(By Zalman Matusof)
The room’s ambience was warm and pleasant. It was 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 Chabad of Madison, a Jewish organization which commits to reaching out and connecting with Jews from all walks of life to kindle and inspire their Jewish commitment — have held an open Seder with numerous (diverse) 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, we had begun dining on the Passover delicacies my mother had prepared for the main course of the night. As not everyone knew each other, we decided to go around the table and take turns introducing ourselves. Some of the guests used this opportunity to show their gratitude to the hosts.
“My name is Brenda and I was first invited to a Seder at the Matusofs’ 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 Matusofs 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 at the Matusofs’ house.”
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 coming from Point A and had this really long stopover in Chicago from where he would carry on to Point B whereat he would surprise his Mom whom he hadn’t seen in — X amount of — years. He had about three hours left to his stay in Chicago and was therefore in no rush.
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. Mindful of the tefillin I was lugging in my carry-on, I dropped the question, in my as-casual-as-I-could voice:
“Are you Jewish?”
“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 — outside of his travels — where he was from. He responded that he lived with his wife in Lacrosse, Wisconsin — a two-hour drive from Madison, which, for a small-town resident, isn’t that long of a trip. I then shared with him that I myself am originally from Madison and my parents organize Jewish programming and events over there. We were delighted by this newfound 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. And then Passover was approaching. Throughout that year I was living in Chicago, but I was to be spending Passover back home in Madison and I thought that this would be a perfect opportunity for him to enjoy something Jewish with my family. I sent him 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 Zalman 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.”
If I read the room correctly, there was something 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 differences and bond over ancient traditions — and over matzah which tastes ancient. Of a people who know each other, even before they have ever met; and most importantly, of a nation by whom anything is possible.
No time to think though. There was still a long hagaddah ahead of us.