On November 7th of this year, I was invited to attend the 27th International Conference and Banquet of Chabad Emissaries in Brooklyn, New York. Together with Rabbi Yossel Kranz of Chabad of Virginia, I joined almost five thousand Chabad rabbis and lay leaders from all over the world for a weekend of inspiration, learning, and camaraderie.

Within the Richmond Jewish community, many wanted to know: why did I go? Well, first of all, my terrific wife was giving me a free (I hope) four-day pass to NY! She said, “You can go as long as you promise not to come back wearing a black hat!” Second, I really love food, and a banquet with 4,500 rabbis was sure to be filled with great food. So I promised not to get a black hat, and set off to Brooklyn.

I always felt wholly accepted the way I wasI was really motivated to go. I couldn’t help but wonder: was my assessment of Chabad correct, or did I just have one too many l’chaims?

Just three years ago I thought Chabad was trying to “reel me in” to a hardcore religious lifestyle. That’s what they do, right? But no matter how many times I spent Shabbat dinner with Rabbi Kranz and his beautiful wife Nechomi, I never felt pressured to do anything. On the contrary, I always felt wholly accepted the way I was. I never felt judged for what I did or didn’t do, only genuine delight in my being there. I started going to the Chabad Community Shul a couple times a month, and once again, there was only sincere pleasure in my participating—in English, mind you, as I don’t read Hebrew.

Can it be, I thought to myself? Chassidic Jews who don’t frown on those less observant? Jews who are true to our traditions themselves but embrace every Jew as they are?

My visit to New York left no doubt. These people are for real. When they say their whole mission is to help another Jew in any way they need, they mean it. One cannot help but to be inspired by their sincerity, honesty and joy.

While I was there, besides eating at every house I walked into, I also met many new friends, and of course a few thousand rabbis along the way whom became my new friends very quickly. It was the strongest connection to Judaism I ever felt. True to the philosophy, there was no judgment. Only love for every one there. It was obvious and honest. From the “Shabbat Shalom” that greeted me from every person I passed to the incredible hospitality that beckons from every house, I couldn’t have felt more welcome.

I’m not religious and I’m not wealthy. I’m Jewish, and that’s all that seemed to matter.

I’m not religious and I’m not wealthy. I’m Jewish, and that’s all that seemed to matterI was surprised how many supporters Chabad has from all over the globe. Like me, each one had a story of how they came to Chabad. We all felt so lucky to be a part of this unbelievable movement and blown away by how many people—Jew and non-Jew alike—Chabad inspires all over the world.

Chabad-Lubavitch came to America with the fundamental belief that every Jew, regardless of affiliation or background, possesses a G‑dly spark, common to all Jews and equal in all Jews. Even in Brooklyn, at Chabad World Headquarters, 770 Eastern Parkway, I was an equal with 10,000 other chassidim dressed in black.

I’m so happy I went, and I thank my wife and rabbi for giving me the opportunity. If there’s one thing I learned from everybody I met, it’s that I too can open my home to guests on Friday night. I too can be more accepting and loving. I too can reach out a helping hand to a fellow Jew who may have given up on an uplifting, nurturing, inspirational Judaism.