I grew up in an authoritarian home in which self-expression in any form was restricted: socially, academically, psychologically, mentally and financially. Not surprisingly, I was taught to be as stringent as humanly possible when it came to being religious. And so I was as “frum” as physically and mentally possible as I made my way through high school, the “frummest” teachers’ seminary in Israel and my work in the Bais Yaakov school that I attended as a child. To stay as pious as I could be during the years after my formal education, I attended lectures on Jewish law and principles of faith and charted my way to being close to God by writing down what I was doing wrong religiously and when I overcame my physical desires (and even needs) for His sake. In my mind, obsessive religious stringency was the way to spirituality and connection to God.
In addition to the mental and physical control my family and community exerted over me, the ever-present fear of doing something wrong and going to hell was terrifying. Around that time, some doubt began creeping up in my mind as to the correctness of what I was doing. But I was still living in my parents’ house and doing everything they told me, and the next step in my religiosity was to get married- to one of the men who were suggested to my parents as a possible match for me. I became conscious at that point of the fact that I was not on board. That I did not want to get married for so many reasons. But I had no say and so I started dating for the sake of marrying a man who would learn the Torah all day, while I would enable that by being the breadwinner, mother to as many children as humanly possible, homemaker, and dedicated wife.
By the time I had dated 5 men over several months I realized that if I would not purposely act to stop the process, I would end up married to a man I did not respect, having children without being ready for motherhood, working at a low-level job that I did not enjoy, and burning myself out mentally, emotionally, financially and religiously. I decided to leave home to figure out what I wanted without as much pressure. However, I had asked my mother a year previously for her blessing on my move and was told no, and then given the silent treatment for 2 weeks. This time, I resolved to make it happen and so asserted myself for one of the first times in my life by telling my parents that I was moving to New York. This time, the silent treatment came from my father.
When I moved away from home at age 22, the guilt that I always felt took over. The emotional issues that had been brewing for many years boiled over and I fell into deep depression and anxiety. It took years of treatment with psychotherapy, medication and the occasional psychiatric hospitalization to start to heal psychologically. During that time I was trying to keep my head above the water emotionally and the struggles that I had to be the most pious Jewess were brought out of hiding and into the forefront of my mind. I began by asking Rabbis for rabbinic leniencies so that I could stop formal daily prayers. I stopped eating only Chalav Yisroel and ended Shabbos every week at an earlier time than the strictest Rabbinic view, of course within the guidelines of Halachik ruling. But even though I was still fully religious, I felt like I was a bad Jewess, and therefore a bad person.
In January 2019, I heard about Project Makom from a classmate in my college cohort. It sounded interesting and I wanted to get involved. When I spoke to a staff member at Makom, I realized that this organization is exactly what I needed. I went to several events in the first year: a couple of lectures, a yearly barbeque, a get-together in a café, an information session. I enjoyed the social aspect, but as time went by I realized that I needed to take care of my mental health needs first, as my version of Judaism was intertwined with dysfunction. Knowing that empowered me and enabled to move away from abusive patterns. This has been, and is, allowing me to reclaim my Judaism from a place of healing and strength.
But it was when I started going to Makom hosts for Shabbos that I started to feel my spiritual sense rise up. Sitting at a Shabbos meal became an enjoyable experience. The openness and acceptance that I felt from my hosts allowed me to stop focusing on what I am not, and start appreciating what I am. I recognized that spiritual yearning in myself from years before and let myself feel it. In addition to my newly-found wonder in Shabbos, another source of the perspective shift came from discussions with Makom staff. Conversations about the balance of healthy religion and the purposes for the Jewish laws have given me a clearer picture of the way spirituality and religion in Judaism complement each other.
The acceptance that I get from my Makom family allows me to be what I am each moment. I don’t feel a need to hide, to berate myself, to quash my desire for closeness to God by engaging in obsessive religiosity. I believe now that God understands me and what I am capable of at each moment. I believe that He is much less judgmental of myself than I am, or that my parents are. After all, he made me with all my challenges. I believe He sees my growth and that I am letting go of religious scrupulousness in order to find my true path to Him. And I am grateful that Makom is there for me all the way in the process of my Jewish journey.