There are many beautiful aspects of Orthodoxy, and of Chabad, that can be very attractive to young people coming from non-Orthodox backgrounds. The richness of traditional practices, the seeming tranquility of Shabbat meals, the communal singing, and the escape from secular pressures around material culture and body. All of these can be very alluring, especially to a 20-year-old forging a vision of her own life. The problem is that the allure itself can be entrapping. Orthodox language, especially language aimed at convincing non-practicing Jews to embrace Orthodoxy, is often absolute and black and white. The lifestyle is often presented (especially in places like Chabad) as an all-or-nothing endeavor. And the demands to keep the most extreme formulations of religion are often engulfed in a combination of super-suave marketing and God-pressure. As in, “God has asked this of you, and even though it looks strange it will give you the greatest high.” So to speak.
This pressure is especially felt with women, who often go from surfing on the beach or having creative career ambitions to putting on long skirts and scarves and giving up all former iterations of the self in favor of frenetic motherhood. Shayna Rehberg is a poignant example of a woman who did that, and ten years later came to find her voice again, literally. She is not alone. Nearly every day in one of my Facebook groups, a religious woman asks a query about what parts of her old life and her old self she is allowed to keep – music, art, books, strands of hair, thoughts, relationships… These are very painful queries because they are very real reminders of how much women are asked to abdicate on behalf of Orthodoxy.
I don’t think that you can – or should – keep your daughter away from Orthodoxy if that’s where her heart is headed. If you place yourselves as obstacles in her path, you risk losing her. I think your approach of being supportive is highly commendable. What you can do, and what I think she may even appreciate, is to constantly remind her of her own passions. Help her celebrate herself even as she becomes more religious. Give her opportunities to continue to fully be the person whom she was before, the one who is not being encouraged by religious teachers to abandon herself to marriage and long skirts but rather the one who has loves and interests and desires in the world at large.
You may also try to offer her ideologies of “grays.” Remind her that all-or-nothing approaches rarely work for anyone, in any context. People need variety, diversity, personal passion, and freedom to think and move independently. Show her that it’s possible to be religious and not lose your entire identity. That is a message that many other religious woman would benefit from really hearing and internalizing, too. Good luck!
Dr. Elana Maryles Sztokman is an jewish feminist writer, educator and activist, and two-time winner of the national jewish book award. Find her at “A Jewish Feminist.”