By: Ellie Parker  | 

The ChabOdd One Out

Growing up in a Ba’al Tshuva (someone with a secular upbringing who becomes religiously observant) home has taught me a lot about authenticity. My parents’ journey started when I was young and, although at times I may miss the luxury of pulling up to a McDonald’s drive-through window, their fervor and passion for religion has made it impossible for me to deny it’s realness. Every parenting book since the beginning of time implores it’s readers to lead by example, something my Mom and Dad have taken to heart and mastered. My siblings and I know that our parents will support us in whatever endeavor we set out to achieve as long as it embodies something genuine. This knowledge and support was what allowed me to embark on my ongoing journey towards becoming Chabad.

In my immediate family alone, we span the entire religious spectrum, and, in this diversity, I now feel at home. My sister, a religiously unaffiliated expert on all things pop culture, differs significantly from my brother who can quote whole gemaras by heart, who is an anomaly to my eldest brother, who has found his place among the hipster-Conservative movement. Though our paths’ may diverge in every which direction, we could not be prouder of one another.

One of the great things about being raised by Baalei Tshuva is that no idea or concept is off limits. Around our Friday night dinner table, my family discussions range from the deepest secrets of Kabbalah to my father’s classic rendition of anything David Bowie to the latest news on TMZ. I always felt comfortable talking to my parents about my struggles and hiccups along the road to discovery, as I knew that they had been there too. So when I began to look seriously into the philosophy of Chabad, my parents could not have been more encouraging.

Although I now only see the blessings of my unique upbringing, it wasn’t always that way. I struggled a lot in high school trying and fit myself into a box. I was envious of my friends who, seemingly, had such a clear understanding of their place in religion. While my peers had religious minhagim (customs) that were set in stone, my family was still trying to find our footing. I resented my parents for their apparent satisfaction with our religious fluidity. While they seemed content not aligning themselves with a specific sect of Judaism, I found it impossible to be religious without a conventional structure.

As I searched for a place in Judaism, I found I was shaping myself to fit the mold of different groups. I would attend Modern Orthodox events in a knee length skirt and three-quarter sleeve top and quote appropriate passages of Rav Kook, thus playing the part I assumed my cohorts expected of me. When shifting gears towards more Chassidic occasions, I would make sure to throw on some stockings and read up on the Baal Shem Tov. Though this conformity allowed for smooth insertion into the various affiliations, it left me with a burning question. Which was the real me?

It wasn’t until I stopped trying to fit in that I found the answer that I had been searching for for years. After almost a full year in a Modern Orthodox seminary, I decided to learn Chabad’s central work, the Tanya. No longer willing to dance between the two factions, I thought it was time to delve deep and find out which one truly resonated with me. As I read the Alter Rebbe’s in-depth description of the yearning a Jewish soul has for sincerity, I was reminded of my nights around the Shabbos table.

Growth is meant to be ever changing, and the breadth of my family conversations epitomized a tangible journey towards truth and understanding. All at once, things that at one point seemed conflicting, like my difficulty in claiming a sect of my own, no longer seemed opposing. I began to view the stress that I had encountered in shaping my identity as the common discomfort of growing pains. I learned more about myself and my family in those two weeks reading the Tanya than I had growing up under my own roof. Truth means something different to everyone, and, after years of searching, I had found my own definition. Though my family and I may never be on the same page with the details of religion, I have found a place for myself in the diversity. Sometimes standing out is the only real way to fit in.