“I knew my observant side would win.” — Risa Mond

It is well after midnight, days before the start of Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year. Inside the synagogue at 770 Eastern Parkway, hundreds of men move in waves as they pray to God for forgiveness during the service known as Slichot. Their whispers and murmurs collapse into a silence as the cantor starts to lead them in prayer.

I am sitting with Risa in the women’s section — men and women are not allowed to sit together and the women are screened by tinted glass from the eyes of the men. Risa is dressed modestly in black with long sleeves and a hem well below her knees. She is engrossed in prayer, even though, she admits, she is still learning Hebrew.

“I always say I lived a double life,” she later tells me. “I was never able to mix my interest in becoming more observant with my secular life. I felt like they wouldn’t go together. Like oil and water.”

A TOKEN FROM HOME: “This is a book of Tehillim (psalms). It’s complied with a lot of verses of praise for G-d. A Rebbe of Chabad once said ‘If people knew how powerful Tehillim is, then we would be saying it all the time.’ So we say a certain amount each day. My brother got me this when he was in Tzfat, the holiest city in Israel. He said to me ‘The city is holy, the book is holy, and you’re holy! So I thought it would be a perfect gift.’ He gave it to me 2 years ago, and I still use it all the time.” — Risa. Photo by Samira Sadeque

Risa’s family would celebrate the festivals but weren’t observant Jews. She remembers attending secular Jewish summer camps, until she was eight. When she was 12, her aunt, who worked for Lubavitch affiliated Chabad in Dallas, asked if she wanted to return to the camp as a counsellor. It was then, as she befriended other counsellors, that Risa found herself drawn more to Orthodox Judaism.

“My parents first thought it was just a phase,” she says. “When they realized it wasn’t, they started getting worried. I started taking on things that they didn’t teach me. That they didn’t do. For them it was a slap in the face.”

She befriended a Dallas couple, the Horowitzs, connected with Chabad and began celebrating the Sabbath with them.

“I’d be at the Horowitz’s for all the Sabbaths. And when it would be over, I would jump in my car, change into my jeans shorts and I would go to a party,” she says. “Around two years ago, Halloween was on a Friday night and this kid in my class was having a party. I didn’t know what I was going to do and I thought to myself Halloween comes once a year, Sabbath is every week. So I went for Halloween.”

She woke up the next morning, disoriented. She was around people who weren’t observing Sabbath, and it felt strange. It felt wrong.

“I was afraid to mix the two worlds because I knew which one would win,” she says. “I knew that I wanted to be more observant. When I finally realized that, I figured it’s not possible for me to be fully immersed here.”

She arrived in Crown Heights in January 2016, after three years of observing different rituals in bits and pieces. Her parents, who tried to stop her from going, finally relented.

“At the beginning, a lot of conflicts arose, and I wasn’t able to conquer them but as time went on, it became easier,” she says. “It was hard for them, but time heals. They’re coming around.”