Black and White or Some Gray in Between?

Growing up in a Modern Orthodox community in Teaneck, NJ, I have always lived in what has been titled, “The Bubble.” Females wear skirts, males wear kippot, kids go to Jewish private school, all homes are shomer Shabbat and shomer kashrut.

I never had to think twice before going to my friend’s house nor had I ever had any sort of confrontation with people from outside my community about why I do what I do.

I guess the simplest way to put it is that I lived in a black and white world. There are religious Jews and there are not religious Jews. There is nothing in between. Good or bad, I liked “The Bubble.” I never really felt the urge to leave and meet others, not because I was unsure of my religious status or because I was too scared, but rather because the opportunity was never given to me. I went from one private Jewish elementary school to a private Jewish high school to a private Jewish seminary in Israel. I had a very safe childhood. My Judaism stemmed both from the home I grew up in, as well as what I put into it. I felt safe in my little bubble with people who acted and thought just like me.

However, it was the next chapter of my life which finally popped “The Bubble.”

After a year and a half studying in seminary in Israel I began a private Jewish college in America. It could have been my strong desire to move to Israel or my realization that I wanted to (forgive the phrase) “spread my wings” that I realized that this particular college and I were not a match made in heaven. I began my aliyah process as well as my application to Bar Ilan University. Fast forward a year: I am an olah chadasha attending Bar Ilan and studying Jewish History.

I thought that “The Bubble” I grew up in would just follow me to Israel. After all, I am attending a religious university, studying a Jewish topic and living in a Jewish country.

However, I was wrong.

To be honest, I have not made many encounters within the university with non-religious Jews, but I have made several outside of the university at events and such with Jews searching for their roots or others who are simply curious.

I have been questioned and I have been challenged, mainly questions having to do with G-d and belief. Most of the questions have always begun with, “I have never asked a religious Jew this but I was wondering….” To put it bluntly I feel like a rabbi every time a question is thrown in my direction.

A few weeks ago I spent a week on a Yad Vashem seminar where religious Jews were a minority. At first I was very intimidated and nervous. I didn’t want to embarrass anyone or be condescending, but I was also not willing to put my belief and practices to the side for the week. It was difficult at some points, but at the end of the seminar I learned so much about my peers and about where they stood on the religious spectrum. I asked questions and they asked questions back. We engaged in conversations about religion, questions we had, inspiring stories and such. Nothing was accusatory or patronizing, everyone was respected. It very possibly could have been the first time in my life I saw a person for a person and not from the synagogue he/she attended or what he/she was wearing.

Personally I have felt judged and watched if I had stepped slightly outside from what is “normal” according to Modern Orthodox standards. I have started to feel that Orthodoxy stresses more and more on the little minute bits and no longer the meaning behind why we do what we do. There have been times when I felt too threatened to express an opinion with the fear that I won’t ask “the right question.” However, the week I was on my seminar I took advantage of the fact that I was with people who did not necessarily have the same upbringing and religious standpoints as me. It may sound contradictory but I have never felt more comfortable before and the irony being it was with people who were not similar to me.

Ultra Orthodox Jew, Modern Orthodox Jew, Conservative Jew, Reform Jew, it doesn’t matter. The fact is that each sect ends with the word “Jew.” It truly was one of the most uplifting and eye opening weeks of my life, not just because of the topic of the seminar but also the way I viewed religion.

The other day I was talking to a friend who also grew up in the New York “Bubble”. Someone in our university had asked her for the first time a question about her religiosity. She was somewhat caught off guard (as we all are at first). Not just from the question but from that fact that she was asked that question. She answered in the way she deemed fit, but was very much taken aback by the question. Growing up in “The Bubble” we never encountered that specific issue. We were discussing afterwards how we have always felt that there has been this separation between “them” and “us”.  When one of “them” asks “us” a question, I personally have always been hesitant to answer. I never wanted to give the wrong answer or to push someone even further away from religiosity.

However, I have recently realized that the solution to this separation is not to see it as a “them” versus “us” and of course not as a teacher-student relationship. The way to fill the empty void is to learn together. We are all struggling to a certain extent. Whether it is with big issues or smaller ones, Judaism is not easy or straightforward.

I am proud to say I am a Modern Orthodox Jew. But it’s not just the title that defines you. If we all remain in our little religious bubbles, nothing will change. The way to change is through learning, teaching, introspecting and striving to reach new levels.

About the Author
Lottie Kestenbaum was born to British parents and grew up in New Jersey. To add to the identity crisis, Lottie made aliyah in August 2012. Hello tri-citizenship! She is currently pursuing a Masters degree in Holocaust Studies at Haifa University and living in Jerusalem. Yes, it is a shlep. No need to mention it :-)