The first day I arrived in Israel I wanted to go back home. Oh no, I thought to myself, this trip is going to be a bunch of religious Jews trying to brainwash us secular people into their way of life. I need to book a flight back to Los Angeles ASAP!
I couldn’t remember why I even allowed my older sister, Ladan, to convince me to sign up for this Aish HaTorah trip. As the sun set that first night in Israel, tears ran down my face and feelings of regret built up in my heart.
So many thoughts were racing through my mind. I was beating myself up for leaving L.A. and putting my journalism career on hold... and for what? To have people force religion on me? I have always resented religion and religious people.
As the anger and regret built up, I was struck by my intense feelings. Why can I think as an objective journalist, removing my prejudgments and personal beliefs, when documenting any other culture, but when it comes to my own heritage and religion, I am so closed minded? Where does this hatred come from?
From a psychological point of view, these were the same feelings that I felt about Judaism since I was a child.
I was the 11-year old who screamed out in class, “How do we know Moses really existed?”
I went to a private Jewish school until 5th grade. At school I was labeled the “ADHD girl,” the “trouble maker.” I was the 11-year old who screamed out in class, “How do we know Moses really existed?” I was the girl who folded her arms during prayer and argued, “You cannot force me to talk to God. Besides, what is the sense in talking to God in a language I don’t even understand?”
At a very young age I decided that religious Jews were stupid and ignorant. They didn’t understand me or accept me; therefore I would simply stay away from them. I detested all the rules and restrictions Judaism forced upon me. I hated the frumpy way they dressed. I hated the male and female dynamics in a religious family. I resented the women's subservient position. I was turned off by the Jewish way of living.
So I did the bare minimum as a Jew. I had Shabbat dinners with my family most Friday nights and celebrated Chanukah with the family, but that was the extent of my Jewish observance. I was so angry with Judaism that I didn’t even fast on Yom Kippur. Kosher laws were non-existent to me, and dating non-Jews was completely acceptable. I was Jewish by birth and tradition only. There was no depth, no understanding, no spirituality, and no love.
In sixth grade I went to a new Jewish day school, with all these unanswered questions. So I started with my questioning. Looking back, I should have asked my questions in a more respectful manner, but being an angry, frustrated 12-year old, I didn’t know any better. I remember yelling out in my science class one day, “But I don’t understand! Who came first? Dinosaurs or Adam and Eve?” The teacher just kicked me out of class and left my question unanswered.
Most of my time in school was spent either sitting outside of the classroom or in the principal’s office. There came a point where my Hebrew teacher just said, “Don’t bother even coming to class; just go straight to the principal’s office after lunch.” I felt rejected by Jews. Writing about this even today, some ten years later, still makes my heart race and my eyes fill up with tears from pain and sadness. Sadness for the little misunderstood girl who was so eager to learn, to understand, and to just be a part of something.
I decided that religious people didn’t understand me, they didn’t care about me, and they didn’t want me to be a part of them. As a child who felt misunderstood, I became angry and resentful. I didn't realize it then, but in every experience I had with religious Jews, I found ways to interpret how bad they were to support my theory. I wouldn’t give Judaism a chance.
I learned that the human brain reacts to certain stimuli by remembering the past, and associating similar situations with prior experiences and emotions.
These feelings of being misunderstood by religious Jews still lives within me, even a decade later. My knee-jerk to Judaism today were triggered from events that happened in my past.
After two months in the new school, I gathered up the girls in my class and planned a rebellion, a revolution to prove the religious Jews are bad people. On that cold autumn morning I looked at my classmates straight in their eyes and demanded, “We need to stop listening to these rabbis and teachers. They are making up stories and lying to us. They are trying to brainwash us. DO NOT LISTEN TO THEM.”
I must have scared some of the girls because a few days later I was called into the principal’s office. The principal, who was also a rabbi, told me that I was being forced to leave their school. The only thing I thought to myself was, Yup… I am right once again. These religious Jews do not want me. They do not understand me. They are bad people.
My family tried to put me in another Jewish day school, but during the interview with the principal, I decided I was going to be brutally honest in answering the questions.
“Why do you want to be a student here?” the principal asked.
“I really don’t," I responded. "I don’t believe any of the stories they tell us in class, and I don’t like people telling me I have to pray to God.” I figured if I really belonged at this type of school, I should be truthful in answering their questions. And like I predicted, I was not accepted into the Jewish school, once again rejected by religious Jews. My mother was so upset that I wasn’t accepted. And this made my hatred grow even stronger.
I went to a public school in Beverly Hills, glad to finally be away from anything related to Judaism. For the last 11 years I've carried around these feelings of anger towards religious Jews.
How could I judge something without giving it a second look as an mature adult?
One day, my older sister asked me to join her for an Israel trip with an organization called Aish Los Angeles. I reacted immediately: “This trip isn’t for people like me. I hate religious people…”
But then I had a moment of clarity; I realized that this trip would be a perfect opportunity for me to get all my questions that have built up since Jewish day school finally out in the open and maybe even answered. Be honest Laleh, I told myself, how could I judge something without giving it a second look as an mature adult? How could I hate something that I do not truly understand?
I signed up for the Aish Israel trip. Yes, I had terrible experiences as a child with religious Jews, and no, they never answered my questions. I was traumatized but I realized it didn't have to continue this way. God was opening the door, and I was opening my heart.
The only problem was I wanted to leave after the first day.
To be continued….