In the spring of 1990, my always proactive grandmother, Zelda, was bargaining in Yiddish at the cash register of the local supermarket in Philadelphia for a lower price on a whole chicken. We had arrived just a few months prior from our home in Saratov in the former Soviet Union.

My grandmother had been our family’s representative during the two months we spent in refugee camps in Austria and Italy, where it was commonplace to ask for a better price on items that we were purchasing from local vendors. She spoke Yiddish, which was similar to German, and was able to communicate and negotiate with the locals.

My grandmother, Zelda, who kept us fed in the refugee camps.
My grandmother, Zelda, who kept us fed in the refugee camps.

Yet the cashier in the local American supermarket was unmoved by my grandmother’s attempts. Fortunately, behind my grandmother stood Rebbetzin Batsheva Shemtov. She recognized Yiddish and saw my grandmother’s struggle to obtain provisions for the family.

Rebbetzin Shemtov realized that we were about to have a non-kosher chicken soup and graciously suggested a kosher chicken option. She wisely explained that in America bargaining at the register was not a customary behavior unless the goal was to traumatize the cashier.

That was the moment that started our journey with a new vocabulary of words, like “kosher,” as we began to embrace Jewish traditions and customs.

Years later, I read that a visitor shared with the Lubavitcher Rebbe that he was educating Jews, bringing those that are “far” back to their heritage. The Rebbe was surprised to hear such a statement, explaining that no Jew is truly distant. Perhaps an insensitive person could think that ignorance of our Jewish inheritance signaled the distance between us and our people, but our souls are eternally connected to our heritage.

The Rebbe understood that despite what the Soviet Jews had experienced, communism never replaced our yearning for authentic truth. We knew absolutely nothing about our heritage, but we never forgot that we were Jews. After living under the Communist regime for more than 70 years, we were like children of G‑d who had been kidnapped from the palace by barbarians.

While we may have been unfamiliar with the customs of the King, we knew that we were His children. When the time came and we were finally free from our captors, returning to the palace was both exciting and terribly intimidating. We were the children who knew nothing about the rules of the unfamiliar, luxurious residence. We didn’t know the etiquette, the language, the customs, dress code, traditions or annual celebrations. We were scared, confused and perhaps resistant to change, yet we knew with absolute certainty that we had finally came home to our Father.

Our first Passover Seder was spent with Rabbi Avraham and Rebbetzin Batsheva Shemtov.

Rabbi Avraham and Rebbetzin Batsheva Shemtov. I am on the right.
Rabbi Avraham and Rebbetzin Batsheva Shemtov. I am on the right.

At 13, I remember thinking to myself that I belong to some strange group of people. We were invited for dinner and served lettuce and salt water. We couldn’t understand much of what was going on, but felt incredible warmth and unconditional love from the Shemtov family.

During the intermediate days of the holiday, Rabbi Avraham Shemtov decided to take my family to receive a blessing from the Lubavitcher Rebbe. I remember getting on the bus in Philadelphia with another family and going to New York.

We couldn’t understand why there was a need for us to meet yet another rabbi. We were rather satisfied with the acquaintance of Rabbi Shemtov. We had no concept of going out of state to receive ... well, a blessing.

Yet we agreed to the plan and arrived at 770 Eastern Parkway in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y. Right away, we were mesmerized by the existence of so many Jews dressed in traditional Chabad garb. Black hats, black coats, beards; were these all rabbis? We were convinced that we had entered some alternate reality.

My parents at the time we visited the Lubavitcher Rebbe.
My parents at the time we visited the Lubavitcher Rebbe.

I remember going down the steps in a line of people. Suddenly, I saw an older gentleman giving a dollar bill to each person, saying something as each individual reached out to receive their dollar.

I remember approaching the Rebbe. Even now, 30 years later, I choke up as I replay this moment in my head.

The Rebbe looked at me with his kind, blue, piercing eyes, and I saw my own reflection in them. Not the version of me who was shaped by Soviet childhood, but the real me with an unblemished soul and G‑dly consciousness.

It was a moment of complete clarity, like the dark forest illuminated by a bright flash of lighting; my life was forever shaped by the knowledge of my true essence. As I stood next to him—an immigrant lost in this new world, seemingly disconnected from my Jewish roots—the Rebbe granted me a completely unexpected gift, a glimpse inside my own soul and its potential.

I felt powerful, undefeated and determined.

True leaders don’t strive to make others similar to themselves; they want each person to be the best version of who they can be. This was the case of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, for he inspired people to reach deep within their souls and emerge as powerful leaders in their own right. The Rebbe saw that every person is capable of achieving greatness.

I don’t remember how it transpired, but in addition to the dollars, we also left with a tiny plastic bottle of wine and a piece of matzah. My parents took the dollars from my brother and me; after all, the family needed money to eat. Thankfully, there was no practical use for the piece of matzah, nor for the small bottle of red wine.

One of the dollars we received from the Rebbe in 1990.
One of the dollars we received from the Rebbe in 1990.

I remember putting the matzah in my jewelry box and keeping it for years to come. Sadly, after a decade, it fell apart and somehow disappeared. The bottle is still one of my most precious possessions. Thirty years later, I am never without it; I literally carry it everywhere. This is my connection to the Rebbe, who helped me see myself as a pure and wholesome soul.

Much has happened since that day when I met the Lubavitcher Rebbe. I learned that I belong to an eternal nation with deep wisdom and Torah values. My gift of connection was earned by unwavering dedication and very hard work. I spend many hours a day studying Jewish texts, familiarizing myself with the rules of G‑d’s “Kingdom.”

On my 40th birthday, my parents surprised me by presenting me with a dollar from the Rebbe. I was speechless. Apparently, they saved one of the four dollars we received that day. This was the most meaningful gift I could ever wish for.

I suddenly felt myself a 13-year-old teenager, humbly standing before the Rebbe as he was handing me this dollar bill.

In so many ways, I am still that girl, yet I am no longer lost in the palace of our traditions and heritage. I have found my way back home by clinging to the true essence of my soul in the vision that I discovered while standing next to the Rebbe.

Still deeply connected, I recently visited the Ohel - the Rebbe's resting place.
Still deeply connected, I recently visited the Ohel - the Rebbe's resting place.