I disliked her from the moment I saw her, when she entered the center bearing two degrees and a brand-new sheitel. The new program coordinator was bubbly, enthusiastic — and different. Barely out of a baalas teshuvah seminary.

I squirmed in my seat as Mrs. Spielman, director of Our Special Children after-school center, introduced her. There were 26 of us volunteers, we’d been doing this for two years already, knew the children inside-out — from little Aharon of the floppy limbs and lopsided, goofy smile, to Sara’le, broad-shouldered and slow-moving, who signed because she couldn’t speak. We could handle them in our sleep, and here was an inexperienced newcomer who was going to come and tell us all what to do.

My friend Shaindy winked at me as Mrs. Spielman wound down her introduction and Ilana Gray stepped up. “Let’s hope she’s a short-and-sweet kind of speaker,” she whispered. “She looks nice!”

I wrinkled my nose. “I don’t like her,” I said.

It wasn’t anything she’d done, because she hadn’t even done anything yet. It was more what she was, or more accurately, what my mother was.

My mother was a baalas teshuvah. So was Mrs. Gray.

My mother couldn’t quite get the nuances, even 30-odd years later. Neither could Mrs. Ilana Gray.

My mother tried endlessly, futilely, to fit into the close-knit yeshivish community of Harrisgate. And clearly, Mrs. Gray was fighting the same battle.

Both of them were losing.

As the days went by, my dislike mounted. Of course, I pretended it was her fault. Some days it was her clothing that annoyed me: the long, flowing skirts and exotic jewelry that were always tzanuah, but far from the normal mode of dress. Or it was her tone of voice — the limitless optimism, the positivity, the way she wrote B’SIYATA D’SHMAYA in big letters at the top of the bulletin board in the front hallway of the center, and how everything that happened was “such hashgachah pratis!” How she was always pronouncing something wrong, or just not quite right.

The worst part was, she knew me. My mother met her in the supermarket during their first week in the neighborhood and promptly took her under her wing.

They began joining us for Shabbos meals, Ilana and her husband Jeremy, also a baal teshuvah, though he seemed more grounded. When Daddy would say a devar Torah, he’d nod and murmur, “Very nice, thank you.” Ilana would ask a dozen questions, find a way to connect it to something her rabbi had once told her once, and more often than not end up teary-eyed from “the beauty of it all!”

It was Rosh Hashanah, a few weeks into the year, and of course the Grays were joining us for davening and the meals. I sat just behind her in shul and watched her sway and shake like she was freezing to death. Her Shemoneh Esreh took twice as long as anyone else’s in the entire ladies’ section.

“She’s for sure a BT,” I heard someone nearby whisper as we waited for her to finish davening, long after the chazzan finished Maariv. And then the impatience and itching embarrassment gave way to anger.

I was angry at the commentator who couldn’t keep her superior comments to herself. Angry at the people who put down my mother and everyone like her because of a past they’d heroically overcome. Angry at my mother for never quite fitting in and at Mrs. Gray for being just like her. Angry at myself for feeling like that and angry at them for making me hate myself. (Excerpted from Family First, Issue 561)