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A Five-Year Detour: My Path to Becoming Observant

A Five-Year Detour: My Path to Becoming Observant

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My maternal grandmother, who was adopted, did not know she was Jewish until she was 47 years old. My mother, the youngest of seven children, learned about this revelation when she was a child; subsequently, my sister and I grew up knowing that we were Jewish, though without any practical knowledge of what that meant. To us, it was merely a piece of our ethnic heritage.

I had always believed in G‑d, even as a small child. I grewIn my circle, the way people expressed their belief in G‑d was by going to church up in Olympia, Wash., which does not have a very large Jewish community. In my circle, the way people expressed a belief in G‑d was by going to church. So I went to church. I continued practicing Christianity throughout high school and chose to attend a Christian university in Idaho. Upon further investigation, however, the claims of Christianity seemed to me unfounded, and I couldn’t find anyone who could give me satisfactory answers to my questions.

I stumbled upon Chabad seemingly by accident shortly before I finished university. I needed yarmulkes and dreidels, and perhaps other Jewish things that were beyond the scope of my limited knowledge, to represent Israel for an event the Middle Eastern Affairs club was hosting on campus. There are exactly two synagogues in Idaho. I happened to dial Chabad’s number. I spoke with a very nice young woman, Esther Lifshitz, and explained to her why I was calling. She said she was happy to lend me the items I was seeking, but when I casually mentioned that I was Jewish, the conversation shifted dramatically. “You’re JEWISH?!” she exclaimed. “Well, then we want to meet you. You must come for a Friday-night dinner!”

I had plans to travel that summer, so it was a few months before I took her up on her offer. Now, when she mentioned dinner on a Friday night, I assumed she meant with her family. I wasn’t really familiar with the term Shabbat or the Sabbath, save for my leading role as Tzeitel in my high school production of “Fiddler on the Roof.” When I walked into the Lifshitz home and saw nearly 30 people there, including men with long beards and black hats, I felt a bit out of place. I didn’t know a thing about kiddush (the traditional blessing over wine) or how to wash my hands in the ritual way before eating bread; who knew you needed an instruction manual to eat dinner at someone’s house? Luckily, Rabbi Lifshitz’s brother, who was visiting from New York, was kind enough to give me a play-by-play and explain the meaning of each tradition. Even though I had never experienced a Shabbat dinner in my entire life, there was something distantly familiar about it. I felt like my soul perked up and was trying to get my attention. I soon began attending Shabbat dinner every week.

Over the next couple years, I grew closer to the Lifshitz family. They were so welcoming and accepting. I didn’t feel judged for anything I didn’t know, nor pressured to partake in anything I didn’t want to. I learned to read and write Hebrew, and how to say the proper blessings over food. I studied the Jewish calendar, rich with holidays. I never felt that being religious was the goal or that there was any specific level I was trying to reach; I just wanted to connect to my heritage.The Lifshitzes never made me feel guilty for what I wasn’t doing. They seemed genuinely delighted whenever I showed up and happy to advise me on whatever I wanted to know. They taught me that every mitzvah counts, just as every Jew is valuable.

From Boise, my life took me all over the world: Southern California, Canada, Israel, Australia. Wherever I went, I connected with the I started to feel that I had plateaued spirituallylocal Chabad community and picked up where I left off. For several years, I was comfortable with my lifestyle and level of Torah observance, but while living in a small community in Australia, I started to feel that I had plateaued spiritually. I didn’t know exactly what G‑d wanted from me, but I knew I needed to go elsewhere to find it. This was by no means an easy decision. I had made good friends in Oz and had a job I enjoyed teaching at a university. Regardless, I couldn’t shake the feeling that despite my travels and accomplishments, I didn’t feel at peace. I knew that there was more to being Jewish that I had not had the opportunity to fully explore, and I felt it calling to me from across the ocean.

When I moved back to the States, I returned to the Pacific Northwest and settled in Seattle. Upon doing so, I called the Lifshitzes to ask who I should contact there. They set me up with the Estrins, the Chabad on campus emissaries at the University of Washington, who organized events for students and young adults in the area. I didn’t know it yet, but I would learn that they were also amazingly open, kind and welcoming. I didn’t live within walking distance of their house, but wanted to join them for Shabbat, as was my habit by now. One Friday night after dinner, they invited me to stay the night. The idea had never occurred to me. I didn’t move to Seattle to start keeping Shabbat. I was used to coming for dinner, and then driving home and working or running errands on Saturday. Furthermore, I had hoped that returning to the rich artistic community of Seattle would afford me more opportunities to perform. I have been involved with theater and dance since I was 5 years old. I love to be on stage and was planning to audition for local productions. Those productions, however, would undoubtedly have performances on Friday night and Saturday. Not to mention the difficulties regarding modesty . . . was I ready for such a jump? Was I even interested in giving that up? It seemed too formidable a road block.

As crazy as it initially sounded to me, once the invitation was extended, something clicked. Gradually, I began staying with the Estrin family each Shabbat. I began keeping kosher—first for a few weeks at a time, then a month until I eventually lost count. I initially resisted any staunch commitment because I had seen what living a Torah-observant lifestyle looked like. It was hard! And it was so foreign from how I grew up. But I built up to it slowly, and eventually, I gathered enough strength to take the plunge. Discovering Judaism felt like coming home, and while I was scared about what I was giving up, I was also confident in what I was gaining—the truth.

Today, I have found ways to use my gift of performing to serve G‑d and uplift other women. I sing and dance with my body and soul toI have found ways to use my gift of performing tell stories of G‑d’s grace, our foremothers who came before us, and to inspire women to remain strong in the face of adversity. I used to think that G‑d had given me talents so that I could entertain the world, and that’s what made me special. Now I understand that there is no greater gift I can give the world than being the proud Jew that I am. My talents and passions make me special because they enable me to be a dedicated daughter, wife, mother, friend and community member.

I am forever grateful to the patient and selfless Chabad emissaries I am now blessed to call friends, who helped guide me along my five-year journey. My husband is also a baal teshuvah (a returnee to the faith), who found traditional Judaism through his own spiritual exploration. He was surprised to hear friends and family members of mine comment that I’m not really all that different than I was before I became observant. Sure, I don’t go out on Friday nights, and these days, I only wear skirts, but my essence remains unchanged. Perhaps it’s because Chabad’s mission is less about transformation and more about what a friend of mine aptly described as “finding Jews to let them know that there is this thing called the Torah, and it’s theirs.”

I always knew who I was, I just didn’t know what I should do with it. Thank G‑d, today I am married with a beautiful baby girl. It takes courage to be the person you are meant to be, not merely the person you want to be. If you want to draw closer to G‑d, He will provide the way. Sometimes, what looks like a roadblock is really just a detour.

Mandy Hakimi grew up in the Pacific Northwest. She is an educator and a performer. She lives in Chicago with her husband and daughter.
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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Jon September 14, 2017

What a great story! Good luck to her. Reply

Suri Katz Brooklyn September 13, 2017

Thank you for this beautiful article. Your writing has a very graceful clarity to it. I especially appreciate hearing how you took small and unpressured steps along your journey to full commitment.

Wishing you a kesuva vechasima tova. Reply

Mandy Hakimi September 13, 2017
in response to Suri Katz:

Thank you Suri! To you as well :) Reply

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