Everything seemed unreal, sort of make believe.

Was I really here, in the middle of winter, wearing a light summer outfit, surrounded by palm trees and beautiful flowers? Friday afternoon I am generally busy as a bee with last minute chores, yet here I was leisurely strolling through the exclusive shopping center of Bal Harbor seemingly without a care in the world. This winter vacation was really different.

"How do you like this outfit?" asked Sharone, my hostess, showing me an elegant designer's gown for her son's Bar Mitzvah, 13th birthday party. A casual glance at my watch showed that it was time for us to return home, for it was after all the eve of Shabbat. "It's beautiful but it's getting late. Can't you come back another day to try it on?

I noticed Carol, the haughty-looking sales-lady, approaching and knew she would try to convince Sharone to try the dress on, so I again reminded her, "Remember Shabbat."

The saleswoman halted and looked at us, somewhat startled. "What did you say?" she questioned me as she turned to Sharone; the cross around her neck swung back and forth on its thin gold chain.

In a very surprised voice she said to Sharone, "You aren't Jewish, are you?"

Her question and attitude were really not out of place. With her blond hair, her bluish-green eyes, and her tanned face with the slightly upturned nose, Sharone doesn't look typically Jewish. Hours of tennis and swimming, golfing and horse-back riding give her the added look of the all-American outdoor type.

"Of course I am Jewish," Sharone replied firmly, "not only am I Jewish, I am an observant Jew."

"I never would have believed it," the sales-woman muttered, "I guess you never thought I was Jewish either."

We were totally shocked, both of us. If she was Jewish, why was she wearing that cross around her neck?

"My Jewish name is Sara," said Sharone, "what is yours?"

"I haven't thought of it for years, not since I was a young girl, but my name is Shira," she said.

Well, now we knew she really was Jewish, but I felt her situation was too far gone and really no concern of mine. But Sharone, now that was another story.

"Tell me," she asked gently, "why are you wearing this necklace? It is a symbol of a religion that isn't yours. It might make people think you are not Jewish."

"That's the idea," responded the woman. "Jews have always been persecuted, second-class citizens." Almost defiantly, she added that she loved all people and had friends of different religions and nationalities. This necklace had been a gift from a very dear friend, and that was why she cherished it. Her experience with Jews had always been negative, and she gave us a lengthy lecture of how much better and finer all the others were and how Jews always had disappointed her.

As she began an animated discussion, it looked like Sharone had forgotten all about the rapid approach of the Shabbat, but then I knew she would never quit. She loves competitive sports and always believed in fair play and never quitting. And since she was introduced to Lubavitch, she has the feeling that each and every Jew is her very own responsibility.

"Sharone," I whispered after a few minutes, "Your arguments are really great and very convincing, but it will soon be Shabbat!"

"The core of the issue," Sharone was saying, "is that you can't deny your identity. I too have contacts with people of diversified backgrounds, but my own roots and heritage always take precedence. Your negative feelings about Judaism are based on the misrepresentations. If you encountered Judaism, I bet you wouldn't cast it aside so easily."

And then without seeming to have given it any thought, Sharone issued an invitation for that very Friday night dinner. I thought she was being foolish, but the saleswoman graciously said she would consider it. I suppose my face mirrored my doubts, for they both became rather uncomfortable and hesitant.

The saleswoman regained her composure first, "Maybe not tonight, but some other time. I do appreciate your kindness though," she added gently. And then suddenly, her hands reached up around her neck, unfastened the chain and put it in her pocket. "I feel naked without it," she added shyly, "but somehow I don't feel like wearing it anymore."

If Sharone had been able to influence her to do that, then surely there was hope. "Please do come," I said. "You'll have a very interesting experience."

Their surprised looks soon turned into cheerful smiles and within moments we were on the way to Sharone's home.

In the house, the members of the household were quietly told not to make any fuss about the unexpected guest.

"Come, let's prepare the candles," Sharone was very rushed for we had returned much later than we had planned. "Candles," said Carol. "I know about that. I remember that from my childhood. You light them for the dead."

I shivered in the warm summery air. How sad. Carol had confused "yahrtzeit candles," candles lit on the anniversary of the passing of a loved one, with our Shabbat candles, the lights of joy and warmth, of family unity and peace of rest.

I tried to explain the meaning of these candles and the concept of Shabbat, and she listened quite attentively. When it was time, she lit her own candle and repeated the blessing with us word by word.

From that time on, until we sat down at the table, she was rather subdued and deep in thought. Sharone's children wanted our attention and help with their prayers, besides a few odds and ends that still needed to be done, which may have contributed to her silence and aloofness, or maybe she had changed her mind about the whole thing.

During the meal she grew more animated, and seemed quite interested in the discussion about Joseph and his brethren, the theme of that week's Torah reading. She nodded in agreement when she heard how Joseph remained steadfast in his beliefs in the splendor of the royal court.

"I can't begin to tell you what this evening has meant to me," Carol said as she prepared to leave. Outwardly she looked exactly the same as when we had first met, minus that necklace of course. "Something happened to me tonight," she said. "I don't know what it is and I don't know where it will continue or how or if. All I can say is that I will never forget it."

The self-assured competent sales-woman looked kind of lost when she left. Had she found the way, perhaps, I wondered. I do know she left a business card with Sharone, and knowing competitive Sharone the way I do, I expect her to put up an honorable fight. She made me aware that our work is never done, and that we never know in what unlikely places and under what unbelievable situations we may encounter a fellow-Jew whom it is our responsibility to help.