By Mark Levie
Hearing my thirteen-year-old daughter Talia say that she had the best Shabbat ever was music to my ears. And it was not because she went to an over-the-top Bat Mitzvah or hung out with the “in” crowd. It was because something special happened around our Shabbat table that was meaningful—and she clearly sensed it.
Recently, Yavneh Academy, the elementary school in Paramus, New Jersey where I send my children, decided that it was important for students to reach out beyond the school walls to put what they are learning into action. Morah Jordana Baruchov, together with principal Rabbi Jonathan Knapp, were looking for a concept that would involve the children in acts of chessed and kiruv. They decided to take a small group of eighth graders to the mall each week and bring challah and other Shabbat treats to the Israelis working at the kiosks in the Garden State Plaza. Morah Baruchov enlisted my wife Dena to help find these fellow Jews who were far from home.
Identifying Israelis in a crowded mall with workers of all nationalities was quite a challenge. The students went from kiosk to kiosk and chatted with the workers. In the course of conversation they would say, “You have a beautiful accent; do you mind if we ask where you are from?” Eventually, they identified a significant group of Israelis, all of whom were thrilled to meet fellow Jews. Week after week, Morah Baruchov, Dena and different groups of eighth graders would make their way around the mall. Dena would tell stories about how appreciative the Israelis were to have someone wish them “Shabbat shalom” and bring them a little taste of Shabbat.
“In Israel, when Friday comes around, you feel Shabbat in the air,” one Israeli told Dena. “Here in New Jersey, Friday, Saturday, it’s just another work day. That was until you and these children started coming to the mall to remind us about Shabbat.”
For Yom Kippur, Dena arranged a place for a few of the Israelis to stay so they could daven at a shul in Englewood. Sukkot arrived and a few of our new friends came over for a meal.
Many of the Israelis had just finished the army and were trying to make some money before going to university. They were lonely.
One weekend in December, we decided to invite all of our Israeli friends to spend Shabbat with us. For several weeks we placed invitations in the challah bags inviting them to Teaneck for Shabbat. Many of them were committed to working on Friday night until the mall closed at 9:30 pm (Candle lighting was at 4:30 pm that week.) We told them that we would be happy to have them come for a Shabbat meal when they finished work. Dena offered to house anyone who wanted to stay over for Shabbat.
Friday night we went to shul with six Israeli guests and had a wonderful Friday night meal. After Birkat Hamazon, we added more tables in the den. We eagerly anticipated our second group of guests, wondering how many would show up. To our amazement, at 10 pm over twenty-five people walked into our house. Morah Baruchov and Dena had tears in their eyes, amazed that they all came. The atmosphere was electric. Our children and Morah Baruchov and her family were all sitting around a Shabbat table together, sharing divrei Torah and delicious Sephardic food. Everyone felt the warmth of Shabbat. When we started singing the traditional Friday night zemirot, it was clear that we were all one family. By the time we ate dessert and bentched (many of them knew bentching by heart from their youth), at 12:30 am, we were all physically exhausted but spiritually invigorated.
Some of the comments we heard from our guests were:
“This was the nicest Shabbat I’ve had here in America.”
“I didn’t realize how much I missed Shabbat and home; it’s time to go home.”
“You don’t have any idea what a mitzvah you’ve done.”
“This was the best Shabbat of my life.”
“I feel like I have a home in Teaneck.”
“I can’t wait to come the next time you do this!”
Talia sensed the specialness of that Shabbat, as did all of us who were there. I realized that reaching out to fellow Jews is not so difficult and that there are opportunities all around us. We just have to open our eyes and our hearts.
Mark Levie is a parent at Yavneh academy.