It’s a typical Shabbat at the Shapiros.’* The front door swings open and closed as guest after guest files in. On average, about thirty arrive: some wearing black hats, some knitted yarmulkes, still others wearing faded jeans and no head covering traipse in. Passersby watching the procession might wonder: “Whose house is this, anyway?” Menachem and Liba Shapiro, who take the expression mi casa es su casa quite literally, would answer: “Anyone who comes—and everyone yet to come. Won’t you join us?”
From the very first Shabbat of their married life, over two decades ago, the Shapiros opened their Brooklyn home to all who needed a place to eat or sleep. Nowadays, just about every Thursday evening, their extended dining room table stands proudly, bedecked in an extra-long Shabbat tablecloth, with settings for around forty people (ten from the immediate family and the rest, guests-turned-family).
An extrovert, Menachem developed a disarming, sure-fire technique to bring guests into his home. “I’d see people in shul without a tallit,” he says. “I figured that if a guy isn’t wearing a tallit, he probably needs a place to eat.” Day after day, at Shacharit, Minchah and Maariv, Menachem would approach these fellow daveners with his welcoming smile and invite them over for the upcoming Shabbat. Most of them came; all of those who did returned.
“I was in shul davening on Rosh Hashanah and I didn’t have a place to eat,” says Harold, a fifty-seven-year-old divorced man from Brooklyn. “I approached the rabbi of the shul and asked if there was a hachnasat orchim committee. He said, ‘Sure,’ and pointed to Menachem.” Harold went home with his host that night and has been going to the Shapiro home ever since.
Word spread quickly that the Shapiro home was open for Shabbat. “I didn’t understand how they could open their home to complete strangers, but I was curious,” says Shabsie, fifty-seven, divorced for many years and a guest of the Shapiros for close to a decade. “Not only do they provide a lavish meal, which is an enormous expense and effort, but they also demonstrate a genuine concern for people. For individuals like me, who are have never been married or who are divorced, they offer a sense of camaraderie and the crucial message that we are not alone.”
It wasn’t long before Shabsie’s lonely female counterparts heard about the growing number of “tallit-less” guests at the Shapiros’ Shabbat table. “My initial motivation was to meet someone,” admits Zehava, a fifty-two-year-old single. “But I continue to go because I feel comfortable there. I never come unannounced, yet I know I can pop in any time. And it’s not just a meal; there’s lots of divrei Torah, singing and interesting stories around the table. There are some who probably would have nowhere to go if they didn’t have the Shapiros.”
“I’ve never felt like a guest in their home,” says Avrami, fifty, a guest for nine years who got married three years ago. “It’s a natural state. No one feels like he’s imposing. Your place is set whether you come or not.”
Every week forty or more bowls of chicken soup with big matzah balls are brought to the table, along with heaps of meat, chicken, cold cuts, half a dozen bowls filled with cole slaw, tomato salad, eggplant salad and corn and a variety of kugels. “After the meal, Menachem walks around the room [asking if anyone wants tea],” says Moshe, thirty-eight, a guest for the past five years. Moshe had moved from Philadelphia to New York and was looking for a place to go for Shabbat. A friend told him about a family he had heard of that opens their home to everyone. So Moshe went and he hasn’t stopped going since. “Throughout the meal, we’re discussing the parashah, our jobs, a social or cultural event, politics. There are always a few who are very opinionated, others who temper them and some who sit quietly listening. It’s an extremely accepting environment; we’re all glad to be there to relax and recharge.”
Much preparation goes into creating this Shabbat atmosphere. Liba’s week revolves around her children and her Shabbat guests. In between carpooling and running other family errands, she shops for Shabbat. Wednesday is her major food-purchasing day. On Thursdays, Liba is up by dawn and in the kitchen cooking and baking in her institutional-size pots and pans. “It entails hours and hours of work,” says Menachem. Liba makes approximately twenty large challot per week; she also prepares water challah because some prefer it. “In twenty years, I have never walked into a bakery; everything on our table is homemade, from beginning to end—salads, dips, desserts,” says Menachem.
Liba says the menu reflects her mood. “I try to make different dishes each week so that no one gets bored,” she says. “I prepare expecting a full house. If I wind up with too much, there’s something called leftovers.”
Liba’s home is exactly how she had always envisioned it. “I’m a person who likes to be available to people, to have a warm home that they’ll enjoy coming to,” she says. From their first date, the Shapiros’ hopes for the kind of home they wanted to build were in perfect sync. “I once went to someone’s house and observed an elderly man eating supper on a Tuesday night,” says Menachem. “The fellow had no place to go. I thought, ‘I want a house like that.’ If someone wants to come to us for breakfast in the middle of the week, he knows he can. I wanted a home [that is] open twenty-four hours.”
One could easily wonder how Liba copes with the difficulty of preparing for scores of guests every Shabbat, the frequent phone calls from guests during the week to discuss personal issues, the constant lack of privacy. “What is a person here for?” says Liba. “If one is only for himself, then it’s a hardship,” she says. “I love doing this. It’s all about how you look at it.”
Get Comfortable—Get Inspired
Knowing most of their guests don’t have families of their own, Menachem and Liba make certain that they feel like an integral part of the family. A teacher by profession, Menachem brings his enthusiastic “rebbi” persona to the table, acting as the jovial master of ceremonies.
“No matter how depressed I feel before I get there, I can count on being uplifted at the Shapiros’,” says Zehava. “I love when Reb Menachem stands up on his chair and gives us words of chizuk [encouragement]. It’s clear how much he cares about our pain, and because he’s so right there with us, the pain dissolves, at least for Shabbat.”
Zehava does, however, see a possible drawback to the easy company and delicious cuisine available at the Shapiro home. Some of the single and divorced guests have come for over a decade, one for as long as eighteen years. “I think it holds many of the men back from getting married,” she says.
The Shabbat regulars, who also come to the Shapiro table for all of the yamim tovim, dread the summer months when the Shapiros leave for the Catskill Mountains. “They don’t feel as comfortable in other people’s homes,” says Menachem. “Here, they feel free to take doubles and triples; they take their shoes off and relax on the couch. Many of them don’t go anywhere for Shabbat during the time we’re away. After the summer, they have a home again.”
The eight Shapiro children, who range in age from four to twenty, revel in the hubbub. “I like all the noise Friday night and Shabbat day, all the interesting people,” says Shaya, sixteen. “I was born with guests around the table. This is a normal Shabbat to me. When I go to someone else’s house, it’s so quiet; it’s like there’s no one there; it feels weird.” Shaya and his brothers remember giving up their beds to make room for a guest or two or three. They didn’t mind. “People who live by themselves all week long feel at home here,” says Shaya. “I know because they come back every week. Some have even composed songs about us.”
In most homes, soon after Kiddush, the children get restless and leave the table to play, however, the Shapiro children choose to interact with the colorful crew; they also help serve, sing zemirot and clear the table. “It’s great having tons of guests,” says Hanoch, eleven. “You get to talk to people about the news, the Torah, politics. I’d like to have this in my own home [when I grow up].” In the meantime, Liba says of her young helpers, “We couldn’t do it without them.”
Friends You Can Count On
The Shapiros’ heartfelt hospitality extends beyond the Shabbat table and into the personal lives of each individual. “No matter how despairing and frustrated I felt about my dearth of dates, I knew I could come to Liba,” says a female guest in her forties. “I had her full attention…. When I got engaged, after Liba’s initial scream of joy, she promptly said, ‘I’m making Shabbat sheva berachot.’ And she did, four days before Pesach, with every Shabbat guest in attendance. And that’s not all. By the second Seder, I felt too exhausted to walk the two miles to the Seder where my husband-of-a-week and I were expected. He told me to relax, that he’d walk over to inform the family and work something out about getting food for a private Seder. Just two blocks into his journey he ran into Menachem, who inquired as to where he was heading. My husband explained our situation, and Menachem insisted he stop by his home on the way back to pick up a full Pesach meal: charoset, tzimmes and all. [Menachem] said, ‘Coming right up—‘Seder-to-go!’”
Menachem didn’t think twice about booking a ticket to Israel to attend the wedding of a longtime guest. “When one knows a guy for fifteen years, he’s like a brother,” says Menachem. “We lived through all the trials and tribulations of his years alone. When he was down, he used to come over and we’d talk for hours. I had to dance with him at his wedding.”
The guests share in the Shapiros’ family semachot as well. At every brit milah and Bar Mitzvah celebration, the tables with Shabbat regulars fill a third of the hall. “In a way, we’re closer to them than [to] our extended family, who we see maybe a few times a year,” says Menachem. “We see [our Shabbat guests] every week!”
To accommodate their growing family and guest list, the gracious hosts purchased a larger house in the area and renovated it to provide more space for guests to sleep over. Knowing full well that they could easily rent out their new basement for $2,000 a month, Menachem and Liba converted the area into guest bedrooms, along with another one upstairs.
Over the two decades of Shabbatot, four of their guests have passed on. Two of them didn’t have families to deal with funeral and burial arrangements. Just as they had taken great care to provide these guests with a weekly taste of Olam Habah in this world, Menachem and Liba escorted these neshamot to the Next World, with the same dignity and devotion.
Shabsie likens going to the Shapiro home for Shabbat to attending a yeshivah specializing in chesed. “It teaches the children, really all of us, that it is more than what we learn in theory; it’s practice. It’s living Torah.”
Evidently, he’s right. “I realized at around eight years old that my home was different from others,” says Yehoshua, now seventeen. “I love it. This is Shabbat to me; hachnasat orchim. Every one of our guests has become an important part of my Shabbat and my life. I think my parents are amazing.”
*All names have been changed.
Yehudis Nachman is a writer living in New York.