I recently went to a funeral for someone really close to me. A lady who in so many ways defined my destiny. One of her sons described her as “The Mother of all Mothers”.
This lady had a profound impact on my life, my Jewish journey and the life path I live now.
My Jewish journey began when I was living in South Africa as a teenager I grew up in a home where we had little Jewish life - we went to synagogue on High Holidays, participated in a very abridged Pesach Seder but having seafood in the house was OK. Friday night we made Kiddush, the blessing over wine and then ate dinner in front of the TV. I went to a public school where most of the kids were Jewish. On Jewish holidays we were not allowed to go to school but we were allowed to go to the movies.
Despite this tepid religious observance, I always had a very strong Jewish identity.
My mother was a teacher at the local Jewish day school. She was a secular studies teacher and we live in the heart of the Jewish ghetto in South Africa in a suburb of Johannesburg called Glenhazel. On Saturday mornings it was not uncommon for my family to go out to our car just as all the religious kids were going off to synagogue. They would walk past our house and say to my mother “Good Shabbos, Mrs. Newman”. I would look at these kids and think that I would never be part of them. I called them “The Yarmy Army”, the “The G-d Squad”, and “The Nerds.” This crowd was definitely not for me. I was on the other side of the divide.
Towards the end of high school I moved to a private school that attracted many students from the Orthodox Jewish Day schools. On the school bus I met many religious kids. One Friday a cute guy asked me if he would see me at synagogue that Friday night and that was the beginning of my Jewish journey. I went to synagogue because I thought if the cute guy could give me a Good Shabbos kiss - a dream come true for a 16 year old girl.
I became friendly with the crowd of “religious kids” and they invited me over for shabbat meals. I was intrigued to see families sitting together around the table talking about matters of Torah, I saw younger siblings stand on a chair and share what they learnt in school about the weeks Torah portion. I enjoyed the warmth and the singing and wanted more.
At the end of high school its very common for kids in the Jewish day schools to go on a gap year program to Israel. My parents had never contemplated me spending a year in Israel and delaying University. They did not think it was a good idea. My new religious friends were going on Yeshiva programs and I convinced my parents to let me go on a pre University program to Bar Ilan University. We partied by night and slept by day until the First Gulf War broke out and everyone scattered. Many of the kids returned home.
I was definitely not going home and cutting my year short. Everyone was walking around with gas masks and all my friends has gone to stay at family and friends. I was staying with a friend in the now deserted Bar Ilan campus. We knew the campus Rabbi and we were sure he would help two stranded overseas students left alone on campus who did not speak the language. He too was gone. We literally were all alone and terrified. In hindsight I still cannot believe that we were two overseas students on an organized program and that no-one realized that we had nowhere to go. Gas masks had been issued, safe rooms created and the home front ordered everyone to hunker down. We had no radio, we did not speak the language and with every ambulance siren we assumed it was our last minute on earth. My friend called her uncle and he bought us tickets to London. We caught the last flight out. We landed and scud missiles began raining down in Israel.
London was fun but after a couple of weeks it was time to move on from her family. I had nowhere to stay and no money. My parents wanted me home but I was determined to enjoy my year away. Money started running out and I had few options. My mother mentioned my situation in the staff room and one of the religious staff members told my mother that her in-laws that split their time living between Israel and London and she was sure they would host me. The next day I knocked on the door of a couple who I had never met. A couple in their late 60’s early 70’s both appeared in the doorway with big grins and invited me in.
The Fachlers were a warm loving couple who embraced me from the moment I walked in. Mrs Fachler asked if I was hungry and I politely said no even though I was starving. She insisted I eat anyway. That was the first of many meals we shared together. They helped me find an au pair job at a religious family. They agreed with me that the goal should be to return to Israel at the end of the war. However I wanted to go study in a seminary - a place for women to learn Torah. They collaborated with me. After the war ended I returned to Israel and this time I went to study at Neve Yerushalaim a place for beginners like me to learn about Judaism. By then the Fachlers were living in Israel. Each week I would go to them for Shabbat.
I admired how a couple their age always had a house full of guests. Mrs Fachler would call local yeshivot and the neighborhood absorption center looking for guests. They were blind to religious level, financial status or background. They loved every Jew.
On my first date with Gavin I told him I want a home just like the Fachlers. An open home and a Shabbat table full of guests. He immediately said that he would love a home like that too.
Over the course of the next 28 years I maintained my close friendship with the Fachlers. I shared a story at the shiva of how we always called the Fachlers before the holidays. However in January 2008 we were overseas and I came home to at least 10 messages on the answer machine from Mrs Fachler checking in on me. Early the next morning the phone rang and she told me she can’t stop thinking about me and that she is worried about the unborn baby. I assured her my pregnancy was progressing fine. A few weeks later Caila was born and diagnosed with Down syndrome. She told me she knew that there was going to be something wrong but she had decided she would love my daughter as her own grandchild. The first thing she always asked me when she saw me was how is “My Princess?” On my last visit to her she could hardly talk she was so weak. However she whispered to me “Look after my Princess.”
We have an opportunity every day to bring light into this world. Mrs Fachler was an extraordinary person. Not because she had the most followers on Instagram or because she was rich or famous. She did not donate to causes to have buildings named after her. She was extraordinary because she woke up each day and made a difference in the lives of so many people. She lived a Torah based life and exemplified the values of kindness and hospitality to guests. She was a mother to everyone.
She is my inspiration to do the work that I do in the Jewish community. Even though Mrs Fachler is no longer with us she continues to inspire me to have an open home, to reach out to thousands of people and to be strong and advocate for Caila.
May her neshama be blessed.
יהי זכרה ברוך