The room’s ambience was warm and pleasant; homey; cozy. We were deep into the Seder at my parents’ home where they were hosting about thirty guests in our humble dining space. My parents — the directors of a local Chabad chapter, a Jewish organization which commits to reaching out, serving and connecting Jews from all walks of life — have held an open Seder with numerous guests for as long as I can remember. The year of this Passover tale was no different.
Having read through the first part of the haggadah, eaten our fill of Matzah, and drunk our share of wine, we were now dining on the Holiday’s “main course” dinner. My father, after sharing some words of inspiration, suggested that we each take a moment to introduce ourselves to the rest of the Seder attendees — as some were as of yet unacquainted. The guests chose to use this opportunity to share their gratitude to the hosts.
“My name is Brenda and I was first invited to a Seder at the Rabbi’s house ten years ago. Ever since, I have been privileged to grace their welcoming table and become acquainted with their wonderful family. This is my tenth Seder in this house.”
“My name is Avi and I am so grateful to the Rebbetzin (Rabbi’s wife) and Rabbi for hosting. Although I cannot make it to the Seder every year, I am so happy to be here again and with my son, Nathan, this time. This is my fourth Seder with this wonderful family.”
And then it was Eric’s turn.
“Hello everyone. My name is Eric and I’m here with my wife Jenna. We have actually never met the Rabbi and his wife before…”
You see, the fact that Eric was in attendance that night, I believe, was nothing short of a miracle. First, though, I must tell you about a ‘‘chance” encounter that had occurred a couple of months before this Seder.
I was at Chicago’s airport with a group of friends on our way to New York for the weekend. It was a date of special significance on the Jewish calendar and we were headed to Chabad’s central synagogue in Brooklyn to celebrate with our friends. (As well as to visit the Rebbe’s Ohel to pray and to rejuvenate our spirits for the Yeshivah year still ahead of us.) Next to me in the security line was a fellow with whom I struck up a conversation, (which, to the benefit of all conversationalists, is common practice in the friendly Windy City.)
Here’s the gist of what he related: He was in Chicago just on a long stopover, as he was on his way to his hometown to surprise his mother with a visit — whom he hadn’t seen in many years. He had about three hours left to his stay in Chicago and was in no rush at all.
Now it was my turn. I explained to him that I was traveling with this group of friends from an Orthodox Jewish school in Chicago, and we were headed to Brooklyn for the weekend.
“Are you Jewish?” I asked him. I had my pair of tefillin with me, and I was thinking we might have a good opportunity while in the airport to perform a mitzvah and pray.
“I am, actually,” he responded with a smile.
“Are you familiar with the tefillin?”
“Yeah,” (thoughtful pause), “but I haven’t put on tefillin since, I think, about ten years ago.”
“Would you like to find a quiet area once we get through security where I can help you with the prayer?”
He looked at me, “Yeah. Yeah, that would be cool. Thanks, man.”
After the shoes/jackets/watches/belts off-and-on jumble through security, we picked out a quiet gate and headed over to don the tefillin. I took him through the prayer, we took a picture to preserve the moment, and we resumed our conversation as I wrapped up the tefillin to put away in their bag. It was only then that I asked him where he was coming from. He responded that he lived with his wife in a small town in the Midwest, two hours away from where I grew up — a town with very little Jewish presence at all. I shared with him about my hometown and about my parents who actively conduct a variety of Jewish programs and events. We were delighted at this neat connection and he committed to visit at some point to meet my folks and to join them for something Jewish — be it a Shabbat or another event. We shared our contact information and headed on our separate ways.
We stayed in touch, but, at first, he wasn’t able to make it to any of the events I informed him about. I was back home from yeshiva for Passover when I decided to shoot Eric an invite to join us for the night of the Seder. Which brings us back to Eric’s introduction:
“Hello everyone. My name is Eric and I’m here with my wife Jenna. We have actually never met the Rabbi and his wife before. Funny enough, I met Schneur over here [gesturing towards me] a couple of months back at the airport in Chicago, and he invited me to share the Seder with his family. My wife and I are so happy to be celebrating here together with all of you. We thank the hosts and are happy that we were now able to meet you.”
There was something visibly inspiring about that short message. It told a story. A story of a nation who is always family. Of a people who, every year on the same night, transcend their challenges and divisions and bond over age-old traditions — and over matzah which might taste “age-old”. Of a people who know each other, even before they have ever met; and most importantly, of a nation by whom anything is possible.
A neat moment to reflect. The silence only lasted a quick moment though. Time to pull out the matzah and eat the Afikomen! There was still a long hagaddah ahead of us.