My trip to Bhutan was part of my seven-year sojourn in China. I didn’t intend to stay for so long, and I certainly never imagined it would lead me back to Judaism.

It began when I fell in love with the language, which lit me up like an electric sign post on a dark country road, during my first year of university. After graduating, I set off to achieve my lifetime goal of becoming fluent in Chinese.

At the time, I was a rather disaffected Jew. I grew up in a Conservative shul, went to Hebrew afterschool programming, and had a bar mitzvah where I didn't put on tefillin. My parents were well-intentioned, and had they been able to afford it, would have sent me to a prestigious Jewish day school. Their hearts were in the right place. Ultimately, however, by the time I turned 18, I didn’t know why Judaism was important to me or what it truly had to offer.

I went to university but felt the skills I learned there didn’t prepare me for much. After years of laboring in libraries, poring over academic books, and writing papers, I was ready to investigate knowledge that came in a different format.

My spiritual seeking then was motivated by a desire to immerse myself in a rural society where I naively believed people had values aligned toward the basic necessities of life. I had noticed from prior travels that people who had these values were more appreciative of life, in comparison to people who grew up with everything—electricity, running water, supermarkets, etc. Minimalism was my first true spiritual experience—spiritual, not religious.

I’ll never forget landing in Bhutan. As we descended, greenish-brown mountains arose on both sides. “Where is the runway?” I kept wondering. There was no runway!—almost. Tucked between squared off farmland with barely more than a cow fence around it, we landed on a narrow strip of concrete in what was otherwise a country nearly entirely of dirt. This, I realized, would be a different kind of trip.

One hundred countries—and many more ethnicities—were represented at the conference I was attending. My small cohort included rural people from six different continents. Even nestled within all this diversity, I never thought to include myself as an ethnic minority. I didn’t hide my Jewishness; I simply didn’t know much about it.

Being in Bhutan, I believed, would help me find my roots. I wanted to be around people with living traditions.

Three key moments during my stay continue to impact my life.

The rain didn’t stop for the hundred-person tribe we visited. We went to a tiny temple to pray for it to stop. With our 22 ethnicities represented we climbed a steep hill to what was essentially a 150-square-foot hovel. Each person prayed in their own language. I translated for the ethnic minority from China so that the rest of our group could understand their prayer. As we left the dark confines of the tiny temple and returned to the bright sunshine (the rain had stopped after we’d prayed), the chief organizer turned toward me, “I’m surprised you didn’t pray.”

On the bus ride out, after three days of camping on the side of a mountain, I felt myself wonder: Am I, too, a part of these people who live in faith?

We had expected to be talking about science and the natural world, not religious rituals. Yet every conversation started with religion and only then progressed to the natural world.

Our next stop was a wealthy village known for its mushroom harvesting. We spent another 12 hours on the bus, watching the climate, altitude, and ecosystem all change. We passed monkeys hanging from 150-foot pine trees and snow-covered mountains in the distance.

We stopped along the winding muddy road, and I got out, eager to stretch my legs. My Indian and Tajik cohorts—by this time like family—smoked a cigarette outside.

We posed for a selfie together.

The Tajik man wore his long dress and a traditional cap, and pointed at the Patagonia and North Face logos on my clothes. “That’s your tradition,” he said.

My face turned red. I was Jewish, I thought. Surely, I had tradition. But what clothing would I wear?

He was right!

The trip was drawing to a close. We had seen and tasted, felt and spoken. Now we gathered in a giant conference hall tree house. Screens were strung up under tents, giant pine trees punctuated the outside. I sat down to watch a mini documentary by a Kanakanavu woman from Taiwan. Her tribe, known for clam fishing, had fewer than 500 members remaining.

As if to add insult to injury, the last Monsoon season had completely wiped out their infrastructure. As she showed the documentary, she was in tears. I was in tears. Her heart was broken. My heart was broken. Her people, it appeared, were about to die out. It was as if G‑d was speaking to me so eloquently through her.

She was losing touch by circumstance; I was losing touch by choice. It was a painful realization. I knew I had to return. The answer to most of my questions was to return.

And so, I returned to China. It would have made more sense to go to Jerusalem. It was not logical to go to China in search of Judaism, but isn’t G‑d everywhere? It’s a very Chassidic insight—albeit one I hadn’t had yet at that time.

I returned to China from Bhutan in 2014, and came back to the United States in late 2019, just before Covid.

In the intervening years, G‑d made his presence felt in two more key moments, including when I learned how to make challah from the Chinese man who would become my best friend.

While there, I found a book that would impact the rest of my life: The Jew in the Lotus. I was stunned—I was the Jew and I was in the Lotus.

But let me tell you the circumstances in which I came across it. Because It found me.

By divine orchestration, the book found its way to the Chinese town years before I’d ever set foot in it, or before most outsiders had ever even heard of it. The man I borrowed it from read it years before that. And of all the places I could have gone, I walked into his rock climbing and pizza shop and spotted it on the bookshelf.

They say cries of the heart open the gates of Heaven and bring forth G‑d’s mercy. I’ve always found that I can’t evoke these cries myself, but when the feelings arise naturally and the situation overwhelms me, my heart releases a cry on its own and the gates of heaven open. Something shifts, and like the last pebble which falls before the rockslide, the gates pour out their mercy.

I remember the sequence so clearly. Something was going crazy inside me, and I said to myself: If I don’t find a Jewish book here I am going to lose my mind. I ventured into town to see a man I’d worked for but never met and did not even know was Jewish. And there was this book, in my very own backyard, in one of the most backwater regions of this country of 1.6 billion people.

I devoured it. I read it several times. I looked up every footnote and made a list of every book I would buy the next time I was back in the United States.

The book taught me one major lesson: Judaism could be a part of me.

The book exposed me to the Baal Shem Tov’s approach—that unlearned peasants had wisdom and power inaccessible to scholars—which resonated with me powerfully. It was practically in line with the research I was doing in the first place.

I was lit up by the realization that Jews had ties to the East—after all, Israel is the western edge of Asia. It was powerful and enlightening to discover that Western culture is not synonymous with Jewish culture—an insight I could only appreciate after having spent so much time away from the West as a member of a world that is quite alien to it.

G‑d made many things happen between that time and when I became Torah observant. I eventually realized that spirituality is not about a feeling or an idea, but about improving oneself and growing. And I realized I couldn’t do that in a community I couldn’t see myself settling down and establishing roots in. When I realized this, it was time to go home.

And I did. I moved back to Boston and started keeping Shabbat. The Chabad rabbi I was closest to in my home town gave me my first pair of tefillin. I moved to the center of the Orthodox community here, found a shul that I grew to love, and am now on the path to settle down and start a Jewish family.

The rains of Bhutan softened the soil of my soul. It was much easier to sink my shovel in and dig for water down below. Just like the digging I did with the peasants when I worked with them in the fields.

Having found that water, unlike in Bhutan, I no longer have to rely on the rain. Now, the water bubbles forth on its own. I met myself in Bhutan, my Jewish self. G‑d made the match. And now with great joy and tears of relief, I continue the conversation with myself, nourished by the springs of my soul.