Being ready to move back to Tokyo from the wilds of Chiba prefecture, I was determined to rechart our family’s destiny in a Jewish direction. We found an apartment in the Meguro Ward of Tokyo, an easy train ride to Chabad House.

I started to help outThe time was perpetually 2 p.m. the rebbetzin on Fridays, joining in the behind-the-scenes activity that led to beautiful Shabbat meals for those who reserved and those who walked in. I learned to douse traditional Israeli salads made from tomatoes, onions, mashed eggplant and hummus with olive oil, garlic, fresh lemon, za’atar and paprika. This way of preparing salads was so tasty–and such a welcome departure from seasoning most everything with soy sauce and mirin–that I started preparing Chabad-style salads at home.

Some things that the rebbetzin did, however, were less easy to fathom. I noticed that whenever I visited the Chabad House, the hands on the wall clock weren’t moving. The time was perpetually 2 p.m. “Is there some special meaning in keeping it up there?” I asked one day. I knew so little about Chassidic ways that everything seemed open to scrutiny, including the rebbetzin’s relationship to time.

“No, not at all,” she burst out laughing. “The clock keeps breaking, so I’ve learned to live with it.”

This was kind of crazy. Or maybe the truth of the matter was that the little money they had went to putting food on the table for their guests. This Chabad House never charged for their beautiful homemade meals. They survived on donations. My strong reaction to the broken clock came from another ingrained idea instilled in me by my mother. No clock—in fact, not even a hairpin—would be found in my childhood home if it was not in service and performing its job.

I walked to the nearby shopping arcade in front of Omori station and returned with a new clock. It would sit in its box for weeks before it was swapped for the broken clock. I didn’t know how to take it—whether it was a positive thing, or even a mitzvah, to live in utmost simplicity and shun unessential gifts, or whether it was just an interesting quirk of the rebbetzin to do so.

“Of course, time is important, it tells us the start of Shabbat and holidays,” she clarified, when I decided to bring up the clock issue again on a different Shabbat. “It’s also important for birthdays,” the rebbetzin said, deftly maneuvering the conversation by aligning its subject with Torah. “People notice time around their birthdays. In my family, the day my parents discovered the Lubavitcher world became like a birthday.”

“That’s interesting. So your own parents discovered Chabad as adults.”

“Yes, that was in the 1960s, when the Chabad movement was just beginning to organize on college campuses under the Rebbe’s leadership.”

This Tokyo Chabad House wasn’t just the rebbetzin’s home address. In a profound way, she wanted me to feel that this Chabad House belonged to me, too.

“The rebbetzin is in that kitchen day and night preparing for guests,” I told my mother on the phone. “She cooks all those meals without expecting anything in return.”

“Much as I admire her generosity, Liane, I beg of you. Be careful. There’s a catch.”

She was serious. My mother used my name when she wanted to emphasize her point.

“Stop being so naive, darling! They want you to become like them.”

“What would be so bad about that? You would rather I become a Buddhist?”

“You? A Buddhist? Oh, you do make me laugh,” my mother chortled. “I am delighted that you’re interested in the mitzvot in the Torah. Forging a closer relationship with G‑d certainly can’t do any harm. But the prospect of spending 25 hours in Shabbat observance, to me, is very ambitious. However, I’m afraid it’s your life, now.”

On Shabbat afternoon,Week after week, I kept coming back after the hot pot of cholent was cleared from the table and platters of imported nuts and dried fruit appeared, the rebbetzin and I got into a routine of opening the Gutnick edition of Chumash. All my daily worries would disappear within its brown-and-gold embossed cover, as I came to not just know more about the journey of the Israelites crossing the miraculously split sea, but to feel that I had been there as well, receiving the Ten Commandments from Moses on Sinai, collecting in my hands manna from heaven, and fearing the reprise of fierce giants who stalked the land of Israel. One Shabbat at a time, Torah lessons helped me acquire more strength to own my beliefs. I had no idea how essential this would be in the years to come.

Week after week, I kept coming back to that Chabad House. And that clock on the wall eventually offered me a powerful lesson, but not one to be punctual, to say the least. My reaction to the hands that didn’t move had diverted me from the real issue, which is respecting the clock hands that do move. Shabbat candle-lighting became my training ground. It still is. Every Shabbat, I rush to beat the clock, grateful for when the hands on the wall tell me that I’m not only in the flow, but in sync with a way of life based on Torah values.