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The Ones Who Return Illustrations by Mathilde Cinq-Mars.

The Ones Who Return

Blair Mlotek explores the world of Modern Orthodox women, who seek to balance their religious and secular lives.

ALIZA KASTNER’S* mind is racing as she leaves her office at Manhattan’s Metropolitan Museum of Art on a Friday night. With just under three hours to get to a friend’s apartment in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, she needs to first go home, pack an overnight bag and pick up something to bring to dinner along the way. As she walks briskly towards her Upper West Side apartment, Kastner calls her mother to wish her a Shabbat Shalom; she won’t have time later. Once home, Kastner throws together an outfit for dinner and something to wear tomorrow—staying the night at her friend’s apartment is a must; she won’t be able to get home by using transit after sundown and it is much too far to walk. With no time left to shower, Kastner hurries out the door, heads to a nearby grocery store in search of kosher wine and finally makes her way to the subway. She’ll make it on time, she calculates, if there are no delays. She checks her watch and finds a seat. Then she looks at her watch again.

You look like you’re in a rush to get somewhere, says the man sitting next to her. When Kastner replies that she’s meeting friends for dinner, he reassures her. I’m sure your friends won’t mind waiting for you, he says. Kastner demurs. There’s no point getting into a long-winded explanation.

Shabbat—the Jewish day of rest that begins every Friday at sunset—may start later in the summer, but it’s always a scramble. When the sun goes down, that means no modern transportation, no electricity and no technology. Kastner has a friend who got stuck in traffic and was forced to leave their car at the side of the road. She doesn’t fancy getting caught like that.

Though she lives and works in the secular world, Kastner’s life also cleaves close to Jewish Orthodoxy. Tonight, she’s in luck. The train runs on time and she makes it to her friend’s apartment just before eight. The relief she feels upon entering is palpable.

ACROSS NORTH AMERICA, Jewish religious adherence is on the decline. Only about half of the Jews who were raised Orthodox remain so as adults. Within all of the denominations, there is a trend toward becoming less traditional in terms of religious beliefs. According to the Pew Research Center, only 19 percent of Jews in America agree that following Jewish law is important to them. In Canada, though the Jewish population is growing, the Jewish Federations of Canada’s most recent survey found that fewer and fewer Jews are being raised with a religious focus. About 26 percent are intermarried, and within these households, more than half of children are being raised with no religion at all.

In the midst of this decline, a much smaller group of people—of which Kastner is one—have opted to turn back towards their roots. These Jews are referred to as Ba’al Teshuvot, literally meaning “ones who return [to God].” A new group of Modern Orthodox Jews is one iteration of this phenomenon: they are often young men and women who grew up in moderately religious homes—maybe eating mostly kosher or going to Hebrew school—and opt for Orthodoxy as they reach adulthood. For some, this requires a complete restructuring of the way they approach everything in their lives: the food they eat, the clothes they wear, and how they approach work, relationships, holidays and home life.

Orthodoxy requires closely following the laws of the Torah (also referred to as halakhah), and it means creating a respectable Jewish home and following the laws of modesty. Unlike Ultra-Orthodox believers, the Ba’al Teshuvot who turn to Modern Orthodoxy usually choose not to live in insular communities or eschew everything secular; instead, they seek a balance.

For Modern Orthodox women, the tension between the religious and secular sides of their lives can be particularly pronounced. At work, they may pursue competitive careers and be industry leaders; at home, they follow the woman’s role according to the Torah. On top of the duties that any traditional mother and wife may hold, it is the woman’s responsibility in Judaism to ensure that the spiritual state of her home and family keeps with the halakhah. This includes the practice of Shabbat, as well as making sure that religious tradition is upheld during the weekdays by keeping kosher, overseeing prayers and instilling Jewish values in children.

Navigating between personal beliefs and public lives starts the moment these women get dressed in the morning, and follows them into work, on a night out with friends or a boyfriend, and back home again.

WHEN YOU LIVE IN A COMMUNITY surrounded by many different sects of Jews, you can often tell how religious someone is just by looking at them. Reform and Conservative Jews are liberal and centrist, respectively, when it comes to how literally they take the scriptures; it’d be hard to pick either out of a secular crowd. Orthodox Jews are more clearly visible: the men wear tall black hats or kippot, suits and tzitzit (small ropes hanging down from the four corners of their shirts); the women wear long skirts and long sleeves. Married women often have hair coverings—either wigs, scarves or hats. The garments men wear are meant to remind them both of God’s presence above, and to make sure that God’s laws are always with them. According to Judaism, women are born on a naturally higher spiritual plane than men. As a result, their clothing doesn’t need to remind them of God’s presence, but they are required to remain modest.

Suzanne Glaser*, a director at an investment management firm in Toronto, doesn’t look like someone who would describe herself as Orthodox. When we meet, Glaser is wearing a long black coat, tight grey turtleneck and a skirt that hits just above her knees. Her blonde hair, uncovered, is cut in a trendy shoulder-length style. “I’m only dressed like this because it’s cold,” she tells me, making sure I understand that being covered up isn’t something that she takes to an extreme. It is important to her not to be identifiable as Orthodox in her line of work because she doesn’t want to be viewed differently. She even gets nervous when her husband and son wear kippot to a baseball game.

Glaser tells me that, over the years, she’s thought a lot about whether or not to cover her hair. In the end, she’s always decided not to. The only exception Glaser makes is for synagogue or special events—“when you go into a place of worship, you cover your head,” she says matter-of-factly. While Glaser feels the pressure of the sometimes-competing expectations of her working world and her Ultra-Orthodox acquaintances, she says it’s ultimately more important for her to feel comfortable with who she is and how she presents herself.

Aliza Kastner explains that she doesn’t want to clothe herself according to what would make her more appealing to Orthodox men. Instead, she prefers a slightly more liberal approach to modesty, in the form of knee-length skirts and sleeves below her elbows. She laughs as she talks about what a friend from synagogue once told her: “If you add two more inches to your sleeve, Aliza, it would open up a whole new pool of men.”

This isn’t to say that Kastner never faces sartorial conundrums. She’s currently on the search for a dress for her sister’s secular summer wedding, a task that’s proving stressful. Her mom—who is supportive of Kastner’s religious leanings but is less religious herself—has an eye out for options, and often calls Kastner with suggestions, asking questions like, “How low a neckline would be okay for you?” Kastner says that if she were to wear a properly modest dress, it would probably have to be from the winter season—and therefore the wrong fabric and colour. If that’s the case, not only will she be “shvitzing the whole time,” she says she’ll also “look like a lunatic.” Kastner doesn’t want to shop at pricey stores meant only for Orthodox women, preferring to find modest clothes in the mainstream places where she’s always shopped. But it isn’t necessarily easy to find items that she likes that are also in line with her religious beliefs; with only a few months left before the wedding, Kastner’s search for the dress that does both continues.

YAEL LIPSON, A MODERN ORTHODOX friend of mine, was in line to get coffee at Toronto’s York University when a friend introduced her to a man standing behind her. He asked her out soon after.

The two dated for a year and a half before he asked her to marry him; Lipson describes it as less of a traditional Orthodox courtship and more of a typical millennial series of hangouts. They did, however, discuss their religious values and talk about the way they envisioned their future home. “We were honest and open about who we were before, there were no surprises,” she says.

Many Modern Orthodox men and women go on dates that look similar to those in the secular world. Lipson says that all of her Modern Orthodox friends got to know their spouses well before they married. Some Modern Orthodox people choose to go with matchmakers, but others have met their spouses at social gatherings, synagogues, coffee shops or online. However, Modern Orthodox couples do approach dating less casually than your average millennial: their courtships are meant to determine life and marriage compatibility, and they also usually follow the halakhah, waiting to get married before they have sex or move in together.

The pressure to take courtship more seriously than their secular peers sometimes leads to sitcom-like hijinks. When Aliza Kastner recently decided to go out on a date with a friend, they wanted to avoid seeing anyone they knew—it would only lead to unwanted questions about the relationship and how serious they were. While at a bar in Toronto’s Kensington Market, Kastner thought her date was joking when he said he saw a mutual friend of theirs. He wasn’t. “It was literally like duck and cover,” she says. The two decided to get out of there before they were spotted. Kastner hid in the bathroom while her date left the bar, and, a few minutes later, she snuck outside to meet him. The friend was successfully avoided.

Dating as a Modern Orthodox woman is different from what is typical in the Ultra-Orthodox world, where marriage can seem more like a transaction. Orna Serruya, a matchmaker for all Jewish sects and a Modern Orthodox woman herself, says that with the more religious Jews, marriage is often less about love and more about religious compatibility. When Serruya finds two people who might be good together in the Ultra-Orthodox community, the first step is to arrange for the parents to interview their son or daughter’s match. If they approve, the two go on a date.

Serruya says that regardless of level of belief, people tend to try and find a mate who is religiously compatible, as it can be a potential source of strife. In many relationships, it’s common for one person to take the scriptures more seriously than the other. This, Serruya says, can often be difficult to navigate. She explains that although it may not seem like a large problem to begin with, if they become married and have children, these sons or daughters often have a tendency to follow along with the less religious parent—less obligations seems more fun— and then one parent is often left in a lonely place.

LIPSON MAKES THE DAILY STRUGGLE of being a working Modern Orthodox mother and wife look easy. On a Wednesday night at the start of spring, after her daughter has been put to bed, Lipson opens the door to her apartment wearing a long grey sweater over a white collared shirt with a knee-length black skirt and tights. Her hair is up in a bun, showcasing the sparkly silver studs in her ears. She ushers me to a circular glass table in the kitchen. As we talk, Lipson prepares challahs for Shabbat that week, pulling and twisting the dough with expert hands before placing the perfect braids in a pan.

Lipson’s Orthodoxy began when she went to seminary in Israel. It was here that she began to keep kosher. Though Lipson has had a strong belief in God since she was a child, she tells me that she developed her faith slowly, weaving the threads of her life together as deftly as she handles the challah.

Because of the mitzvah called pru urvu, which speaks of the importance of populating the Earth, many Orthodox people believe it is their duty to get married and have children quickly. While Lipson believes in the importance of this mitzvah, she wanted to establish her career before having her first child.

To maintain the balance between maintaining Jewish home values and living in the secular world, Lipson plans to send her children to Jewish schools, where they’ll be around other kids who practice Shabbat and keep kosher. But unlike Ultra-Orthodox believers, who worry about the immodest thoughts that technology can bring, Lipson also plans to let her kids have access to TV and the internet.

When it comes to instilling faith in her children, Suzanne Glaser takes a hands-off approach: she wants each of her children to come by their belief on a personal level instead of it being dictated to them. That’s how she found her connection with religion; in fact, she remembers the exact moment it happened. One Shabbat when she was a child, she was driving with her parents and saw her observant cousin walking to synagogue with her kids. She knew right then that that deep sense of belief was what she wanted. If her own children decide the same, then so be it.

While Glaser is happy with the way she runs her home, she still faces scrutiny from people in the secular world, namely those who are wary of the more traditional gender roles she’s modelling.

She also says that stricter Orthodox Jews may think that Modern Orthodox believers are not religious enough. Glaser lived at Bathurst and Lawrence, a religious neighbourhood in Toronto, when she was first married. She says that Orthodox women there gave her the “up and down look” as she pushed a stroller on her way to synagogue, seeming to make assumptions about her lack of strong belief because of how she dressed. But, she says, “when the more-to-the-right call and ask for donations, my money is good enough.”

Glaser also says she’ll never forget the day her husband took their kids to play in the park after a Shabbat morning service. Ultra-Orthodox people stay in their Shabbat clothes no matter what their post-synagogue plans are, but Glaser’s family usually can’t wait to get home and change. Glaser says that, at the park, her husband was wearing shorts and a T-shirt when he overheard two young Orthodox boys in black pants and white button-down tops speaking about him in Yiddish. Not knowing that her husband could understand them, they called him “Goyish”—a derogatory term for non-Jews—even though he was clearly wearing a kippah. Glaser says he answered them in the same language: “I pray to the same God that you prayed to this morning.”

MOST MODERN ORTHODOX JEWS—including Kastner and Glaser—attend Orthodox synagogues where there is a stricter level of separation between men and women than they accept in their home and work lives. At synagogue, they sit in a segregated, women-only area and are only permitted to watch as the rabbi and cantor, both of whom are men, lead the service while various men help by reading blessings and from the Torah.

Lipson’s synagogue, Shaarei Shomayim, is one of a small handful in Toronto classified as Modern Orthodox. Lipson has been attending all her life, and her mother is vice president of the synagogue—a position that wouldn’t likely go to a woman in a less-progressive space. Rabbi Chaim Strauchler says this move to become more modern has been a process. Many members say that it’s time for things to change, he explains. Alternatively, others argue that the Jewish religion has survived thanks to strict adherence to the Torah, and are skeptical of moving away from the historical status quo. “We are one community but people are afraid of what’s different,” Strauchler says.

Shaarei Shomayim has taken pains to find a middle path: for example, it has experimented with the placement of the mehitzah, which separates the men from the women. Women wanted to feel closer to the Torah rather than sitting at the back of the synagogue or up on a balcony; to accommodate the progressive and the traditional, Strauchler decided that the mehitzah’s placement would switch from dividing the congregation front and back to dividing the room left and right once every four Shabbats. Not everybody is happy with the compromise.

Lipson is proud that her synagogue is willing to include women, but she’s also not bothered by the fact that women can’t yet go to the Torah. While Lipson says that women are just as capable of reading from the Torah if they choose to, for her it’s not a priority. In Orthodox Judaism, being a good Jewish woman, mother and wife is categorically different but equally important to being a good Jewish man, father and husband.

Glaser is similarly unbothered that women can’t go to the Torah at her synagogue. “I can be a powerhouse at work,” she says, “but when I go to synagogue I’m very happy not to have those obligations.” For her, synagogue provides quiet time to focus on her faith and her respect for the laws of the Torah.

In Reform and Conservative synagogues, women sit among the men as equals—many even wearing kippot and tallits—and participate in the day’s service. In January, Jody Isenberg stood at the podium of Beit Rayim, a synagogue just outside Toronto, explaining the day’s Torah portion. In it, the Jews have escaped from their lives as slaves in Egypt and the Pharaoh has decided to pursue them. God splits the Red Sea so that they can flee, and the people of Israel sing as they cross. This is when Moses’ sister Miryam picks up a tambourine and begins to play, leading the women in a song and dance.

Isenberg’s interpretation of the story is that Miryam has a role in the exodus for a reason—much like women do in religious services today. It is a story that Isenberg has debated with her son, Michael, who started the process of becoming more religious ten years ago. She asked him how it could be that Miryam played such an important role centuries ago, while supposedly liberated Jewish women today cannot even go to the Torah at his synagogue. His answer, a common Orthodox belief, was that, “men need to be told what to do,” while “women are born at a naturally high level of spirituality.” It is an answer that Isenberg isn’t completely satisfied with.

ON A RAINY SATURDAY IN MARCH, I attend the Shabbat service at Chabad Flamingo, an Orthodox synagogue just north of Toronto. Nearby, a young girl sits in the middle of the balcony designated for women, separated from the men. She looks about ten, and is wearing a long-sleeved navy blue dress that lands above her knees, Ugg boots and white leggings—she dresses the same way that any other young girl around the city might.

As her peers wriggle impatiently in their seats and chatter to each other, the girl watches intently as the men at the podium read the Torah and say the blessings. She may be a young, modern girl, but I can tell religion is important to her. In her I see all the other Modern Orthodox women I’ve met—simultaneously thoughtful, stylish and deeply connected to God.

* Name has been changed to protect privacy.