I f you’ve ever volunteered anywhere, you’ll understand exactly what I mean when I say that either you become a part of it or you don’t.

I did.

It started out as a simple barter between me and Rabbi Eitan Eckstein, the director of Retorno, a Jewish rehab center not far from my home. Every week, I’d teach two hours of basketball, and in return, I’d go on a weekly trail ride. Three hours of my time each week. So simple.

But that very first week, I knew I belonged there. By the second, I was utterly, completely hooked. Hooked on horses, hooked on the calm they exude, the rocking motion that’s part lullaby and part challenge. Hooked on the intense green of newly sprouting wheat, the sweet smell of hay, the flutter of birds’ wings as they lift off from the pond, the tickle of gentle wind on my face.

As I started to spend more time at Retorno, I got hooked on the people, on the realness. On the process I saw going on around me and, very soon, inside me.

Basketball and horseback riding aside, I spend a good part of my day freelance writing. When Rabbi Eckstein asked me to edit his book, I thought, my schedule is flexible, I’m always game for another interesting project without a fixed time commitment, and since the book was about horseback riding and the 12 steps — two topics which I was tasting and relating to — I easily agreed.

The book, and the many fascinating discussions it led to, was just the beginning. Every time a project came up in Retorno for which I had some skill, I volunteered. I designed brochures, I edited videos, I spoke to non-Israelis who wanted to find out about enrolling in Retorno’s residential program.

Then I found a more “settled” niche: teaching English for the bagrut (matriculation) exams to the youth in Retorno’s high school. Despite many years’ teaching experience, this, too, was taken on in a volunteer capacity, since Israel doesn’t recognize my New York State teacher’s license without additional coursework.

I’ve taught nearly every grade and many a subject, but my specialty has always been English. Regardless of the material, my basic rule of thumb for teaching is: Take stock of where the students are, advance them to the next level.

I was handed a roster. One class of three, one class of five. This was going to be a piece of cake.

On my first day teaching I discovered that the cake was actually lemon custard — sticky and tart and sweet — and I was trying to cut neat, even slices with a butter knife.

The three 12th-graders I sat down with were nowhere near a 12th-grade reading level. They knew the basics, but were light- years away from reading and dissecting the lengthy passages in that deceptively thin practice-exam booklet. After 45 nail-biting minutes, I left feeling perplexed and incompetent.

I tiptoed into the principal’s office and humbly asked how I was meant to help kids practice skills they'd never acquired. Gila’s eyes widened a bit. “Didn’t you speak to Bilha?” she asked. No, I hadn’t. We’d played phone tag, but I hadn’t actually reached her.

Gila smiled. “Call Bilha, then come to me if you need any help.” (Excerpted from Family First, Issue 538)