It was music to my ears one recent weekend to hear our 13-year-old daughter Talia say that she just had the best Shabbat ever. It was not because she went to an over-the-top bat mitzvah celebration, or that she got to hang out with the “in” crowd, or that she slept 16 out of the 25 hours of Shabbat. It was because something special happened around our Shabbat table that was meaningful, and she clearly sensed that.

Recently, Yavneh Academy, the elementary school my children attend, decided that it was important that its students not only learn how to be Torah Jews, but that they reach out beyond the school walls to put what they were learning into action. Jordana Baruchov, who teaches the Five Books of Moses (the Chumash) and is also the director of student activities, and principal Rabbi Jonathan Knapp were looking for a concept that would involve the children in acts of chesed and kiruv (acts of righteousness and outreach).

First PersonAfter watching a video produced by Project Inspire, Morah Baruchov, as she is called, proposed that a group of eighth-graders go to the Garden State Plaza each Friday to seek out Israelis working in the mall’s many kiosks. The youths were to wish the Israelis a Shabbat Shalom, and present them with challot and other Shabbat treats. Baruchov enlisted my wife Dena to help find the Israeli mall workers, and to be the volunteer parent who shuttles the children to and from school.

The first Friday excursion was not an overwhelming success. Identifying who is an Israeli in a crowded mall with workers from all nationalities was quite a challenge. The teenagers went from kiosk to kiosk, chatting with the workers. After a moment, one would say something like, “You have a beautiful accent; do you mind if I ask where you are from?”

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The Levie family and Ben, an Israel who works at the Garden State Plaza mall. Courtesy the Levie family

While they met their share of Venezuelans, Egyptians, and Puerto Ricans, the youths began to identify a significant group of Israelis, many of whom were moved that the teenagers had sought them out just to say Shabbat Shalom. Week after week, Baruchov, Dena, and a different group of eighth-graders made their way around the mall. It was amazing to hear the stories Dena would tell about how appreciative these people were to have someone bring them a little taste of Shabbat.

This was also amazing: Most of these Israelis working in the mall did not even know each other. “In Israel, when Friday comes around, you feel Shabbat in the air,” one Israeli said. “Here, in New Jersey, Friday, Saturday, it’s just another work day – that was until you and these children started coming to the mall to remind us about Shabbat.”

Dena and Baruchov went each week with the children and within a few weeks had cultivated a personal relationship with many of the Israelis. Yom Kippur came, and Dena helped arrange a place for a few of the Israelis to attend services at a local synagogue that happily donated the seats. Sukkot followed, and we invited 25 of the Israelis working at the mall to join us for a meal in our sukkah. Five came, and it was an amazing experience – for us, as well as for them. You could tell that they missed home. Most had just finished the army and were in the United States to earn some money before returning home to attend university.

That is the background to Talia’s best Shabbat ever. On Friday, Dec. 30, we decided to invite all of our new friends to spend Shabbat with us at our home in Teaneck. For several weeks, we placed invitations in the challah bags the teenagers handed out. Because many were committed to working on Friday night until the mall closed at 9:30 p.m., they could not join us. We understood, we said, but we also said they were welcome to come at 10 p.m. for a Shabbat meal.

That Friday night, Baruchov and her family joined us for Shabbat dinner, as did six Israeli guests.

We had a wonderful Friday night meal. We sang Shabbat songs, shared words of Torah, recited the Birkat Hamazon (the Grace After Meals), then reset the table and added more tables in the den in the hope that at least some of the Israelis still working would take us up on the 10 p.m. offer. We had room for 40 people for the second seating, just in case.

At 10 p.m., to our amazement, more than 25 people walked into our home. The atmosphere was electric. When the evening came to an end at around 12:30 a.m., we were all physically exhausted, but spiritually invigorated.

Talia sensed the specialness of the moment, as did we all. It made it clear to me that reaching out is not hard and there are opportunities all around us. We just have to open our eyes and our hearts. It is a Shabbat we will always treasure.