Sometimes, our deepest spiritual experiences come when we least expect them, when we are closest to despair. And it is then that the masks we wear are stripped away. We are at our point of maximumI vowed never to associate myself with Jews vulnerability—and so we are most fully open to G‑d, and G‑d is most fully open to us.

And that is what happened to me. I’ve experienced G‑d in the shadows and in the magic of ordinary days.

Here is my story.

I grew up in a neighborhood in Brooklyn that was home to a very insular, close-knit religious community. Since my family was not observant, we were treated with intolerance and cruelty, and I was bullied on a daily basis. When I was 8, I was violated by a religious man in that community. My world turned upside-down. I vowed to never associate myself with Jews, except for my family. I kept that vow until I was 56 years old.

I was a spiritual child, and I began searching for G‑d. When I was 19, I found the Pentecostal Church, and I spent 35 years there. I felt loved by G‑d and had a wonderful community. I had no inclination or desire to explore or revisit my life as a Jew.

Then I lost both my parents within 11 months of one another.

When my mother passed, I wanted to say Kaddish for her, but I didn’t know how. So I explored the Internet and found Ask, a website where you can chat with a rabbi or rebbetzin and ask any Judaism-related questions. There I saw the strange words “Chabad-Lubavitch.” I was curious about what that meant, so I looked it up and found that Chabad-Lubavitch was a movement that believed in loving every Jew. I was stunned.

My nature is to investigate things, so I contacted a Chabad rabbi, Moshe Gourarie. I told him I was a Jewish woman who practiced Christianity, and I needed help with the Kaddish prayer. He immediately invited me to his home. I was resistant, but finally he convinced me to come. For hours on end, I spoke to him and his wife, Chanie, about my hatred for the Jewish G‑d and for Jews. He finally asked me why, and I told him.

His sorrow was overwhelming. I could see his pain. And 13 years later, I can still remember his wife’s words. She said, “Meryl, I have the greatest respect for you that you came here today after what you have been through.” She was so sincere; her face was red, and she had tears in her eyes. It was very unusual for me to see emotion and caring in a Jew.

And then Rabbi Gourarie went to work trying to prove to me that G‑d and His kindness and greatness was my inheritance. I put him through his paces until almost midnight. When I was leaving, he asked me to light Shabbat candles the following Friday night, and he gave me a Shabbat kit. Because he was so kind and asked for nothing, I felt I had to do the favor. Well, I have been lighting those Shabbat candles ever since.

For the past 13 years, I’ve been learning and growing and loving who I am as a Jewish woman. I’m in awe of the miracles and wonders of G‑d. The first time I was taken to the Ohel (the Rebbe’s resting place), I cried until my shoulders shook. It was spiritual surgery. And every single time I’ve prayed at the Ohel, my prayers have been answered, thank G‑d.

I learned that the G‑dly spark, the pintele yid, was there inside of me; it just needed love, caring and patience to come forth. And that is what Rabbi Gourarie and Chanie have done. They follow the Rebbe and the mission of Chabad to bring every Jew back, to show us that we are loved no matter where we areI had a bat mitzvah at the age of 65 holding. I also became close with Rivka Feldman, Chani’s mother, who studied with me one-on-one for a very long time. We both grew together in faith and love through learning Torah.

I had a bat mitzvah at the age of 65 at my Chabad House, which was an incredible experience. And since I have no children, Rabbi Gourarie and Chanie even named their daughter Leah for my mother! Now Leah Gourarie will go out in the world and do many mitzvahs in my mother’s name. What a blessing it is to be so loved by my Chabad family!

There are times in our lives when we are tested, and this past year was one of those times for me. Chassidic philosophy teaches us that there is always a bigger picture; we just have to have faith. We have to open ourselves up to receive all that heaven wants to give us. If we’re full of self-concern, wondering “What will become of me?” or “Where is life taking me?” then there’s no room for life or G‑d to enter. But with a simple, open, joyful spirit, we give our challenges over to G‑d and allow His blessings to enter our lives.

King David writes in Psalms, “I lift my eyes to the mountains, from whence will come my help?” People believe that only fools are optimists. But the opposite is true. Precisely because we understand how desperate the situation really is, how helpless we are and how impossible the challenge, we see how great a G‑d we have—a G‑d who can lift us beyond the natural order and transform the most ominous darkness to brilliant good.

And that has been my experience. I was diagnosed with cancer this past March. My doctors told me that this particular cancer, leiomyosarcoma, is the very deadly, aggressive and rare of cancers, and in my case, totally resistant to chemo and to radiation to a certain degree1. My prognosis was even worse because I had two huge masses in my pelvis that were deeply embedded and tangled in other organs. I was told that I would probably lose my bladder since these masses were pressing and wrapping themselves all around my ureters, and I would have to be hooked up to tubes and wires for the rest of my life. When my doctor told me this, he was in tears. I would be living what life I had left a partial invalid. It was absolutely horrible.

I was blessed to be introduced to Dr. Fraker, a world-renowned surgeon who is the head of surgical oncology at University of Pennsylvania Medical School and specializes in leiomyosarcoma. There are only two surgeons in the tri-state area that do this type of rare surgery. I was also blessed to have Dr. Wasserman as my oncologist. I knew G‑d was on my side when I saw that he wore a yarmulke and tzitzit. After my visit with Dr. Wasserman, he asked me, “What is your Hebrew name? We’ll pray for you in my shul.” I quietly thanked G‑d for sending this doctor my way.

My first appointment with Dr. Fraker went well, and he scheduled my surgery for June 8. But when I got home, I decided I was going to postpone my surgery until after Shavuot. I wanted to make sure I was going to be there to celebrate the giving of the Ten Commandments, when theI was diagnosed with cancer Jews became a nation at Mount Sinai. But I was also nervous about rescheduling. Dr. Fraker was a very busy surgeon who traveled and lectured all over the world, and how would he react if I said no to the date he picked for my surgery?

I spoke to Janet, his secretary, and expressed my request. She was quiet and then said: “Meryl, I’ll tell Dr. Fraker about your request, and I want to tell you it is a pleasure and honor to speak with a woman of faith.” I was shocked and relieved.

That evening the phone rang, and it was Dr. Fraker calling me personally about my surgery. He said: “Hi, Meryl. So I hear you want to change your surgery because of a Jewish holiday?”

I knew I had to stand firm and have faith in G‑d. So I said: “Yes, Dr. Fraker. And by the way, I have an appointment to see you on Friday, so I have to ask you to make that appointment earlier since it is my Sabbath, and I want to be home to light my Shabbat candles.”

There was total silence at the other end of the line. I thought my heart would jump out of my chest.

And then he said to me: “Meryl, what else should I know about your Jewish life?” I was speechless! He said: “No problem on the surgery, no problem on Friday, and are we OK to go now without interruption?”

I said: “Yes, we are!”

He then said: “I have great respect for you. No one has ever made such a request, and I applaud you for your faith and commitment. Talk about chutzpah!”

We both laughed. And he actually changed his calendar to meet my needs. I’m honored that I was able to sanctify G‑d’s Name at Penn Med and be “a light unto the nations.”

A few months prior, I had spoken to Rabbi Gourarie about keeping kosher, which I wanted to do but was struggling with. He suggested that I get rid of all non-kosher products in the house and just start buying kosher ones. I did that for about two months, and then one Shabbat, I said to Chanie: “I think I’m ready to take the plunge and go all the way.” She smiled and said: “Great.”

On Sunday morning, my phone rang, and it was Rivka Feldman. (Now mind you, Chanie had not spoken to her mother.) Rivka said: “I have a question for you. I was praying in shul yesterday, and while I was doing the Amidah, a thought suddenly came to meIt seemed I was destined to start keeping kosher before my surgery about your keeping kosher. Are you ready?” I was once again speechless. I said: “Yes, I am,” and told her what I had said to Chanie less than 24 hours earlier on Shabbat. It seemed that I was destined to start keeping kosher before my surgery.

Rivka then set about orchestrating the kashering of my kitchen, since due to my health I wasn’t able to do much. Rabbi Gourarie did an amazing job kashering my home. Rivka, in her goodness, hired someone to wash all the dishes after they came from the mikvah, and she also gifted me with some new pots and pans that I needed. Other friends helped as well, such as my dear friend Sara Leah Sandy, who was there for me every step of the way. I felt so loved and cared for as I transitioned to keeping kosher during this trying time in life.

Now that my kitchen is kosher, I love it. I feel that my home is a temple for G‑d, filled with goodness, wholeness and spirituality. Rivka told me that keeping kosher would give me deeper revelations in Judaism—and she was right. I have such a hunger and strong desire to learn more, and as I climb new mountains, new illuminations are revealed to me. One such illumination is that Torah is the blueprint of our lives, and when we apply the principles of Torah, we begin to understand that G‑d has given us the greatest gift. Then we can live happier lives as we go forth into the world, and we can survive any storm that comes our way.

Now, there are those who said: “You went kosher because you wanted G‑d to make you well and give you life.” I said: “Absolutely not. I don’t believe you make deals with G‑d; He is in the compassion-and-healing business. I started keeping kosher now because if I die, I want Him to know how much I love Him, and I want to leave this world connected to Him in a very special way. I want G‑d to know how thankful I am that I returned home, and how grateful I am for all that He has done for me up until this very moment in time.”

So I spent Shavuot at home with my Chabad community, and it was lovely. I went to the Ohel many times before my surgery to pray, and so did Rivka, Rabbi Gourarie, and many of my friends and fellow congregants. Hundreds of Chabad people whom I didn’t even know were praying for me.

Then came the day of the surgery. Rabbi Gourarie and Rivka were there, my family flew in from California and came from Connecticut, and many friends were there to support me. The rabbi escorted me for as long as he couldDuring the removal of the second mass, I almost lost my life go no further, praying the whole time for me and with me. Although I was about to undergo major surgery, I felt a deep sense of calm and peace.

There was a main artery that these masses were laying on, and with this type of cancer, you must remove the mass in one piece; if not, all is lost. So the surgeons had quite a job to do. The first mass was removed successfully, but then, while the second mass was being removed, the worst happened: the artery burst and I lost four liters of blood. I was literally dying on the table.

Meanwhile, in the waiting room, Rabbi Gourarie asked my cousin Alan to lay tefillin,and he said yes, but my cousin Philip said no. Rivka was there, and she said to my cousin: “Why not? Your cousin is in there. Help her by doing this mitzvah.” So he relented.

Now, the vascular surgeon had already left because the first mass came out fine; it was during the removal of the second mass that I almost lost my life. But once again, G‑d had other plans for me. The head of vascular surgery, Dr. Furman, was there “just by chance.” It was his day off, and he wasn’t supposed to be in the hospital that Monday, but he was picking up a report that he didn’t want to wait for. He heard the call for help over the speakers, and he rushed into my surgery and saved my life, along with the other teams that were called in.

The beauty is this: When the surgeon came out and told everyone what happened, Rabbi Gourarie asked him: “What time did this take place?” He said, “Exactly at five.” That was when Rabbi Gourarie, Philip and Alan were praying and putting on tefillin!

The halls of Penn Med were sanctified through my ordeal. The whole hospital heard about the woman of faith whose life was spared. People came into my room all day long to see me, including the Jewish nurses in the hospital. A Jewish organization called Chai Lifeline brought me a challah and electric candles for Shabbat, and the hospital gave me challah well. Since I had extra, I gave a challah to one of my team doctors who was Jewish. He was so touched that he promised me that he would attend a Chabad in Philadelphia. And he kept that promise.

I healed so quickly that I was out of the ICU in less than 24 hours, to the doctors’ amazement. And miraculously, my bladder was totally intact. All our prayers were answered!

The next question was whether or not I should undergo radiation, which could have major consequences and leave me with lasting health problems. So once again, I went to the Ohel to pray about whether to undergo radiation or not. I asked for clarity and a sign that theOnce again, my prayers were answered Rebbe heard me. Once again, my prayers were answered. I turned around, and there was Rivka at the Ohel, and she was calling me on the phone at that very moment! As usual, she had gone to pray for me. And if that was not enough of a sign, something else happened as well. Purple is the color of the banner for leiomyosarcoma, so I wanted to buy a purple siddur. I was in Crown Heights at a Judaica store, and there was this lovely woman holding a purple siddur. I asked her where she found it, and she told me it was the last one. But when she heard why I loved purple, she insisted I take the siddur. We both cried and prayed together in that store.

In the end, my doctors agreed unanimously that no radiation was necessary. I received my answer with clarity, just as I had prayed for. Now I’m cancer-free, thank G‑d! I wake up every day with gratitude for my life, my soul and the people who have helped me along my spiritual journey.

I’m so blessed to have come ever closer to G‑d through my ordeal. As King David writes in Psalms: “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for You are with me.” The most profound of all spiritual experiences, the base of all others, is the knowledge that we are not alone. G‑d is holding us by the hand, sheltering us, lifting us when we fall, forgiving us when we fail, and healing the wounds in our soul through the power of His love.