Tova Mordechai may not be the most typical of Shabbat table guests, but for the attendees of a recent Shabbaton in Ottawa, Canada, the Chasidic author and speaker who was once an evangelical minister was one of the most inspiring.

The weekend event, "Playing With Fire: the Long Return Home," took its name from the title of Mordechai's 1991 book, To Play With Fire: One Woman's Remarkable Odyssey. That work chronicles the author's spiritual journey, from her childhood as Tonica Marlow, the daughter of an Egyptian Jewish woman and a Protestant minister, to her embracing her Jewish identity to the fullest. Today, Mordechai resides in Safed, Israel, with her husband and three sons, and serves as an assistant to the directors of two Chabad-Lubavitch women's seminaries.

"Our community was very moved by her talk," said Rabbi Chaim Mendelsohn, co-director of Ottawa's Chabad-Lubavitch of Centre Pointe. "We were touched by her whole experience."


Mendelsohn booked Mordechai for the appearance when he learned of a journey she was making to North America.

"On the deepest level," said Mendelsohn, "her story relates to every person, in that we all have a certain inhibition to soaring spiritually."

Cheryl Aroosi, 53, read Mordechai's book several years ago and eagerly awaited the opportunity to hear her speak in person. At the Shabbaton, the message affected Aroosi personally.

The talk "left me with the belief that you must explore what you feel," she said. "Only then will you find the truth and any answers to questions that might be inside of you. Tova has inspired me by proving that one must continue to dig deeper and look beyond what is in front of our eyes."

The small Chabad House drew an exceptionally large crowd of 75 guests for each of the event's night and day sessions.

"It's a very nice blend of people," reported Mordechai. The crowd was "very warm, open to grow, open to receive and very giving too."

Awakening the Soul

Tova Mordechai with one of her grandchildren
Tova Mordechai with one of her grandchildren
In her speaking engagements, Mordechai focuses on the "rejuvenation of the Jewish soul." Though she usually covers such topics as Shabbat, the Jewish dietary laws, and the mezuzah, in Ottawa, Mordechai instead focused on the importance of the Jewish soul and one's relationship with G‑d. She also placed particular emphasis on the importance of every Jew, no matter his or her spiritual standing.

"The connection to the spiritual aspect of ourselves is not just for hippies and weirdoes," said Mordechai. "I emphasize how [people are] beautiful, holy and connected to G‑d right now, because they're a Jew. I tell them that you can do even a little bit, and still be very acceptable and valuable before G‑d."

Though Mordechai spoke for longer than a typical presenter, the guests were still eager for more.

"She spoke for an extraordinarily long time," said Mendelsohn, "so I was worried that people would have lost interest. But when they came out from the meal, they were wide-eyed and overcome with inspiration. They even sat for hours waiting in line and asking questions. It was like she was a celebrity."

The heightened attention was thanks to Mordechai's compelling personal account, according to Aroosi.

"I was just enthralled by her story," she said. "How she was drawn to Judaism was so inspiring."

Bassy Mendelsohn, co-director of Chabad-Lubavitch of Centre Point, agreed.

"It was a real inspiration to see and hear from someone who went from one extreme to the other, and how that that experience has meaning for someone in their own Jewish journey," she said.

"The nature of my talk touches the soul," added Mordechai. "It hits a very deep core in even the most assimilated Jew."