“Wait, I think that’s the doctor!” Zev exclaimed as we hurried out of the car to say hello. I had never seen the doctor before, but I had heard all about him. He came to shul on Shabbat a few weeks ago for a bar mitzvah. Zev told me how much he enjoyed their conversation,I had to learn everything from scratch largely because the doctor was so interested in our Jewish journey. That doesn’t happen very often.

Our meeting on the street was unplanned; we all had other places to go. Somehow, though, once we started talking, the doctor wasn’t rushing to leave anymore. He picked up the conversation where he and Zev left off: He still couldn’t believe that we, and so many other people in shul, weren’t born as observant Jews.

“You should carry an old picture of yourself,” I teased Zev as I confirmed that he was once a golfer with a 5 handicap. (Not that I know what that means—I can’t get past why you would want to play a game that requires you to have a handicap.) We introduced the doctor to the generally accepted term for people like us: ba’alei teshuvah. I told him that it literally translates as, “masters of return.” (“Halevai,” I quickly added with a smile. That’s the Jewish way of saying, “If only.”) I didn’t want to overwhelm him, but I did want to reassure him that if he came to shul, he would be in the company of many beginners who had just begun a little earlier.

Encounters like these thrill me. Because finally, after a very long time, I appreciate that there are many real benefits to being a ba’alat teshuvah. Here are three of them:

I learned a lot in my secular education. Even if I did forget most of what I learned in school, there’s still a lot that comes to mind regularly: about Edmund G. Ross or fruit flies or (my favorite) the Milgram experiment. And while I’m not certain how my 500-word English essays helped my writing, I can surely credit my SAT preps for introducing me to words like cistern and harbinger. I may always struggle with Hebrew because I learned it as an adult, but I can sing along in French to much of “La Marseillaise”—that comes in handy once in a while, too. And because I was educated in America, I learned that “1492” was the year Columbus sailed there. When I learned that 1492 was also the year the Jews were expelled from Spain, I had no trouble remembering the date. But most of all, I know I need to somehow find a way to use my knowledge, my education and my past to bring greater holiness into our world. Learning how to write those 500-word essays probably helped me articulate Torah thoughts more than I realize.

I appreciate my observance because I worked so hard for it. Nothing about Jewish observance was “second nature” to me. I had to learn everything from scratch—and I was already married with two children. I don’t know where the perseverance came from; I’m just grateful that my husband and I both had it. I couldn’t wait for the day, though, when I might be mistaken for an “FFB,” someone who was “frum from birth.” (Frum is the Yiddish way of saying “observant.”) I wondered if I would ever be comfortable in my Jewish skin. Now I realize that discomfort is the hallmark of a ba’al teshuvah,andI celebrate that quality. It’s great for getting me to improve myself.

I can relate to the mindset of people who aren’t observant. I understand what it’s like to grow up with nebulous notions about G‑d and Judaism. Which is why I also understand how people might resist hearing about Moshiach. But as a ba’alat teshuvah, especially through Chabad, I also understand that redemption is an essential Jewish concept that will transform the world, and that learning Torah and doingI appreciate my observance mitzvahs can bring this time sooner. (As a woman, I appreciate how Moshiach’s arrival is likened to giving birth—to an almost 6,000-year-old baby, no less—with all the pain and focus that are necessary to complete the job.) I can even elucidate some of the harbingers of redemption (think global anxiety and circus politics) to anyone who’s interested in doing more to bring the redemption.

And when I say anyone, I mean any one. Because humankind’s good deeds are cumulative, and one more good deed is all it’s going to take. I’m not sure what that one good deed will be and when it will transform the world, but we’ll all know Moshiach when he comes. One thing’s for sure—the word ba’al teshuvah will take on a whole new meaning.