It is early Shabbos morning. I’m relaxing on the couch with my ritual morning coffee, inhaling the steam, wrapping myself in the serenity of Shabbos. My siddur rests on my lap, awaiting my sacred time spent with God. Honestly, I carry God with me all the time, sometimes consciously and other times unconsciously. Sometimes I say thank you and please, and other times, I curse, depending on my mood and what life throws at me. This morning, I am feeling inspired, connected and eager to consciously spend some time with eternal greatness. I begin by singing Modeh Ani, thanking God for believing in me and giving me life. His confidence in me leaves me feeling whole, infusing me with energy and a desire to make the most of my day. Next, I recite the prayer of Asher Yatzar, thanking Him for my functioning body, both physical and mental. I am deeply aware of what it’s like to live in a body that doesn’t want life. Today I thank God for healing me and giving me back my life.
I move swiftly from one prayer to the next, embracing the ease of today’s connection with God, for it is a gift to feel at one with myself. My lips move softly as I hum tune after tune, enjoying the tranquility of the moment. As I murmur the words of Elohei Neshama, I stop abruptly mid-sentence. A lightning bolt hits me, illuminating the past few years of my life, giving me a clear shot of the truth behind the words I’m saying. This is a prayer about the soul God granted us, solely pure and holy. He installed it within us, will eventually take it and restore it. Simply put, this refers to the time when we die and reincarnation.
Today, as I sing these words, they become alive, speaking directly to me, painting my story in colors of darkness and light. It tells about the time when my soul was cast away, removed and exiled from my body. I see a time when my life was devoid of my inherited joy and beauty that comes along with a soul. I am taken back to the time when being Jewish felt like a burden, a heavy load that I carried around with no meaning or purpose, until I set it aside and walked away.
I was born, raised and lived in a Hasidic community until my mid-twenties. During my adolescent years, I felt detached, disconnected. I was living a life governed by the rules of a society that didn’t speak to me. I had ideas, dreams and hopes for a life I wasn’t allowed to have. I wanted independence, a career and freedom. For a long time I put up a façade and lived a double life, pretending to be someone on the outside and wilting away on the inside. Like any flower that doesn’t receive the care it needs, I wilted, living with no desire or motivation. I was deeply depressed, suicidal and landed in the psychiatric ward. There, away from the world and its demands, I realized that if I wanted to keep living I needed to leave my community and start fresh.
I left the hospital in a fragile state, but with renewed hope for a better life. That small glimmer of hope was quickly shattered and I was left grappling in the dark again. Since I was no longer living by the rules of their society, my family and community (the Hasidic community is not monolithic) didn’t want me. I was not allowed back home, was disinvited from family gatherings and even missed my sister’s wedding. I was left alone, with no support or guidance. At the time, the only option I saw was walking away from Judaism completely. I was angry and hurt by a Judaism that only included you if you followed the rules. I was furious with God for creating such an unjust world.
I threw Judaism away and disconnected myself from observance. I tried to live a life without Torah, hoping to find peace and freedom in the world. I searched and attempted to wrap myself with different capes, trying to find joy. Yet my soul wasn’t satisfied, it yearned for something deeper. As I sat alone in my apartment, week after week, I began thirsting for a Shabbos experience. I felt a stirring from deep within, forcing me to continue my search. My journey led me to Makom, an organization aimed to give every Jew a place and flavor of Judaism. Makom welcomed me with open arms, no questions asked. The message I got was “come as you are, we love you just because.” I was graciously invited into strangers’ homes for Shabbos and offered an opportunity to witness Judaism in action from a new perspective. What I witnessed was something I had never experienced or seen before. I didn’t know Judaism could be joyous, beautiful and fulfilling. It was a breath of fresh air and I was taking it all in. I started attending Torah classes, desperately wanting to fill the void I was feeling from being disconnected.
In Makom, I rebuilt Judaism from the ground up. I discovered a meaningful Torah life, filled with purpose, joy and connection. I transformed my understanding of God and rekindled our relationship. Today, prayer is no longer a bothersome task that I simply need to check off my ‘to do’ list. Today, prayer is a special moment with me, my soul and my creator. And when I sing Elohei Neshama, I know that God has returned my soul to me in this world. I remember the time I ignored my soul and how painful that was. Today, I ignite the light of my soul and let it illuminate and warm my life. I am filled with gratitude for being gifted with the joy and beauty in living my life connected to my Jewish soul.
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