While receiving his blessing from the Lubavitcher Rebbe, a young man genuinely asked: “What would I have to do to be called your chassid, your student?”

The Rebbe replied, with a smile: “Anyone who is determined to be a little better tomorrow then they are today can be considered my student.”

We are all moving up the ladder, one step at a time. The question is not how high we are on this scale, but which direction we are going at any given moment.

Irini was born in Greece and arrived inWe are all moving up the ladder the United States as a university student. Her father died when she was a teenager, and her strong-willed mother raised three girls with Greek Orthodox traditional views. Soon after arriving in the United States, Irini met her husband and was married before her 19th birthday. A few years later, she had two children. Yet her marriage wasn’t happy and ended in divorce.

Irini with her father in Greece as a toddler.
Irini with her father in Greece as a toddler.

While living in Greece, Irini had a Jewish friend in high school and was required to study the Old Testament in theology classes. This gave her some basic knowledge about the Jewish people. As a child going to church for the holidays, Irini remembers, “I always believed in G‑d and was always the type of person who liked to search for the truth.”

After her divorce, when Irini’s life seemed lonely and hopeless, she unexpectedly met a Jewish man who paradoxically was not at all interested in Judaism. Yet through the basic connection to his heritage, Irini was introduced to the values of the religion. After discovering the idea of the Oneness of the Creator, Irini recalls how, “It dawned on me. It made sense.”

Slowly, she started keeping kosher and not working on Shabbat, renting an apartment near the Chabad house of Rabbi Sholom and Malky Goldshmid. While Rabbi Goldshmid was initially cautious about Irini’s commitment to Torah, over time, she proved her sincere desire to study Judaism and live by its values.

Sadly, the Jewish gentleman wasn’t interested in joining Irini’s quest for truth. Alone and without any support system, she spent years learning from the caring Chabad family and from Rabbi J. Kelman from Yeshiva University.

Rebbetzin Malky Goldshmid recalls, “One day, a woman came to our Chabad House and told me and my husband that she is looking to convert. To me, it was something very unusual and very special. I asked her why she was interested in Judaism, and she said that she is searching for truth, and Torah values make her feel like she found it. As time went on, Irini became a real family member. We invited her to stay with us almost every Shabbat. We didn’t want her to be alone.”

Conversion can be a lonely road, as one leaves behind everything familiar. When Irini’s family discovered her desire to study Judaism, they felt betrayed and were unsupportive of her journey. The support Irini received from the Goldshmid family was priceless.

Irini found the strength to stand against the pressures of her world, undeterred in her commitment to ascend the ladder of Judaism. She shared custody of her two boys and faced many challenges from her ex-husband regarding her transition.

As Irini ponders her journey, she says, “Judaism is the most inspirational thing I have experienced. People receive master’s and Ph.D. degrees, but my Ph.D. study was the four-year conversion process. On many levels, it was the toughest time of my life—and also the best time of my life because I grew as a person, as an individual.”

Rabbi Sholom and Malky Goldshmid who helped Irini with her conversion.
Rabbi Sholom and Malky Goldshmid who helped Irini with her conversion.

Despite many challenges along the way and feeling alienated by her family, on March 7, 2013, Irini immersed in the waters of a mikvah and emerged as Rina Rochel, a committed Jewish woman. When asked about her desire to join the Jewish people, she says simply, “I feel this is where I belong.”

I was there with Irini, watching thisIrini immersed in the waters and emerged a committed Jewish woman breathtaking milestone. The years of my Soviet childhood flashed before my eyes, as I was infused with energy to break through my personal invisible boundaries that stand on my way to growth. Regardless of our past experiences, as long as we are committed to transform our world into a place of love, kindness and authentic beauty, we are the students of the Rebbe.

Shortly after the conversion, Irini met a wonderful young man, a ba’al teshuvaa returnee to the traditional Jewish way of life. Together, they built the authentic Jewish home they had both dreamed about, teaching Torah to their three children.

Today, when Irini reminisces about her journey, she notes, “I feel that this is the best decision I made in my life. I am at peace. I don’t know how I survived without Shabbat. Every week, I look forward to Shabbat, to spending time with my family, friends ... my Creator.”

Irini (now Rina Rochel) and her husband at their Chuppah.
Irini (now Rina Rochel) and her husband at their Chuppah.

Irini continues to be close to the Goldshmids. Rebbetzin Malky and I often reminisce about the incredible day when we visited the Ohel in Queens, N.Y.—the resting place of the Lubavitcher Rebbe—with Irini before her conversion.

As I wrote this article, Malky shared with me an insight I was not aware of earlier.

“After a long period of time since Irini started her journey, the date of her conversion was set. Nothing in this world is a coincidence, and the date ‘happened to be’ the birthday of Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka Schneerson. On this day, the 25th of Adar, another Jewish soul was born: Rina Rochel. This was a very emotional day. Many years have passed since then, yet today, we remain as close as sisters.”