In 1988, I was twenty-two years old and living in an apartment in the McGill Ghetto—an area adjacent to Montreal’s McGill University, inhabited mostly by students. On the first night of Chanukah, my identity as a Jewish woman had become a mixture of many things, most of which were questions.
As I lit the candles of my family’s menorah, I felt that I was a Jew by culture, not by religion. My perspective was largely influenced by my education and the world I lived in. My major was in English literature, and my minor was in any course I could get into, such as history, religion, psychology and women’s studies. I was being taught how to analyze, break down and interpret information, and above all, to think critically. Translation: question everything and believe in nothing. I was in university to learn, to acquire knowledge, to grow intellectually. I felt privileged to have reached this point in my education—learning for learning’s sake. Career choices would come later. Now I wanted to pursue knowledge with a capital K.
My Jewish education consisted of Conservative afternoon Hebrew school, happily ending in grade six. Hebrew school was boring and uninspiring, but my parents were committed to giving me a foundation of Jewish knowledge, even though most of my Jewish classmates from public school were not going. We started out in grade one with two classes of thirty children, boys and girls; by grade six, we were a grand total of six girls.
Armed with a twelve-year-old’s knowledge from afternoon Hebrew school, my Jewish beliefs were being challenged in university. Feminism played an important part in my studies. In and out of the classroom, Judaism was criticized as patriarchal and oppressive, where women were relegated to the sidelines. That Passover, as we sat reading the haggadah in English, I struggled with these issues, insisting on substituting “She” when G‑d was referred to as “He,” and adding “Goddess” to “G‑d.”
Many of my friends yearned for answers to spiritual questions: How do we know there is a G‑d? Where is the feminine side of G‑d? What is our purpose in this world? Some pursued their spiritual paths in Eastern religions, some were into New Age; but sadly, most of us had no idea that Judaism contained the answers and the depth we were looking for. So I dabbled in this and that, and, I read popular books like Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, The Tao of Pooh, and books by author Herman Hesse. One friend, who called himself a pagan, lent me a book beginning with an exercise in visualization. I was to imagine myself in white robes approaching an altar . . . I stopped. I could not go any further. I was Jewish, and this was so foreign that I could not pursue it until I knew more about my own religion. This thought consistently kept me from turning to any other practice. But I didn’t move forward either. It took months until an incident occurred that utterly changed the course of my spiritual journey.
I was riding my bike to school one day. The path I took on that particular day was, shall we say, Divine Providence. In my backpack were application forms to teach English that fall in Mozambique. It had just been deemed the most wretched place on earth, and that was where I desired to begin my journey. My plan was to teach there for a while, then travel, eventually making my way to Japan. My thoughts turned elsewhere as I passed the Jewish “Y” on Westbury Avenue. I saw children playing outside, and the following questions entered my mind: Is there really something different about them? What distinguishes them from any other group of children? What makes them Jewish?
My thoughts were interrupted as I made a left-hand turn and an oncoming car struck my bicycle, sending me flying into the air. It felt a lot like the springboard diving I had done for many years, but this landing was on concrete. Luckily, my hand broke my fall, not my helmetless head. My first thought was that I was going to miss my class. The doctor at the hospital informed me that I had fractured my wrist and would be in a cast for two to three months, impressing upon me how fortunate I was to have sustained only this injury. Plans for my trip were shelved.
During this time, my friend Claire’s mother had asked her daughter to invite some friends over on a Friday night, since she and her husband would be away and wanted “the house not to miss Shabbat.” Although at first completely uninterested, somehow Claire agreed. That Friday night at the table, there were four of us: Claire, Cara, myself and Jeremy, who was not Jewish.
We lit the Shabbat candles and made kiddush. (At this point, my Hebrew school background served me well.) Claire cut and passed the challah, just like her father did every Friday night. We ate a delicious Shabbat meal prepared by her mother, and sat at the table talking, just the four of us. Something quite mysterious occurred that Friday night, for in a matter of weeks each of us began our separate journeys back to Yiddishkeit in a most profound way.
Claire and Jeremy attended a talk on “Codes in the Torah” that Saturday evening which profoundly moved them. Soon after, Claire and Cara went on a Shabbaton. Within two months, Claire went off to Israel to learn, and Cara soon followed. Jeremy began reading and learning more about Judaism. I was not yet ready to take a step anywhere, and returned to my two roommates, one of whom was French Canadian and a practicing Buddhist, while the other was Italian and into New Age and the Chinese Book of Change.
Eventually, Jeremy started passing me some of his books. The first one was Adin Steinsaltz’s The Thirteen Petalled Rose. That was the ticket for me. It was the first time that I realized that Judaism, as a religion, was so deeply profound, mystical and philosophical. Mitzvot and the Torah were described in the most sublime and beautiful ways. It became apparent to me that life did have meaning, a plan and tremendous purpose. Judaism believed in reincarnation, souls, and everything I had been searching for elsewhere.
Although my parents were not equipped to answer my questions, I had always been grounded, attached to my Jewish roots. They had provided the link from one generation to the next, and I wanted to strengthen it. My parents had planted the seeds of Yiddishkeit, and I was about to take it to the next level. My mother ingrained in the family the importance of going to shul on the High Holidays, of having an open home, where guests were always welcome. They gave me a strong set of principles regarding the value of honesty and hard work and of doing for others. My mother, the social activist of the family, always strongly voiced her opinion about social injustices. Coming from this environment, I was quite prepared to pursue whatever I believed in with total commitment.
The first mitzvot I attempted to observe were Shabbat and kashrut. Much to the dismay of friends and family, I jumped in with full intensity. I was single, with no real obligations to anyone, so it brought about… extreme change. To add to the fray, everyone wondered, more than anything else: was this a cult?
That Passover, I met Rabbi Moishe and Nechama New through Claire and Jeremy, who had already become acquainted with them. I became very close to the News and spent every Shabbat with them, truly feeling welcomed into the family. The atmosphere in their home was relaxed, welcoming, and non-judgmental. A world opened up to me that embraced the spiritual and physical in seamless harmony.
My interest in feminism was evolving. If Judaism was truth—eternal and G‑dly—then it had to be fair. G‑d could not be sexist. My endless questions and challenges posed to Rabbi New were answered with clarity, eloquence, and lots and lots of patience. Then it dawned on me that there were questions about women that had to be answered by a woman. Woman to woman. So, I asked Nechama more questions, observed her in action, and came to a remarkable conclusion.
I began to understand and appreciate that true feminism was embodied in the Jewish woman: active, self-assured, balanced, with a deep and intellectually profound sense of purpose. Nechama had shattered the stereotypes and misconceptions that I had held about the role of the Jewish woman. Society, and academia in particular, had vastly shortchanged women, largely ignoring and undermining the significance of our mothers and grandmothers in our lives. Throughout Jewish history and up to the present, they have been powerful role models. We, as Jewish women, do not need to reinvent ourselves. Our heroines are right in front of us.
Back in my home and universe, I felt I was living in two worlds: struggling in school with university courses, and falling in love with a Judaism I was reclaiming as my own. The dreaded question/accusation reared its ugly head: “You’re becoming religious?” Try as I might, I could not convince anyone of the beauty and richness I was seeing unfold before me. Their born-in-the-wrong-era flower child/hippie/Eastern religion wannabe was becoming religious…. What was this socially active, sports-minded, career-minded idealistic socialist feminist doing? Running to shul on Shabbat? Praying? Wearing skirts? No one could reconcile the Anne they knew with the Chaya I had become. My guru ate kosher, had a beard, and wore a black hat and a kapota (long black coat).
Two months later, I was encouraged to go to Crown Heights, Brooklyn, for a weekend Shabbaton organized for people of diverse backgrounds. That weekend many wonderful things occurred, as did some moments where I found myself struggling. On Friday, after candle-lighting, Rabbi Manis Friedman gave a talk to women only. He was speaking of their inherent spiritual superiority to men. My hand shot up within seconds. “Where are the men? Shouldn’t they also hear of our elevated status?” I was not shy. I listened, challenged, and listened some more. At one point during the service on Shabbat morning, I ran out of shul upset that the census described in the Torah reading included only men.
Shabbat day, after lunch, there was a panel discussion in someone’s home on the status of women in Judaism. I was impressed as speaker after speaker told their stories, how one was a shlucha (Chabad-Lubavitch emissary) in Florida, one was a stockbroker in Manhattan, and one was a teacher. These women, like Nechama, were self-assured and educated, and reflected a deep inner peace. This was the rule, not the exception. I saw again and again that they embodied a feminism that was not compromised by their observance. In fact, it complimented it. I was quite relieved at the thought that I did not need to go to Mozambique after all.
The highlight of the weekend was my encounter with the Rebbe. Standing in line to receive my dollar from the Rebbe was an experience. Really, I did not know what to expect. As the line inched along, we moved from outside the Rebbe’s headquarters at 770 Eastern Parkway and entered the building. The room just near the Rebbe was hushed. There was nervousness and excitement in the room, in the air itself. I knew I was entering a place different than any other—a place of holiness. As I approached the Rebbe, I had not thought of asking for anything. For me, it was more about meeting the Rebbe for the first time. It was my turn. I looked into the Rebbe’s eyes, and I suddenly felt as if air was being breathed into my lungs. It was something that I never again experienced. The Rebbe said something to me which I did not understand at the time, and then . . . it was over. I was moved along. Only once I was back in Montreal did I discover what the Rebbe had said to me. Rabbi New viewed the video of that day’s “dollars” that included our Montreal contingent, and saw that when I went by, the Rebbe gave me the blessing “hatzlachah rabbah”—“abundant success.” I carry this blessing with me always, like a kiddush cup filled to overflowing. It is a never-ending source of blessing and inspiration.
I returned to Montreal inspired and determined to increase my learning more formally. I quit my summer job as head of aquatics at one of Montreal’s largest sports day camps. I had decided to go to Minnesota and study at Bais Chana Seminary, which was headed by Rabbi Manis Friedman. It was a phenomenal program, and there were women of all ages, interested like myself in delving deeper into the learning and practice of Judaism. Besides attending Rabbi Friedman’s classes, there were small classes taught by eighteen- to twenty-year-old seminary girls from Detroit, Miami and Montreal. What impressed me was that these young girls had something—a wisdom well beyond their years. Not only did the college students like myself learn from them, but women considerably older than them, from their thirties through their fifties, were drawn by the knowledge and maturity of these girls.
I did not sleep much that summer. The nights were filled with study, discussion, songs and stories. One day, the housemother’s two-year-old son was playing on the stairs. He found a coin on the carpet and proudly lifted it up and exclaimed, “Tzedakah!” (“Charity!”) I was deeply moved and inspired. That incident seemed to capture the essence of Jewish education and the goal of making this world a better place. It was a physical and spiritual act fused into one instant. I knew, at that moment, that I wanted to transmit these values to my own children one day, that they should give of themselves with the same ease as this two-year-old. I returned to Montreal, finished my degree and went to New York to study in yeshivah.
While in New York, I participated in a documentary that was being produced in Canada. It was based on a book profiling people who had turned to their respective religions in their early twenties. I was to be interviewed for the Jewish segment of the film, which would air on television across the country. My family, my friends and Rabbi New were also interviewed. The director was a secular Jew from Montreal, who tried to understand, as did my friends and family, what was motivating me to make this change in my life. Just what I needed . . . one more person struggling with my changes. I saw it as a tremendous opportunity to break down the stereotypes that were ingrained in the media about Lubavitch, and about Jewish women in particular. I spent a lot of time with the director, and I really thought that he understood. How naive I was.
I was invited to view the program prior to its airing on television. The opening scene was not of Chabad, but of an insular sect of chassidim walking in huddled groups on a wintry day. I knew, at that moment, that the stereotypes would be perpetuated. I felt so totally misrepresented.
I was interested to read the reviews of the documentary. Again, I had not managed to shatter the stereotypes in any effective way. In the early nineties it was honest to search for truth, but if you found it you were branded a fundamentalist. I think that today, things have changed.
What I had discovered in Chabad was the furthest thing from dogma. My quest had been for knowledge, and my journey brought me to a community whose name means “wisdom, knowledge and understanding,” as well as “love.” The depth of Torah and its beauty is unmatched anywhere in academia and, for that matter, anywhere else in the Jewish world. The Rebbe breathed life and vitality into learning, and into the world itself. He revealed how each yom tov held a significance unparalled to the one celebrated the year before.
I spent one Simchat Torah with the Rebbe. It was the first night of hakafot—dancing with the Torah. I waited with thousands of other people outside “770” that afternoon, to secure a spot. As we entered the synagogue, there was space on a bench. I invited people to share my space, until I found myself immersed in a sea of bodies and faces. I seemed to have traveled to unknown locations in time and space. I was sure at one point that I was no longer vertical, but in some sort of bunker, completely horizontal. I continued to swim amongst this ocean of bodies and eventually came upon my friend Bassie Treitel. She must have seen my look of despair because she said to me, “Don’t give up!” She insisted that some girls standing near her grab me, and out of nowhere, they had me standing on my feet again just as the Rebbe came in.
I saw the Rebbe dance with the Torah. I saw exquisite beauty, truth and holiness. Years have passed, and the image, the memory I have of those moments are as clear as the day I saw them. I see the Rebbe as if no one was standing in front of me.
When I got to my spot the second night, I guarded it with my life, which was how everybody, I realized, did it. Each of us stood protecting her prized turf, until the Rebbe came in for hakafot. Instantly we were one, the ocean again, all working together to enable each and every one of us to see the Rebbe. People seemed to be saying, “Here, stand on my shoulder . . . Here, you can stand on my head . . .” It became effortless and seamless.
One final story. My husband and I were living in London, Ontario, where he was in school, and we were helping the Blocks, the Rebbe’s shluchim to London. We had come in for Rosh Hashanah to be with my family in Montreal. I had cooked much of the food in London and was bringing it to my parents. I stopped at Bassie’s, proudly showing her all the food that I had prepared. She looked at it and said, “It must be so hard.” I said, “Yeah, it was a lot of work; I think it will work out.” I will never forget her response. “I don’t mean hard for you . . . I mean for your parents.” It took a second and then I understood. I was busy with myself. Had I thought for a moment about my family and the compromises and effort they were going through, my mother in particular, trying to accommodate me? The lesson has stayed with me always, and I continue to learn from her daily.
I feel I am forever a baal teshuvah—one who returns to Jewish observance. The transmission of Torah values, the atmosphere we are to create in our homes, our marriages, our families, is a lifelong learning process. It has been twelve years since I started to become observant. With each year and each milestone—marriage, the birth of a child, a bris, my children’s education, the first upshernish (first ceremonial haircut of a boy, at age three), every yom tov, and all the daily challenges in my life—I am forever grateful for the ongoing support and encouragement from my friends, and most of all, from my family.
And by the way, Claire became Kreina; Cara became Bracha; and Jeremy became Yermiyahu, my husband.