I grew up in the 80’s, in a typical suburban home in Tennessee.1 My mother is Jewish and my father was Christian, so my childhood was a scrambled mix of Christmas trees and Chanukah menorahs, church visits and the occasional Jewish service. All in all, religion took a backseat to more “important” values like sports, grades and social life.

Like most young people, I reached a point where I began to question the world around me. My father’s brother was a pastor, so I would get into long-winded arguments with him. His belief that just putting faith in one person could absolve a person of all their sins didn’t make sense to me. I was seeking truth, but had nowhere to turn to for answers.

One memory from my childhood stands out starkly. Although my mother was not observant, she did make an effort to instill a sense of Judaism within us. One Passover, we joined a family friend for the Seder. Something about the experience resonated deeply. Although I was surrounded by unfamiliar customs and traditions, I felt at home.

After high school, I joined the U.S. Army. During bootcamp, I had to declare my religion. Without thinking, I said, “I’m Jewish.” There was no logical reason for me to say Jewish over Christian, but on a gut level, I knew who I was.

After several years of service, I went to college and began looking for employment. I found a job working at a state prison in Florida as a correctional officer. My job requires me to maintain the security and wellbeing of inmates in a housing unit, a responsibility I take seriously.

Time flew by, and every day started looking more and more like the last. A few years ago, my father passed away. I felt a jolt rip through my seemingly ideal existence. I was getting through the days, but I didn’t feel like I was truly living. I was lost, disoriented, and unsure of the direction my life should take.

That’s when a chance encounter set me on a new path I never could have imagined. I was working at the prison one day when I ran into a man with a beard and black hat carrying a bulky bag. His name was Rabbi Mendy Katz, and he was from the Aleph Institute—an organization that provides material and spiritual support to men and women behind bars. To make conversation, I asked Rabbi Katz what was in the bag he was carrying. (Rabbi Katz didn’t know this at the time, but I actually already recognized that it was a tefillin bag.)

“It is a Jewish religious item,” he said.

“Why don’t you just tell me that there’s tefillin in the bag?” I replied with a smile.

His eyes grew large.

“Are you Jewish?” he asked me.

I gave my typical response when people ask me that question. “I don’t know, are you Jewish?”

The conversation lightened up after that. Rabbi Katz encouraged me to take a break to do a mitzvah. I resisted, saying I didn’t have time, but he convinced me to put on tefillin for one minute in the privacy of a small office. After that, Rabbi Katz warmly bade me farewell and went to visit the inmates while I returned to my duties.

When I came home from work that day, my mind kept filling with memories of the Passover Seder I had attended years ago as a child. Something about the warmth and kindness shown to me by Rabbi Katz triggered the long-lost memory.

Knowing that Passover was coming up, I was suddenly filled with an intense desire to attend another Seder. I didn’t want to call Rabbi Katz, because I felt that it would breach the separation I keep between work and my personal life. Instead, I went through the phone book and started leaving messages at every synagogue in my neighborhood.

Only one person called me back. It was the local Chabad shliach, Rabbi L.

Rabbi L invited me to join his family and community for the Seder and told me to come early.

When I arrived, Rabbi L helped me put on tefillin. Saying Shema was, to put it plainly, a shock to my system. I can’t describe why or how, but I felt something deep awaken within me.

Rabbi L introduced me to his wife, and when I told her that I work in a prison she said, “You might know my cousin! He works for the Aleph Institute.”

Here we go, I thought. The prison system is vast, and I was sure there was no chance I knew her cousin.

“His name is Rabbi Katz,” she added. I couldn’t believe the coincidence.

The first Seder was very moving, so I returned for the second one.

I started talking with another rabbi at the Seder, and the conversation somehow veered towards the topic of Jewish circumcision. When I told him that I had been circumcised in the hospital when I was born, the rabbi informed me that many hospital circumcisions are not done according to Jewish law and that a mohel could check if I am truly circumcised. It felt like a challenge to my ego. I thought, I’m a tough guy. I’m going to prove there’s nothing wrong with me. So I agreed to meet with him.

A few days later, I went to the synagogue to meet the mohel. To my surprise, Rabbi Katz was there in the synagogue as well. (I later discovered that this synagogue was also a center for the Aleph Institute.) The mohel told me that in fact, I was not properly circumcised.

Suddenly, I was facing an extreme choice: To have a brit milah or not to have a brit milah.

Here I was, connecting with my roots for the first time, getting closer to Rabbi L and his wonderful family, taking strides towards living a Jewish life and learning the responsibilities of a Jew. But now I was hearing that the very foundation of my Judaism was lacking, the first step in the Covenant was missing.

There comes a time in every person’s life when you need to make a decision for yourself. Not for your mother (who was against the idea), not for your friends (who would never understand), and not for all the people who would offer their commentary and opinions. I had to make this decision for me, and it had to be one I could live with. I was approaching 40, and I decided I wanted to have a brit.

A mohel and a very accomplished doctor did the procedure. (Although I can’t say knowing their years of experience made it any more comfortable.) My dear shliach, Rabbi L, served as the sandak. Elijah the Prophet is said to attend every single brit, so we left a special chair to honor his presence as well. I chose a Jewish name, after an uncle of my mother who never had children. The recovery was long, but after it was over, I felt more committed than ever. I was ready to really start living.

The L’s welcomed me into their home with open arms. Bonding with them, I learned not only about Torah but also how a Jewish family lives and behaves. I had never seen such warmth, closeness and purpose before.

Perhaps it was my military training, but the idea of mitzvot (commandments) made sense to me. As a kid, I struggled with the idea of Christianity because it seemed to absolve personal responsibility. Judaism, in contrast, empowered me to accept each mitzvah as a personal mission and challenge. It was a journey of continuous growth, and there was never a time when I could say “It’s enough,” because there is always more room to grow.

Over the next three years, I became more and more observant and started looking for my soulmate. I can thank Facebook for being my matchmaker, because one day a woman’s name popped up on Facebook and I messaged her, “Happy Hanukkah.” The rest, as they say, is history. We got to talking and then met in person. She came from an Orthodox family and when I went to meet her family, I discovered that they lived on the same block as Rabbi Katz.

One year later, we got married and are now expecting our first child. There’s nothing that shifts your perspective into startling clarity like becoming a parent. I want to give my child what I never had: the knowledge of who he or she is at the core. I want to tell my child, “You have a soul. You are connected to G‑d.” Most importantly, I want to be a role model, to set an example by the way I live. I cannot change my past, but now I have a chance to transform the future.

I thank G‑d for orchestrating the events that led Rabbi Katz to my housing unit that day. I originally called that encounter “coincidence,” but now I recognize that it was Divine Providence. I was lost, and meeting Rabbi Katz helped me find my way home. At every step of the way, he seemed to pop up on the sidelines, like a guardian angel guiding me along the path to my future.

And now, as I try to navigate taking off from work on Shabbat and Jewish holidays, the Aleph Institute is helping me achieve that.

Everything comes full circle, and I am so grateful to everyone for being there at the beginning and at every step throughout my journey to Judaism. But in Judaism we are taught to never stop growing, so in truth, this is still only the beginning.