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Wishing I Had Been More Sensitive on the Path to Change

Wishing I Had Been More Sensitive on the Path to Change

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When I left for college at 18 years old, I didn’t know a single soul on a campus of 20,000 students two states away from home. It was one of the most momentous and vulnerable times in my life. I had the potential to discover myself, build new bridges, and grow in unanticipated and unprecedented ways. But I also faced a very real possibility of descending into isolation and depression.

I’ll never forget my second night on campus. I decided to be brave and head out to a social event at the library for new students. It turned out to be a major flop (much like night one had been). When I finally stalked out of the library (having interacted more with books instead ofI’ll never forget my second night on campus people), it was to find myself not only demoralized, but completely lost as to how to get back to my dorm room. I mustered the courage to ask the first friendly looking person for directions back to the quad. He miraculously offered to walk me. I still get emotional today recalling how G‑d sent that special soul, Steve, to me in my time of need. The cascading events of my life could have been vastly different if it hadn’t been for him salvaging that dark night of self-doubt.

Through Steve and various opportunities that college affords, I found acceptance, a place of belonging, and more and more friends, until my circles widened with brilliant, diverse, loyal and beautiful people. But when I became observant in the course of my junior and senior years, I removed myself from Steve and many others I loved who had supported and anchored me along the way. A few friends stayed by my side until I got my undeserving head on straight. Others I was able to reconcile with by the skin of my teeth. But I let too many people who had once helped me become strangers.

Some of us become religious quickly, like a strong tide bringing in a massive wave that breaks on your life and wipes everything clean. In some ways your world expands; in others it narrows. In some ways things suddenly become so clear; in other ways they complicate life. You might even feel euphoric, like you finally had a handle on this big wide world, and how to uplift and refine it. There is an urgency to be careful, so careful, to do everything right—to fit your square self into a round peg quickly and not miss out on any bits of truth that you were already deprived of your entire life.

But no matter how far you had to travel to observance, elements from your previous life hold many splinters of holiness, truth and—hopefully—genuine human friendships. As powerful as the urge is to reinvent yourself around this newfound ideology and pursue a new path, abandoning friendships can leave a permanent scar. You might not notice at first—flying high on your psychedelic inner journey—but when you come back down to earth, you’ll look around and realize the hurt you inadvertently caused. Forsaking a healthy friendship does not make a kiddush Hashem (sanctification of G‑d’s name). In my opinion, the total opposite is true.

Some people in our lives create truly negative influences, and removing them (both the influence and the person) is necessary in any phase of life. A toxic, abusive or immoral relationship should come to an end, and Torah Judaism might be the catalyst to give you the strength to do that. That’s not whom I mean here. Many of us are blessed with friends who love and support us, who are inextricably bound to the narrative of our lives but who by no means lead a Torah lifestyle. They may know virtually nothing about it, or have zero interest in it, apart from being invested in the friendship. Those are not the negative influences that need to be cut out. Those are not negative influences at all.

Why did I fail in this? Part of me thought thatI let too many people who had once helped me become strangers maybe I shouldn’t be influenced by some of the things my friends did that weren’t so kosher—figuratively and literally. Part of me assumed they’d think I had completely lost it, and I feared their judgment of the nonsensical restrictions and hokey rituals. Least on my mind was how selfish I was being, how I must have hurt my friends by abandoning them, by denying them even the chance to get to know the new version of me.

With some perspective that took years in the making, it became clear that I could have explained to my friends if something made me uncomfortable or to have not engaged in any problematic type of situation. Good old-fashioned communication and assertiveness could have saved friendships. They were so much larger than any one or more trifling, incompatible behaviors between us. We could have worked around the nonkosher venues, the Saturdays, the disparate views.

My friends respected me, and I wish now that I would have leveled with them and trusted them, facing the possibility of rejection rather than trying to preempt it altogether. Maybe then I could have made a kiddush Hashem or two along the way. At the very least, I have learned from these mistakes, and know how I will treat others going forward.

Rachel Barmatz is a wife and mother who enjoys reading, walkable cities, and reminiscing about her time in Israel.
Sefira Ross is a freelance designer and illustrator whose original creations grace many Chabad.org pages. Residing in Seattle, Washington, her days are spent between multitasking illustrations and being a mom.
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Anonymous July 20, 2017

Sometimes your old friends think your new thoughts are bubameisis and sometimes they talk about things you can no longer talk about like dating details or lashion hora. It takes a very special person to respect you as you change. Often they tell you what you're doing is too extreme. It's not an easy process as ba'aleh teshuvah find themselves misunderstood not only by their old friends but also not quite accepted by the frum community. Reply

Anonymous July 20, 2017

Thank you for your inspiring story. Reply

Yael July 19, 2017

B"H Your article speaks to so many...Amazing! B"H So beautiful. This is such a powerful share. It is also very helpful for converts who struggle to lead a Torah way of life and honor their parents who may have expressed their hurt at the convert's decision to be a Jew. Unbelievable. Thank you. Rachel! Yasher Koach! Reply

Private Earth July 19, 2017

This kind of action cuts at the mind, heart, and soul of non-jews, creates an opportunity for hate, and is not holy. Abraham worked to convert the whole world. Reply

Chaya Sarah Silberberg Michigan July 18, 2017

Lovely and insightful. But now, instead of wishing, do something about it! This week, contact Steve and tell him more or less what you just put into the article... You might re-establish a relationship of sorts. Or you might not. But it will definitely serve as a clarification. And a Kiddush Hashem. Next week: repeat with another voice from the past... Reply

Rachel July 18, 2017
in response to Chaya Sarah Silberberg:

you're right. i've been getting up my courage for this! it's not too late. Reply

Anonymous July 19, 2017
in response to Chaya Sarah Silberberg:

Imho, if the Rachel contacts Steve, she should only do it after discussion with her husband and with husband's agreement and encouragement.

Rachel's expressions of sorrow to Hashem and her efforts to avoid the same exclusionary behavior in the future should be enough, as I understand it, to spiritually "tidy up" on that account.

It seems to me more important for a wife to avoid situations where her past feelings for a man (who is not her immediate family) of friendship, appreciation and gratitude that he appeared exactly where and when she needed him like a knight in shining armor, might distract her mind from where it must happily remain - on her husband. Reply

Bonnie Baltimore July 17, 2017

Very well written Racel. Reply

Shifra Alaska July 17, 2017

This is an all too common scenario. Kudos to you, Rachel, for sharing your painful memories, and for having the maturity to recognize that not every non-frum person is a bad influence who must be cut out of our lives. And kudos to Chabad.org for printing this perspective. Reply

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