Not long after the birds returned from migration, the ponds thawed and the cherry buds appeared on the trees in Japan, my sister called from New York to say that our not-very-old father had suffered a massive stroke and was hospitalized in intensive care at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York. I took the first available plane to be with him in his final days.

BackI felt incredibly ill-equipped home, far away from New York and the funeral that seemed to have come like a grenade out of left field, I could hardly believe that I was a daughter in mourning. I felt incredibly ill-equipped to do so. Besides lighting a memorial yahrzeit candle, I wasn’t sure what else I was supposed to do in the middle of a forest in Japan that I called home.

I could have hollered into the woods and nobody would have heard me. But I guess G‑d did, because a package arrived unexpectedly in the mail. It was addressed from Chabad, which in itself was a surprise. They were supposed to be in Brooklyn. How would they reach me in Japan? And why?

I tore open the wrapping to find a crisp, red Fuji apple and a small packet of honey to usher in a shanah tovah, a sweet new year. Inside the envelope was a brief message: “You are more than welcome to join us for the High Holidays in Tokyo.” It was signed, “The Rabbi and the Rebbetzin.”

From what I recalled, Chabad welcomed Jews like me. They weren’t judgmental. Chabad was a franchise of home-based Jewish centers scattered across American cities and college campuses run by rabbis and rebbetzins with one goal: to bring Jews back to a Torah-led way of life.

Had Chabad really come to Tokyo, where there were so few of us Jews to bring back? Being alone in the wild and beautiful Boso Peninsula was wearing me down. If I hadn’t been so far removed from Jewish life, I wonder if the impact of Chabad’s arrival in Japan would have been as strong or felt this miraculous. It was just a package containing an apple, a pack of honey and a Tokyo return address. Maybe I was blowing this out of proportion.

Chabad had included a phone number. It was only polite to thank the sender for the apple and honey. But with the receiver in my hand, I felt nervous, and I hesitated. I had certain ideas about religious people. My parents had successfully instilled both awe and circumspection toward religious Jews. Their line of reasoning went that they had attained spiritual heights to which we couldn’t aspire, and shouldn’t aspire, and that they were judging us as we were judging them. This was not only because we were born in modern times that called for full enjoyment of our right to go to the matinee movies on Saturday, but because the observant made us feel guilty for doing so if we happened to pass them on the streets in their Shabbat finery. They would have judged me as one more child of G‑d who had lost her way.

But curiosity got the better of me. In Tokyo, they were on my turf. If a Chabad rabbi was actually going to set up a house for Jews to gather in Japan, I ought to visit at least once. I was ready to put suppositions aside and find out what on earth they were doing in Japan with so few Jews here. There weren’t a thousand of us in all of Japan—and that included Jews coming and going—travelers, teachers, students and business people.

II called the phone number called the phone number. A cheerful voice picked up the phone, “Shalom, Beit Chabad.”

“Hello. Are you the rebbetzin?” I asked. “Do you speak English?”

She switched to a familiar Brooklyn accent. “Hullo. This is Chabad House.

“Hi, I just received a packet of honey and the apple you were so kind to send me,” I explained. We had a short conversation, enough for me to glean some extraordinary news. The senders of the apple and honey were here in Tokyo to stay. Their Chabad House welcomed all Jews, any time of the day or night. I tried to picture my entrance into their insular world. Who was I kidding? But I heard a voice inside say something else: You may find you have more commonalities than differences.

The sun was setting between the cedars when I hung up the phone with Chabad’s address jotted down. I turned on the kitchen lights and phoned my mother. “You are not going to believe this. I just spoke with a Lubavitch rebbetzin from Brooklyn. Her husband comes from Israel and they belong to the Chabad movement.”

“Chassids in Japan? Go on.” She chuckled.

“They’ve just moved to Tokyo!”

“The black hats?”

“Mom, that’s derogatory.”

“What on earth are you thinking? The Jews of Tokyo already have the JCC—the Jewish Community Center, for heaven’s sake! I’m simply trying to be helpful, so you won’t have any aggravation with them in the future. Anyone who follows the Jewish faith with as much devotion as the Lubavitchers would have only one intention in mind when meeting someone like you—and me. That’s to turn us into one of them.”

“Ha! In Japan? Are you serious?” I burst out laughing.

“Well, yes, I am serious, darling! Remember that they are an impossible act to follow.”

My mother was right about it being an impossible act to follow. I couldn’t imagine going to all the trouble to buy a small packet of honey and then find just the right-size padded envelope sealed tight with a tasty, crisp red apple inside. Their motives made me curious beyond belief.

I look back at that first encounter now, after a 17-year relationship with the Chabad Houses in Tokyo that culminated in my moving to Jerusalem after embracing an observant way of life. And though it looked at the time as if plain old curiosity was the driving force behind visiting a Chabad House, I guess my soul knew all along that this would be a homecoming.