By Kristin Fleetwood
This is part one of a multi-part series. For more, check back in the coming weeks.
I grew up in a nominally Episcopalian Christian family in the mid-Atlantic region. My mother has always been committed to her faith, whereas my father is a proud man of science. In my late teens, I embarked on what would become a 15-year search for God, faith, community, and belonging. It would lead me to Jerusalem, to an Israeli settlement in the West Bank, and to one of the last communal kibbutzim in the north of Israel where I labored in the fields and in learning modern Hebrew. It also took me to less far-flung, but still exotic locales for a kid from the ‘burbs, such as northwest Baltimore, where a large Orthodox Jewish community lives within shouting distance of one of the most dangerous ‘hoods in America. I would also find myself in one of New York City’s Hasidic enclaves, Boro Park, and in the far more modern Orthodox community in Teaneck, New Jersey. Over a decade after I began my search, my journey has taken a very different path in the last year or so, as I have returned to my secular, but still-a-believer-in-God roots, with a unique perspective borne of my experiences. Along the way, I made new friends, completely changed by wardrobe (twice!) to comply with community norms, and learned how to survive a rocket attack from Gaza. It’s been quite the journey!
But where to begin? In my late teens, I became interested in Judaism and started attending Friday night Shabbat (“Sabbath”) services at a local Conservative synagogue. I did this off and on for about 10 years through college and graduate school until I finally officially converted to Conservative Judaism. During studies in graduate school, I was exposed to one of the stricter, but still warm and friendly outreach branches of Orthodox Judaism through a just-off-campus student religious organization run by a Hasidic family from New York. The mission of this organization, as well as others like it, is to bring young secular Jews “back” to what is perceived to be the only authentic expression of their Jewish roots: the Torah and Orthodox Judaism. Think of a more evangelical Christian group trying to bring young people into their faith’s fold, but replace Jesus with God and the (Christian) Bible with the Torah and you’ll have the basic sketch of the picture. While there is a vast range of religious, social, and political orientation across the Orthodox Jewish spectrum, from the most liberal modern Orthodox to the most ultra-conservative Hasidim, it is safe to say that there is a major change in lifestyle when one adopts the Orthodox Jewish faith as a convert or someone who was born into a secular or moderately religious Jewish family and became Orthodox later in life. Your dress code changes. In more right-wing communities, this means long skirts, long-sleeved blouses with very modest necklines, stockings, and no open-toed shoes for women. It translates to short or long black coats, black pants, white shirts, a yarmulke on the head at all times, and a beard for men. In more left-wing communities, the standards of modest dress are much more relaxed. Women’s skirts can go to the knee or just above, open-toed shoes are a great accessory, and shirt sleeves may end at the elbow or higher. Men often wear slacks, a colorful shirt, and may or may not sport a beard. There are other changes, as well, from keeping the kosher dietary standards to prayer and socializing. There is no hard and fast rule for Orthodox Judaism due to the diversity of the many different communities within it. What a modern Orthodox person might promote, a Hasidic person may abhor and vice versa. For example, most modern Orthodox spouses meet through casual dating or being set up by friends, whereas what those outside the Orthodox fold refer to as “arranged marriages” are the norm on the far right. I eventually chose to convert to Orthodox Judaism (conversions under the auspices of Conservative and Reform rabbis are not accepted since they are not performed according to Orthodox standards) in 2010, but more on that later.
Where did I fit in? I consider myself to be a liberal and a progressive and have always voted with the Democratic Party, but the Orthodox communities that I could afford to live in were majority conservative to ultra-conservative and voted with the Republican Party. These communities were often economically depressed and located in high-crime areas, where the standard of living was affordable and your synagogue and rabbi were within walking distance just down the street, but there could be significant tensions with the non-Jewish community that also lived there. I believe that there are two ways one can respond to this kind of a situation, i.e. being the lone dissident voice in a community. Either to proudly, but respectfully air your beliefs and views and engage in constructive dialogue with those around you, or keep your mouth shut. In most cases, I chose the latter option, which led to a wealth of learning about those whose religious and political views completely oppose my own and enabled me to understand where they are coming from. Though I was not always comfortable as the lone, hidden liberal in this kind of setting, I do cherish the depth and breadth of my experiences getting to know and befriending people whom I would never have otherwise met or spoken to. More on that and other lessons in my next piece!