Opening our homes for the holidays feeds the soul
Not only is Rosh Hashanah a special time spent with family and loved ones, it’s also an opportune moment to show kindness to those without a place to spend yomtov. By opening their tables, homes, and hearts to strangers, these community members have gained as much as they’ve given.
Unofficial Chabad shluchim (emissaries) Elisheva Liberman, her husband, and their children, now based in their native United States, have also lived in South Africa and Israel. Throughout their 23 years of marriage and travels, the Libermans have always opened their yomtov and Shabbat table to strangers in the surrounding Jewish communities.
“When I was younger, I didn’t have a big family to go to, and I was often alone, for example as a student and so on,” says Liberman. “People would sometimes say, ‘We reserve our yomtov table for family, and we’re not having guests.’ Yet, what does that do for people who don’t have a family, who are having a family difficulty that year, or who are alone? I said to myself, ‘If you want a solution to something, you have to make the solution.’”
So, Liberman decided always to reach out to people who might not have a place for yomtov, who are going through a difficult year, feel lonely, or just can’t manage to make a meal. Through social media and other channels, she let community members know that she and her family would be excited to have them over.
“We have made the most amazing contacts through this, people who we never would have met otherwise,” she says. “It’s really changed our lives. These people have literally become part of our family. We have people from South Africa who, even though we left a few years ago, we’re still in touch with.”
Each year, Liberman’s children tell her not to forget to extend her yomtov invitations. “My kids have gained tremendously,” she says. “They have learned to be incredibly giving people.” They also help her prepare for the guests, learning the value of hard work. Liberman recalls how one year in South Africa, her then 12-year-old son urged her to accommodate a group of eight Israeli Dead Sea product sales people for a seder at the last minute, even though she didn’t have enough space in her home to do so.
As a result of having to rearrange tables, Liberman seated her son with these visitors. “Afterwards, he told me that he’d had the most meaningful seder of his entire life,” she recalls. The guests had questioned him about his belief in G-d; the meaning of the seder; and why it was important to him. “He told me, ‘I had to really think about it. Why did it matter to me? Why was it important?’ And I thought that that was very profound. I was happy about that,” says his mother.
Dalya Erster invites community members without a place to go to her yomtov table, and arranges for like-minded individuals to do the same. “We’ve set up quite a few people. So many are willing to host, whether they are young, old, single, or married,” she says. “The response this year has been amazing.”
Erster says that she was inspired by the incredible Jewish Johannesburg community, which is unlike any other. “That’s the sentiment shared by people who visit – about the kindness here, the sense that my home is yours. When there’s an opportunity to include community members, people are so willing.”
Whether they once had a long yomtov table but now have kids or family living overseas, or their circumstances have changed, there are now a significant number of people who aren’t a part of something over Rosh Hashanah, Erster says. Yet, everyone deserves to experience the beauty and communal spirit of yomtov, even more so after the COVID-19 pandemic, when so many were alone.
For Erster, helping to facilitate connections with other potential hosts is about paying it forward. “If people aren’t part of an inner circle, whether it’s at shul or within their families, there might be a sense of exclusion, wondering where to go, how to get involved, and mark yomtov. It’s about just reaching out.”
This idea can be applied to all aspects of our lives, serving as an example to our children, she says, especially the kids who aren’t in the inner circle at school. “It’s about the power of noticing and including others.”
This also ties into one of the themes of Rosh Hashanah, also known as Yom Hazikaron – the day of remembrance. “We want Hashem to remember us for a good and healthy year, to notice us and not let us fall by the wayside, so can we do that for others?” Erster asks. “In the spirit of this, Hashem, please G-d, can remember us.”
Having started Sandton Central Shul in 2012 on the back of a Chabad visitor centre they ran to accommodate Jewish tourists during the FIFA World Cup, Rabbi Ari Kievman and his wife, Batya’s, congregation was formed on a foundation of hospitality. “Today, Shabbos hospitality at the shul and at our home is a favourite,” says the rabbi. “Our children love to be involved in community activities.”
“It’s a fundamental mitzvah in the Torah that while we care for ourselves over the holidays, we have to care for others,” he says. This is a basic tenet of Judaism, in which in the Torah, even Avraham and Sara were renowned for their hospitality and care for others.
In welcoming people into their own home and community over Shabbat and yomtov, the Kievmans have had interesting experiences. Hosting strangers, often from around the world, isn’t always smooth sailing, Kievman admits. “We’ve sometimes experienced some strange characters coming into our home and having to deal with that, which can be challenging.”
Yet, the experience has been overwhelmingly positive. “Some of our guests have become lifelong sponsors and wonderful friends,” the rabbi says. “We’ve seen articles in Hebrew, French, and English being written by tourists who visited our shul, joined us for meals, had a great time, and chose to write about it.”