There was always something about lighting a menorah. Even when I was in foster homes as an adolescent, it was something I wanted to do. Maybe it was knowing that my ancestors did the exact same thing, or that millions of people all over the world were staring at the candles too. Or maybe it was just that candlelight is so warming when the ground outside is covered in snow. I’m not sure, but I certainly never expected that lighting a menorah would have any impact on my day-to-day existence.

Nearly three years ago I decided to drop Judaism entirely. I was fed up with the entire venture. The temple I attended was costly and uninviting, not at all what I had expected. There would be no community to raise my daughter with, no traditions to pass on to her. Needless I decided to drop Judaism entirelyto say, I was a little bitter about the whole thing.

But, of course, every year I lit a menorah. When my daughter was old enough to appreciate it, I decorated the house with Chanukah flags and garlands, window stickers and crafts. Maybe at some point in her life she too would enjoy the feeling of comfort and safety that I got from the flickering candles.

The temple with which I dropped membership proceedings still sent me a newsletter occasionally, and that year I saw that various synagogues were holding public menorah lightings around the county. A giant menorah! Perfect! I dressed up my little girl in a pretty blue dress and built her anticipation to see a menorah as tall as a tree.

It turned out to be less dramatic than I had hoped—just a few people had gathered to see the lighting. Some homeless men were milling around. There was talk of free latkes and hot drinks in a nearby building afterwards, but as soon as the lighting was over I scooped up my daughter and made a dash for the car. My exodus was interrupted the rabbi. He introduced himself and gave my daughter a little menorah necklace.

“Do you belong to a synagogue?” he asked.

“No,” I replied. The memory of the other temples I had been to, their high fees and constant focus on what my occupation is, rather than who my daughter and I are, made me suspicious of this rabbi. Does this one want twice the cost of my medical insurance for my daughter to play around his children?

The rabbi told me the address of his synagogue. I narrowed my eyes. ”And how much does it cost?”

His face lit up. “This is why I do this,” he said. He told me there were no membership fees. I was astounded.

So I went to the local Chabad Lubavitch. Yes, it was awkward. There was a definite language barrier, and I often had trouble following the service. But the people were friendly, and I didn’t have to sign There were no membership fees. I was astoundeda contract to be there. So I went back again, even though going to a Chabad synagogue if you weren’t raised in the world of Judaism is like diving before you learn to swim.

After some coaxing, the rabbi’s wife, Devorah, convinced me to sign up my daughter for Sunday Hebrew school. On the first day, they were having a shofar factory. The smell of power drills running into animal bones and shellac was awful, but my daughter loved it. She looked around wide-eyed at the other kids, made a friend, and was fascinated with the shofar she shellacked. I was sold.

On my way out, the rabbi said to me, “Look what one menorah lighting can do.” I smiled, but didn’t think much of it.

Time has gone by, and now I can’t forget the rabbi’s words. Yes, when I attend a service I still prefer to hide in the kids’ room, where I have some idea what I’m doing (mostly staring at the fish tank), and most of my agnostic-style views haven’t changed, but plenty has. My daughter finished a year in Hebrew school and is learning a new language. She is so proud of all her projects, and so happy with the friends she has made.

Because she enjoyed Hebrew school so much, I enrolled her in the Chabad preschool. She loves her teachers, and I’m glad that she’s in such capable hands. She has developed socially and gained a bit more confidence. After more coaxing from Devorah, she even attended summer camp. So much has changed in our routine, changes that will be there for years to come. She is making memories that she can treasure for life. That is what one menorah lighting can do.