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Why I choose to give up freedoms to be free

Editor’s Note: The Forward’s Youth Writing Contest is asking middle and high school students to submit essays, short stories and poems on the topic “What It Means To Be Free.” We’re still accepting entries at essays@forward.com — you can find the entry guidelines here.The deadline is Friday, May 1. Today, we’re proud to publish this essay by Elisabeth Oppenheimer, an 11-year-old student from the Ezra Academy. We’ll be publishing more exciting new voices soon. You can find some of them here.

A few weeks ago, I was having dinner with my family when I blurted out, “I have decided to become an Orthodox Jew.” Everyone looked at me and laughed. Although my family goes to synagogue every Saturday, we are not Orthodox: we do not keep Shabbat, and we do not fast on arcane religious occasions such as Tzom Gedalia. My family thought I was crazy. Why would I want to be Orthodox, they asked, and give up so much freedom?

The truth is, I used to prefer being Conservative. I was still part of a friendly and welcoming Jewish community, but I had the freedom to do things I enjoyed without anguishing about it conflicting with Shabbat and Jewish holidays. But then, after quarantine began, I began to question my beliefs, and whether I was truly doing the right thing. At first, I thought, “Why not become Orthodox?” But when I started agonizing over it more profoundly, I noticed there were some notable downsides.

Elisabeth Oppenheimer

Contestant: Elisabeth Oppenheimer is an 11-year-old student at Ezra Academy. Image by Courtesy of Elisabeth Oppenheimer

Being an Orthodox Jew would limit many freedoms that I take for granted on a daily basis. If I became an Orthodox Jew, even a Modern Orthodox Jew, I would have to give up many activities that I enjoy, like competing in gymnastics tournaments on Shabbat. Competing is likely the thing I relish most about being a competitive gymnast, and missing meets on Shabbat would unquestionably be an upsetting loss to me. I also would not be permitted to attend Friday night gymnastics workouts. While I train numerous days a week, each day counts towards my development and growth as a gymnast, and practice brings me joy.

Additionally, I would not be able to do my homework on Friday nights and Saturdays. I cannot say that withdrawing from doing homework would be a huge loss to me, but it would mean more homework to do on Sunday, which could be overwhelming. I prefer doing an hour of work a day over three days to studying four hours on one day.

There is a myriad of other freedoms that I would have to give up due to Jewish laws. For instance, I would not be permitted to draw and paint on Friday nights and Saturdays, both of which I do every day. (When I grow older, I want to be an artist, as well as a pediatric oncologist.) Giving up my art, even for a day, seems difficult. Even taking part in simple everyday activities like braiding my hair or tying my shoes would not be authorized, because you are not allowed to tie knots on Shabbat. I love to Dutch-braid my own hair and my sisters’ hair too. I do it every single day. It is a very enjoyable activity that I would not be able to do on Shabbat.

Furthermore, there would be a lot of events, like parties and movies, that I would have to miss because the events would be held on Shabbat or on a Jewish holiday, and I would not be able to drive anywhere on Shabbat. Some things I could easily give up, but I might also have to miss an amazing occasion that would be fabulous to attend.

So why become more religious? Why give up so much freedom? As I thought about it, I realized that being able to practice my religion is the ultimate freedom. The First Amendment enables us to be able to worship at any kind of temple, church, or sanctuary. I can decide what religion to follow and how religious I want to be. In many countries, such as Myanmar and North Korea, the freedom to have your own religious beliefs is not permitted. During the Holocaust, Jews were killed because of their religion. I am fortunate not to be oppressed because of my faith. If I aspire to be a religious Jew, I can be a religious Jew. I have that right and that freedom. Although I am only eleven, I possess faith in God, and the First Amendment declares that I don’t have to go against my beliefs in order to conform to cultural norms.

I think that at the end of the day, all the freedom I am giving up in order to be more religious is worth it. I am given more. When I am observing Shabbat, I feel remarkably relaxed, especially when I am praying alone. I like being alone when I am praying, not in synagogue with the congregation. When I am praying alone, murmuring the words to myself, I feel that God is with me, listening to me, and caring for me. Although looking at a computer screen makes me relaxed, I don’t feel that God is there, outlining a plan to nourish me in the future. That is why on Shabbat, we rest. I don’t stare at a computer or do art, because I am supposed to take Saturdays off, to feel happy and calm.

I work all week long, and I can’t fit in much time to really remember that God is always there. Shabbat is the time to do that. Already, I have sometimes become frustrated at the freedoms I have to give up. In the past few weeks, my mom has occasionally let my sisters watch a movie on Shabbat and I have had to miss it. But ultimately that is my choice. My parents trust me to make my own decisions, and I am determined not to be on an electronic screen, and to obey all the other laws that rabbis initiated.

Freedom means something different for everyone. I know that I possess a strikingly unconventional interpretation of what freedom means, but I believe that it is a big component of the full meaning of freedom. I believe it is my choice of how I want to conduct my life. I decide that. I am free to determine how religious I am, and how I want to use my faith as a guide for how I live my life.

Elisabeth Oppenheimer is an 11-year-old student at Ezra Academy.

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