Welcoming the stranger, riding out the storm together

Welcoming the stranger, riding out the storm together

Matthew Halpern is the executive director of Congregation Beth Shalom in Livingston; before that, for many years he was the executive director of Congregation Beth Sholom in Teaneck.

The storm makes strangers into friends, as this Facebook photo shows.
The storm makes strangers into friends, as this Facebook photo shows.

November 15 was a day rife with complaints and gripes from every side of the metro NYC area.

Rather than add to the cacophony, I want to share my experience, which highlights why our work in the Jewish community (and any organized community) is so valuable.

As the snow picked up in intensity during the storm, my colleagues at Temple Beth Shalom in Livingston all left between 3 and 4 p.m. I figured I would leave soon after they did, but the snow did not let up and the traffic reports were getting worse by the minute. So I got comfortable in my office and went back to work as I waited for the storm to let up and the traffic to ease up … and I will be forever grateful for that decision.

About 7:45 p.m., I received a call from a woman named Robin who was at the Ritz Diner, up the street from the synagogue. She said that she and a colleague had been in the area for work and were stranded now. The roads were not passable and they could not get home. They hunkered down at the diner for most of the afternoon, but while the owner and staff had been very accommodating, they now wanted to close so they too could try to get home.

Robin asked if they could come to the synagogue to hang out until the road conditions improved. Of course I said yes, but before I could say “drive safe,” the phone clicked, and I wasn’t sure whether to expect two people, 20 people, or nobody.

The phone rang about 40 minutes later, and it was Robin once again. She said the roads were really hazardous and the trip that should’ve taken maybe two minutes was still ongoing — but they were almost at the synagogue. I found out later they had to navigate several side streets just to make it into our parking lot. Robin and her colleague, Lauren, came in from the cold and got comfortable for the next several hours.

After we exchanged pleasantries, Robin and Lauren chatted and watched shows on Netflix while I continued to do some work in my office. After some time, I noticed another car in the parking lot, stopped in front of the main entrance. Carefully navigating the walkway, two teenage girls and a woman asked if they could come inside to use the restroom. I am grateful that Joe, a member of our maintenance staff, greeted them at the door and welcomed them in. They had been on the road for five hours and were able to get only across town. So I invited them and the gentleman in the car to stay inside, where it was warm, for however long they needed. Now this little gathering of three had turned into a party of seven.

It was already after 10 p.m. by this point. Charlie and Sheila, the other two adults, had not-so-subtly hinted that the girls, students at Kushner, should try to get some sleep. They preferred to stay awake, and eventually we made our way into our boardroom where we could watch the news and catch up on what was happening. After some time, including a few failed attempts at taking a nap, the father of one of the girls called to say he would be over in his 4-wheel-drive vehicle to pick the foursome up. It was after midnight and these girls finally were making their way back home.

They were so appreciative for the hospitality, and I was glad to be able to offer them some refuge from the cold.

Robin and Lauren were still at the synagogue and we were joined by Rona, another new friend from the diner. She was visiting from Florida and trying to get to a relative’s apartment in West Orange, but the roads were at a standstill. The three women chatted as if they were old friends, even though they had met just a few hours earlier.

Every so often, we would check Waze or the traffic report for the latest intel, but nothing was consistent. Robin had even taken to calling various police departments to get updated road conditions. At about 1:40 a.m., I went outside and saw that Route 10 was actually pretty clear. We took a quick huddle and decided to make our way out and head home (or in Lauren’s case, to Robin’s, where she would stay the night). We devised a plan about who would follow whom, we hugged and said farewell, and we made our way out into the cold, light rain. I even told everyone to text me so I knew they got home safely.

What was a real mess of a day for so many people, including those stuck at school and at work and even on the roads, had a very bright silver lining for the eight of us. It reinforced for me exactly what a synagogue is. It’s a beit knesset, a house of gathering. A place where people can come together for any reason; a place where they can seek refuge in challenging circumstances.

While my day was extremely long (and while others may have had a more challenging experience), I’m so glad I stayed behind and waited out the conditions at the synagogue. Not just for myself, but for the new people I met in this experience that we shared. They were so appreciative of the hospitality that I could offer at Temple Beth Shalom, and like Abraham, I was privileged to welcome the stranger and provide shelter and comfort to those in need.

This is why I do what I do. This is what community is all about.

Matthew Halpern is the executive director of Congregation Beth Shalom in Livingston; before that, for many years he was the executive director of Congregation Beth Sholom in Teaneck.

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