By Malkie Gordon Hirsch
It wasn’t an easy thing to do. So much of the trip to Israel was made up of a series of moments so awe-inspiring that eventually I had to just sit there observing it all and store the memories in the recesses of my mind and hope they remained intact until I got back home to recall them all.
We moved at a way quicker pace than I’d expected, and I remember that even the Friday night/Shabbos portion of our time on the TJJ tour was spent trekking from our hotel to the Old City and Kotel more than once.
Mind you, on a regular summer Shabbos, if I walked out of my house and it was anywhere near the temperature I encountered in Israel, I’d make an about-face on my front porch and march right back into my reliably central-air-conditioned home.
After sitting with some of the ladies on a Thursday morning prior to our Shabbos experience, I knew it would be a packed schedule and I’d hear some of them pose that age-old question to our tour leader, Nechama.
“Why is it called a day of rest if there’s no resting on the Shabbos itinerary?” they inquired. They seemed to predict the answer before they even asked the question.
To which Nechama quickly responded, “You’ll rest when you get home.”
Ba-da-bam. She’ll be here all week, ladies and gents.
You could tell by the way that response rolled off her tongue that it wasn’t her first time answering that query. It seemed to be a rehearsed line that she’d had to use in the past years and with that, I knew that on that particular Shabbos I’d have no chance to take my comfy post on a hotel couch, clad in a hoodie with a book. I thought of the two books in my suitcase and laughed.
I went along with whatever we were meant to do, and as we sat in Netiv Aryeh that Friday night, after overseeing 50 women light Shabbos candles (some for the first time in their lives) and wash their hands for Hamotzi, I realized how lucky I was that none of the things we were doing were the least bit surprising to me.
There was a leader at each table, and as Kiddush was recited, or zemiros sung, I observed the women’s expressions and explain what was happening.
These ladies were brave enough to step outside their comfort zones and try something entirely new. If the tables were turned, I don’t know if I’d have the same courage to do something completely unfamiliar.
It wasn’t natural for me to recite a berachah out loud as I washed, or to say Grace after Meals together as we ended the night, since I’ve been doing these same things by rote for the last 40 years. But part of teaching these women about our Jewish heritage is breaking things down to a point I never anticipated doing.
I thought about it this past Shabbos, as I invited my first group of women to our Friday-night meal, this being the first time I’d see them since getting back from Israel.
I could tell immediately that the tour had left an impression on them, by the thoughtfulness in their questions before they were scheduled to come eat with us. They asked about hechsherim on the candy platter they bought and if the wine they picked up was OK, and I thought to myself that not too long ago they likely didn’t understand what a kosher certification symbol looked like.
The number of “rules” we have can seem endless to others who don’t think twice about opening a package of candy, and I found it amazing that these women had this curiosity, a spark of wonderment, or maybe just a need to discover more about a religion their ancestors observed.
It’s something I thought about as we walked around Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum in Israel. As I observed their reactions as they watched video footage of the millions of Jews exterminated during the war, I realized that hearing about something and seeing something are two entirely different things. Hearing what being an observant Jew is and sitting at a Shabbos meal and eating with people who do this week after week is entirely different too.
As we sat at my Shabbos table weeks later and Jeremy explained the significance and origin of the songs sung, I tried acting like I knew what he was talking about, but the truth was I actually had no idea who wrote Eishes Chayil and why. I didn’t know the details of what is done and what isn’t done during the year of Shemittah and I told the women sitting at my table that I felt really lucky to have a chance to experience being at a farm observing these laws, learning what it means—with women who didn’t know I couldn’t use a light dimmer on Shabbos. They now know more about Shemittah than most kids who attend yeshiva, and that left me grateful for having the chance to experience that with them.
We were back home for weeks when I had them on Friday night, and they talked about their kids and what the rest of the summer looked like. The meal lasted for hours. At some point, as they were getting ready to leave, one of the women observed out loud how special it was to do this without a cellphone or any other distractions. It was their “1% more” moment, a concept Nechama spoke about during our trip. About how intimidating it might seem to start taking on so much so quickly, changing a life so familiar into something that requires so much effort and focus.
She said that doing one thing, whether lighting Shabbos candles or eating a Shabbos meal with your family without electronics or baking challah. is that little bit extra, that 1% more than they did previously. It’s something that can be done slowly and built upon. It can make kids to want to be home instead of out on a Friday night. It can be the cause of families reconnecting and speaking to each other for one meal a week without any distractions, and it can become something they learn to appreciate and look forward to.
Although it was something I had never done before the TJJ trip, I realized how rewarding it felt to provide this type of experience to the women and couples who wanted to come for a Shabbos meal. The ordinary thing I’ve been doing my entire life was extraordinary to them. The food I prepare weekly they only cook for a big holiday and seems like an impossible task to them, but I do it easily and with a lot more accompanying responsibilities. But the best part to me was the joy they had in experiencing something I might have begun taking for granted. The Shabbos table, the catching up with the kids, the meeting of friends, and the day of disconnecting our weekly ways to connect with the One who made this all possible.
So, while they may have thought I was doing something for them, they were actually doing the same for me. It was a reminder to be thankful for living a frum life, having an open home, and wanting to continue to inspire and teach others about the way we live and celebrate our weekly Shabbos. Yet another one of the countless lessons in my life about how giving often becomes receiving, and vice versa.
Malkie Gordon Hirsch is a native of the Five Towns community, a mom of 5, a writer, and a social media influencer.