaism all over again.