(Speech given on Shabbat at the National Jewish Retreat in Weston, FL on August 4th, 2012)

Five years ago, I was an atheist. And not just your normal, run-of-the-mill, “I’m too cool/modern/educated to believe in G-d,” kind of atheist. If there is such a thing, I was a devout atheist. I preached atheism. Science and technology were bred into me and it didn’t take many years into my childhood for me to come to the firm conclusion that between physics, mathematics, biology, and chemistry, science had a completely reasonable and logical explanation for absolutely everything. Religion on the other hand, was confusing at best and was a manmade concoction of children’s stories at worst. Passover was spent with my mom’s family one weekend and Easter was spent with my dad’s family the next.  Winter in my house growing up was characterized by a pine tree topped with blue and white ornaments, aka “the Chanukah bush.” Needless to say, when I arrived at the University of Central Florida as a freshman going into aerospace engineering, learning more about Judaism was just about the last thing on my mind. Little did I know that a bearded man wearing a hat and what the rest of modern society commonly refers to as a “penguin suit” was about to show up at UCF and turn my perfect orderly universe completely upside-down.

When Rabbi Chaim Lipskier and his wife Rivkie started appearing on my campus my sophomore year, I avoided them like the plague. I became an expert at deleting the Facebook invitations to Shabbat dinner and ignoring the emails about the weekly BBQs. I even went so far as to walk five minutes out of my way to avoid the obnoxiously bright red table that they set up in front of the student center every Wednesday. I would do just about anything to avoid that oh-so-popular question: “Excuse me, are you Jewish?” Everything was going great until one day, as I was walking to a meeting for the up and coming future CEOs of Fortune 500 Tech companies (myself included, of course), tragedy struck.

I forgot it was Wednesday…

I realized my mistake about 30 seconds too late. I spotted the Rabbi and his bright red table, but there was no turning back now. I stuck my head down and started power-walking, hoping I could squeeze by unnoticed… but sure enough: “Hey! You! Are you Jewish?!”

Now, there are three answers that a Chabad Rabbi could get when he asks someone that question. Either yes, no, or my answer: “Why are you asking?” What I failed to realize was that in Rabbi-speak, that answer “why are you asking” is just about the same as saying, “Why yes, I AM Jewish! Please invite me to your house for dinner even though I’m a complete and total stranger!” And so I was quickly ushered over to that bright red table that I had tried so hard to avoid, where his wife immediately invited me to Friday night dinner (despite being a total stranger) and proceeded to load me up with flyers, Shabbat candles, and an assortment of home-baked cookies, brownies, and cakes. I thank her and quickly rushed off, stuffing the free food into my bag like the starving college student that I was, and immediately throwing away all of the flyers and candles in the next garbage can I came across. Every Rabbi’s nightmare.

Yet despite the open display of disinterest, something about that encounter had piqued my curiosity. A few weeks later, for a reason still to this very day completely unknown to me, I picked up my phone on a Friday afternoon and called Rabbi Lipskier to ask if I was still invited. Of course, I was. Then, despite the fact that it was 4:30pm on Erev Shabbat, which I later realized is the absolute worst time to call a Rabbi, he patiently listened as I divulged my laundry list of reasons that I had never shown up until this point: “I’m not religious. I haven’t even been to Temple in seven years. I don’t know Hebrew. I don’t know how to pray. I don’t know what to wear, and and and…” And he cut me off, mid-sentence, and told me to stop, wear whatever I was wearing, and be there in three hours. And so, three hours later, I showed up for my first ever Shabbat dinner wearing jeans, a tank-top, and flip-flops.

Four courses, three hours, two glasses of wine, and one amazing night later, I was totally hooked. That was five years ago…

Over the course of the next year, on top of juggling full-time engineering classes, a research position at my university, an internship at a Lockheed Martin missile factory, and more extracurriculars than I could keep track of, I also somehow managed to show up at the Chabad house for a free meal almost every night of the week. Which eventually led to signing up and going on a Birthright trip to Israel. Which almost immediately led to an unprecedented sense of Jewish identity. Which eventually inspired me to sign up for a Sinai Scholars class so that I could understand these crazy customs that I had started incorporating into my life, not religiously (G-d forbid), but as a way of connecting culturally with other Jews around the world and throughout the ages. And I loved every minute of that class. For the first time in my life, Judaism was something intellectually stimulating; something that I (as a scholar and academic) could relate to on a deeply personal level and yes, even spiritual level. That was four years ago…

As time went on, I began learning more and more. Sometimes it was Tanya and Chassidus with my Rabbi, others it was the laws of keeping Kosher with my Rebbetzin. Occasionally it was an online lecture on sites like Chabad.org and TorahCafe.com. I was obsessed. I wanted to learn as much as possible and I was soaking up Judaism like a sponge. The only thing holding me back was the constant paradox that I felt incessantly torn between: religion versus science. But then I started hearing about a retreat, a Jewish get-away, a learning experience with a five-star hotel, five-star speakers, and of course, five-star food. I signed up not really knowing what I was getting myself into, but when I showed up at the Sinai Scholars portion of the National Jewish Retreat in Greenwich CT that year, I was blown away. There were people there who were speaking my language. Scientists and physicists were on the list of presenters, and I sat wide-eyed as I realized for the first time that Torah and Technology are NOT mutually exclusive. That was three years ago…

During my senior year of college, I was living a “double-life.” I was an engineer on one hand, with senior  design papers, certification exams, and an almost full-time position at a Mitsubishi Turbine Engine factory. On the other hand, I was now a fully observant Jew, keeping Shabbat instead of joining the college parties Friday night, keeping Kosher instead of going out to restaurants with friends, wearing a skirt around heavy machinery and welders at work, and wearing long sleeves when it was 100 degrees outside in this lovely Florida August. When graduation time came, much to my parents’ horror, I decided that after 18 years in the secular school system, it was time to catch my Jewish education up to par a bit. And so I turned down a full-time engineering position, and after another stop by the National Jewish Retreat in Reston, VA, I flew halfway across the world to spend a year at the Mayanot Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem. That was two years ago…

My year at Mayanot was the most incredible experience of my life. I was living the dream. I had finally met girls like me, people from all walks of life who had taken a semester or year out of their hectic lives to learn what living is really all about. That year I learned more than would have ever thought possible. .. Hebrew and history, Jewish law and Jewish family life, Torah and Talmud, Chassidus and holidays… But most of all, I learned about myself and my role as a Jewish woman in the modern world. Whether it’s for a year or semester at a program like Mayanot in Israel, or three weeks at the Tiferes Yeshiva in Morristown NJ, or one week at a Bais Chana or Yeshivacation study program, I can’t encourage everyone enough to take a least one small portion of your life and learn Torah as if it was your full-time job. After all, we are full-time Jews, and it’s an experience you will always remember and never regret. But after a year in Israel and several hectic weeks figuring out what I wanted to do with my life, it was time to come home. I found a happy medium between my paradoxical extremes and ended up moving to the heart of Jewish life in America, Crown Heights, Brooklyn, while beginning my Master’s degree in Systems Engineering at Columbia University. So I packed my bags, moved to New York, and began bridging the gap between Torah and science just a little bit more. That was one year ago…

I started off my first semester of grad school with my third visit to the National Jewish Retreat back in Greenwich CT as a staff member this time, before diving into an intense class called Deterministic Modeling. I’m not quite sure how it happened, but sometime between lectures, High holidays, networking mixers, farbrengens, exams, and working part-time at Chabad.org, I got a call from Rabbi Yitzchok Dubov, the Director of the amazing Sinai Scholars program that had become such an enormous part of my life. I unsuspectingly went over to his house, where he proceeded to ask me yet another life-changing question. This time it wasn’t, “Excuse me, are you Jewish?” This time it was, “Hey, do you remember Daniel Berry?” The “Daniel Berry” he was speaking of was a fellow Sinai Scholars alum, a musician from Princeton University that I had met at this very retreat, my first one back in Greenwich, exactly three years ago. We had run into each other over and over again in Israel, where we were both in the respective men and women’s  Mayanot learning programs. So my answer was, “Of course I remember Daniel Berry.” Before long, that Daniel Berry was standing next to me under the chuppah in front of the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s office in Brooklyn, becoming my husband in a traditional Jewish wedding ceremony. That was six months ago…

Since then, the opposites in my life have collided and the paradoxes have disappeared. I’m still doing my degree part-time at Columbia while finally working in the full-time engineering position my parents always wanted me to have. My husband and I live in Morristown NJ where he is a fulltime student at the Rabbinical College of America. Now I understand that being a fully observant Chassidic Jewish female married to a future rabbi, while at the same time working as a systems engineer in a high-tech industry, while at the same time going for my masters in engineering at an Ivy League school may all sound a little crazy, but I think it’s proof that what Rabbi Jonathan Sacks (the Chief Rabbi of the UK) said at the November international convention of Chabad Rabbis last year is absolutely true: No one ever misses out on anything by choosing Judaism.

And so, with a story like that, when Rabbi Dubov asked my husband and I if we could use our vacation days from school and work to come back as staff at the retreat we first met at… what else could we possibly say besides, “Yes, absolutely”? So here we are, all of us together, and this is right now…

This is your moment, your chance to open your mind, your heart, and your soul to the fact that Judaism is real. That wherever we are in life, whatever we find ourselves doing, first and foremost, we are Jews. Whether we work as engineers, accountants, lawyers, doctors, businessmen, tradeswomen, or fulltime students, that is just what we DO. Who we ARE is part of something much, much bigger. Something infinite. And by connecting to our Jewish souls, to that part of G-d that is within each one of us, we’re tapping into that infinite power… And then, and only then, we can really do anything.

Five years ago I was an atheist, today I’m a proud Jew. Imagine what we can all be tomorrow.