I had limited knowledge about Chabad. I knew that they were part of the chassidic movement, which to me meant that they were probably cult-like and out of touch with reality. I had been approached by Chabad members on campus in college and on the streets of New York City. “Are you Jewish?” they would ask boldly, and I would withdraw with skepticism.

Given my disparaging but uninformed view of Chabad, I was shocked when I found out They were probably out of touch with realitylast year that my nephew Adam had become affiliated with Chabad and was living in Brooklyn. I was even more surprised when I heard that he had progressed from “having a girlfriend” to “bringing the girl home to meet my sister and her husband” to “becoming engaged” in the matter of a few short months. Adam, with the help of a matchmaker, had gone on dates with several women from the community before he met Sara, his bride.

Soon after that I experienced my first Orthodox Jewish wedding, complete with black hats, men dancing with men, women dancing with women, and a ceremonial tradition where the bride circles the groom seven times.

While mingling with guests at the wedding party, I reunited with old friends that I hadn’t seen in a while. Sue and Rob told me that they had recently joined the Chabad congregation in their town. They raved about the rabbi, and were regular participants at the Sunday morning Torah class called “Food for Thought.” That gave Chabad a certain amount of credibility in my eyes, as Sue and Rob were grounded, intelligent people, and I didn’t remember them as being overly religious.

Intrigued, the following week, I looked up the Chabad in my own town. Their center, located on a well-trafficked street on the edge of a residential neighborhood, had no sign, but the huge menorah positioned in front of it clearly proclaimed it a Jewish center. I later learned that Chabad centers are literally called “Chabad Houses” and are located in residential areas, so they can be in walking distance of the (Jewish) community. A Chabad House will generally host classes and lectures on Jewish topics, religious services, Shabbat meals and special events. They typically do not charge membership—if you are Jewish, you are a member.

The local Chabad’s website listed a Torah class for women on Wednesday mornings, which I decided to attend. The following Wednesday I rang the doorbell of the Chabad House, and the door was opened by a pretty, young woman dressed in a long striped dress. She looked at me with surprise and then introduced herself as Chava. Apparently, the class had started an hour earlier, at 9:45. I apologized, explaining that I thought it started at 10:45, and followed her through the entry hall to a room with a large rectangular table. I didn’t want to interruptThree middle-aged women were seated around it, clearly the participants of the Torah class, with opened books in front of them. I quickly introduced myself and encouraged them to continue their discussion; I didn’t want to interrupt.

Chava handed me a book, opened to the page they were discussing. The title of the passage was “Preparing for a Wedding,” and Chava explained that our relationship with G‑d, “Hashem,” was like a marriage: the bond gets stronger with time and effort.

She reviewed the concepts the group had discussed over the last hour. Her comments were unlike anything I had heard before:

“When we listen to our G‑dly soul, versus our animalistic soul, Hashem is happy.”

“Nothing happens to you randomly; it’s part of G‑d’s plan.”

“When bad things happen, people question whether He disappears. Is He always there? He’s here, and everything that happens is part of the plan. We don’t know the end of the story, the divine plan.”

“The more you strengthen your faith, the more liberating it is.”

The more I heard, the more uncomfortable I felt. I didn’t believe the Torah was given by G‑d. Truthfully, I didn’t even believe in G‑d. I wanted to learn the stories and interpretations of Torah because it is the seminal book of the Jewish people. How could I truly understand my Jewish heritage without at least a surface understanding of the teachings of Torah? Sure, I had heard Bible stories as a preteen in Hebrew school, but I didn’t pay much attention to them—they seemed archaic and irrelevant. Now, as an adult, I believed that I would be able to see them as colorful narratives with deep meaning about Jewish values. But how could I learn Torah with people who interpreted its words literally and believed that G‑d is all-powerful?

When the Torah class was finished, I spent some time chatting with the other women. I told them about my spiritual exploration into Judaism, Buddhism and humanism, and how I wanted to have a better understanding of the Torah to become a more informed Jew. I took a deep breath and confessed that I did not believe in G‑d but felt a strong sense of Jewish identity and a cultural tie to my heritage. I pondered out loud about whether I would gain value in continuing with the class, given that my religious views were so different from theirs.

The women all encouraged me to keep coming to classes. Chava commented that the content of this particular Torah class was much more philosophical than other classes, and she described Chabad as “non-judgmental” regarding religious beliefs. She explained that they were simply there to teach and provide a community center for Jews in the neighborhood.

After the other students left, Chava showed me around the Chabad House and explained that she, her husband and four youngest children lived upstairs (the older two lived away at Chabad yeshivahs). Chava showed me the sanctuary where services were held. She was warm and friendly, and encouraged me to attend the next Torah class.

I’ve felt like a welcome member of the She was warm and friendly, and encouraged me to attend the next Torah classChabad community since I stepped across the threshold that very first time. Chabad has become an important part of my ongoing spiritual journey, and while I still don’t believe everything that is being taught in the classes, I’m enchanted by the stories of my forefathers and mothers, and find great meaning in the narrative. Our discussions at Torah class have helped me understand the rabbis’ interpretations, and this knowledge has transformed the ancient text into valuable ethical lessons I can apply to my secular life. My visits to Chabad enable me to escape the hustle-bustle of everyday life for an hour, focus on my inner growth and spirituality, and leave feeling renewed and inspired to live a more meaningful life.