Here is the story of how the Torah, once so daunting, re-entered my life on Simchat Torah in Tokyo. I had been pushing my daughter in her stroller up a steep hill and stopped to catch my breath. Strung above a wooden gate, a banner showing the Lubavitcher Rebbe with his unmistakable bushy white beard and black Borsalino hat waved a lighthearted welcome. Below him, a woman smoked a cigarette, slouched with her eyes closed under the eaves of a rambling old wooden house. She was wearing cutoff blue jeans. I looked down at my shirtdress, bulging pockets filled with crispy rice snacks. Maybe I was overdressed.

MyShe took matters into her own hands daughter tugged at my sleeve. She took matters into her own hands, pushing apart the sliding wooden doors. Shoes and sandals littered the foyer. She immediately set about tidying up the shoes, lining them up in neat rows. She parked sturdy Hush Puppies next to Nike sneakers and Dr. Scholl’s sandals. She paused to try on a pair of stiletto heels while voices sang inside.

I didn’t know what to expect, but this certainly wasn’t like any Jewish house of worship, or Jewish home for that matter, that I had stepped barefoot in before. A Tokyo address, come whether you’re religious or not, dress as you like, with the Lubavitcher Rebbe waving his approval over the door—what in the world was this place?

The thought of making an about-face did occur to me. What right did I have to celebrate a Torah that I didn’t follow, let alone read?

Just as I was ready to bolt, the rebbetzin appeared. I assumed it had to be her. She wore a black-and-white-striped blouse buttoned up to her chin and down to her wrists, paired with a skirt that nearly swept the floor. She was carrying a newborn baby in her arms. The rebbetzin welcomed me with a brilliant smile. “Welcome to our Chabad House. Our home is your home.”

I smiled back with great relief. Being welcomed home, perhaps I wouldn’t face an inquisition after all!

“You’ve come at the perfect time,” she continued.

“Perfect? How’s that for good luck!”

“Simchat Torah marks the completion of the annual reading of the Torah. Next Shabbat, we begin reading from the book of Genesis all over again.”

I reached out to touch the tiny, warm hand of her 5-day-old child. The baby’s eyes were tightly shut.

“Your baby is adorable,” I said, trying hard to fathom how thispeacefully sleeping baby, born in Japan, of Chassidic-Lubavitch parents, could possibly thrive in Tokyo. Little did I know, Simchat Torah offered precisely the answer.

I followed the young rebbetzin into a room. She showed me to a seat at a long banquet table, crowded with small bowls of colorful salads and many, many guests.

“You’ve come at the perfect time!” The rabbi, dressed in what looked similar to a tuxedo with coattails, greeted me like a long-lost friend.

“It looks that way!” I laughed, as I recalled standing outside the train station just days before, having forgotten the Chabad center address, when it was clearly not the perfect time.

TheThe rabbi greeted me like a long-lost friend table was crowded with people I wouldn’t expect to see at a Chassidic gathering. In a Fellini film perhaps. A bare arm here, well-pierced earlobes there, a rose tattoo. And that was only one side of the table.

This was not normal, or at least, nothing like the normal I associated with Orthodoxy. Would the Rebbe staring down from his huge photograph on the wall approve of such revelry? Years later, I would find out this directive not only to welcome, but to love every single Jewish soul has been passed down since the 1700s by the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Chassidism himself.

The message was clear: It’s so easy to judge another Jew by appearances alone. Here we were, all taking our first baby steps towards observance, and like my daughter was reminding me by trying on the stiletto heels in the foyer, we were doing it in unconventional, almost hilarious ways. But we were nonetheless doing it.

“Welcome to Torah Island!” the rabbi said effusively, as if Torah Island were a real place. In his mind, maybe it was.

What I knew about Simchat Torah was limited to a lithograph that hung in the dining room of my childhood home in Great Neck, N.Y. The chassids, drawn in pen and ink, were dancing in a circle, coattails flying, heads thrown back in ecstasy, long beards mopping the air. I had thought the artist had a great imagination. But here they were in Tokyo. It was as if that lithograph in my childhood home had come to life. These young yeshivah students were visiting from the Crown Heights neighborhood in Brooklyn to help out over the holidays and dancing right before my eyes. They formed a circle, while the rabbi nursed the Torah close to his heart.

And in that moment, the Torah touched my heart, too. Who would ever think that you would dance with your instruction book? On Simchat Torah in Tokyo, I was on the same page at last.

It wasn’t just showing up at the Chabad center at the end of the yearlong cycle of Torah reading. I was primed to begin reading and learning Bereishit the following Shabbat, but even more so, I wanted to understand what made this rabbi and rebbetzin so warm and accepting towards non-observant Jews like me.

Week by week, I returned and became an active member of the Chabad community in Tokyo for nearly two decades. Together with my family, we moved baby step by baby step towards observance. Eventually, I helped sponsor the first Torah made for this ChabadWeek after week, I returned center, wrote about their activities for the Japan Times and recruited my Jewish woman friends in Tokyo to join me in becoming regulars at Chabad, which about a dozen did.

My children spent most Shabbats playing with the Chabad children, and as the years rolled by, we met quite a few wonderful Israelis there. I planned for my son’s bar mitzvah, then his high school education, in Israel. All this because I’d stepped into the door and found a welcoming and non-judgemental setting.

But there was more. There was the Torah wisdom and passion and kindness that made me want to have these attributes, too.

As the rabbi and rebbetzin had concurred, on Simchat Torah of the year 2000, I’d arrived at the perfect time.