Whether it was learning Torah or helping prepare for Shabbat at the Chabad House in Tokyo, the rebbetzin’s kitchen was her mission control. We would stand side by side, preparing the challah dough. The rebbetzin would measure out flour from a huge sack. When the dough had risen, we separated off a fistful and made a blessing on it. The rest we rolled out into logs and braided, talking about family, friends and Torah while waiting for the bread to rise.

She talked about how every child was a blessing, and I loved her positive scan for the good in everyone. We also spoke about mundane things that weren’t so trivial to the young rabbi and rebbetzin with little working knowledge of the Japanese language. Where do you buy ripe, but not too ripe, avocados? Where do you stand—by the door or crouch under the table—if a big earthquake hits? We spoke about topics I’d never considered before, like where to go to get a wig washed and blow-dried. In the rebbetzin’s kitchen, conversation meandered this way and that, while trays of challah baked in the oven. The rebbetzin handed me a roll to taste.

I washed my hands and slowly recited the blessings. “Mmm, perfect,” I said.

The rebbetzin made herself available to me, despite having not a free second for herself. I wanted to learn and I wanted to give back, and yet my insecurities persisted about where I was heading with this growing connection to Chabad House.

My daughter, Shoshana, also had her doubts and her questions. They were a child’s questions and just as valid as mine. She wanted to know why she couldn’t share her chocolate with the rebbetzin’s growing brood of children. The chocolate had been stamped with a “K” for kosher, but also a “D” for dairy. It meant that the milk put in the chocolate wasn’t chalav Yisrael and didn’t have the standard of rabbinical supervision that the rebbetzin required.

“Then I never want to be like them,” she pouted, with a preschooler’s precocious convictions. On another occasion, Shoshana brought her favorite orange plush monkey, a soft, velvety toy to Chabad House. She wanted to present the monkey to the rebbetzin’s son. I had to gently steer her away from that sweet gesture, after the rebbetzin pulled me aside to explain the problem with stuffed animals of a certain type. She expounded that the Rebbe had taught that what one sees leaves lasting impressions, especially on young children, so her children didn’t play with non-kosher animals.

“But why, Mama?”

“The monkey is not a kosher animal.”

“The baby isn’t going to eat the toy, is he?”

The rebbetzin was gentle in declining the gifts of non-kosher animals and other things that I had no idea were not acceptable to her. Shoshana didn’t like the rejection; she was also bothered by the growing gap between how she was being raised at home and what she saw at the Chabad House.

It would have been different if she had cousins to play with, but her Japanese relatives of the same age were seen under the most solemn of occasions—dressed in party dresses and little suits for weddings and funerals. So, sadly, Shoshana had little chance to know her cousins in a relaxed way. She had few friends in the neighborhood, although her classmates’ mothers weren’t shy to ask me to give their children English lessons. Spending Shabbat at Chabad House intensified her feeling different from the rebbetzin’s children. The heroes of Shoshana’s favorite fairy tales—lions, tigers, horses, bears and pigs—were non-kosher animals. I told Shoshana that we could respect Chabad’s ways and follow our own at home.

I kept returning though, because there was more to respect than not. The rebbetzin had been incredibly courageous to leave behind a familiar world and community back in Brooklyn. N.Y. Instead, here she was adjusting to the unfathomable, birthing and raising Chassidic children and educating them on tatami-mat floors. She would role-play with Shoshana and her own toddlers. Shoshana loved when the rebbetzin stooped over, grabbed an umbrella and behaved like a very old lady in order to get the children to care for the weak. Shoshana became her happiest self when given the chance to run and bring the old lady a chair or a glass of water. The rebbetzin made the children laugh, got their undivided attention, and with a scarf over her wig, a tremble in her voice, the great actress could barely conceal she was pregnant with another baby.

I stood in the small foyer after picking up Shoshana, and, as often happened, talk was so meaningful that I found it hard to pull myself away. I wanted to understand their way of life but not necessarily follow it, until I came to realize that becoming an “observant” Jew was not just about observing. It meant following, too. As long as I resisted, a plexiglass wall existed between me and the Chabad way of life with the Rebbe guiding a mission that I was the beneficiary of, but couldn’t quite bring myself to follow. This family practiced selflessness, kindness and inclusiveness like nothing I had ever witnessed before. The rebbetzin listened to my self-doubts and offered a surprising take of her own. “We are all on the same journey. As more light comes into us, we have more light to give, to serve, to be available to help other people,” she said encouragingly.

And while I was taking notes, my children were being nourished Shabbat after Shabbat by a lot more than hearty salads, kosher chicken and freshly baked challah. They grasped that dietary restrictions weren’t punishment but values to celebrate, to stay with them for a lifetime. In their own way, they became observant, too. It was my daughter who raised the bar on keeping meat and milk dishes, cutlery, and pots and pans separate in our home, and it was my son who would speed-read in Japanese to decipher supermarket labels and figure out what we could and couldn’t eat. Now, beyond my wildest imaginings, he works hard for a company in Tokyo to actually introduce kosher food to the Japanese.

We are all on the same journey. The rebbetzin’s encouraging words echo in my head.