Going Back Home and Learning to Seeing the Good

By Mindy Rubenstein

This Shabbos I spoke about my Jewish journey to the lovely community at Young Israel of Tampa, run by Rabbi Uriel and Dvorki Rivkin. The Rivkins have opened their home and adjoining synagogue to the community for more than a decade, giving of themselves selflessly to anyone who reaches out for advice, a meal or a place to stay.

I first met the Rivkins in 2006 while looking for a place to go for Yom Kippur with my husband and our two toddlers. My husband and I grew up around the block from each other in nearby Seminole, with our families both attending a small synagogue called Beth Chai that was later torn down to make way for a housing development.

From the moment my husband and I walked through the door of Young Israel — now married with children — the Rivkins warmly welcomed us with open arms. That evening 12 years ago was one of my first glimpses into the world of Torah Judaism and chassidus, and helped set the path for my family.

Along with people like Rabbi Yossi and Dina Eber with Chabad Jewish Center of West Pasco, they showed a world illuminated and distinctly different than the darkness many of us have come to think of as normal and unchangeable.

As my young family and I wandered through various places learning more about the 613 mitzahs of the Torah, I have come to understand that the initial embrace — both physical and symbolic — of people like the Rivkins and Ebers is what it truly means to live a Jewish life. To be kind and compassionate even when it’s uncomfortable, to take a few extra seconds to offer a smile and warm hello to someone you meet. To seek out ways to help those around us. And to seek out the good in everything.

We have seen many communities and gotten to know people of all backgrounds along our journey, from Vizhnitz to Reform to Chabad to Belz to Modern Orthodox to the completely unaffiliated.

And there is one thing in common with the people I have met who inspire me to live better: they are kind, positive, and made an effort to be upbeat even when facing challenges.

While carefully keeping the mitzvahs is essential, living with kindness and a positive attitude is something we should strive for in all we do. It took me going around the country and back home again to understand that. It’s something I am still learning.

On the wall of the Rivkin’s shul in Tampa now hangs the Yahrzeit (memorial) plaques they rescued from our childhood synagogue Beth Chai, including one for my husband’s grandfather. When we visited a couple years ago, my husband was shocked to spot the familiar name next to him while he was sitting in the synagogue. It also happened to be his grandfather’s yarzheit, and it was again during our visit this past Shabbos. My husband’s mother, along with his brother and his family joined us for Shabbat lunch and got to see the bulb next to his name illuminated once again.

As I explained during my “talk” to those gathered at Young Israel on Shabbos: While integrating the mitzvahs into our lives has taken years of classes, chavrusahs and visits to our mentors, there is one simple idea that encompasses what it means to live Jewishly — to strive to always seek and find the light, the good, in any person or situation.

It’s always there, waiting to be uncovered. Sometimes, all it takes is a smile and a few moments of kindness for the light to come flooding in.

 

IMG_6387

My kids and I enjoying a little fresh air before Shabbat, at Lettuce Lake Park near the Rivkin’s shul in Tampa.

Whole

painting

the thoughts hover surround consume

must be released to cause peace

in the mind

so confined

let them out

share

compare

tell a friend

give over the pain

the worry the fear

to that Unseen Power

be quiet

still

listen

It’s there within

It surrounds you

Infinite Light and Love

that’s always been yours

plug in

recharge

bring the thoughts to words

that flow from your lips

speak your fears

or simply say: i am here

please be with me

let me be with You

unite body, soul

heaven, earth

feel your breath

you are Whole

 

poem by M.E. Baum, Nishei contributing writer

artwork by Miriam Schapiro, Fanfare, 1958. Oil on canvas. 72 × 84 in. (182.9 × 213.4 cm). The Jewish Museum, New York.

Holy Women

As I scan posts and headlines, I see people I respect responding to negativity in a positive way, standing up for what’s right in a public forum. And I realize that hiding is not the answer.

For years I avoided social media, and people in general, preferring the quiet of my home and blissful ignorance of the darkness and evil of the world. But suddenly I realize I can no longer hide.

I admire the bravery and honesty of people like Ari Fuld (of blessed memory) and Ahava Emunah Lang, for example. They used social media and other methods to give truth and goodness a voice.

My mission, for now, is to fight the darkness with light — to inspire, educate, and unite women and the greater community through words, images and ideas that represent Godliness. To unite the holy women of my community, and other communities, and to give them a forum to  share their thoughts.

I have wandered a lot — mainly in an effort to find the right schools and community for our Baal Teshuvah family. Whenever someone hears about the various places my family and I have lived on our spiritual quest, they typically comment about how hard that must be. Some are sympathetic, others insensitive. It used to bother me.

But as I develop my emunah and bitachon — my inner resolve and faith in God– I realize it is all part of a greater plan. Like the Jews who wandered in the dessert not knowing their ultimate destination, we too have continued onward. Perhaps our path will lead us eventually to the Holy Land. 

The story of the Israelites in the desert inching toward their final destination is the story of any individual or society making its way towards its ideal state. And the details of the story contains endless possible applications to both our private journeys and our communal ones. 

As one rabbi commented recently during a Shabbat dinner — certain sparks needed to be left in each stopover. 

We got to live in and experience Jewish communities in Potomac, Maryland; Atlanta, Georgia; Richmond and Norfolk, Virginia; and Jacksonville, Florida. We also make regular trips to Lakewood, New Jersey, to visit friends/chavrusahs we met through Oorah’s TorahMates program.

We have met, and continue to meet, some amazing people along our journey who have inspired us in our growth. And I hope we have inspired others as well. 

As a Florida native it feels good to be back in the Sunshine State. My husband and I grew up around the block from each other in the Tampa Bay area. We met 20 years ago at the shivah of his father and our lives have been interconnected since childhood — I had his father as a teacher, our mothers have been friends for decades. It’s nice to be closer to family — grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins — after a decade being out of state.

And although it has been challenging to move and adapt to various cities and states over the past 10 years, it has also made us stronger as individuals and as a family. A few months ago I wouldn’t have said that. But thank G-d, I am starting to see the sun through the haze.

So, it is my prayer that you will use the words and images within these pages — both the online and printed versions of Nishei — as a springboard for your own personal growth, or simply as a way to pick yourself up when things are difficult. Life is hard. Really, really hard. There are moments where it feels nearly impossible to connect to God or to even get through the day.

In my own life I have experienced my share of struggles — miscarriages, postpartum depression and moodiness, marriage and parenting challenges. I have sought the help of therapists, medication, diet and exercise —  while using spirituality to help guide and center me. 

Several years into our marriage, my husband and I made the decision to take on an Orthodox Jewish lifestyle, which continues to be both a blessing and a challenge — as we balance Torah and mitzvah observance with personal growth, connection to God and relationships with other people.

Along the way I received a master’s degree, won a national journalism award, started a magazine, and have devoted my heart and soul to motherhood. I have failed and I have conquered.

And I am still here. G-d has given me another day. As I say the modeh ani prayer each morning, I think that there must still be something left for me to accomplish in this lifetime. If we are still in this world, there is still more work to do.

So let’s come together as women — as daughters and mothers, sisters and wives, aunts and friends — and inspire each other.

Let’s make our matriarchs, and our moms, proud. With God’s help, we will overpower the darkness, illuminating the world with our words.

–Mindy Rubenstein, editor, Nishei Women’s Magazine 

To read more about my ongoing spiritual journey, click here.

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If you would like to submit an article, essay, poem or artwork, please email submissions@nishei.org.

 

How to become Religious without Losing Yourself

By Mindy Rubenstein

Published by TheJewishWoman.org (Chabad.org) 

See original article here.

About 10 years ago my husband and I, along with our two toddlers, attended a beautiful Chabad Shabbat dinner, where I fell head over heels in love with Judaism. I admit, initially it was not a mutual infatuation. I saw a holy, meaningful—and exciting—lifestyle, and wanted to jump in with both feet.

My husband, however, was respectful yet hesitant. Together, over the next decade, we navigated what would become an all-encompassing lifestyle. We started somewhat slowly, from lighting ShabbatIt was not a mutual infatuation candles and having challahand chicken soup, to eventually fully observing Shabbat, keeping kosher in and out of the home, and adhering to family purity laws. We also had more children, in essence doubling the family size to which we were both accustomed.

In time, we acted and dressed the part of observant Jews.

Looking back, however, it was not the most seamless and thought-through transition. I was at times judgmental of our extended families, for example, for not having given us “more Judaism,” and then for not embracing our newly found nirvana.

Those of us who “find” religion often go through changes, as we examine parts of our inner selves we didn’t know existed, says Rabbi Aron Moss, co-director of Nefesh Shul in Sydney, Australia, in his article Is Judaism a Cult? As a result, we may re-evaluate ourselves and our lives. All growth is accompanied by some upheaval and instability. But when we make sudden changes, we may leave part of ourselves behind.

This is not the Jewish way, Rabbi Moss says. Any life changes should be done gradually and with thought, as they integrate with your personality rather than overcome it. In other words, religion should enhance and deepen your identity to make you a better you. That’s what G‑d wants, I think. To serve Him, but not to lose yourself in the process. And since I was already married with children at the time, it meant also preserving and respecting my relationship with my husband. To work together in slowly and methodically embracing the mitzvahs in an effort to retain peace within the home.

When we started keeping kosher, I was very vocal at our families’ homes about it, essentially using food to separate myself from them. I have learned over the years, through my mistakes, that there are ways to keep kosher yet still participate respectfully and lovingly in family get-togethers. Observing mitzvahs shouldn’t be a source of stress or contention—if it is, it’s not being done the right way.

Partway into our evolution, when I announced proudly that I wanted to stop driving on Shabbat, my rebbetzin warned me, “Don’t take the decision to keep Shabbat lightly. Once you cross that line, you don’t want to give it up because it becomes too difficult.” So we waited until the right time.

I understood her wisdom when, early on in my observant lifestyle, I went and bought a wig, the traditional way many Jewish women choose to cover their hair. It was gorgeous. But I didn’t consult my husband first, or a rabbi or rebbetzin, or make a plan for observing the mitzvah. Over the years that followed, I struggled with this mitzvah. Because it wasn’t done gradually, with thought.

As I look at myself in the mirror, sometimes I don’t recognize the free-spirited, creative, earthy young woman my family once knew. And now I understand better why they may have balked at our new lifestyle. It wasn’t so much that we adopted unfamiliar Jewish rituals, but rather that I had in essence closed a door on my former self, rather than integrate her into my new life.

As someone once told me, “It’s better to be on the outside looking in than on the inside looking out.” After working so hard to be in the fold of observant Judaism, I suddenly found myself staving off a feeling of resistance. As if these mitzvahs, this lifestyle, were being forced upon me, even though I had so passionately embraced them. Perhaps I had left behind, or ignored, parts of myself that needed tending.

This may be the reason that some baalai teshuvah (returnees to observant Judaism) veer off the path completely. It’s so important to find a rabbi or rebbetzin to guide you, and to consult with them throughout the ongoing process. And I don’t think we are all meant to jump so fully into a life-transforming version of Judaism. Learn about the mitzvahs, about Judaism and Torah, and surround yourself with growth-minded people. But go slowly, and do what makes sense for you. And, most importantly, whichever mitzvahs you choose should be done with love and respect for those around you.

For me, I think the key to embracing my identity as an observant Jewish woman was to create a balance, where my old self could come back again, but with an enhanced depth and direction. I realized that my creativity and talents should not be shunted away, but should be utilized within a framework of Torah to reveal the unique aspects of myself and the role G‑d has placed before me.

Sometimes, it seems, you do have to lose a bit of yourself to really find yourself again.

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Mindy Rubenstein is a freelance journalist and publisher of Holy Women Magazine.