Dear Rachel,

I feel like I'm losing my identity. I started becoming religious, slowly, about six years ago. But the more religious I become and the more I hang out with religious people, the more confined I feel. I feel that there are subtle and not-so-subtle messages to stifle my personality and subdue who I am. I'm feeling like I can't be true to myself, like I have to negate everything I've been up until now and fit into some very constricting and self-effacing mold. I want to serve G‑d, but do I have to sell myself out to do it?

Lost


Dear Lost,

Wow, that sounds like a really awful feeling! You were put on this earth to be the unique individual only you can be, and it’s understandable that when you feel threatened in this regard, you feel lost.

Moses blessed the twelve tribes of Israel and delineated what the individual gifts, blessings and missions of each tribe were. And this diversity was essential to the existence of the nation and the complete service of G‑d. So within the framework of being a religious Jew, there is a kaleidoscope of possibilities. All you have to do is a quick Internet search for observant Jewish entertainers and writers, rabbis and activists, soldiers and farmers, to know that there is a great deal of diversity in serving G‑d. For example, in its Jewish Women You Should Know section, Chabad.org features unique Jewish women who are changing the world for the better.

Here are a few suggestions to help you reclaim your identity while still serving G‑d in the best possible way:

Slow Down to Speed Up

We are always growing, changing and adapting. I would venture to say that you were not the same person at 15 that you were at 5, and you're not the same person now that you were at 15. Sometimes it takes a while to adapt to our newly transformed selves. Although you say that you have been becoming religious slowly, perhaps you need to slow down even more. At the same time, it’s very important to keep learning, to ensure that your level of inspiration keeps pace with your level of practice.

Find the Right Community

You say that you feel a pressure to conform within the religious community that you are currently associating with. I recommend spending Shabbat among different communities to see if you feel more comfortable in another setting. Some communities are more conforming than others; different groups have different criteria for "fitting in." You have a unique soul, unique gifts and a unique mission in this world. Sometimes you need to do a bit of soul-searching and community-searching to find out where you would feel most comfortable in fulfilling this mission.

Find the Right Balance

It could be that the community you are currently in practices halachic stringencies that you find confining. I encourage you to learn about what is required, what is recommended but optional, and what is a stringency. Stringencies can be quite liberating for many people; rules for what to wear, eat, say and do can help free your inner essence to do what you were put in this world to do, so that you're not caught up with superficiality and externality. However, beyond the basic halachah there is a lot of variation, and if you're feeling stifled, perhaps you're in a community that practices stringencies that may not be for you.

There are also many ways to add depth and beauty to the mitzvahs (hiddur mitvah)—for example, taking in Shabbat a few minutes early—which can help you express your individuality more fully in the mitzvahs you feel the most connected to, without feeling confined.

It's important to find the right balance for you.

Find a Mentor

I recommend finding a mentor—someone you admire, whose path you want to follow and whom you would feel comfortable talking to. She will help guide you on your personal path of serving G‑d.

Be Yourself

When you feel secure about who you are and confident about expressing your unique personality, you’ll discover that it doesn’t matter what everyone else thinks. Your true friends will support your path in life. What truly matters is fine-tuning your relationship with G‑d and others.

To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, be your true spiritual self—everyone else is already taken.

Wishing you the best of luck in finding yourself and sharing your personal beauty with others.

Rachel