THE SPIRITUAL JOURNEY CONTINUES FOR RACHEL FREEMAN
When Rachel Freeman ’09 (BA) was growing up, her family life was strictly secular. “I grew up very assimilated into mainstream culture,” she recalls. “When I was 11, my dad gave me a choice of having a sweet 16 party or studying for a Bat Mitzvah. But I had no connection to Judaism as a kid, so I said, ‘I’m going to do a sweet 16 party and have all my friends come. No one has to know I’m Jewish.’”
Freeman says even as a child, she always had a lot on her mind. She started writing short stories at the age of 7; by the time she was 11, she wrote more poetry than prose. “I’ve expressed myself through writing my whole life,” she says. While she doesn’t talk about it very often, she hosted a “for teens, by teens” television program for local public access, and won an Emmy award.
But even though she kept her poems private for years, she found herself yearning for spirituality and connection. For Freeman, it turns out that choosing to attend the University of San Diego helped to light her path. “I was at a Catholic school when I found my Jewish identity,” she says with a laugh.
A sociology major, Freeman declared a second major in ethnic studies, with a concentration in community policy and justice. “We were doing a lot of work in the Kumeyyay Garden, back when all of the awareness around native plants was being recognized on campus,” she recalls. “For me, it became accepting the differences through tikkun olam, a Jewish idea that means ‘to repair the world.’ That’s how I started living my life through Judaism. I was kind of a lost soul who was really trying to find my place.”
Over time, spirituality has become central to Freeman’s worldview. “No matter what somebody believes, we’re interconnected and part of the human spirit. To me, it doesn’t matter if somebody goes to a mosque or a church or a temple. Foundationally, we are human beings who have basic needs and want to feel connection and love for and with each other.”
She attributes much of her identity formation to USD. “Had I not actually explored the ethnic studies major, I don’t know if I would be as connected to Judaism. Ethnic studies gave me a platform to explore and express my ethnoreligious background,” she says.
But it took time to find her way. A birthright trip to Israel senior year didn’t offer any easy answers. “I had a lot of identity issues and questions about organized religion after that trip,” Freeman recalls. She began restricting food and exercising to such an extent that between her return from Israel during spring semester and the following holiday season, she lost 60 pounds. “I dropped weight really fast, and it was hard on my body. I was trying everything to avoid everything in front of me,” she says.
“Food and exercise addiction are easy to hide. But you need food to live. If you have an addiction to something else, the whole point of recovery is to give it up. But if you give up food, you die. It becomes your deepest, darkest secret. You have to let someone in, in order to help you.”
Freeman is the first to admit to being an overachiever, even when it comes to her recovery. “After graduation, I got into a grad program for marriage and family therapy, because like any addict, I thought I could help myself. It was not a good fit for me.” But what turned out to be a perfect fit was what she calls a five-week “Jewish sleepaway art camp” which was lifesaving.
“One night, a recovery group from the addiction treatment center Beit T’Shuvah performed, and I fell in love with it.” So much so that she performed one of her poems in front of 60 people. “It was the first time I actually came out publicly about my eating disorder,” Freeman says. “It was super empowering.” So much so that she decided to seek a publisher for a book of her highly personal poetry. Until then, she hadn’t shared those poems with anyone.
“We had to make a collage and rename what we thought God or a higher power was,” she explains. “My higher power is my hunger — my hunger for life, my hunger to always do something more, my actual literal hunger — that’s what drove me to do everything.” And that’s the name of her first volume: The Hunger.
Freeman is still driven. She’s written a follow-up book, Still Hungry, and is seeking a publisher. She works full time as a special education teacher, and recently completed an accelerated master’s degree/administrative credential program in just a year. As she looks to the future, she’s not afraid to dream big. “I would love to turn my poetry and story of recovery into a miniseries for a streaming platform,” she admits.
In the meantime, Freeman — who identifies as “culturally Jewish” — is all about finding healthier ways to satisfy her yearnings. Her advice to others is simple. “Celebrate individuality, and know that you have a voice. It took me 10 years to put out what I had because I was too scared of what others would think. You’ve got to allow people the space to express who they are and what their needs are.” — Julene Snyder