According to conventional wisdom, you should “never say never.” But I’m a girl who said “never” a lot.

Never going to conquer my fear of heights. Never going to give up on the Friday-night party scene. Never going to fly to a foreign country with a group of total strangers for Shabbat.

(OK, I didn’t actually say that last one. But if you would have asked me a few years ago, “Would you fly to a foreign country with a group of total strangers for Shabbat?” I would have laughed in your face.)

Yet to my shock more than anyone’s, I just returned from a spontaneous trip to Panama where I explored an exotic country, bonded with strangers, and discovered the deep inner peace and satisfaction that comes from observing Shabbat.

I might have to start rethinking all those “nevers” ...

But where are my manners? Introductions first. My name is Shely Finberg, and I am a nurse at Memorial Regional Hospital in Hollywood, Fla. Until quite recently, my knee-jerk reaction to organized religion was resistance. Perhaps my hostility was rooted in intergenerational trauma embedded in my DNA. My parents and grandparents lived in the Soviet Union, where religion (the “opium of the masses”) was a federal crime. Although my parents immigrated to Israel before I was born, they never embraced a more Jewish way of life. Growing up in Ashdod, my knowledge of Judaism was scant to none.

When I was 11, my family moved to Brooklyn, N.Y. My parents decided to go to the synagogue in Manhattan Beach in an attempt to hold onto our Jewish identity in the United States—an identity we maintained by default in Israel. When we tried to enter the synagogue, a clerk asked us for a membership card. We didn’t have it, so they didn’t let us enter or join the services. We never attempted to go to synagogue again.

The experience left a bitter taste in my mouth, and my apathy towards Judaism morphed into antipathy.

Several years later, I became a student at the University of Buffalo. “Come with me to Shabbat dinner at Chabad,” my friend asked me.

“I’m not interested in being brainwashed,” I replied.

She continued pestering me week after week until I ran out of snarky comments. Finally, I surrendered. “I’m just going for the food,” I justified to myself.

With my rebbetzin, Rochel Holzkenner
With my rebbetzin, Rochel Holzkenner

I came for the food but stayed for the company. The warm and welcoming Rabbi and Rebbetzin Gurary helped me feel instantly at home. Over the next three years, I joined every Friday-night meal at the Gurarys, literally trudging through snow and rain so as not to miss a single one.

After graduation, I moved to Florida and began working as a nurse. For the first time, I found myself without a campus or community to join. It was a fork in the road of my life, and I had to choose to go right or left: Did I want Judaism to be a part of my life? Or was I perfectly content with my life as is?

Making up my mind, I clicked on the tiny blue Facebook icon on my laptop and started searching for Jewish communities nearby. To my delight, I found Chabad Young Professionals (CYP) in Las Olas, Fort Lauderdale, led by Rabbi Sholom Meir and Rebbetzin Rochel Holzkenner. I immediately fell in love with the relaxed and uplifting vibe of their tight-knit community.

One day, Rochel asked me if I wanted to join a Shabbaton in Panama organized by Chabad Young Professionals International. The old me would have said never, but the new me jumped in. A short time later, I booked a ticket and hopped on an airplane with more than 60 strangers to join “CYP Encounter: Panama.”

Actually, strangers is the wrong word.

Although we each came from unique backgrounds, career paths and walks of life, we were united by a common identity. Whether American, Russian, Bucharian or Israeli-American like me, we were all part of one Jewish family. There is no deeper connection or kinship.

Something about coming to Panama inspired me to leave my comfort zone in more ways than one. On the first day, I went zip-lining in the Gamboa rainforest! The thrill and adrenaline of flying through the sky watching the lush greenery rush below me quickly overpowered my long-held fear of heights.

On Friday afternoon, while we were biking on a breathtaking trail, a new friend named Mark asked, “Are you excited for Shabbat?”

“Yeah, I’m so excited to meet the community,” I replied. (A key focus of the Shabbaton was for guests to become acquainted with the vibrant Jewish community of Panama.)

“But are you gonna keep it?” he prodded.

“Hmm … ,” I said, stalling for time. I had never fully observed Shabbat in my life and wasn’t sure I wanted to.

“Shely, just do it!” he said.

Looking around at the beautiful scenery, I realized there was no better time or place for me to give Shabbat a try. I was surrounded by amazing company and had everything I needed to observe Shabbat. As Hillel the Elder once said, “If not now, when?”

“I’m going to do it,” I decided.

We finished the winding trail, went back to our hotel rooms and got ourselves ready for Shabbat. After lighting Shabbat candles, I made plans with some new friends to meet after our Shabbat dinners and attend a farbrengenthink crossover between an inspiring lecture and a cozy get-together with all your closest friends. It was actually the first time in my life that I made plans without relying on texting to communicate. We just chose a place and time and met there. (I know, I know, it’s revolutionary!)

That night, I joined a local Panamanian Jewish family for Shabbat dinner. They lived in a penthouse on the 45th floor of a skyscraper. The view outside the massive window was spectacular, but I was more entranced by the scene right in front of me: Parents and children talking to each other in a technology-free zone, truly listening and reveling in each other’s company. Over wine, challah and delicious homemade food, everyone shared what was on their mind and reflected on what they were grateful for.

I want this, I thought to myself. I never had this growing up, but I want to give it to my own kids one day.

Shabbat passed in a whirlwind. Thanks to the jam-packed schedule, I didn’t feel the impulse to reach for my phone even once. There were challenges, of course, such as not being able to walk through an automated electric door and having to make up words in Spanish for the workers to open them up. But all in all, I gained so much more from the weekend than I signed up for.

Ironically, it was hundreds of miles away from home that I discovered where I truly belong. I now realize how crucial it is to me to be a part of a Jewish community and surrounded by Jewish life. I now recognize that I want to find a life partner who shares my values. I now know that Shabbat is a gift from G‑d that can elevate my everyday existence. Most of all, I now realize that when I stop saying “never,” anything is possible.

Interested in learning more about CYP Encounter? Go to: “CYP Encounter: Panama” is an initiative of Chabad Young Professionals International, a project of Merkos 302 at Chabad Headquarters.