When I was 16 years old, I decided I didn’t want to be Jewish anymore.

I had been raised in a traditional home, with weekly Friday night dinners, seasonal Chanukah parties, and even the yearly sukkah. I attended Jewish day schools and Zionist camps in my youth, and a Jewish high school in my teens. My mother, a child of Holocaust survivors, tried hard to raise me and my siblings with a strong Jewish identity.

When I was 16 years old, I decided I didn’t want to be Jewish anymore.

But, despite all of my parents’ efforts, Judaism just didn’t seem so meaningful when cast in the shadow of the social reality my school and camp life presented: Tretorn sneakers, Roots leather jackets, moussed curly hair, BMWs on 16th birthdays, TV show addictions. I felt Jewish people were shallow, materialistic and petty. And the Judaism presented in our classes was not particularly inspiring or relevant.

Then, in 12th grade, I had a “cool” rabbinics teacher. He had been a hippie in the ’60s, and knew all the ins and outs of who we were and what we were up to. He was funny and smart and candid. He never shied away from talking about who he used to be, and the challenges of being who he was now.

It was intriguing. He was Jewish. He was Orthodox. He was honest. He was a walking example of someone struggling to grow, and he talked about it. He would talk about the forbidden things he missed, and how if he could, he would, but Truth is Truth, so what you want doesn’t matter. He never said those words explicitly, but that was the message, at least the one I got.

I had always been viewed as a “rebel.” I never took well to authority. Between my shallow peer group and continual admonition from the adult world, I was, to put it mildly, disenchanted. I would often scream, “Where are all the real people?!” And in my 12th grade rabbinics teacher, I finally found one.

I would often scream, “Where are all the real people?!”

If he was Jewish, and Orthodox, and real, and deep, I thought, maybe I should explore Judaism a little bit more seriously before I sign off. And, following high school graduation, I set off for Israel, Birkenstocks and Bob Marley t-shirt in tow. I found an apartment in the center of Jerusalem, and waited for something to happen.

A few days in, I ran into a friend from home who was attending Hebrew University for the year. He invited me to join him on a trip to the Sinai desert. They were leaving in an hour. I had no responsibilities, and no one to answer to, so I ran home, packed a bag and boarded the midnight bus.

As we drove from village to village, I couldn’t help looking up at the night sky. It was awesome, in the true sense of the word. There wasn’t a cloud to be seen. No smog. Nothing. Just a pristine view of millions of stars, and a full, glowing white moon. It was then that I realized there must be a Creator. How could something so ineffable, so intense in its beauty, not be the work of an artist? It simply couldn’t be.

I concluded that if there was a Creator, He must have created the world with a purpose; and therefore, if He created me as a Jew, my purpose must be to live as a Jew. This epiphany lifted a weight off my shoulders, but simultaneously my heart sank. There is purpose! There is meaning! The revelation was liberating. But the greatness of the task, the commitment to the search, and the necessity to change were intimidating.

I dipped my toes in slowly, pulled back, dipped again . . .

I did not jump into mitzvah observance with two feet. I dipped my toes in slowly, pulled back, dipped again, and very slowly, over several years, immersed.

In very small steps, I came to observe Shabbat and the kosher laws properly. From no cheeseburgers it became no non-kosher meat, then no cooked foods in non-kosher restaurants, then only drinks.

Entering university threw a whole new set of challenges on the table. To fortify myself, I returned to Israel during my summer vacations, and again after graduation. There I enrolled in a women’s program that really allowed me to explore Judaism in my own way, at my own pace, with the books I wanted. Over time, I found myself feeling a special connection to chassidic teachings.

I returned home desperate to continue studying Chassidism. But where was I to go?

The only chassidim to whom I felt I had access were the Lubavitchers. So, with a slight hesitation, I drove to the local Chabad House and introduced myself to one of the rabbis. I explained that I wasn’t interested in “joining the club,” but I wanted to learn. I began attending a weekly class on women in the Torah, and I got hooked. It was Judaism as I had never heard it before.

I felt a deep sense of affirmation when I learned about the absolute connection every Jew has to the One Above, regardless of level of observance or knowledge of Torah. We are all His children, and He doesn’t love the Orthodox more than the secular.

I was also taken by the lessons in the book of Tanya that describe the Jewish people as one body, with the health and wellbeing of every member relevant to the whole. We are more than just a family; we are a singular entity.

How could I justify living a spiritually inspired life in Israel?

As I was discovering the beauty of Judaism through Chabad, I was busy working towards my teaching degree, with the goal of moving back to Jerusalem permanently. I wanted to live inspired, and Jerusalem was the place to do it. But as the year passed, and my teaching placement began (in the Jewish high school I once scorned as a student), I began to reconsider.

How could I justify living a spiritually inspired life in Israel, while so many of my brothers and sisters were living detached and indifferent? It didn’t take long before my vision of life in the Holy Land began to fade, and a strong sense of obligation set in. My teaching placement ended with an offer for a full-time position in the school’s social science department, and I accepted joyfully.

As a teacher, I was in my element. I taught Freud and chassidic thought side by side. My students dissected the creation of Eve, as we studied the differences between men and women, and the ways in which we communicate. Wherever I found a space for Torah, I filled it.

The next five years passed quickly, with time spent studying in Brooklyn, my engagement and marriage, and the birth of my first two sons. After my second son was born, I decided to leave my teaching position and dedicate myself to raising my children full time.

But by the time my third son was born, I was itching for the intellectual discussions and personal relationships I had so enjoyed as a teacher. I no longer felt suited to teach at my old high school. I had grown, and changed, and it just didn’t seem like the right fit anymore.

In the absence of a conventional classroom, there was nothing I enjoyed more than speaking with the many young women who frequented our Shabbat table. They reminded me of myself. They were excited about Torah. They were bursting with sincere questions. They wanted to learn and grow. I missed that energy.

They were excited about Torah.

And so, with them in mind, and memories of my own experiences on the path of return, I decided to create a program that would allow young women to raise their questions. A program that would inspire them to seek, and grow, and spread their wings. Machon Maor—Women’s Center for Jewish Studies is that program.

I wanted to offer others the same experiences I had: a wide of variety of classes, including everything from Jewish law and women in Torah, to mysticism and chassidic philosophy. I wanted to give others the opportunity to learn with insightful and thoughtful teachers. Educators who care and encourage personal reflection and growth. My philosophy is “Think!” Be present. Be engaged.

My goal is to provide a positive, warm environment for Jewish women to explore their rich inheritance with self-awareness, integrity and honesty.

My journey hasn’t ended yet . . . as spiritual growth is a lifelong venture. There’s always more to learn, another layer to unravel, and a deeper level to comprehend. My rabbinics teacher ignited that spark all those years ago. That spark became a flame when I packed off to Israel, and a raging bonfire as I delved into chassidic philosophy. That fire is still alive, sometimes swaying quietly, others times dancing. I now strive to share that warmth with others.