As I boarded the plane, I was overwhelmed with a strange combination of fright and exhilaration. I was leaving home for the very first time to travel halfway across the United States to attend an all-girls religious high school. I understood that I was taking a step which would irreversibly change my life. No matter where I went from there, I would never be the same again.
The journey really began several years before. I had always had a very strong sense of Jewish identity; I knew I would never marry someone who wasn’t Jewish, and that I would prefer death to conversion. Yet intellectually these convictions made absolutely no sense. After all, were the hora and dreidels, or even bagels and lox, really worth dying over?
In search of an answer I joined a secular Zionist youth movement. Although I was passionately in love with Israel and fervently dreamed of moving to a kibbutz and rebuilding the Homeland, I sensed that there was something missing. Zionism did not answer my existential question – why Israel, and why the Jews? What bound us together as a nation?
My first beam of clarity came when I was fifteen, and attended a Shlomo Carlebach concert. Reb Shlomo z”l was singing his classic “Mizmor shir l’yom haShabbos.” “When we were slaves in Egypt, we sang the song of Shabbos; in concentration camps, we sang the song of Shabbos…” Reb Shlomo sang as the audience swayed and passionately hummed along in harmony. As I, too, was carried away with the melody, it suddenly dawned on me that the key to our continuity, to our national identity, lay in “singing the song of Shabbos.”
I began “singing the song of Shabbos.” Much to my parents’ chagrin, every week I religiously unscrewed the light bulb in their refrigerator and joined a group of friends for Friday night and Shabbos morning. After Shabbos lunch, I would walk halfway across the city to take care of my dog, and then eat the third meal (hence the unscrewed refrigerator light) and make havdalah at home. Although I loved Shabbos – the singing, the dancing, the pure joy of keeping Shabbos — not to mention the delicious challah and gefilte fish! — I sensed something missing. It felt right; it was a lovely custom; I was comfortable with it. But intellectually it made no sense. If being Jewish is just a tradition, then what difference did it make if I drove home or walked home to feed my dog Shabbos afternoon?
Then I attended another Shlomo Carlebach concert. Reb Shlomo stood on stage and began recounting the terrible tragedies that befell our nation — the inquisition, the crusades, the pogroms, the holocaust. “One little nation, one little tiny nation,” he intoned. “One little nation, among all the great nations that try to destroy her. And yet, we are still here, while the other nations have disappeared! What’s the secret of our survival? ‘Am Yisrael chai,’ the Jewish nation is alive because ‘od Avinu chai,’ our Father – God — is still alive…”
I was electrified. Here was a solution that in its utter simplicity had never occurred to me. The moment I heard it, I knew that it was so obviously right. Am Yisrael chai because od Avinu chai! Being Jewish was much more than a tradition, a set of tribal customs. God was the source of the miracle of our existence! Israel is here because God is here. Hashem is not just a “tradition.” Hashem is real!
It wasn’t long before I found myself searching the department stores for clothes that I hoped would be acceptable at a religious girls’ high school. Armed with several skirts and tops (and a few jeans tucked in for when no one’s looking) I left my family in San Francisco and traveled halfway across the United States to Denver, Colorado.
I’ll never forget my first day in a Bais Yaakov. The teacher allegedly spoke English, but to me it sounded more like a foreign language. Who in the world was Moshe Rabbeinu? Ah, Moshe is Moses, but I never knew that he had a last name. Taka, mamash, b’ezras Hashem – I thought I would never grasp it all! Before too long, however, during my bi-weekly calls home, my parents would (in complete exasperation) ask me to stop speaking in Hebrew. “B’seder (okay),” I’d unthinkingly reply.
Sometime in the middle of that year I realized that without being aware of it, I was making decisions that would completely alter the direction of my life. I was frightened. The moment I accepted the Divinity of Torah, there was no going back. Intellectually, I had no doubt that Torah is truth, but at the same time I was petrified. Yes, I loved keeping Shabbos and eating kosher; I got a “high” from doing mitzvos and learning Torah, but I knew that in real life there would be times when I would find those same mitzvos a challenge.
Still, I took the plunge. I accepted the yoke of Torah and mitzvos.
Fast forward thirty-seven years. Today I’m a middle aged woman, a mother and a grandmother, living my dream in Jerusalem, Israel. Yes, there have been many challenges along the way. It has not always been easy (i.e. comfortable) to try to live up to the ideals that I aspired to as a teenager. Each time I succeeded, however, my commitment deepened.
The journey continues. Marriage, raising a family, marrying off the children; with each period of our lives the challenges change, and I, too, mature to meet those challenges. The knowledge that we are part of a greater picture, that God is there, with us, holding our hands and that each problem confronting us is tailor-made to refine us and bring out (hopefully) the best in us, guide me in making what I hope are the proper decisions in juggling the many roles that I try to fulfill.
When I boarded that plane close to forty years ago, leaving home for the very first time, I never realized that I was setting out on a journey that would last a lifetime — and beyond.
Debbie Shapiro is a freelance writer living in Jerusalem with her family. She is presently writing the biography of the late Rabbi Tzvi Aryeh Rosenfeld.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.