Swapping the Cross of My Childhood for a Star of David

By Rachel Leah Fry

Many years ago, at the lowest point in my life, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. What followed was years of trying medicines with varying degrees of success. There were weeks of stays in mental hospitals and private clinics, a loss of control over my personal life, a complete break from what should have been me, in an ordinary life, raising my children, with no worse worry than whether we would get to a cello lesson or soccer game on time.

In the ensuing years, as I strove toI strove to attain mental stability attain mental stability, there were often days when I awoke with racing thoughts and amorphous fears that had no shape or name, just crushing, desperate mental pain. My particular form of the disorder included fewer depressed episodes and many episodes of hypomania, or moderate highs. Bipolar disorder is not predictable. It can lead to inappropriate behaviors, such as spending sprees when you’re high, or it can lead, at a really low point, to the worst event ever: suicide. Even the highs can result in anguish when your behavior gets you into physical trouble.

I have had good doctors and bad ones, bad medicines that made my condition worse, and good medicines with awful side effects. After years of trying medicine after medicine, and after much therapy, I am finally in a mental place of relative health and well-being. I still have times when I feel somewhat fearful. But I believe that what has happened in my life that replaces fear with joy is turning to Judaism, my birthright and my place of mental and spiritual rest.

My journey to find my Jewish reality is fairly recent and in the beginning was quite tentative. I could not find my footing as a Jew in a largely Christian world. Add to that the fact that I was raised in a Christian home, though both my birth parents were Jewish. One of the first people to encourage me to find myself as a Jew was a psychiatrist in Maryland. He gently told me that a Jew is always a Jew—no choice there, whether or not one chooses to acknowledge his or her Jewishness. When this epiphany became a truism in my head, I quite literally quit carrying the cross of my childhood, swapping it for a Star of David. Dr. Schwartzberg’s message became the first signpost leading me home.

When I began to seek out places to go to services, I had no idea how healing that would be. I heard songs and prayers learned early in my life when I visited my grandparents. The Hebrew words and long-buried melodies soothed and calmed me. I felt like a weary traveler being offered food and drink, and a soft place to settle. There was inexplicable joy in making my acquaintance with a heritage that was mine all along. And while I still need some medicine because mental illness is not a “curable” condition, exploring my rightful place as a Jew has given me a mental lift like no other.

I hear a lot of anti-Semitic messages on television and social media, and yet I am proud and unafraid to commit to my life as a Jew, and feel no fear. I firmly believe that my journey is blessed and guided by G‑d, that my neshamah, my Jewish soul, is His precious gift; that in keeping my heart and soul trained on G‑d, I will continue in health and strength, mentally as well as physically.

I’ve learned that the Rebbe taught that the Torah and mitzvot are the automatic inheritance of every Jew, regardless of prior learning or level of observance. The Rebbe initiated a host of outreach programs to provide Jews with as many access points and opportunities to perform as many mitzvahs as possible.

What a boost to a Jewish life in the making! My subsequent acquaintance with the Chabad emissaries in Mobile, Ala., the Goldwassers, has helped pave my path forward. I began lighting two Shabbat candles as part of my newly minted Jewish life. I now light four as I pray for my children and grandchildren. I have shared Shabbat meals with the Goldwassers and am moved to tears by the inclusion of my family, as though we are their family members.

Each mitzvah I perform with intent bringsEach mitzvah brings me closer to G‑d me closer to a G‑d, who has always included me in his Jewish tribe, regardless of whether or not I was cognizant of His waiting presence. Just saying the Shema each day and whispering the Modeh Ani, morning prayer to myself leads to a sense of gratitude that is grounding and joyful—a great way of increasing mental well-being and quashing fear. I am so thankful for every opportunity to learn and to grow. Jews are a resilient people—a people who dedicate themselves to Torah and all forms of learning. Being a member of such a group feels like having arms encircling me with support regardless of where I am in my journey.

In his book, Positivity Bias, on the teachings of the Rebbe, Rabbi Mendel Kalmanson writes: “No matter how littered the past is with our collective monstrosities and personal mistakes, we are each … capable of revealing the holy sparks of light that lie beneath the surface of a shattered world. … This is our redemptive work for which the Rebbe never stopped preparing us: To always see G‑d in the world and to tend his garden.”

And that is how my life is now—a bud I am tending as it comes into full flower in G‑d’s garden. It is a flower planted in the soil of Jewish heritage, and watered with Torah study and the love and acceptance of my Jewish “family.”

“Heartfelt appreciation,” writes Rabbi Kalmenson, “opens the gates for G‑d’s abundance.” As for me, my heart overflows with abundant joy as I reach for what the Rebbe makes clear is, without fear, mine now and forever.

As taken from, https://www.chabad.org/theJewishWoman/article_cdo/aid/4691950/jewish/Swapping-the-Cross-of-My-Childhood-for-a-Star-of-David.htm#utm_medium=email&utm_source=1_chabad.org_magazine_en&utm_campaign=en&utm_content=content

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