Outreach Beyond Limits, Love Beyond Bounds: A modern day Avraham and Sarah open their Jerusalem home to all

By Barbara Horwitz

Regardless of Klal Yisrael’s inability to participate in Shalosh Regalim Temple offerings in Jerusalem in modern times, one American couple has made it their business to make the cross-Atlantic flight before every Sukkot, Pesach and Shavuot.  In fact, they have created a forum for their own personal “offering” by opening up their Yom Tov table to overwhelming numbers of guests every year.

What began as an effort to squeeze friends into assorted rented apartments in Jerusalem in the early ’80s has turned into a major hachnasat orchim [hospitality] operation:  Shimon and Rachel* are now utilizing a rented hall and caterer to provide Yom Tov experiences to hundreds of people, particularly unaffiliated Jews.

“I think they are gems – people living l’shem Shamayim [dedicated to Godliness],” said Jeffrey Seidel, Director of the Jewish Student Information Center in Israel.  “They could be staying here on holiday, but instead they come here on their vacation time and take care of all these guests.”

Seidel, whose outreach work puts him in contact with secular university students and tourists, regularly sends dozens of people to Shimon and Rachel, particularly on the second day of two-day Yomim Tovim, when it’s especially difficult to place people for meals.  Although the couple had been working casually with Heritage House Director Meir Schuster, who runs a free outreach hotel, along with Baruch Levine, Seidel’s predecessor, their outreach efforts really began to take off ten years ago.

“I was very short on families that Pesach, so I sent them ten students for the first Seder and 15 on the second Seder night.  The kids loved it and I didn’t receive any negative feedback, so I kept sending them more and more,” Seidel explained.

“At the end of the holiday I got a phone call from Shimon and I thought I was in trouble — but it turned out he had happily gone out to buy chairs during Chol Hamoed,” Seidel said.

Seated in the dining room of her relatively small apartment in Jerusalem’s Bucharian neighborhood, Rachel fondly recalls that same Pesach when she and Shimon packed 62 guests into the apartment for a second-night Seder.  “It was at that point we decided we had to do something, so we arranged to rent space for a sukkah on our next fall trip,” Rachel said.

As a partner in a prominent law firm, Rachel was receiving five weeks of vacation at that point.  When the company increased the time to six weeks in the early ’90s, she and Shimon were able to add Shavuot to their Eretz Yisrael pilgrimages.

Dressed in a simple blue dress, with a blue scarf covering her hair, Rachel sits at her seforim-laden table and readily explains why she and Shimon are so committed to outreach.  “It’s very hard to reach out to people.  I have to be very careful in the office because my intentions could be easily misunderstood.  Occasionally I can send a colleague or client a book as a gift, but it’s only a drop in the bucket and it’s very frustrating not being able to do more,” she said.

Surrounded by bookcases and walls adorned with photographs of famous rabbis, Rachel pauses to choose her words carefully.  “So many people could be so much happier if they had the opportunity to learn about what Judaism has to offer.  It really pains me to not have any way to communicate this,” she said.  “It’s a desert out there and I wish we could build more oases — but it is very fulfilling at least to have an outlet here.  It’s like an underground spring.”

Rachel noted that part of the excitement is never knowing how many guests they will have at their table.  “We could have 20, we could have 100.  One year, Jeff sent us more than 100 Russian immigrants who had just gotten off the plane less than a week before,” Rachel said.  “One year, when we changed caterers, the gentleman wanted to know how many guests we’d be having.  He wasn’t too pleased with our answer since he wanted to know how much food to prepare, but Shimon had to tell him, ‘Only God knows.’”

While she and her husband do make these major efforts three times a year in Jerusalem, Rachel pointed out that this type of thing happens every single week as many, many people, even those with significant financial limitations, open their homes to Shabbat guests.

“It’s something very, very special – an open-heartedness that transcends language barriers and all cultural divides,” she said.  “That’s genuine chesed, welcoming total strangers in a giving and loving way.  It’s really today’s version of Avraham Avinu.”

Seidel explained how Rachel, as a high-powered attorney, and Shimon, as a Holocaust survivor, are also very skilled at relating to their guests.  “These kids have no exposure to Yiddishkeit and don’t know what it’s all about.  They can listen to Reb Shimon tell stories about the Holocaust and they can discuss the stock market with Rachel.  This breaks down barriers,” Seidel said.

According to Rachel, most people have no concept of strangers inviting them to a meal:  so when they are invited, it’s quite thrilling.  “It provides them with a feeling of being more a part of Klal Yisrael and this unity is very meaningful to them,” she said.

Fraidy Josephson, an admirer and good friend of the couple, noted that Shimon and Rachel expend incredible efforts to provide people who have never attended a Yom Tov meal with a warm and memorable experience.  “As far as I’m concerned, Shimon and Rachel embody Torah Judaism and all that it stands for.  They bring people from different places in the world and all walks of life closer to Torah,” she said.

Josephson, who now studies at Neve Yerushalayim, initially met Shimon and Rachel in New York and credits them for playing a major role in her journey towards observant Judaism.  “One Shabbat we were discussing a woman’s role in the religion.  Rachel had wanted to lend me a book on the topic, but I forgot to follow up after Shabbat,” Josephson recalled.  “She tracked me down at my office on Wall Street and sent me the book.  That effort had a tremendous impact on me,” she said.

Naomi Kramer, another fan of the family, also gained a great deal from their friendship.  “She’s a partner in one of the most successful law firms in the States, but they live such simple lives and choose to put their money towards serving Hashem.  I particularly find Shimon very inspiring.  Even before I had any Jewish consciousness, I wondered about personal responsibility.  If he could live through the Holocaust, yet still have faith and do mitzvot, then even more so, I have an obligation to live as a Jew,” Kramer said.

Josephson and Kramer are certainly not the only ones who have been inspired by the family’s example.  Rachel recalls one of their first Yom Tov guests, a Brazilian kibbutznik who came to them on Pesach.  “At the end of the meal, Shimon gave him his yarmulke.  In those days we didn’t have any extra ones lying around, so Shimon was walking around with a handkerchief on his head the next day,” Rachel recalls with a smile.  “Today the young man is shomer mitzvot and works at a yeshivah.”

While usually very elegant and articulate, Rachel gropes for words when asked about what it is that keeps them coming to Israel on such a frequent basis.  “It’s something in the air.  I can’t pinpoint it.  It’s just so impressive to see such idealism in people striving to lead more righteous, just, sensitive and caring lives.”

Rachel pauses to listen to the loudspeaker outside the window announcing, in Yiddish, a food collection for the poor.  “Where else can you see something like that?  People here in Yerushalayim are living the principles of Torah to the fullest and you just feel so uplifted by it,” she said.  “Our trips to Israel give me the strength to make it through the whole year.”

*Upon request, the names of the couple portrayed in this article have been changed.

Barbara Horwitz is a journalist from Chicago, Illinois.  She recently completed two years of study at Neve Yerushalayim in Israel.