Are you religious?

Are you religious?

For some reason, I am asked this question over and over. On dates, by old friends, when I meet new people, by followers on social media, etc..

My answer is always the same: “what does religious really mean?”

I have used my phone on Shabbat before. I have missed days of teffilin. I don’t always wear a kippah. I don’t wear tzitzit. I dropped out of the system. I don’t keep all of the commandments all the time.

One would then assume that I couldn’t possibly be religious, right? Seems pretty simple. How quick people then rush to pass judgement and put me in a box.

“He went off the derech”.

“He’s just angry and immature”.

“We lost another one”.

“He’s a hypocrite for speaking on Jewish related topics”.


I’ve heard it all.

It is true, there are many physical and external things that self proclaiming “religious” people do that I don’t. However, is that really the guideline to determine someones connection to their religion? Does not using your phone on Shabbat, wearing a black hat, and going through the system really make you religious?

Well let’s look at the actual definition of religious: “relating to or believing in a religion”.

I am Jewish and I am extremely proud of that. Yes, I did leave the path that my parents chose for me. I also left the comforts of my home, putting my life on the line, to fight for the Jewish people. Something I continue to do so each and every day of my life. Just like all relationships in my life, my relationship with G-D is one that I am always working to strengthen and improve.

There WAS a time when I was angry. There WAS a time when I didn’t understand the point of it all. A time when I had animosity toward the system I grew up in, and all those that were part of it. If people weren’t so quick to judge, they would quickly learn that this is no longer the case. At the age of 40, Rabbi Akiva started with the basics of Aleph Bet and found an understanding and appreciation for Judaism that allowed him to become on the most respected leaders and sages in history. I am no Rabbi Akiva, and I’m not 40, but in many ways I have done the same.

I took a look back at the Judaism of my childhood and realized that I never really had a chance. The moment that I would not accept just walking through the motions, my Judaism would not be sustainable. There was no joy, there was no life, and there was no beauty. Most importantly, there were no answers. There are definitely times when you simply do things because you’re told, and I can appreciate that – especially now after serving in the military. There will be times and situations when you can’t see the bigger picture. However, if that is ALWAYS the case, you have simply accepted being a robot. That is not the Judaism I want for myself, or my children – and I have a hard time believing that it’s the Judaism that G-D gifted to us.

Over the last few years, I have gone back and started learning again from Aleph Bet. I have gone back to try and learn Judaism from a place of beauty and love, from a place that allows it to be sustainable into the future. A Judaism I would be proud to instill in my children. Something so much more powerful than just doing it because I was told. Something so much more meaningful than just doing it because everyone around me is. In doing this I have come to see the beauty that was missing. I have found purpose and meaning. I have developed a deeper understanding and appreciation for my religion and for life in general.

Shabbat can be so much more than not using your phone or not turning on lights. A day to recharge your body and soul. A day to focus on the things and people that truly matter. Teffilin can be so much more than just wrapping leather on your arm and mumbling words you don’t understand. A few moments of calm and focus each morning. A few moments to recognize your blessings and give thanks. The system was put in place to be so much more than just suffocating restrictions.

My Judaism today is much deeper than JUST rules and laws. It’s a way of life. It gives clarity in a world that is blurry. A moral compass in a world that is lost. A set of HUMAN to HUMAN values in addition to the human to G-D ones. When the rules and laws happen as a result of all these things, you have something that is sustainable. Something that can be passed down for generations. Rules and laws by themselves can be broken in an instant. A way of life takes a lot of time and energy to build, but that is what makes it so difficult to destroy.

My relationship with G-D is authentic and real. It’s not my fathers relationship, it’s not my teachers relationship, it’s not the systems relationship. It’s mine and mine alone. The system is in place to serve you and help guide your relationship with G-D, not for you to serve it.

It can be easy to fall into the trap of going through the motions. It is easy to get comfortable in the norm. You don’t have to think or feel. There are no ups and downs. No highs and lows. That kind of relationship however –  is not real. Think about your personal life and your relationships with the people you are closest to. Can you just go through the motions? Can you truly have a connection without thinking or feeling? Of course not. Should our relationship with the one above be any different?

I have my shortcomings and things within religion that I still struggle with, but I don’t wrap myself up in them because I know how great the journey and process is. I know what I am striving and aiming for. Just as my personal relationships change, evolve, and grow – so does my relationship with G-D. Just as I work on my personal relationships every single day – I work on my relationship with G-D every single day. I know that through my commitment, I will reach a place where the rules and laws won’t be suffocating and restricting, but liberating. I will reach a place where I can have true faith in those moments when I can’t see the bigger picture.

After explaining all of this to one of my friends, he responded by saying “Leibel, you are the most religious not religious person I know”.

So am I religious?


What does religious really mean?

About the Author
At the age of nineteen, Leibel Mangel left his home and family in Cincinnati, Ohio to enlist in the Israel Defense Forces as a lone soldier. As the son of a Rabbi and the grandson of one of the youngest survivors of Auschwitz - serving in the IDF was not a matter of if, but rather when. Leibel served as a machine gunner in the Kfir Brigade, where he took part in numerous high profile anti-terror operations including the tragic discovery of the bodies of Gil-Ad Shaer, Naftali Fraenkel, and Eyal Yifrah who were kidnapped from Gush Etzion in 2014. Leibel has used his story and experiences to continue his service by fighting for Israel in both mainstream and social media and in cities throughout the country. Leibel is also the recipient of a 2017 Jewish People's Choice Award and 2019 Hometown Hero Award.
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