It sounds bizarre, but I have found that the more I live my life as an observant Jew, the more I seem to lose my Jewish identity.

When I was growing up in Minnesota, Jews made up less than two percent of the mostly Scandinavian and German population. My dark, curly hair was a constant reminder of my minority status. I never saw this as a negative aspect to my identity. On the contrary, I relished my membership in a global club of Jewish people all over the world.

I relished my membership in a global club of Jewish people

With over 30,000 Jews in the state, I couldn’t possibly know everyone, but I had what I called a “Jewish sense.” We all did. Wherever I was, I shared secret smiles with virtual strangers. We just knew when we were in the presence of another Jew. I didn’t discriminate; I would beam at every person regardless of age, gender, length of skirt, headcovering or lack thereof. Invariably, I would receive a nod and a smile in return. Yes, we are one of the same; we shared a history and a destiny.

When I was accepted to an East Coast university, I couldn’t contain my enthusiasm at the prospect of constantly being surrounded by my people. I would no longer be a minority! I was looking forward to basking in a lovefest of my fellow Jews 24/7.

I arrived on campus unable to believe my eyes. Boys with kippahs! Girls with telltale long jean skirts! The university T-shirt stand even sold Hebrew versions alongside the original! My jaw was beginning to get sore with all the smiling. Until I began to realize—no one was smiling back. They weren’t even looking at me funny; they simply weren’t looking. These kids seemed to be missing that special radar that connects us together as Jews. Or maybe it was that they simply didn’t care. They had enough Jews and Judaism in their life that they didn’t need to go looking for more. They had the luxury of taking their Judaism for granted.

In the meantime I increased in my Jewish observance, got married and started to have children. I still smiled at other Jews, but I noticed that I was smiling only at Jews who looked suspiciously like me—the new religious me. In fact, I had lost my ability to identify other Jews who weren’t wearing the telltale uniform of Orthodox Judaism. I had found the Torah of Israel, but I seemed to have lost my sense of the nation of Israel that had come so easily before I even knew about the commandments.

Last week we read of the ultimate revelation, the giving of the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai. This was immediately followed by a set of laws concerning the sacrificial altar which was placed in the Temple. The Torah portion of this week moves into civil laws, interpersonal relationships and the foundations for civil society. It seems incongruous to go from sacrificial offerings to civil laws, and this leads to questioning the meaning of this seeming non-sequitur. The commentator Rashi opines that “this tells you to place the Sanhedrin (civil law court) next to the altar.” This is a profound juxtaposition.

When one loves G‑d, it is impossible not to love His creations

According to Maharal’s explanation of Rashi, the altar and the Sanhedrin are deeply dependent on one another. Just as the altar serves as a conduit of peace between heaven and the nation of Israel, civil laws enacted by the Sanhedrin maintain peace below. True peace on earth cannot be attained unless there is first peace between the people and G‑d. If we are united with G‑d, we can be a united nation.

If my greater observance of the mitzvot was actually distancing me from my people, I was clearly missing a key element of the Torah. It was almost a perversion of the Torah to allow observance to interfere with my interpersonal relationships.

Maharal then takes it to an even deeper level: when one loves G‑d, it is impossible not to love His creations. When one hates humanity, it is impossible that he would love the G‑d that created them (Netivot Olam, Netiv Ahavat Re’a 1). If I, G‑d forbid, was looking down on less observant Jews or even ignoring them, I was essentially looking down on and ignoring G‑d!

We cannot consider ourselves a true am Yisrael, nation of Israel, without counting all of our people. The force of Jewish unity is actually more powerful than Torah and mitzvot. At every Passover Seder we tell G‑d that it would have been enough if He had brought us to Mount Sinai without giving us the Torah. How can this be? Because this was the first time since leaving Egypt that the Jewish people experienced true unity. Yes, that would have been enough.

As for my personal journey into my Judaism, something integral was clearly missing. How could I have become so scrupulous in so many commandments of the Torah while not offering my fellow Jews a smile? If I was strengthening my relationship with G‑d, I needed to simultaneously strengthen my relationship with my fellow Jews. What practical steps could I take to regain that sense of Jewish unity I took for granted in Minnesota?

People seem to seek me out for information on something Jewish

I decided to go back to that magic smile of my youth. Simply by embracing humanity with a smile on my face, I have made myself, as an obviously observant Jewish woman, approachable. Several times a day on my daily rounds in the neighborhood, people seem to seek me out for information on something Jewish. From the young woman in the supermarket asking for the ingredients in challah (Oil! I hope you remembered this final ingredient!!) to the visiting Asian convert who needed kosher wine for Shabbat, I have the honor and pleasure of meeting my fellow Jews.

Is it possible to view every encounter with another Jew as an opportunity to strengthen our unity as a people and our closeness with G‑d? This is the challenge: to see beyond the outer shell and into the neshamah, the soul, of our fellow Jews, and truly be a light unto the nations. It all can start with a smile.