It was on a cold night in the middle of 10th grade—a night that had already seen many tears and tossing and turning—when I admitted to my confused and broken heart that I didn’t want to be religious.

It got a lot worse before it got better. Almost two years of pain and uncertainty followed.

I wasn’t completely desolate; I had a good social life, and everything was generallyI wasn’t completely desolate pleasant. But this continuous nagging that I was living a lie would not leave me alone. As a teenager, I constantly faced moments in which I had to make choices about what boundaries I’d cross and which ones I’d never touch.

Externally, I was more religious than many. Internally, there was a daily raging battle, a numbness towards growth and an unchecked anger that continued to boil.

I was sure that my future would not hold the religious beliefs I had grown up with. To me, the rules and guidelines I was forced to keep in school were all that was keeping me religious.

With the help of some whose love for me overcame their fear of arguing with me—and with the help of my soul crying out—things began to shift.

It’s something I’d be happy to call a miracle—a changing of the guards, a release of some of the anger that gripped my soul. I began to see things differently; perhaps, as I edged out of the depths of being a teenager, life shook into place a little bit.

With much soul-searching and many shared personal moments with G‑d, I re-accepted the life of a religious Jew—this time with joy and the deep knowledge that I had chosen it.

I chose religion because I recognized that all I sought in life could be found through it. Even more, the things I sought in life could not be found without it.

Over the course of my not-so-long-yet life, I have been through various experiences, met all kinds of people, made mistakes, had successes and pretty much lived. The person I am today is built up of a collection of those things. Each one has affected me in some way, some more and some less.

That’s normal. That’s all of us. That’s how humans become people. That’s what life is.

But this one instance, this spiritual and emotional journey I took, has had the strongest and most lasting effect on who I am as a person.

I’ve used that time in my life a lot as inspiration for my writing; I’ve based so many things off of it. Most of all, the fact that I am religious today is built off of that entire experience.

I was once discussing this concept with someone, and they said: “But you don’t want to define yourself by one part of your life, do you?”

That comment took me for a spin. I realized I had been writing so much about it and defining myself by those couple of years. It was important to me that people understood me through the lens of that experience. Because it had such a strong impact on who I am today, it was frightening to me for people to not know where I had been—and more, that people would assume I was religious simply because that was how I grew up.

I think that there is often a misconception about those who grow up religious.

The fact that I grew up with Shabbat and kashrut and laws of modesty, and my life generally being guided by different laws and traditions, has made it easier to continue living this way.

But there is nothing blind about the way I live. I continue to challenge things I find confusing or unfair, I refuse to back down from honest questions, and more than anything, I choose this life each and every day.

Many people have a “before” and “after” moment in their life. Most often, it is a traumatic or incredibly meaningful experience that changed the course of their life. I am incredibly grateful that I have not gone through anything tremendously traumatic, but I too live with a before and after.

The way I identify with Judaism has a before and after. The way I view myself has a before and after. The way I relate to others, feel about my family, the friends I choose . . . all of these have a before and after, and it is all a before and after the same two years of my life.

I once had a conversation with someone about how I want to be able to gift my children with the love I feel for Judaism early on; I want to be able to preempt their angst. I want to give them the love for Judaism before they put it through the wringer.

I was told that either my children will be the kind to sail through unquestioning (which, honestly, scares me more than the alternative!), or they will be like me and have to go through their own journey. While I can fill my home with a deep love for Judaism, I cannot do anything for certain that will ensure that my children won’t have to go through the same painful experience I went through.

What I can do is certainly hope that my children are able to see my Judaism as something I personally chose, and not as a lifestyle I just live because that’s what my parents chose for me.

While it was a difficult and rocky couple of years, I don’t for a moment wish that things went differently.

I am deeply grateful that I made no bad decisions during that time that would have lasting effects or affect my future in a real way. My journey was a mental one, an issue of the mind, as someone who is forever unsatisfied with the status quo. But it was a real journey, and it was a journey that shaped me.

This is theI am deeply grateful that I made no bad decisions during that time thing, though: Just because I’ve built up a strong foundation, that does not take away from the fact that occasionally that foundation needs strengthening.

Yes, I chose religion and Judaism back then. Yes, I made the decision that the positives of having so much depth and richness in my life were worth foregoing a couple of the worldly pleasures I could have only without religion. But does that mean I’m set for life? That nothing tempts me? That I don’t continue to struggle?

No. Not in any way does it mean that.

But it means that I know for myself that I have won once, and I will win again. Let my heart and soul battle it out; I know the truth. Each time I win another inner battle, I strengthen that foundation, I add another nail, building up another layer of love and appreciation for the life I have chosen to live.

I, G‑d willing, have a long life ahead of me, filled with new challenges and obstacles I’ve never seen before. There will be times I feel unprepared for the magnitude of the decisions I have to make. There will be times when my faith and strength will be tested.

There will be times when this foundation that stands so strongly now will be tempted to collapse. Life will bring on things that will shape me, move me and transform me. And I look forward to learning more about who I am, what kinds of things test me, what sort of things I can handle.

It is a little frightening to define myself by two years of my life. But the kindest thing I can do for myself is to keep reaching into that struggle and examining what else I can learn from it, sharpening it, continuing to grow from it, even now, five years later.

So sure, it’s true, my struggle does not define me. But without my struggle? I wouldn’t be me.


Postscript:

Late last week my family tragically suffered an enormous loss, the sudden loss of my dear cousin, an incredibly young and effervescent mother of five. Hindi was a hero to me in many ways—the way she chased her dreams, raised her children, and was always a warm and friendly face each time I spent time with her. My first instinctive thought was to ask that this article not be shared during this time. But, with some encouragement, I realized that it is especially poignant in a time of pain.

For today, my faith is being tested.

Today, my foundation is shaky.

And as every part of my heart and mind cry out, I turn to my soul and, for a reason I can not begin to logically explain, I choose religion again.

If this article impacts anyone in a positive way, may it be a source of merit for the soul of Hinda Leah bat Menachem Mendel.