When I arrived in Crown Heights in April of 1972, I was a teenage girl from Moline, Ill.—alone and not just a little bit confused.

My friend Jim from my Wisconsin college had been adamant that I must go to this neighborhood in Brooklyn, N.Y., and see the Chabad community up close, and he had made all the arrangements. In his zeal to send me to the place he firmly believed I belonged, he had gotten all the contacts and had taken care of everything.

I had no idea what to expect. This was a momentous time in my life; I was at a crossroads of sorts. My heart was leading me towards converting to Judaism and leading a Torah lifestyle. I was following its lead—not looking forward, not looking back, just simply following and not knowing where I would be led.

When I arrived by taxi from the airport to the Machane Israel House, I was told to wait, that Rabbi Hecht would be there shortly. As I did, peering at the pictures that lined the walls depicting the various Chabad Rebbes of the past (with whom I was, as yet, totally unfamiliar), I tried to figure this whole thing out.

Here I was, a young girl from Illinois with a long blonde ponytail who had just started to keep the mitzvot but knew almost nothing. Who was I really? And who would I become? As I waited anxiously, not knowing at all what was in store for me, my mind wandered back to how it had all started.

I had been born into what I thought was a non-Jewish family, and my mother passed away when I was not yet 2. My nanny had always told me that G‑d was watching over me, and I had grown up with a strong feeling that He was always with me.

Our family wasn’t religious at all, not even Christian, but since my father worked for the city council, it didn’t “look right” not to be affiliated with some kind of religious institution, and so he was nominally a member of a Protestant church. No one in the family did anything religiously oriented or spoke about spiritual things at all.

My father, Harry, did seem to have some kind of feeling of connection with Jews. Whenever he saw a Jewish actor on TV or mentioned a famous Jew who had done something important for the world, he would stress, with pride in his voice, that this person was Jewish.

Once, a few years ago, I woke from sleep with a memory that had been buried in my subconscious since my childhood. At that time, we were not attending any church, unlike our neighbors, and when I asked my father about it, he said, “We don’t go there because we don’t believe in that. We’re Jews.” But he never said anything about it again, and this incident lay buried deep in the recesses of my mind.

When I was 6, my father married my stepmother, Martha, who wasn’t so in favor of Jews. Once when a guest (my father’s friend from his college days) said jokingly to my father, “You Jews are all alike,” my ears perked up. Taking Martha aside, I asked her why he had said that. She brushed it off, saying “Oh, it’s just because your last name is a Jewish one.” Our last name was Harris, and his mother’s maiden name was Levis.

When I turned 12, I finally met a Jewish person who identified as such. I became best friends with Lena and became drawn to Judaism because of her, her warm and accepting family, and their close-knit, warm shul. Seeing my curiosity and missing her old Jewish community in Chicago, she told me everything she knew about all things Jewish. And I soaked it up like a sponge.

I had no real plans to convert because this seemed too serious a step for such a young girl to take. I had also been erroneously told that if I converted, I wouldn’t be accepted as a real Jew. I didn’t know what to do about this problem.

When I went away to college, I encountered Rabbi Yisroel and Devorah Shmotkin, Chabad emissaries in Milwaukee. I became interested in following the Torah way of life in earnest and began taking on mitzvot a little at a time.

After two semesters of college, I was lighting Shabbat candles, keeping Shabbat as best as I knew how and dressing modestly. When encouraged to do so by my friend Jim (who was himself interested in Chabad), I refrained from eating chametz (leavened products forbidden on Passover) that year. Jim finally said, “This is it. You must go to Crown Heights!” And he wouldn’t take “no” for an answer.

And so now, here I was. Coming to Crown Heights was a big adventure. I didn’t know what to expect. I was leery about telling anyone that I wasn’t actually Jewish. I had no idea whom I could trust or talk to about it. I was nervous and a bit confused.

Rabbi Hecht arrived, and was very nice and welcoming. After taking down my details, he placed me with two girls from Detroit who were renting an apartment in Crown Heights and attending a special program for girls who were newcomers to the Torah way of life.

I stayed with them—going everywhere with them, doing everything with them, including attending classes with them—for a whole week. They answered all my questions with a deep wisdom that amazed me. Somehow I, who was basically just a girl from Illinois who suddenly found herself in a Chassidic community, resonated with all that we were doing. Never did I feel culture-shocked, which I found surprising. Until that Friday, erev Shabbat.

I woke up thinking, “What am I doing here? I’m just a girl from Illinois. How did I end up staying with Chassidic girls in their basement apartment in Brooklyn? This is crazy!” I went about my day feeling like a fish out of water.

Although my “Moline persona” had finally emerged from where it had been hiding throughout the week, my desire to follow this way of life was strong, but I felt I needed to leave. The dissonance between what I was now doing and where I had just come from was too great.

I asked the girls I was staying with to help me find a way to get to the house of my sister, Lauren, in nearby Ridgewood, N.J., but they wouldn’t hear of it. “Shabbat is coming! Do you want to miss the best part of the week? Anyway, it’s too late to leave already.” They called and arranged places for me where I could eat the Shabbat meals, and we were all set for the adventure that was to be Shabbat in Crown Heights.

The meals turned out to be very nice, and the families were welcoming. On Shabbat day, the girls took me to shul at 770 Eastern Parkway, which is the headquarters and central hub of the Chabad movement. I didn’t know how to pray very well from the prayer book but contented myself with observing, from the upstairs women’s section, the huge crowd of black-hatted and black-coated men all swaying energetically, deep in connection with their Creator. It was very inspiring. I had never seen anything like it in my life. I was awestruck.

After the prayers, my friends said they were going to stand outside by the front entrance to watch as the Rebbe came out from the shul. I hadn’t the faintest idea why they were doing this or what could be the motivation. I hadn’t a clue as to what a “Rebbe” was or what it meant. They said, “You could stay inside if you want and wait in the women’s section.”

When I returned to the women’s section, a lady there opened the door that led to a passageway leading from the men’s section to the shul exit. She instructed me to stand right near this door “because the Rebbe is going to pass by, and you can see him.” Again, I had no clue why I should do such a thing and must have looked ambivalent. She reiterated, “Just stand by this door!” I listened to her and stood there, not knowing what to expect.

Just then, the Rebbe came down the hallway, and as he passed the open doorway, he stopped for a moment and glanced at me. I still remember that look, even after 50 years. It must not have lasted long, but in that split moment, I could feel as if his eyes were spotlights shining down into the recesses of my soul. I felt as if he knew exactly who I was, where I was from and what I was doing there—everything about me. I expected him to say, “You’re not Jewish, what are you doing here?” But he said nothing. On the other hand, from that deep look, he somehow communicated a message: “What are you waiting for?” Which I didn’t quite understand at the moment.

When his penetrating eyes lit up the recesses of my soul, it was as if I found myself down there at its depths, and he was illuminating them for me so that I should be able to see who I really was. It was all over in a moment, and the Rebbe passed on down the hall. But now, I wasn’t at all the same as before.

Moving Forward

After Shabbat, I left Crown Heights to stay with my sister Lauren, who was very supportive of my new way of life. She bought me my own pots and pans and dishes and kosher food, and even insisted that we make a traditional Shabbat meal for the whole family since she wanted her kids to experience what a Jewish Friday-night meal was like. I couldn’t believe what was happening.

While I was staying with her, I received a letter from my college, which had been forwarded to me by my stepmother. The college informed me that I wasn’t being accepted for the next semester. This was puzzling because although my grades hadn’t been up to par, the administration had told me before my trip to Crown Heights that I would be accepted for the next year.

Then I remembered that gaze from the Rebbe. Some call such a gaze a “bracha stare.” People have experienced amazing turnarounds in their situations after having been the recipients of the Rebbe’s stare. And so now, it seemed that I, too, was one of them because now I was free to pursue what I really wanted to do, which was to climb higher in my learning about the Torah way of life.

That year, after serious studying, I did officially convert. But right before this, I visited my home in Moline, and after having a serious talk with my father, he came to the conclusion that my new way of life—so different from that of my family—was not some kind of “fad.” I was very serious about it. And so, he said, “If that’s the case, I’m behind you 100%!” And I left for Minnesota, where I eventually converted, with his support and assurance ringing in my ears.

So Many Reasons to Thank

It’s been five decades now, and I give incredible thanks to G‑d for my amazing Torah-observant Jewish family, and for all the Torah they study and acts of kindness they do for others. I’m truly blessed.

I recently found an old family document, evidence that the ancestors on my mother’s side had been lost to the Jewish people from the times of the Inquisition. And there are Jewish Spanish names on my father’s side as well. Indeed, G‑d has brought our family home.

I feel that I owe my return to the Rebbe as well. I wonder now: When he gazed at me so long ago, did the Rebbe see the long line of my ancestors, clamoring to return through me? By the strength of his gaze, did he give us all the ability to come back?

Because, after 50 years, the light from his eyes that shone down to the bottom of my soul—that light is still down there. Until this day, it has never left me.