What It's Like To Have a Religious Awakening

Pnina Aaronson's spiritual journey led her to embrace Orthodox Judaism. As told to Jana Banin

By Jana Banin, published on September 3, 2012 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

 Pnina Aaronson and family Pnina, her husband, Yitzchok, and their six children. " />

Pnina, her husband, Yitzchok, and their six children.

I was 19 when my friend Alex was killed in a car accident. I'd always believed in God, but I hadn't found a meaningful way to connect. I had studied different religions—Buddhism, Wicca, Islam—and my spiritual quest had been a major theme in my friendship with Alex. Before he died, we'd been exploring the idea of kismet, that things are fated.

Two weeks after that terrible loss, I met the Rosenberg family. Yossel and Fruma, hippies turned Hasidic Jews, were cousins of a boy I was then dating; we went to their home for a traditional Sabbath lunch. I couldn't fathom living their kind of life: Fruma wore a wig, Yossel wouldn't shake my hand because I'm a woman, they had seven kids! Yet I immediately knew that it was right for my soul.

Seeing their family, the natural food on the table, the holy restfulness of shabbos (the Sabbath, which Orthodox Jews observe by abiding by rules and restrictions) was a panacea. They showed me that I didn't need to look for spirituality in someone else's backyard. As a Reform Jew I could find it in my own.

I didn't become religious overnight. While I loved learning about the Rosenbergs' lifestyle, so different from the secular Judaism I grew up with (synagogue on the high holidays and a seder at Passover), I was ambivalent. Sometimes after shabbos lunch with them, I'd feel so grateful to drive home—driving isn't permitted on the Sabbath—and back to my life.

Luckily my family was not freaked out by my interest in Orthodoxy. I'd shaved my head, been into the Grateful Dead, so to my mother, this was just another weird trip I was on, and she was supportive.

A year after Alex died, two seemingly unrelated events propelled me further down a spiritual path: Rochel, the Rosenberg's daughter, was due to have a baby in New York City, and my car broke down in Florida, where I was in college. I was close to Rochel and interested in natural childbirth, which was what she was planning. It felt like a sign from God to go to the city: I'd be near her, and I wouldn't need a car.

I dropped out of school and moved to Brooklyn's densely Hasidic Crown Heights, where I lived and studied in a yeshiva for women who were becoming religious. Everything changed for me there.

The amazing sense of community was important. In high school I never connected deeply with other girls. I spent many Saturday nights listening to Vivaldi and writing in my journal. In yeshiva, where I learned that loving your fellow Jew and caring for others is part of Jewish law, I made my first sisterly friendships.

What really got me, though, was shabbos. It's special anywhere, but in Crown Heights it's magical. Stores close, everyone relaxes, men dress in black hats and coats and women in their best. Holiness permeates the neighborhood. They say your consciousness changes in a group, much the way your experience of music at a concert is different than when listening on your own. In a way, that's how shabbos was in Crown Heights, with everyone honoring it together.

I'd been spiritual before becoming observant, but spirituality is amorphous. Religion helped me focus my energies; it gave me purpose and responsibility.

Now, 18 years later, I'm back in Florida, where I live a beautiful yet intense life. My kids have strong personalities, and naturally, meltdowns happen. Reminding myself that it's all being orchestrated by God helps me get through the day and is incredibly freeing.

There are times, too, when my faith induces anxiety. According to Judaism, our thoughts affect the world. The leader of my movement said, "Think good and it will be good." But if I'm thinking negative thoughts, that's not helping anyone.

I struggle with this dissonance, as well as with that same ambivalence I felt early on in my journey. I'm guessing this is a common experience for all those trying to sublimate themselves to Godliness. We want to do the right thing, but we also want to be who we really are.

A lot of my funkiness, which I used to express through dress, is gone; Jewish law mandates modesty. But I do things I know don't jibe with my religion, like listening to pop music while working out, or occasionally going to see my husband (another secular-turned-Orthodox Jew) play in a Grateful Dead cover band. I do these things with trepidation. I could be on a higher plane spiritually, but I have to allow certain aspects of the life I grew up in to coexist with who I am now.

Plus, in some sense, there's nothing more freaky than being totally religious. I do all kinds of weird things in the name of religion. Before Yom Kippur there's a ritual that involves swinging a chicken over your head; for the holiday of Sukkot we spend $200 on a special lemon. Instinctively it all seems crazy, but Hasidic thought teaches that our mind has to rule our heart. If I can sublimate my ego and humble myself to God in a real and deep way, I can be at a higher level. That's what I work for every day. That's faith.


Who Seeks Enlightenment?

The main factor that pushes people along a spiritual path? Life circumstance, such as suffering a major loss or facing adversity, says Larry Culliford, author of The Psychology of Spirituality. Those who are interested in exploring religion also tend to be more open to experience and share a desire to contribute to society and connect with others, says neuropsychologist Charlotte Tomaino, author of Awakening the Brain. People with different cognitive styles often experience spirituality very differently, she adds. Concrete thinkers are more likely to find peace in following the rules of an institution. Abstract thinkers are less likely to commit to organized religion—and when they do, they typically have a more nuanced view of its tenets.