I grew up very religious. I lived in a Modern Orthodox home in a primarily Jewish neighborhood and attended an all-girls Jewish day school. Religion was present in almost every aspect of my environment.
I had always been skeptical about religion and the idea of a God.
From an early age, I found myself often questioning certain practices and seeing flaws in them, things that just didn’t make sense. For a long time, I wished I could abandon certain practices simply to make my life easier. I had to dress modestly and only eat kosher, for example.
But it wasn’t just the skepticism of a teenage girl learning to think critically. Religion became suffocating to me. I lived in a household with parents who were very observant and expected their kids to do the same. My school was strictly religious and expected their students to observe on a specific, higher level.
It felt like religion controlled every aspect of my life: what I wore, what I ate, how I behaved, the numerous things I could and couldn’t do. And as a kid, I had no way out.
I remember the exact moment I stopped believing.
I was in ninth grade, and my great-aunt was battling cancer. I put aside my doubts and prayed harder than I ever had, saying special prayers in her merit daily. I even gave her Hebrew name to my school’s morning prayer group so more people were praying for her recovery. My great-aunt was a fond part of my childhood and I had only good memories of her.
But she lost the fight. I remember crying in my room: for her loss, and for the broken faith that lay before me.
To me, it felt like God had heard all those prayers and threw them out the window.
I didn’t believe when people said, “If God didn’t use your prayers this time, then He’s saving them for another time you’ll need them.” It sounded like a load of crap.
If this were true, why didn’t He use them when He saw me struggling to make and keep friends? Why not when the anxiety and depression took over? Where was He at my lowest times?
I switched schools my junior year of high school. This new school was significantly less strict about religion and had students from all levels of observance. Religion slowly began to loosen its hold on my life as I began to wear jeans and short sleeves, hang out with the other gender, and become more learned about the pop culture and the secular world.
I chose to live on-campus for freshman year of college. I could have commuted, but I needed out of the religious environment and to escape religion’s suffocating hold.
In my first two years, I only observed at home. But elsewhere, it was like Judaism didn’t exist in my life. I dressed how I wanted, ate what I wanted. I didn’t celebrate the holidays and broke almost every rule I had grown up with my whole life.
It was the most freeing experience.
I finally had a chance to step back from the only life I had ever known and think. Think about what I wanted for myself, who I wanted to be as an individual away from the religion. But most importantly, I gained a chance to discover what my religion meant to me.
After growing up in a 24/7 religious environment, it was impossible for me to completely cut religion from my life. At first, I thought that’s what I wanted to do. But as time passed, I realized that I do love Judaism. The meals on Shabbat and holidays with family and friends, the traditions like lighting a menorah on Hanukkah and the insanity of Passover.
I don’t regret my decision.
Those two years helped me evaluate what relationship I wanted to have with religion. The experience and my decision helped me develop my individuality away from something that had dominated most of my life.
There certainly were some awkward moments between my parents and me when it came to explaining my decisions to no longer uphold certain beliefs. But in the end, my parents understood. They saw how much better off I was without the weight of religion keeping me down, and have continued to support and love me.