Will it ever end? by Penina Taylor
I received this question in my email inbox today:
“I have been religious for about 2 years, and I am just wondering if there will ever come a time when I won’t feel like a total outsider?”
The answer is yes. Well, probably. Obviously, there are many factors involved in answering this question, including what community you live in and what your background is.
For many Baalei Teshuva and converts, the process of integrating into the Jewish community is a painful struggle for normalcy. Often it feels like there’s this secret club that everyone else has been initiated into, including a secret handshake and code. The bad news is that it can take a long time, but the good news is that it doesn’t have to.
I remember like it was yesterday, I was newly Torah Observant and I had written a song. The music was my own composition and the words were taken from Tehillim (Psalms). I was so proud of my song that I decided to share it with one of my friends in the community.
When I finished playing it for my friend, she said, “Penina, that’s a Christian song.”
I answered, “no, it’s not, I wrote it.”
She replied, “well it’s got Christian words.”
“Actually, the words are straight from Tehillim,” I responded
“Well,” she said, “it’s a Christian translation, then.”
“Actually,” I said, “I took it straight from the Artscroll translation.
Exasperated, my friend finished with, “Well, I guess it sounds Christian because it’s in English”
This encounter left me with the feeling that I could do nothing right. That I would forever be walking around with an invisible sign on my back that says, “please feel free to correct me or tell me what to do, I’m a baalat Teshuvah”.
But then it happened. I cannot tell you how long it took, or when I finally realized it, but one day the sign was gone. I had integrated into the community and I owned my yiddishkeit (Jewishness).
It wasn’t that it just happened. In truth, it was a long and grueling process that required determination and tenacity on my part. From the day that I made the decision to reject my former beliefs and become Torah Observant, I had a ravenous appetite to learn as much as I could, not only about the Torah and Halacha, but about Jewish culture as well. When I didn’t understand a word, I asked. Sometimes I simply stood near people talking and listened to their conversation, picking up whatever cultural nuances I could.
It didn’t take long before people began remarking that I knew much more than they would expect from someone so new to Orthodox Judaism, but they still continued to correct me and assume my opinions were based on my prior life.
And then in the blink of an eye, just when I wasn’t looking, it happened.
And it will happen for you, too.
Are there things that you can do to make it happen sooner? Yes, there are. But with a little bit of determination, it will happen for you too.
Here are 5 tips for acclimating into the Jewish community more smoothly
- Go to as many classes as you can reasonably fit into your schedule. The more you do in the community, the quicker you will learn the vocabulary, as well as key Jewish concepts
- Make a friend. The Mishna in Pirkei Avot says make for yourself a Rav and acquire a friend. You need someone that you can turn to, to ask the questions that you don’t want to ask anyone else – someone you trust implicitly, who you know loves you for who you are. These types of relationship don’t happen quickly or easily, but if you work towards it, you will find someone who will be there for you to answer those questions you feel stupid asking, but you need to ask.
- Find a Rav. This might be the rabbi of your shul, the Rabbi who helped you to become religious, or someone else entirely, but find a Rav that you trust and ask him questions. He doesn’t mind, that’s what he’s there for and asking questions on a regular basis establishes a relationship so that he can get to know you. Then, when you have a really important question, he’ll know how to answer you because he will know you and your life situation well.
- Accept Shabbat invitations – spending time talking around the Shabbos table is probably the best way to pick up on the aspects of Jewish culture that no one talks about but that you need to know. Watch and listen to how people interact with each other.
- Get involved with lifecycle events. It can be intimidating to make a shiva call, cook for a new mother, show up at a bris, help make a minyan so someone can say kaddish, but it’s by participating in these events that you will become a part of the community and it will become a part of you.
Joining any new community is difficult and takes work, and although we might wish that it was different, in some regards the Orthodox community is no different. You need to learn the culture, participate in the community and build relationships. Eventually, one day you, too, will suddenly realize how far you’ve come!