When I peeked out the window on the morning of Saturday, January 23, 2016, I realized that all of the dire weather predictions had come true. More than a foot of snow had fallen overnight, on top of the six inches or so that had accumulated the day before.

The Washington, D.C., region was in the midst of a full-on blizzard with wind gustsThe dire weather predictions had come true that would reach 40 mph—a storm so ferocious that the federal government would shut down for two days and the area’s public transit network would be paralyzed. A storm so fierce that it was given the nickname “Snowzilla.”

Photos of empty store shelves in supermarkets were all over social media. Hundreds of thousands of homes along the East Coast were left without heat because of power outages. Sadly, there would be dozens of fatalities.

Weathercasters were warning that these were dangerous conditions. Stay off the roads, they said. Don’t venture outside.

Yet I had only one thought on my mind that cold, blustery, snow-packed Shabbat morning: I need to get to synagogue.

My little synagogue, as I like to call the Chabad Lubavitch of Alexandria-Arlington, is always the eye of the storm. It’s a place of tranquility, reflection and Torah learning in a frenzied, 24/7, hyper-connected digital universe.

Over the years, I’ve developed a heartfelt appreciation for the gift of spending Shabbat in the warmth of this heimishe (homey) environment.

For a busy Washington professional, setting aside one day for prayer, joyful singing, comradery, a delicious kiddush, and maybe some schnapps, keeps the embers of Judaism burning.

And why should a few snowflakes prevent me from fulfilling my religious obligation? Fellow Jews have endured much harsher conditions, even risking (and losing) their lives to pray.

My move to the area a few years ago was motivated in part by a desire to be within walking distance to the Chabad center.

But I was still over 1.5 miles away, and I had cautioned the rabbi that I could get there by foot every week only “weather permitting.”

The blizzard presented a perplexing conundrum. Driving was not an option (and prohibited on Shabbat anyway), but to some extent, neither was walking.

With the snow continuing to fall heavily that Shabbat morning, I vowed that I would brave the elements as an act of faith. Jews have weathered every storm imaginable over the millennia, so why not this one?

But I also saw the walk as something very personal. Traipsing through wind-driven snow, blowing not just horizontally but even upwards in seeming defiance of gravity, was my way of saying “thank you.”

Thank you Rabbi Mordechai Newman, Yehudis and your eight adorable children for spreading Judaism in our community. Thank you for going that extra step—that extra mile—often with little or no acknowledgement. Thank you for being there to inspire us, rain or shine.

The author with Rabbi Mordechai Newman
The author with Rabbi Mordechai Newman

This time, I wanted to make the sort of Herculean effort they made every day. Plus, I’m a native New Englander and an avid walker. I could handle this. What could possibly go wrong?

A short stroll the night before under slightly less onerous conditions convinced me that four layers of clothing beneath my winter coat would do the trick.

I’d wear my thickest hat, warmest gloves and highest boots. My longest scarf would be wrapped around my face, topped with extra-large goggles to protect my glasses.

I was off to synagogue, and I could easily have been mistaken for a visiting extraterrestrial or Himalayan yeti surveying a surreal, snow-covered landscape.

I was quickly disabused of any notion that this would be a proverbial walk in the park. Before I even reached the end of my cul-de-sac, I was feeling the strain. The snow was so high that it was forcing me to raise my heavy boots up more than a foot or so with each step. I was already short of breath.

Maybe I should turn around?

A few blocks away, I came across an ominous sign. A huge, imposing pick-up truck (this is Virginia, after all), the kind you see in commercials tearing across rockyShould I cut and run? terrain, was stuck. The driver hadn’t made it out of the parking lot before the storm halted his mammoth vehicle in its tracks.

If that guy fell victim to the storm, what did that say for my prospects? Should I cut and run? Certainly the rabbi would understand. This was a historic blizzard after all.

I pressed on, stopping momentarily in a breezeway-turned-wind-tunnel at a nearby shopping plaza to adjust my goggles and scarf. I’m about a third of the way there, I thought to myself. I can do this.

When I rounded the corner to the Chabad House, some of the rabbi’s children were huddled by the doorway to welcome me. As one of the few moving objects on the streets that wasn’t a plow, I’d been easily spotted.

I was among three congregants who made it to synagogue that day. But it felt like a full house, thanks to the presence of the rabbi and his family.

Of the many surprises that snowy Saturday, there was this: Shabbat feels special even when you don’t have a minyan (the quorum of 10 needed for communal prayer). It took an epic blizzard to help me appreciate the meaningfulness of private, individual prayer.

I was still connecting with G‑d and basking in the glow of Judaism. And when it came time for a little Torah intrigue, there was another upside. With so few congregants, we turned the sermon into a participatory study session.

This was my chance to ask probing questions about the weekly Torah portion. I fixated on Mt. Sinai and the 40 years of meandering through the desert: Why had we traveled so far south following our exodus from Egypt? Do we know exactly where the mountain is located? Does anything remain of our presence there?

Wandering Jews? I could relate.

During the kiddush reception, there was another Shabbat first for our little synagogue. We positioned the tables so we could peer out the windows to see the snow as it quietly blanketed the area.

“How much more precipitation can the region handle?” we nervously quizzed each other. And would I be able to safely reach home now that the snow was even higher?

I suggested to Yehudis that if I had to remain at the Chabad center all week, she could charge me the prevailing Airbnb rate.

I was only half joking.

When I was ready to leave, the rabbi and some of his children joined me outside to send me on my way. It was the first and only time I’ve seen the always nattily dressed rabbi in a balaclava.

The blizzard had intensified. I was quickly enveloped by intense whiteout conditions, and was forced to walk in the roads because no sidewalks had been cleared.

The blizzard of January 2016
The blizzard of January 2016

My goggles immediately frosted over, and my glasses fogged up. Visibility was down to a minimum, and I could see less than two feet in front of me.

Yet I’ve never seen more clearly in my life.

I was exactly where G‑d wanted me to be. Walking home after spending another inspiring Shabbat at my little neighborhood synagogue.

The next week, I was back in synagogue, and this time the stroll was much easier. Amazingly, even after considerable melting, there was still a lot of snow on the ground.

During theThe storm had brought me full circle Torah reading, a passage about the Jews camping at the base of Mt. Sinai jumped off the page.

I knew instantly—before the rabbi uttered my Hebrew name, “Dovid ben Shmuel”—that I would be called to the Torah for this aliyah.

For me, the storm had brought me full circle. It strengthened my bond with synagogue, faith and Torah study. And it connected me with a period in Judaism when every step into the unknown brought us closer to the Land of Israel.

This was truly one for the record books. For many, the blizzard of 2016 will be recorded in snow totals. For this grateful Chabadnik, it will be measured in a much deeper way: mitzvahs and blessings.