The Shabbat Enlarges the Family


         

The Shabbat Enlarges the Family

 
 
 
 

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You've Got Family

by Stephen Baron

We've all heard how AOL subscribers' computers announce "You've got mail." Did you know that every Jew has an internal computer that says "You've got family?" Sadly, most don't know they've hit the "mute" button, and can't hear the message, We've got family, a huge family in the Jewish people. I wouldn't have known it either if it hadn' t been demonstrated to me repeatedly over the course of 20 years.

I first saw it in 1983 in a Tel Aviv synagogue when I was on a mission with the American Professors for Peace in the Middle East. It was my first trip to Israel. Being newly observant, I decided to go to Shabbat services. I must have looked like a foreigner, because at the conclusion of services, an early middle-aged gentleman invited me home for lunch. I thought it must have been a surprise for him to return home with a stranger, but I was wrong. His family took it all in stride. This alone should have been a give away, but I wasn't listening.

When we arrived at his home, he turned to his elderly mother, and bent over so she could put her hands on the top his head, and give him his Shabbat blessing:

        May God make you like Ephraim and Menashe.
        May God bless you and guard you.
        May God shine His countenance upon you and be gracious unto you.
        May God turn His countenance toward you and grant you peace.

   

No sooner had he gotten a blessing, than he turned to his seven year old son and gave him the identical blessing. It was a beautiful custom, a weekly linking of the generations.

This so impressed me, that I determined to do it when I had children. Ever since my daughters were born, I have given them a Shabbat blessing , even before they understood what I was doing. If they happen to be away from home, whether in Israel, New York City, or Rochester, I bless them over the phone.

Second, was when I went to the 1988 biennial of the Jewish Community Centers Association in St. Louis. For four days 1500 delegates from every corner of North America came together to discuss what it takes to make a Jewish Community Center successful. Old, young, male, female, Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, professional, and non-professional, it made no difference. We were all family. That's how we treated each other. We were tied together by our common commitment to the betterment of the Jewish community. On returning home, I was asked how the biennial was. "It was like going to a family reunion," I said, "but the invitations for this one went out two years ago."

Third, was the Shabbat we hosted Miriam from Brookline, Massachusetts. She had come to central New York to attend a quilting (yes, quilting) conference at a college about half an hour from Syracuse. We had a joyous Shabbat together, plentiful food, and good conversation. By havdalah, we felt that we had made a new friend.

   

We wished Miriam well, and sent on her return to Boston, thinking we would never speak with her again.

About a year later, though, my step-sister, Maxa, had her gall bladder removed in Cambridge, Massachusetts. When we learned that Maxa had been in the Intensive Care Unit for three days without a single visitor, we called Miriam to see if she could help. We recalled that she said Harvard students visit during the Jewish holidays. We hoped she might persuade one or two of them to visit Maxa. A week later we heard from Miriam that instead of sending Harvard students, she had spent an hour visiting Maxa, herself. It was something family does for one another.

Fourth, was when our daughter Alexis was invited to spend a Shabbat in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, with a friend from summer camp. As her friend's family was quite large, and their house small, they didn't have enough space to host our whole family.. Upon learning this, we asked our rabbi if he could call a rabbi in Cherry Hill, and arrange someplace for us to stay.

He found us a friendly Israeli/Italian couple. He was Israeli, and she was Italian. That we came from very different backgrounds, and their children were already grown made no difference. We had Shabbat in common. The services at the synagogue were familiar because they are similar the world over. This alone is comforting. At their home, we heard kiddush, feasted on sumptuous meals, and engaged in lots of spirited conversation. In the course of things, we discovered that both the women were physicians. In a short time, we knew we were among family

   

Inviting guests for Shabbat is our regular practice. It gives us the opportunity to deepen our relationship with people we already know, and meet people we otherwise would never have known. On more than one occasion, we have hosted people my wife affectionately calls "airplane refugees," people caught in a plane on a Friday afternoon, unable to land as expected in New York City. Afraid of not being able to keep Shabbat, they took their chances in Syracuse. Once it was our rabbi's youth director and his wife who had emigrated to Israel. A year earlier, It had been an ophthalmologist and his adolescent son traveling from Cleveland to New Jersey. In both cases, we were privileged to have the opportunity to host them.

What I learned as an adult, my daughters learned at a much earlier age. Attending summer camp put them in contact with observant girls from all across North America. It's amazing to see them encounter people from distant communities. Immediately, they begin playing "Jewish geography". "Do you know...," Alexis will ask. Invariably, they will know at least one person in common, but oftentimes it will be a handful, or more. Our phone bills testify to the breadth of their friendships. More to the point, having family everywhere means they have a place for Shabbat wherever they go.

That's exactly the point. Because Shabbat is universally recognized as vitally important, we have always found people anxious to help us observe it. It's comforting to know that in any reasonably sized community in the world, we have a place for Shabbat. Being Jewish, I've discovered, means that I've got family everywhere.


Stephen Baron, a retired professor of political science and a quadriplegic, is the father of two teenage daughters. He lives in Syracuse, NY

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from the March 2003 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

 

 

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