The World at My Shabbat Table
Updated: Oct 14, 2020
As Israel slowly started turning the screws toward COVID-19 lock-downs in early March, I started to feel slightly suffocated and I began to panic: What were my family and I going to do if we could not host our customary events for hundreds of people or Shabbat dinners at our home every week?
Our immediate need for guests was partially solved when a stranded South African family, unable to get on a flight back to Johannesburg, asked if they could stay for a few days and landed up hunkering down with us for 8 weeks including Pesach and Israel’s Independence Day.
Hosting guests is just in the DNA of our family. We haven’t had one free Shabbat in as long as I can remember, at least going back to when my husband and I lived in Tasmania in 1994 and only because there were no Jews for miles. We have always found a way to have a full Shabbat table no matter where we have lived.
I am a "Baal-teshuva", so I deeply appreciate every moment of my modern orthodox life. My journey to return to my heritage was intentional and, after I embraced Judaism’s value system and worldview, I wanted to help make it accessible for others. Our home is a comfortable place for guests ranging from the most learned Torah scholars and the completely secular and even non-Jews.
When we arrived in New York City in 2000, we quickly realized the need for a home away from home for Jews who had moved to New York from outside of the US. We started hosting holiday dinners and Shabbat meals and organizing community events for people who didn’t have family in the city. This eventually led to me establish Jewish International Connection New York (JICNY) with my husband Gavin and Steve Eisenberg. Our organization has a network of thousands of Jews throughout the New York City and has expanded to Israel since we made aliyah in 2014.
Our doors were literally and figuratively always open and thousands of people came in and out over the years, many staying the night or several nights actually. It was so common for us to be hosting guests, that the doorman would direct any Jews who entered the building straight to our apartment. We once enjoyed an entire Shabbat meal with a new couple until the end of dinner when they realized: “Wait, you’re not the Pearlmans?” The Pearlmans were our neighbors!
Living a life that reflects the principles of modern orthodoxy is a mainstay in the Samuels’ home. Our home and our Shabbat table reflects the kindness, respect and tolerance inherent in our beliefs. During these times around our table, we get to know each other better and we learn about others as well which is essential for building bridges.
This has really played out since we got to Israel where our Shabbat table broadened its horizons. Since then, we hosted foreign relations students from Stanford University one week, Christian pastors and ministry leaders another week, then on yet another week, European politicians who were spending Shabbat dinner with us then heading to Gaza on Saturday for a Palestinian meal. We had a union of Canadian construction workers, some of whom were ethnic Palestinians and didn’t want to visit “settler Jews” but left our table as friends anyway. They left crying, having never had a positive interaction with Israelis or Jews and it was so different than what they’ve been taught.
Then there was the group of 40 Chinese businessmen and women who arrived just minutes after all the electricity in our apartment went out. Shabbat was already in! I explained when I met them outside our door that thousands of years of uninterrupted heritage could not be broken just because our electricity was out.
They ate Shabbat dinner with us by candlelight and many of them used the flashlights on their phones when our candles burnt out. We were able to convey honor and respect for 3,000 years of Jewish history no matter how challenging the present situation. The Chinese guests — coming from a Communist system that has long suppressed religion — left saying it was their most impacting experience during their time in Israel.
My children have been raised with this lifestyle. In fact, when my daughter Temira was applying to high schools, she told the interviewers at one school that she has seen the entire world from her Shabbat table.
“One week we had evangelical Christians, the next week we had East German politicians. Another week we had Chinese businessmen, intermarried Jewish families, Swedish pastors and then single Orthodox Jews looking to get married.”
Temira summed up our home life perfectly. Open doors and open minds. When we aren’t traveling the world, we are bringing the world to us. And hopefully our light shines a little brighter to them as well.