Deep thoughts, random insights, and musings by Susan Jacobs

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Tribute to my hosts

Here is my February column from The Jewish Chronicle.

Open invitations for Shabbat are real

Shortly before I started college in New York, an Orthodox family from the Bronx whom I had met through my youth group told me that I should call them after I was settled in at school to arrange a time to visit them for Shabbat. They would love to have me over, they said, and I shouldn’t hesitate to call.

While I was flattered by their warm invitation, I was uncomfortable with the idea of “inviting myself over” to someone’s house. After all, I had been taught never to make myself an unwelcome guest, which meant that I should only take advantage of someone’s hospitality if it were specifically offered, since general statements of “come over anytime” could turn out to mean “but not right now.”

However, I slowly got used to the idea that in the Orthodox community an open invitation is not a mere pleasantry, but a sincere offer.

At school, friends of mine told of spending Shabbat with families in various communities in the United States and Israel that had extended open invitations, and of those families being genuinely happy when my friends called to ask when they could come over. And the informality worked both ways – if a family was not able to have guests on a particular week, they would say so, and arrange another time instead.

After a few weeks at school, I happened to see the husband of the family from the Bronx. He asked me how I was doing at school and then said, “So when are you coming for Shabbat? Why haven’t you called us?”

Soon after, I spent a fun Shabbat with them, and over time became a regular guest at their home.

This family was one of several that extended similar invitations. Since I was far away from home, and many of my classmates’ families lived in or near New York, during my college years I spent Shabbat in all five boroughs of New York, plus several communities in New Jersey, Long Island and Connecticut, and was impressed and moved by the generosity of all of my hosts.

Since I have lived in Pittsburgh, I have encountered similarly enthusiastic invitations, ranging from people who call a week or two in advance to invite me for a specific meal, to those who have told me that I am welcome to show up on a moment’s notice if ever I am without plans for Shabbat.

The motivation behind all these invitations is the belief that no one should be alone for Shabbat, which is supposed to be a day for connecting with others.

During the week, most of us stay in touch with others by using electronic devices. But on Shabbat, for many of us, all that changes.

Without use of the phone, television or Internet, Shabbat can be a long, lonely day for a person who is alone.

Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be that way, since the community is so welcoming of those who live alone.

And the invitations do not come with the sense that the hosts are acting only out of obligation. I have learned that many of these families genuinely enjoy having Shabbat guests. When a person is already cooking a meal for a whole family, the addition of one or two people does not increase the workload, but can enhance the experience for everyone.

I know this is true because I periodically host Shabbat meals, and hope to eventually be able to “pay forward” at least a small part of the kindness I have received when I have a family of my own.

There is an old idea that the entire Jewish nation is in fact one very large family. Even though none of my relatives live in Pittsburgh, when I am a Shabbat guest, I truly feel that I am with family.


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