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Hospitality—and the Fort McMurray Miracle #753

11/18/2022 06:06:00 PM


Rabbi Irwin Huberman

Parashat Chayei Sarah: “Let her be the one whom you have decreed for your servant Isaac.” Genesis 24:14


Hospitality—and the Fort McMurray Miracle


Archives at the local library confirm, that on Thursday, October 11, 1990, in the northern Canadian community of Fort McMurray, 10 adult males convened for the first ever official Jewish service.

How could that be possible a full Jewish service, held 600 miles north of the Montana border, in a hotel conference room, within a community of 35,000 where most had never even met a Jew?

It all came about because of one act of kindness.

The autumn leaves were in full glory as I soared above the boreal forest on a Time Air flight from Fort McMurray where I published a newspaper, to the bustling city of Edmonton, which boasted a Jewish population of about 4,500.

It was Yom Kippur, and rather than sit alone at my desk, I decided to travel to the nearest synagogue, located about 275 miles away.

I knew how to recite all the prayers, but at the same time, I felt I was being sized up by some—as an outsider.

As I closed my eyes to recite the final Ne'ila prayers, I felt a tap on my shoulder. I looked up and saw a well-dressed middle aged man lightly pulling at the edge of my tallit.

What he said to me next began a chain of events, which—two weeks later and 275 miles away, would bring 10 Jews together to perform a great mitzvah.

“No one should be alone at the end of Yom Kippur,” said Robert. “Please join my family after services to break the fast.”

And so, an hour later, I was sitting with at the dining room table with family members and another stranger—David, a Jewish oil worker who was also based in Fort McMurray.

We ate, extended our thanks and well-wishes for a good year, and went our separate ways.

Two weeks later, back in Fort McMurray, I found myself meeting with three Jewish men visiting for the day, as they explored a business opportunity. Two of them were brothers, away from home on the eve of the anniversary of the passing of their mother.

“It’s too bad we are in “nowhere land,” sighed one of the brothers. “How are we going to honor our mother properly? There is no way we could ever assemble a minyan here to say kaddish (the memorial prayer).”

And so it began. I called Sam, a local pharmacist. And then Saul, the city’s chief building inspector. Then there was Moses, a supervisor at a nearby oil plant and Eric, a local teacher. That made eight.

Then I remembered David, the oil worker, who I had met around Robert's table. We tracked him down at a local hotel and that made nine.

“Now that you mention it,” said David as he arrived, “earlier today I met someone in the oil fields—Shalom—from Iraq.”

We gathered Shalom from his hotel room, and there we were an hour later: 10 men—according to the Orthodox tradition of the mourners—with photocopied prayer books, assembled for a full minyan in that northern corner of Canada.

And it all occurred because Robert tapped me on the shoulder on that Yom Kippur day.

I often think about that act of kindness as I review this week’s Torah portion, which highlights one of Judaism’s most important values—hospitality.

In the opening line of this week’s Torah portion—Chayei Sarah (Sarah’s Lifetime)—our founding matriarch, Sarah, dies. After Abraham secures a burial place, he turns his sights to the future.

“Will Judaism become a one-generation movement,” I can imagine Abraham thinking, “or will there be a future?”

Abraham sends his senior servant, Eliezer, on a mission back to his hometown of Haran in search of a bride for Abraham’s son, Isaac.

How will Eliezer know who to approach? Who could ever fill Sarah’s shoes? For Sarah was known for her hospitality.

When Eliezer arrives in Haran, he asks for God's support to send the right bride for Isaac—someone who will not only offer him water at the well, but also for his entire fleet of 10 camels.

Rebekah fulfills the prophesy. She agrees to return to camp with Eliezer, marries Isaac and is assigned Sarah’s former tent. And so, Judaism continues to the next generation and beyond.

How interesting that neither prayer nor ritual carried Judaism forward—but rather kindness.

How many of us have entered as strangers into a social or religious setting without anyone reaching out to us?

That is not the Jewish way. Rather, our tradition treasures the mitzvah of hachnasat orchim—literally, “bringing in guests.”

It’s something Robert learned from his parents, and put into practice when he invited me and David to break the fast. We call it being a mensch.

It is embedded in each of our DNA. It means sharing our food or inviting someone to our table—whether on a weekday, the Sabbath or on a holiday like Passover—and subsequently thanking them for coming.

As a result of Robert’s kindness, two weeks later, two sons were able to honor their mother within full Orthodox tradition as 10 strangers combined as one.

All because of hospitality.

Friends, we live in a world where while the Internet and social media may link us, studies consistently show that increasingly more people—especially the younger generations—feel isolated and lonely.

So perhaps more than ever, we should consider a founding Jewish value shared by Sarah and Rebekah, which has extended through Judaism throughout the ages. We must reach out to help strangers feel welcome. We remind them that they matter—because they do.

The gathering on that day ultimately led to the formation of the Fort McMurray Jewish Cultural Association which included communal Passover Seders and other holiday celebrations, along with monthly visits from a rabbi to teach our children. Later, after moving to Edmonton, I became president of that same synagogue I had attended years earlier on Yom Kippur.

That one act of kindness also enabled me to share this story with you in hopes that as we plan social events, programs and services, we take a moment to look around the room and beyond, and ask, “Is there anyone who may be feeling left out?”

The Torah reminds us more than 36 times to be kind to the stranger.

For as the Torah inspires us to consider, we must not only draw water for ourselves and our immediate circle, we must do the same for strangers soon to become friends. And in so doing, we can create miracles.

We have all felt like outsiders from time to time. Sometimes it is easy to feel overlooked.

As Robert taught me on that Yom Kippur 30 years ago, there is no need for anyone to feel alone.

There is always room for more at our table.

Shabbat Shalom, v'kol tuv.
Rabbi Irwin Huberman

Wed, February 21 2024 12 Adar I 5784