“Don’t you feel like your life is restricted?”

“Aren’t there way too many things that you have to do?”

“Is there anything in your life that you wish you could do, but you can’t because you’re religious?”

The questions came hurtling toward me, one after the next. Hayley, Olga, Julie and Kelly were on a roll. Each question posed was followed by another one—they were snowballing at me!

Don’t you feel like your life is restricted?Olga, Hayley, Kelly, Julie and I sit around in a circle on the grass, with the warm May sun beating down on us. With sunscreen on, in tank tops and shorts, the girls relax to tan and talk. And then there is me, with my long-sleeved shirt and skirt. I stick out like a sore thumb among these women who are just a few years younger than me. But they feel comfortable sharing with me their perspective on what it looks like to peer into the religious world of Judaism.

They came on a college trip, sponsored by a religious Zionist organization, to explore and tour Israel, to hopefully become advocates for Israel on their college campuses, and to learn about Judaism. We are “Partners”—partners in searching for meaning and understanding in Judaism. We are meeting together to dispel myths about religious people, and openly discuss questions about Torah and G‑d. Most of all, we meet to bond as Jewish women.

Our fifth session together was challenging and invigorating. With each session, we had grown closer with one another. The shyness had worn off as we charged forward in search of answers, voicing doubts and absorbing new concepts.

Their questions made me think hard, and they helped me to re-clarify my way of life. This was an exciting new experience for me, and I needed to learn on-the-spot how to explain my beliefs and feelings in an understandable manner.

I couldn’t fall asleep the night after our fifth meeting together, as I thought of the many questions they had that were still left dangling. I was kind of nervous, because I knew that the next day would be our final session together—with just one hour of time available. Finally, I got out of bed and sat at my dining-room table, trying to formulate my thoughts and write some barely legible notes. Only then was I able to fall asleep, feeling as ready as I could to tackle the next day’s challenge.

Tuesday morning, as we all sat down at our favorite spot on the grass, the Jerusalem sun shone brightly upon us, and there was a light morning breeze. The bond that we had formed in just a week and a half was almost tangible.

I reminded them of the many questions we had left hanging the day before, and how I thought we would focus this last hour on the “restrictions” of Judaism, since that topic kept coming up in different venues. They were thrilled.

So I turned to Kelly, a tall blonde and a passionate vegetarian with an upbeat personality, and asked her, “Do you feel that your life is restricted since you can’t eat meat?”

“Not at all,” she said as she firmly shook her head.

“Why not? I eat corned beef, schnitzel, chicken soup… There are so many things you can’t eat. Isn't it so restricting?” I challenged.

“I chose to be a vegetarian because I believe it is important. So it doesn’t feel restricting to me,” Kelly answered.

“Is it hard for you to not eat meat while everyone else is eating it?” I pressed.

“No, it’s not hard for me. I don't want it.” She explained. Then, as an afterthought, she jokingly added, “Except for matzah ball soup! The smell is heaven! But I don’t feel like I’m missing out too much, since I figured out how to make the most delicious version of vegetarian matzah ball soup!”

We all laughed.

“I, too,” I began, “choose to keep the Torah lifestyle, and I don’t see its guidelines as restrictions, because I see the beauty and the joy that they have brought into my life.”

I saw Kelly nodding. The others didn’t seem so sure. So I continued on.

“When you get married, you are restricted to one person. But you can build a really meaningful and strong connection that you can’t ever have with twenty friends. Because it is only you two, the deepest, most joyous relationship is possible. Marriage is limiting yourself to one and only one person, but opening you up for your most important relationship. The restrictions that you see in Judaism are there to free you to have a deep bond with G‑d. A relationship that is genuine, you would never trade for more trivial ones. The commandments, the mitzvot, are the guidelines that help us focus on building a rich connection with G‑d.”

A relationship that is genuine, you would never trade for more trivial onesI noticed Hayley nodding and Olga wide-eyed. I charge on. “Let’s take wearing long sleeves, high collars and skirts for example. It seems so restricting. But I feel so free. I can walk down the streets and not have to be concerned that guys might have inappropriate thoughts about me. I am protecting myself so that I can be my deepest, truest self. Dressing modestly gives the message that you don’t have to look at my body to know who I am. What may look like a restriction is really freeing me.”

Now everyone is nodding. They get it.

My mother, Bracha Goetz, is my inspiration, and we love discovering ways to share the beauty of Judaism. She is a talented author of over fifteen children’s books, and many poems and articles. I decided to share one of her poems that seemed to fit with our discussion. This poem was written to express her evolving thoughts about dressing modestly, during her exploration of Judaism when she was in her twenties. Slowly, I read aloud:

Fragile Wings
Where was the open sky?
Come on and meet the prisoner,
Who thought that she could fly.

Religious girls in summer,
Blouses buttoned high.
I’d see long skirts, with stockings,
As I would pass them by.

I’d laugh inside me, mocking,
The girls I used to see.
Those girls are missing so much.
How trapped could people be?

But how could I have known then,
Jogging through summer rain,
I strode past them, uncovered,
In years before the pain.

Those girls kept their wings hidden,
And my own wings got crushed.
Why did I jump too quickly?
Why was my childhood rushed?

Crystalline wings they treasured,
Even at that young age.
My wings, I learned, were fragile,
When I hit bars inside the cage.

My wings have long been broken.
Can they be healed?
Those girls now fly past rainbows.
Tell me, how does it feel?

Inside, I’m thrashing lamely.
Can I get free?
Now that I see the picture—
Reversed, ironically.

Where was the freedom promised?
Where was the open sky?
Here I am. Meet the prisoner,
Who thought that she could fly

I paused for questions and comments, but for the first time, there were none. This group had never failed me before by coming back at me with more questions! They all sat there peacefully, and I could almost see them internalizing the message in their silence.

I prayed that each one of them would one day try out their wings in new waysThere was one more piece that I had prepared for my Partners, so, with the little time that remained, I continued on. It was one of my favorite parables, from a children’s picture book called “The Little Bird.”

There is a wonderful story of a little bird walking on its scrawny legs. She looked around at all the animals that G‑d created and noticed each of their unique features—the giraffe with the long neck, the lion with its powerful roar, and the deer running very fast. Sadly she wondered, “What is special about me?” She could only walk slowly with her little legs and two heavy wings on her back, weighing her down.

When suddenly a gust of wind came, pushing open her wings. She flapped and flapped, spreading out her wings, and then she began to soar into the sky. The wings weren’t weighing her down at all—they were her unique treasure!

Sometimes what we view as restricting, really contains our greatest power. It can have the potential to free us to be who we are and reach where we want to go in life.

“Time’s up! Time’s up!” called the leader of the program. Everybody gathered up their knapsacks and brushed off their clothes. I handed out personal letters to each woman in our little group, and we exchanged e-mail addresses and phone numbers. We pulled out cameras, snapped a few group pictures, and warmly hugged each other good-bye. Olga, Hayley, Kelly and Julie headed off to their bus to enjoy a go-karting activity in Israel.

I watched them leave and wondered what impressions our sessions would leave on their hearts. I prayed that each one of them would one day try out her wings in new ways, and discover how she could soar.