I remember sitting up that whole Friday night, staring at the picture of the Rebbe, and wondering if I could ever have a connection.

I had been living in Israel for a year and studying in university when I encountered Chabad for the first time. During that time I slowly began integrating Torah classes into my already full schedule. I had no idea what Chabad or Chassidism was. I just kept finding that the classes that most interested me and the people with whom I felt the greatest connection all fell under such a description.

I was in utter awe of these "Chabadniks" and their relationship with their Rebbe. I had never seen such a strong bond and commitment in my life. The mere mention of his name would make their eyes sparkle. I never thought that I would be able to admire and respect someone so much.

But that particular Friday night had been exceptionally powerful. I was in the home of a Chabad family, surrounded by an incredible group of people who were so warm, inviting and true. The endless food warmed my body while the words of Torah challenged my mind. But what I couldn't put my finger on was what it was that opened and reached into my soul with a grasp that was there to stay. Perhaps it was the singing, perhaps the beautiful children running around as they giggled in the background. But whatever it was, I knew my life was fundamentally and forever changed.

When everyone had left and the table had been cleared, I sat once again staring at those piercing blue eyes that I felt followed me wherever I was in the room. It was the very picture that I had seen practically every day for the past few months, yet every time it somehow looked different. I always loved this picture, even though it was as if I was admiring someone else's father or grandfather. I felt like an outsider looking in, and I didn't know if anything could change that.

I felt like an outsider looking in, and I didn't know if anything could change that

I stared for so long that I fell asleep on the sofa right under the picture. And then I had a dream. Short, but powerful. To others it may not seem like much, but it was exactly what I needed. In this dream I was walking up the stairs to the very apartment that I was staying in that Shabbat. I was with another student, and as we began to walk up, I saw the Rebbe coming down. I moved to the side to let him pass, and he stopped, nodded and smiled and said, "Good Shabbos." I responded the same, smiled, and continued on my way. The student who was with me was in absolute shock. Stunned, she said, "You know the Lubavitcher Rebbe??" To which I calmly responded, "Actually, this is the first time I met him in person, but he knows me. He knows each and every Jew. He is connected to each and every Jew."

The next thing I knew, I was sitting wide awake on the sofa, with the picture of the Rebbe once again staring at me. At first I wasn't sure if I had actually been dreaming or not. And then it simply didn't matter, since to me it happened, whether in my sleep or in reality. From that moment on, I had the connection I had so badly desired.

From Jerusalem to Crown Heights

Needless to say, I was thrilled when a few months later I actually had the opportunity to see the Rebbe in "770" (as the Rebbe's headquarters, located at 770 Eastern Parkway in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, is known).

I had never been to New York before, let alone Crown Heights. I came with a family of shluchim (Chabad emissaries) who'd come for a family wedding. As we began to unpack our suitcases from the car, a strong siren wailed in the air. All around me people were running. I had no idea what was going on. Someone grabbed my arm and kept telling me to go faster. I ran like crazy not knowing where I was headed or why.

The Rebbe emphatically declared that I was to return to my hometown of California, and immediately!

Suddenly we entered "770." A mass of women and girls filled every inch of space. The girl who had taken me screamed, "She's never seen the Rebbe, she's never seen the Rebbe!" Before I knew it, the crowd had parted, allowing me to move closer and look at the Rebbe, who was sitting on a balcony overlooking the synagogue. As soon as my eyes focused on him, he turned and looked toward my direction. I felt as if he was staring right at me, which seemed impossible with hundreds of people and a thick glass window between us. Yet, remarkably enough, it seemed everyone around me shared the same impression.

I spent the next few months studying in Crown Heights, absorbing the stimulating and intellectually challenging learning. I could have stayed endlessly, yet the problem was that I still had a year of college to complete. My year in Israel was accredited, but my time in Crown Heights was not, and the longer I stayed, the more I delayed my graduation date. I had no doubt that I wanted to finish, the question was merely when. And yet I knew that if I stayed in Crown Heights my desire to return to college would diminish.

The Rebbe's Answer

So I did what anyone in Crown Heights would have done: I wrote to the Rebbe. Yet being that this was my first time writing, I didn't really understand the process. I figured that since the Rebbe already knew who I was (I think I even reminded him that we had met on the staircase in my dream) there was really no need to put my name on the letter.

About a week later, I returned to Rabbi Klein — one of the Rebbe's secretaries — to see if I had a response. When I told him my letter had no name, he seemed relieved and told me that even though the Rebbe knew who I was, he — Rabbi Klein — did not, and he had been trying to locate me all week.

He then proceeded to tell me that rarely had he seen the Rebbe respond so strongly in an answer. Even though at this point queries had to be posed to the Rebbe as "yes" or "no" questions to which he responded with movements of his head (this was after the Rebbe had suffered a debilitating stroke in March of 1992), every answer the Rebbe gave to my questions emphatically declared that I was to return to my hometown of California, and immediately! He said the Rebbe often encouraged people to finish what they had started, but in this case, he was unusually adamant that I return at once.

I booked my ticket for the next week. I was ready to leave, when suddenly all my circumstances changed. I had originally written to the Rebbe that I would live with a Chabad family, so that it would be easier for me to be Torah observant. But that arrangement didn't work out in the end, and I feared that my only other option was one that was would be both spiritually and emotionally damaging for me. I returned to Rabbi Klein and begged him to present my new situation and see if the answer would be different. To my surprise, he once again reiterated that the Rebbe was adamant that I go to California. He didn't feel that any change of details would alter the intensity in which the Rebbe responded that I must return.

Dunking Dishes

I took the flight the following week and returned to California. Needless to say, after a year in Israel and a few months in Crown Heights, the adjustment to a very different lifestyle and environment was quite difficult.

I kept hearing "Northridge." Then I heard "earthquake," "epicenter," and once again, "Northridge."

Soon enough it was time to return to college, and I fortunately found a place that was within walking distance of the local Chabad House. As I was now keeping a strictly kosher diet, I was going to need new dishes and pots and pans for college. I figured I would have to make two trips, since there was no way everything could fit in the car. So, first I moved myself and my things one week, and the following week I returned home to buy my kitchenware.

Fortunately that next weekend was a three-day weekend, so I figured I would have some time to relax and then could drive back on Monday evening. I would spend Sunday buying dishes and cookware and would still have plenty of time to immerse everything in the local mikvah — as mandated by Jewish law — on Monday morning.

But my carefully laid plan was thwarted. On Shabbat I found out that the local mikvah was no longer available for the immersion of dishes. Now what? There was no other mikvah I could use. Finally I decided that since my university was literally on the beach, I would use the good ole' fashioned mikvah — the ocean itself.

Now, this is where things began to get a little tricky. I now needed to explain to my family that I had to leave a day early instead of spending time with them. And of course they wanted to know why. When I explained the concept of immersing my newly bought dishes in a pool of water, they officially decided at that point that I had lost my mind. Not that they had been thrilled with my donning of a long skirt, keeping Shabbat, not eating from their dishes, and just about every other way I had changed from the time they last saw me eighteen months ago. But this was just too much. "You are telling me that you need to dunk your brand new dishes in the ocean? Your dishes need to be purified?" Well, let's just say that of all the aspects of Judaism that have deep and great explanations, immersing dishes is just not one that makes sense at first.

After a few hours of mourning the fact that they had wasted so much money on my private education and college, they finally decided that they would make the best of it. Since I had to leave on Sunday afternoon, my mother and sister would simply come with me (as my father and brother were anyway heading out of town early on Sunday), they would spend the night, and make it a mini vacation. So off we were with my new dishes and a suitcase with essentials and clothing for a day or two.

I figured I would immerse everything Monday morning, hoping that if I got to the beach early enough, I could finish before the college crowd would arrive for their day off. But when my clock-radio alarm went off at 8:00 am, I kept hearing the reporter mention "Northridge." Now, the only Northridge I knew was the small area I was from, and it certainly wasn't newsworthy, or at least not until that Monday morning. Then I heard "earthquake," "epicenter," and once again, "Northridge."

Now, at around 5:00 am I did feel an earthquake. It lasted a good minute, but wasn't so strong, and afterwards I fell back asleep. Could it be that my hometown of Northridge, a four-hour drive north of where I was laying, was the epicenter of the quake? I turned on the TV and couldn't believe my eyes. Not only was it Northridge, but it was my very street, and in the background I could see my house. One of the largest quakes to ever hit Southern California, and my intersection was the epicenter!

A Tragedy and a Miracle

My mother and sister couldn't even return for a number of days since the freeways had collapsed. Fortunately, though, they already had a place to stay and their wallets and car with them. When we could finally go back, the damage was worse than we had imagined. Our entire house had been moved a few feet from its foundation. Structurally it was absolutely destroyed. The police said we could enter, at our own risk, but only long enough to remove whatever essentials had survived.

We carefully went upstairs to see what was salvageable. The roof had caved in, but the floor had not collapsed…yet. We went from bedroom to bedroom. What we saw was astonishing. There were large pieces of roof covering every single bed in every bedroom. The books were on the floor, pieces of shattered glass covered everything; it was utter destruction.

You can imagine how difficult this was for my parents. They had lost their house, most of everything that was in it, and to make matters worse, had cancelled the earthquake insurance a month earlier.

I entered my room. I looked around realizing that had we been there, we would not have lived to tell the story. No one could have survived such damage. Then I glanced at my wall. One thing remained in its place, seemingly not even slightly moved. It was my picture of the Rebbe. The very same picture I had connected to in Jerusalem a year earlier.

My mother came to the doorway just as I was about to leave. I looked at the Rebbe's picture and then back at her. It was suddenly pretty clear why the Rebbe was so insistent that I return to California when I did. Who could have guessed that needing to immerse my dishes in the ocean would prove to be not only the fulfillment of a great mitzvah but a lifesaving technique!