The first time I set foot in a day school, the principal, a soft-spoken man named Mr. Fishman, gave me a big black yarmulke to wear on my bare head, and I promptly threw it to the floor. At the time, my family was checking out the Orthodox yeshiva where I would start kindergarten a year later. How I went from that cranky kid who refused to wear a yarmulke to an adult who wears a small, blue-knit one most of the time is a day school success story.
On the day of The Great Yarmulke Tossing Incident, my mom brought up the proverbial elephant in the room: It was clear that we weren’t from the school’s core Orthodox demographic. Would my yarmulke-rejecting (and the obvious lack of observance it represented) be accepted? Mr. Fishman said the words that probably sealed the deal and decided my educational, and religious, future: “This is a school for all Jews.”
Our family ended up at the Jewish Foundation School of Staten Island. Over the years, we did, in our way, take on greater observance as a family, making Kiddush and Hamotzi on Friday nights, attending shul on Saturday mornings, and becoming stricter with kashrut. But there was always an invisible line that we knew we wouldn’t cross, the one where a few traditional practices cross over into a new world of observance.
But once I actually became a student there, yarmulke now firmly clipped to my hair, day school began to have a profound religious influence on me. I was learning what was right, and what was right was Orthodoxy. I dreamed of the day when I would be able to live a fully Orthodox life of the kind that was impossible in the nonobservant environment in which I lived. I spent occasional Sabbaths at friends’ houses, loving the short-term immersion into the culture I longed for, but I was terrified that one of my classmates would see me out and about without a yarmulke, or notice me passing by in a car on the Sabbath.
In retrospect, my parents probably would have supported some amount of greater observance on my part, but I was too timid to raise the issue, and even as a child understood and respected my parents’ different outlook from the schools I attended. Instead, I took baby steps over the course of many years to move toward observance. As eighth grade graduation approached, I pushed to go to yeshiva high school despite my parents’ suggestions that I explore public school, and they agreed to send me to Brooklyn’s Yeshiva of Flatbush. At 16, when I got the learner’s permit that would lead to a driver’s license, I found that I simply could not bring myself to get behind the wheel during the Sabbath, despite the fact that I still rode in cars Saturdays as a passenger. And after my brother announced that he would stop eating meat in nonkosher restaurants, I quickly followed suit.
The first cracks in my Orthodox-focused certainty came the summer after my freshman year at Flatbush — my first summer at the Conservative-affiliated Camp Ramah. I was torn about the decision to go, wanting the experience but pained at attending a Conservative institution. But an unexpected thing happened that summer: I had a positive, fulfilling, spiritually nourishing — and yet still halachically-focused — experience with a different type of Judaism.
The revelation didn’t rock me, or even change my intended religious path. But I did what teenagers do, and started questioning more than I had before, challenging the one-Judaism-fits-all attitude imbued in me by my schooling. As a senior planning some programming for my school with one of the principals, I suggested we bring in rabbis of all the major denominations to shatter the stereotypes of non-Orthodox Jews being inherently “not religious.” Needless to say, the idea was quickly shot down — we couldn’t give legitimacy to non-Orthodox movements.
Yet when I finally graduated from high school and could make my own decisions, I became Orthodox without a moment’s hesitation. I wore my yarmulke full time, taught my Asian roommate about the Sabbath and dove into campus Jewish life.
But a funny thing happened on my way to the shtetl: In mid-January, my roommates wanted to take me out to dinner for my birthday, and my Jewish-community friends, likewise, wanted to celebrate. I went with my roommates to a local Chinese restaurant, where I slipped off my yarmulke, as usual, and stuck to veggie fare. But the whole time, I was preoccupied by the friends I’d not chosen, and kept glancing at my watch, hoping to make it to the Kosher Kitchen, as we called the dining hall, before everyone had left dinner.
As my roommates and I left the restaurant, I told them that I would be taking a detour to the Kosher Kitchen, where I was going to spend some time with my other friends. Something in the glances my roommates gave each other, and the less-than-enthusiastic parting that evening, stuck with me. The incident epitomized where I was at that moment: not so much caught between two worlds as firmly ensconced in one — the small, comfortable but sometimes stifling campus Orthodox community — and virtually alien to the wider campus world.
So after just one semester, I realized I had gone too far, the zeal of a convert bringing me to a place in which I actually did not want to be. Experiencing the freedom of college and adulthood for the first time, I veered far off in the other direction, but I realized that I needed to find religious and social balance in my life.
And that’s how I became me, religiously and socially. Today, I’m a work in progress, a series of choices that can change day by day, in which the tradeoffs between tradition and modernity, Jewish law and personal choice, are always clear, even if my ultimate decisions are not. And for that, I have my two day schools to thank, whether they would approve or not.
Michael Kress is vice president of editorial and managing editor at Beliefnet.