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I recall my very first Shabbat meal at an observant home. I had recently started hanging out with some religious kids and one of my neighbors invited me for Shabbat lunch.
Everyone went to do the customary washing for bread and sat in silence while they waited for the Head of the table to say the Hamotzi blessing over the challah. I did not know about the custom of not speaking between washing hands for the challah and eating it and found the silence a little strange, & innocently blurted out, “Isn’t silence golden?”
I have come a long way in my journey to observant Judaism in the last 30 years but last Shabbat at a Shabbat dinner, there was an intense discussion on the weekly Torah portion that was way over my head. I looked around and realized that I was the only person at the table who had never attended Jewish Day School or had a Torah education. Gavin was not at the meal otherwise he would have been part of my club. Looking to my left was my handsome son who was fully comfortable with the discussion. In just one generation we had closed the gap and come full circle to where our children were living an expressively Jewish life based on Torah values linking them to dozens of generations before them and had the solid Jewish educational background to base it on.
I often think back to those families who reached out to invite me for a Shabbat meal or simplified the discussion on the Parsha at the table so I could be included. It was so often the small acts that made me receptive to want to learn more and embark on my journey. At age sixteen when I suddenly decided that I wanted to be religious, I was effectively going against my parent's lifestyle. My secular friends thought I had lost the plot and the new religious world with my limited knowledge was extremely overwhelming.
I guess it’s that self-awareness that made our home the comfortable place for many a “wild child” and the “too-cool-to-be-religious” crowd.
Despite all the time, resources and passion that we pour into community outreach, I sometimes wonder if we are really even moving the needle. Trying to turn the tide on the massive amount of assimilation and intermarriage in the Jewish community is a massive and daunting task and the statistics could easily allow one to feel despair. We are definitely NOT winning.
But then I think about my children or the many other people living Torah lives that I was privileged to have a hand in helping to find their path. There is the Rebbitsin in Jerusalem, the Rebbitsin in Australia, the Rabbi in Australia, the Rabbi in Manchester, the Rabbi and Rebbitsin in Efrat and the many, many others who have in common that their first Shabbat or Holiday meal was at our table.
Gavin and I have a lifetime of tales from our Shabbat table. There is the back-packing couple who we met at shul in Australia and inviting them home for a meal. They crashed at our place and many years later he is a Rabbi in Israel with five kids. There is the young girl who was sitting alone on Rosh Hashana in Manhattan. I too was new in the big scary place, New York City so I started chatting with her and invited her for a meal and she became a regular until she married a moved to Israel.
Today I stood in front of the memorial and Treblinka; An evil death-frenzied camp where 900,000 Jews were killed in nine months. We cannot comprehend the horror. We cannot understand why. We can only say those souls will never be forgotten. We can only promise that they did not die in vain as Jews. We will remember. We will make sure we carry the beacon for further generations.
The Ponevezher Rav (Rav Yosef Shlomo Kahaneman Z“L), was once asked why there are so many people returning to Judaism in this generation (ba’alei teshuva). In previous generations, the concept of Jews returning to their heritage was extremely rare – assimilation was a one-way street. Rav Kahaneman said that the souls of the children murdered in the holocaust have returned to claim their rightful place in the world and live out their snuffed out potential. These very souls are found burning in the hearts and minds of the ba’al teshuva and provide the inspiration for their path back to the Jewish people.
Standing at the monument in Treblinka, I imagine all children who lost their lives in this dark place. I then imagine their souls finding new potential in the heart of someone finding their way back to their Jewish roots. And suddenly I sense the dawn breaking, shattering the evil power of an implacably dark night.