Wednesday, February 27, 2013

I Will Never Be Orthodox. Can I Still Be Part of the Community?

Dear Ruchi,

My family currently lives 7 miles from the Chabad shul that we attend, so we drive to/from Shabbos services (though we do park at the church across the street). Our son doesn’t wear a yarmulke on a daily basis. We have a television in our home and our kids watch appropriate shows on a limited basis. Our home is not kosher (yet!). The point is, clearly, we are not Orthodox and I’m not sure that we ever will be. We are not prepared to sell our home and move closer to the shul so that we can walk to Shabbos services.  Also, because there are so many rules/laws/customs, I am overwhelmed and don’t know where or how to begin.

All of that said, can we ever really become a part of the Orthodox community? Everyone has been very nice, but there’s a big difference between being nice and being inclusive. Will it ever be OK for me to invite an Orthodox child to our home for a playdate (with reassurance that I will serve food on paper plates and will not mix milk/meat…I’m sure there are other things that I would need to do, but I have no idea what that might be!)?

Will I be able to actually become friends with some of these women or is it frowned upon to have non-Orthodox friends because of the difference in lifestyle? I met a very nice woman at the weekly Kabbalah cafĂ© and would like to see if she’d like to meet for coffee, but I’m not sure if that’s acceptable because I doubt that Starbucks is kosher?? I don’t want to put her in the awkward position of having to say “no,” so I just haven’t asked.

I guess what I’m really asking is are we ever going to be “Jewish enough”? And how do I even begin to learn all of the customs that I would need to learn in order to fit in better? I have asked if there is a class for people wanting to become BT, but it isn’t offered here. My husband manages better than I do because of his upbringing, but it’s hard to say to him “tell me everything I need to know” because there are a million minutiae (i.e. 39 categories of work prohibited on Shabbat, 613 mitzvot). For example, he was given the honor of an aliyah last week and had to say that he couldn’t because he’s a Levite and the Levites had already had an aliyah (so he held/carried the Torah instead). The point is, I’d never even heard anything remotely like that before and would have been honored to accept, which would have been wrong (I realize that as a woman, this wouldn’t happen, but it’s an example of how little I know). How can I raise observant Jewish children when I know so little? I feel like I need a brain transplant or something. :)

I know no one in the Orthodox community and have so many questions and concerns. I want to “get it right” for our children because this is important to me. If we can never be accepted, then does it make sense to join this congregation? I would welcome your honest thoughts and feedback.


Dear Lauren,

You've touched on many different points here in your email, so I will just address them in the order you've asked.

1. It's unclear to me whether you are interested in becoming more observant/Orthodox, but are deterred because of social/logistical obstacles, or you just don't see yourself ever following all those restrictions.  Do you believe in the heart of Orthodox philosophy?  Do you wish you could be more observant, but lament the obstacles, or do you feel a sense of relief that you're not?

2. I'm also a bit confused because you say on the one hand that you've met a few people that you'd like to further your social relationships with, and that you do attend the Chabad shul on occasion, but later state that you don't know anyone in the Orthodox community.  Do you mean you know them casually but not well enough to ask these "loaded" questions to?  Are you friends with these acquaintances on any level?

3. Would it be OK for you to invite over an Orthodox child with attendant reassurances?  The answer is yes!  What a nice invitation!  But truthfully, not everyone will feel comfortable with that - not because they'd suspect you of being duplicitous, G-d forbid, but because if you don't know the laws really well, it's pretty easy to make a mistake.  Some families will be OK with it and you'll have to learn to not take personally the discomfort of those that aren't.

4.  Ditto with your friendships.  Most people in Chabad communities (I'm not sure if the community is a Chabad one) are very inclusive and are comfortable being friends with various types of Jews.  Other, more insular communities, might be less so.  Here in Cleveland, for example, it would be my Orthodox friends' pleasure to go out for coffee (Starbucks is always safe - even though there is a controversy involving the Starbuckses that serve non-kosher sandwiches, you can always get a juice or something) with a non-Orthodox friend they met at the gym or something, and especially at a Jewish class or venue.  When I look around at my community, I think the answer to your question about your personal friendships would be a resounding yes.

5. Are you ever going to be Jewish enough?  That's between you, your husband and G-d - and no one else.  No matter where you are on the spectrum, there will always be some that don't consider you Jewish enough and some that consider you a fanatic.  Learn to ignore judgmental people on both sides.

6. How can you begin to learn?  If there's a Chabad shul, I would imagine classes couldn't possibly be far behind.  There an organization called "Partners in Torah" where you are matched up to a study partner over the phone for a once-a-week study session on any topic of your choice.  It's free, and amazing.  Look them up.  Is there maybe a community close to yours that has an educational organization for beginners?  Of course, there's lots of stuff online, but personal connections, relationships, and community are key.  AND finding a rabbi/mentor to guide you in this journey.

7. Regarding brain transplants: you have exactly the brain that G-d wants you to have to fulfill your unique purpose in life!  :) 

All the best, and wishing you lots of success,

Dear readers,

Would you add anything?  Have you "been there, done that"?


  1. Where do you live? If you live in Cleveland, I'd be happy to invite YOU to Starbucks, and be happy to invite you and your kids for a playdate. (and yes, I would allow my kids to go to a playdate at a non frum friends' or non Jewish friends' home (with packed kosher food to share), though I might be in the minority in my community. My kids have special needs so their friends are public school friends.

    I second the Partners in Torah suggestion. I've been a Partner for over a decade. My partner isn't frum and doesn't plan to become frum, but has learned a wonderful amount, and I've learned a wonderful amount from her as well. While doing your weekly regimen of learning you can feel free to ask any question you'd like of your Partner. Generally, Orthodox women are paired with non Orthodox women and this scheduled friendship is exactly the push that some non Orthodox need to have a friend to ask these questions, and the push that some Orthodox need to learn more about the non frum world (though I grew up Reform, so I know a lot :)

    Find yourself a Rabbi with whom you feel very comfortable asking your questions--- schedule appointments with him from time to time. He's sure to invite you and your family for Shabbos and you'll learn a lot that way as well. You don't need a brain transplant--- you just need to learn a little every day and you'll end up in a place that feels right for you and your family! Best of luck on your journey!

  2. beautiful questions. beautiful answers. Lauren, good luck on your journey and you sound like a very loving mom and honest (with your feelings) person.

  3. Love your answers! I want to add that I really relate to this woman's feelings of being overwhelmed; of being "friendly" with orthodox people but not comfortable enough to ask real questions bc of the risk of feeling vulnerable; of wanting fit in but not being sure of how observant she wants to become and not give false hope; the fear of offending, etc. I wish I could give her a hug and tell her to not worry! (Honestly, I wish I could tell that to myself >5 years ago.)
    I really echo your responses urging her to not be offended if someone says no to an offer and to not let that discourage her. To remember that orthodox Jews are people as well, with just as much variety in personality as any other group (some might say even more!)
    Mostly, I don't know if this woman is reading these comments, but if she is, I would love to learn with her (on the phone/online perhaps?) and answer any questions she might have. I also highly encourage her to also check out "Partners in Torah" and/or to speak to the Rabbi's wife at her shul and ask to be set up with someone that she can befriend, ask questions, and meet for coffee.
    Mostly to just let her know that I relate to so much of what she wrote, and even though these feelings and overwhelming and difficult... that they are also beautiful and she should be very grateful for the path that her life has taken and the lessons she is learning. And as you said, the most important thing is to never forget that it is her relationship with herself and her creator that will tell her the ultimate truth... never lose sight of that :)

  4. There's being friends with Orthodox people, and there's being part of the Orthodox community. It's not uncommon for Orthodox, especially Modern Orthodox, people to have non-Orthodox and non-Jewish friends. But those friendships are on an individual or couple level and the friends aren't thought of as part of the Orthodox community.

    The following is purely empirical observation, descriptive and not at all prescriptive or reflective of halacha:

    Being thought of as part of the Orthodox community* can be achieved with some basic public trappings of observance, but far less than normative observance. Living in the neighborhood, attending Orthodox shul, keeping a kosher home and refraining from highly visible kashrut, Shabbat and Yom Tov violations would probably be enough. If you are doing this, but still discreetly eat out nonkosher and break Shabbat, people in the community will catch on that you're not really doing things as you should, and many may avoid eating cooked food at your house, but they will probably still see you as a member of the Orthodox community (though one who is neglectful of important aspects of halacha).

    On the other hand a fully kosher and shomer Shabbat woman who leins at her Conservative shul every week will probably not be seen as part of the Orthodox community, even if all of her other day to day practices are perfectly in line with Orthodox halacha and even if some people would be more comfortable eating at her house than at yours. So it's a combination of practice and messaging/affiliation.

    *This wouldn't apply to the more insular Orthodox communities.

    The best way to learn is to hang out in the community and see what people do. But if you want to learn some things on your own to minimize your potential for embarrassment, I recommend you check out the RCA's recommended reading list for converts ( It's essentially designed to be a curriculum for "How to become Orthodox." Consult with a rabbi as to which books would be best to start with.

  5. I just had my first study session with my new partner through Partners in Torah. I'm so happy to be doing this. I highly recommend this.

  6. Thank you for the thoughtful and honest feedback. I will definitely contact Partners in Torah and the RCA's reading list for converts.

    Heather, I don't live in Cleveland (I'm much further South), but your offer to meet me at Starbucks or have your children play at my home was very sweet.

    Andrea, thank you for the cyber hug, it was just what I needed! You hit the nail on the head when you said that there's a difference between having acquaintances and having friends you feel comfortable asking a ton of what may be seen as intrusive questions. I'm hoping that over time, we will get to know a few people better and I'll feel more comfortable asking some of my questions.

    LWMO, I appreciate your candor. As I understand it, there are 3 aspects to being observant: keeping Shabbos, keeping Kosher and going to the Mikveh. We have been working on 2 out of 3. We have been having family Shabbos dinners, though I'll admit, I still have to consult a book to get the prayers right. We have been invited to the Rabbi's home for Shabbos in a couple of weeks and I'm excited to see what it's all about!

    I have begun cooking "kosher style" to test the waters with my family. I have young children who are used to having "taco night" and putting shredded cheese on ground beef (for example). They are picky eaters to begin with, so I've slowly been decreasing the number of meals that mix meat/milk and increasing those that do not. Once I feel comfortable, I will take the necessary steps to kasher our home. As for eating out, this is an area where my husband and I disagree. He grew up with Orthodox grandparents and parents who attended a Conservative synagogue. They kept kosher within their home, but ate at non-kosher restaurants. I feel like it's hypocritical to do one thing in the home and another out. I think that's a mixed message to send our children. However, my family is ultra Reform and the thought of telling my parents that we can't eat in their home anymore is daunting. So, we definitely have some issues to work through.

    The mikveh is something that I'm not comfortable discussing on an open forum...enough said! :)

    I hope that you can see that I am sincere in wanting to live a more observant life, for all the right reasons. However, I need to learn an awful lot before I can do so in a significant way. Right now, I am so ignorant that I'd likely bypass many important halacha.

    My hope is that our children will grow up with these customs/halacha/cultural understanding so that it is just an accepted part of their lives. However, as their primary teacher (other than at Sunday School), I am most lacking at this time.

    1. Lauren, I understand your feeling that it's hypocritical to keep kosher at home but not outside, but I don't think it necessarily is.

      I remember years ago realizing the ridiculousness of it: If you're home, you wait a certain number of hours between eating meat and milk. If you're out, you don't. So if you eat non-kosher meat and then come home, can you have ice cream? It was absurd. The Torah was given to us, not to our walls, tables, and dishes.

      However, if you think of it as a step on the way to observance at home and elsewhere, it's not hypocritical. If you think of it as the most you can handle at the moment, it's also not hypocritical. At least you'll be keeping kosher a lot of the time.

      I don't know how big the Orthodox community is in your area, but from what you say, there seems to be a significant one. As you get to know the people, it will be easier to take on more observances (and in a small community, they'll probably be delighted to help you out and answer your questions). Also, if it's a small community they're likely to be used to having less observant friends.

    2. @Lauren. Yes mikvah is one of the "big three," but I didn't mention it because it's a private mitzva, so community members will have no way of knowing how scrupulously you keep it, or if you keep it at all. Even if there's only one mikvah in your community, at most a few individuals who run it may deduce that you don't use *that* mikvah, but who knows, maybe you drive to the one an hour or two away in the next town.

      I also don't think you should worry about hypocrisy. You do what you can, where you can, when you can. Eating treif sometimes is better than eating treif all the time.

    3. Ms. Lauren,

      If you're as far south as middle Florida, we'd love to meet up! Good Shabbos!

      -Sarah and Ephraim

  7. I'd like to recommend three books. First, some stories for you and your husband to consider about living with differing observance levels Two Jews Can Still Be a Mixed Marriage: Reconciling Differences Over Judaism in Your Marriage.

    Second, a book about ways to keep within the minimal requirements of halacha (Jewish law) while being more flexible than the average Jew who grew up in an observant community. While the book addresses itself to people who have committed to observance while continuing to relate to their non-observant friends and family it can be of use to you while you are on your journey, I think:
    After the Return: Maintaining Good Family Relations and Adjusting to Your New Lifestyle-A Practical Halachic Guide for the Newly Observant
    and to deal more specifically with kashrut related issues, if you decide to keep kosher in and out of the house What Do You Mean, You Can't Eat in My Home?: A Guide to How Newly Observant Jews and Their Less Observant Relatives Can Still Get Along

  8. Lauren,

    It's good (I think) that you are thinking about these things first rather than just making rapid changes in your life. Many of the wisest rabbis caution against taking on too much observance too fast, but to grow slowly into new things. I was looking for the notes from a lecture I went to in order to find the right rabbi to attribute this to, but I can't find it (if someone knows, please comment). He said (I'm paraphrasing): If you want to change something in your life, set a goal and then cut that goal in half. Then you will more likely succeed in achieving it. When you meet that goal, set the next one.

    Taking on observance is like starting a workout routine. If you go in and try to keep up with the gym addicts, you'll just hurt yourself and never go back. You asked about keeping kosher inside the home and not out. We did that for a while on our journey to becoming Orthodox, until one day it wasn't comfortable any more. To go back to the workout analogy, if we hadn't run a mile a day (kept kosher in the home only), we never would have been able to work up to three miles a day (keeping kosher all the time). We drove to shul and parked a few blocks away until we were ready to commit to moving. (We also found friends at the synagogue who invited us to stay with them for all of Shabbos so we wouldn't have to drive, which was a great way to learn what Orthodoxy was about.

    It's all a process, even for people who are already Orthodox. There's never a day when you are "done."

    Is there a local Jewish bookshop near you? There is a plethora of books designed for people navigating the path to observance. For example, we started with a series from Feldheim Publishers. They are called Illustrated Guides to Jewish Law. We have The Kosher Kitchen, The 39 Melachos & Other Provisions (about Shabbos laws) and Guide to Shabbos observance. They are geared toward people who grew up non-Orthodox but want to know more. (If there isn't a bookshop, you can order them online.)

    And you are right, you will make mistakes. Everyone makes mistakes. People who are frum from birth make mistakes. It's okay. I had studied the laws about muktze, that is things we don't touch in order to keep from breaking Shabbos. Some years after I learned it, I went back to review and found out I had been doing something wrong for four years, convinced I had been doing it right. I called my rabbi, "What should I do? What should I do?" His answer (calmly), "Don't do that any more." Finding out that you've made a mistake is a good thing. It's a sign that you are learning.

    Last point: the kids. You can learn and grow with them. I never even went to Hebrew school. Now I do my daughters' Hebrew homework every night with them. (They go to a day school.) The key is to stay one step ahead of them. There are tools to help you here also. And you will find your own knowledge expanding as you learn with them. My Hebrew has increased amazingly since my kids started school, just from studying with them.

    I hope some of this was helpful.

  9. Thank you so much for taking the time to reply and for the great reading material suggestions!

    I am excited about the prospect of learning and you have all given me some great starting points, as well as encouragement! I can't tell you how much I appreciate it!

  10. Dear Lauren,
    We started off much farther "behind" than you, as two non-Jews with young children. We first had a reform conversion and, years later, an orthodox one. We learn slowly! Looking back, I can see that the thing that was most helpful was having people to talk to and learn from. But I also can see that we would have benefited from closer teachers to guide us. I have met people who were able to form strong connections with knowledgeble orthodox families and they were able to learn and integrate what they learned so much better than we did. We are kind of shy and it was hard for us to find the right people.We were too easily discouraged. [ also, this was years ago and there is more understanding now of what is needed to help people along this journey] I can tell you that wonderful and generous teachers do exist and that if you don't find them at first, keep seeking. It is worth it. [ ps, many years later, we have been blessed with Jewish grandchildren who are learning to love Torah and mitzvos and think that keeping kosher and Shabbos are the most natural things in the world. May you also be blessed.]


The purpose of OOTOB is Jewish unity via mutual respect and education, and we reserve the right to decline or edit any comments. Comments are moderated, so it may take some time for your comment to appear. Thank you for your participation!