|First-graders Peretz Levin of Rockland County and Ovadya Yaish of Bergenfield enjoy biblical-style hospitality from seventh-graders Tova Berman of Fair Lawn, left, and Mairav Linzer of Rockland. Chagit Alpert|
The Torah portion of Vayera, read on Nov. 15 this year, describes Abraham and Sarah’s open-tent hospitality to strangers – actually three undercover angels – who came to visit them in the heat of the midday desert sun. The unexpected visitors’ feet are washed, and they are offered a freshly prepared feast.
This episode is considered the paradigm for “hachnasat orchim,” or welcoming guests.
At the Rosenbaum Yeshiva of North Jersey in River Edge, the lesson is taught in action, not just in words. In the days leading up to the reading of Vayera, school custodian Ricky Kramer pitches a large canvas tent in a main hallway. Its flaps are open for maximum welcoming effect in keeping with the midrashic description: “Rabbi Abahu said: The tent of the Patriarch Abraham was opened at both sides. Rabbi Judan said: It was like a double-gated passage.”
The tent is strewn with hay, decorated with the relevant verses, and finished off with life-size cardboard figures of Abraham and Sarah preparing food for their guests. Cardboard camels are set up outside.
Then the children’s preparations begin.
“The fifth-, sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-grade girls create skits and programs on the topic of welcoming guests, and they send invitations to the younger classes to come to their classrooms and to the tent to see their plays and have refreshments,” said Rabbi Harvey Horn, principal for Judaic studies.
The young visitors, in grades one to four, come with short presentations they have written about the Torah portion as well, said Horn.
“We feel that this is a wonderful opportunity for our students to relive the great mitzvah which typified the trait of kindness which our forefather, Abraham, was known for,” he said. “In addition, it highlights the ‘achdut’ [unity] of students of all ages, working together, to perform this beautiful mitzvah.”
“The idea is to make Torah stories come alive,” said Cindy Zucker, a teacher and “mashgicha ruchanit” (spiritual mentor) for the girls in the upper grades. She explained that the concept originated in a conversation among administrators about 10 years ago. “We also felt it would foster a nice feeling among the student body, which is so big now – almost 1,000,” she said.
In addition to the main tent, many of the classes also decorate their own tent and the girls dress in costume. Each class works with its teacher to come up with original games, skits, and songs to present.
“It’s incredibly student-based,” said Zucker, who explained that the upper-grade boys do alternative activities to minimize traffic in the tent. “The girls just love it.”
Mairav Linzer, a seventh-grader from Rockland County, said each girl in her class made two 12-piece puzzles depicting Abraham in his tent. Forty visiting first-graders each received a puzzle and were allowed to add pieces when they correctly answered questions on the biblical portion posed to them by their older peers.
“They loved it, and they liked that they could take the puzzles home with them to color,” Mairav said. “We put in a lot of effort and it was a lot of fun. We really wanted to see the smiles on their faces.”
Eli Schiff, a second-grader from Teaneck, said the fifth-grade girls his class visited showed them that “hachnasat orchim means sharing…. They gave us food and drinks and they were very nice and kind.”
And how does he plan to treat guests in his own home, now that he has learned all about the mitzvah?
“I wouldn’t make a mess and I would keep the food neat and not throw things,” Eli said.