An Unorthodox Path to an Orthodox Faith

From Student to NCSY Director by Way of the Mechina Pathways Program

Hodaya BlauAt Stern College for Women, Hodaya Blau ’17S was a history major who spent her days learning about significant events of the past and what we can learn from them.

But there is much to be learned from her story.

While her degree required courses in the transformations of Europe and a survey of U.S. history, it was the introductory Torah and Hebrew classes that provided the foundation to balance a rigorous dual curriculum and her immersion in Orthodox Jewish life. By her senior year at YU, she was studying advanced Judaics.

Her academic achievement is all the more impressive given that Hodaya came to YU with absolutely no formal Jewish education at all, having been raised in a Catholic (albeit irreligious) home and attended parochial schools until her senior year of high school.

Today, in her current position as NCSY’s Boston Logistics Director, she helps guide and inspire teens. Living with her husband, Joshua Blau, and their 4-month-old daughter, Eliya, outside of Boston, she also serves as youth director of the Young Israel of Brookline.

But before she was serving in a leadership role in the Jewish community, she was a student in a Catholic high school mentoring U.S. Army youth and constructing her own Jewish identity from the ground up.

She first came to formal Jewish learning through the chance discovery of YUTorah while she was combing the internet for lectures on Torah-related topics. Stumbling across a shiur [lecture] on YU’s online home of Torah shiurim and articles, the trajectory of her life changed. The more she learned, the more drawn she felt to Orthodox Judaism.

“I wanted to live and learn at a university with a large Jewish student body,” she says. “When I googled U.S. colleges with the highest Jewish population, it showed YU at the top, with 98 percent. In hindsight, I’m pretty sure they considered me the other two percent.”

Hodaya worked with YU to make attendance financially feasible. “Essentially, I felt that if I was going to live as an Orthodox Jew, I might as well go to a premier Jewish institution,” she explains.

“When I took the Hebrew placement test, I flipped over the paper and apologized because I couldn’t answer any of the questions,” she recalls. Hodaya, then going by Rachel, was directed to the Women’s Mechina Pathways program, where Rivka Weiner z”l of the Hebrew Language Department patiently taught her how to read Hebrew and Shoshana Schechter, instructor in Bible, helped fill her significant gaps in foundational Halacha [Jewish law] and rabbinic commentaries.

When she began at Stern College, Hodaya was meeting with her Mechina chevra [study group] four times a week for Judaic studies and two times a week to study Tanach. “It definitely created a community,” she states.

“The Mechina program provided a support system to navigate programming that was so new to me. If a question or an issue arose, even outside the realm of study, it offered a safe space to ask. Also, the program introduced me to some of my best friends ever.”

In her freshman year, Hodaya became Shomer Shabbat and during sophomore year, she formally opened a conversion file with the Beit Din of America. “My chavruta [study partner] and I had studied the implications of yichus [family background], and it dawned on me that I had nothing tangible connecting me to the Jewish people,” she explains.

When she converted, she was asked if she would like to choose a new name. “My parents named me Rachel, which was great for fitting into the Jewish community,” she explains. “But I had a lot of Israeli friends, and I felt comfortable taking the name Hodaya.” Its meaning, “thanking God,” seemed fitting.

Her parents were—and remain—supportive of her religious path. “My freshman year, my father gave me a Shabbat lamp for my birthday,” she says with a laugh, “and they keep a separate section of the freezer for me as well as my own plates and dishes.”

Not long after her conversion, Hodaya began receiving introductions to eligible young men and fell hard for the one who would eventually become her husband. “I really liked him, but I don’t think I made much of an impression,” she reveals. “A summer later, several people recommended us to one another.” And that was that.

With her work, her community, her new daughter and a husband who does computer contracting work and teaches computer programming and math at Yeshiva Ohr Yisrael in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, life in Brookline is more than busy. And there’s a lot to look forward to.

But when she looks back, she looks back fondly, especially on the Mechina program that helped her along her journey. “Mechina provides a level of dignity to its students. You’re not treated like a child because you don’t have 12 years of day school or a yeshiva background,” she says.

“The Mechina teachers embrace the philosophy that while you may not have the foundation, with commitment and hard work, you’re going to get there. This value and preservation of dignity is probably what made my experience at YU so meaningful and so successful.”