In 2016, Pastor Scott Moffatt from the Seattle Washington area came to Israel several days before a group he was leading. Looking for “some kind of cultural interaction,” he found an opportunity to have a Shabbat meal with a Jewish family in Jerusalem. The program he joined is Shabbat of a Lifetime, an organization that matches tourists who want to experience an authentic Jewish Shabbat in Jerusalem with host families.
Moffatt raved to Breaking Israel News about his experience. “As a pastor of a church in America, I try to teach my people to love the Jewish people, for they are God’s chosen. There is so much fake news about Israel and the Palestinian problem that people get confused here. So actually going, sitting down, and sharing in the tradition and a relationship makes all the difference in the world. What seemed so foreign (the Shabbat celebration) was given meaning and purpose for those who are truly seeking to understand it. The food was also awesome!”
Approximately twice a month for the past two years, Aliza and Neil Gillman have opened their home, in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Armon haNatziv (Commissioner’s Palace), to Christian groups from all over the world.
What motivates the Gillmans to spend two Friday nights a month hosting non-Jewish strangers? “Hachnasat orchim (welcoming guests) is a central value to our family,” Aliza Gillman told Breaking Israel News.
“We heard about Shabbat of a Lifetime but we don’t live within walking distance of any of the Jerusalem hotels so they couldn’t send us Jewish groups.”
When Shabbat of a Lifetime began getting inquiries from non-Jewish group, they contacted the Gillmans. “That sounded amazing to us. What a wonderful opportunity to open our home, to allow people to see what Judaism really is. What’s a more natural way to let people have a glimpse into a normal Jewish Israeli family, not through a book or a stereotype?”
The Gillman family Shabbat meals are very kid-oriented. There are other benefits for their four children, ages 10 to 3, as well. “We’ve hosted groups from Sri Lanka, South Korea, China… from all over the world. Our kids have an opportunity to interact with people they will never meet otherwise. Shabbat of a Lifetime helped us go up a notch in [introducing our kids to] different types of people,” she commented.
Gillman feels that hosting groups of Christian tourists is a win-win. “There was absolutely not a concern to bring non-Jews into the house. We have an amazing opportunity to show what being a Jew is. They want to learn about who we are.”
The Gillmans have a rule for managing their Shabbat table. “We tell our guests, ‘Our children are not allowed to ask you, but you’re welcome to ask anything you want.’ They’ve asked if we tithe. They have questions about kashrut (eating kosher). They have questions about our interactions with the Arab neighbors. We love that people ask so we can have a frank discussion.
“We have never had an attempt by anyone use our Shabbat table as an excuse to proselytize. It’s really a genuine interest in meeting a Jewish family. In most cases, they are impressed that we’re keeping the rules of the Old Testament. For example, we bless our children using the words in the Bible.”
Gillman reported that some visitors contacted them after the shared meal to say that they loved the custom so much, they started blessing their own children.
As iron sharpens iron So a man sharpens the wit of his friend. Proverbs 27:17
Shmuel Eisenberg serves in a key leadership role for Shabbat of a Lifetime. He and his wife Chana also host groups in their home in the Old City of Jerusalem.
He explained to Breaking Israel News what Shabbat of a Lifetime offers to Christian tourists that they wouldn’t otherwise get.
“Millions of people a year visit Israel and enjoy all it has to offer- important religious sites, vast historical sites, various unique cultures, as well its beautiful weather and landscapes, and even its burgeoning culinary scene.These people return home and share their wonderful experiences from their trips. Yet, in order to properly connect with the land, one has to connect with its people.
“We offer travelers the ability to form a living link to a land and a people and to be in touch with the Israel of today and not just the Israel that once was.”
Reflecting on what the experience offers his Jewish family, Eisenberg had three thoughts. First, he spoke about his pride in being about to share Judaism with his guests. “We get to share our religion, history, and culture with people who are interested in learning about it. We are proud of being Jewish and Israeli. While many of our ancestors and even people today, often have to hide their Judaism or risk persecution, we are able to openly and widely share it with our guests who are thirsting for this knowledge. It is an honor for us.”
Second, he mentioned the importance of Christian support for Israel. “It’s important to feel supported. In a world in which Jews/Zionists are often seeking out allies, our friends coming to the table and sharing their fervent support for us is refreshing and reinvigorating. And those who are not as fervent supporters at the outset, hopefully leave slightly more inclined to be so.”
Third, Eisenberg mentioned how much his family benefits from meeting people from other cultures. “We get to learn about them. We love travel and becoming educated about other cultures, religions, and nationalities. Having guests from around the world join us for a Shabbat meal enables us to do that around our weekly Shabbat table.”
As with the Gillmans, at the Eisenberg’s Shabbat table, no topic is off-limits, though they do try to keep disagreements from spoiling the atmosphere. “We get asked about everything and anything. From religion, to our personal lives, to politics, to our home.
“We often tell guests that every offensive question has already been asked our table and if they manage to find a more offensive question, we give them a special prize. We don’t shy away from any questions but are by no means authorities on every subject. At our Shabbat table, conversation is what we most enjoy.”
Suzanne Lewis, a Christian woman from Orange County California participated in a Shabbat of a Lifetime meal this past summer. She told Breaking Israel News, “It’s important for others to have a Shabbat meal with Jews for the experience, the education of the religious traditions.”
Lewis and her family shared a Shabbat meal with a mixed group of 20 Jews and Christians. She was impressed by the shared customs of Jewish people who “could be thousands of miles from home, yet find ‘like people’ to worship with and have their customs observed. Everything was explained to us and why and just to realize that this experience has been happening in people’s homes/lives for thousands of years.”
In the end, it was the uniting of people from all over the world at the Shabbat table that touched Lewis the most. “The diversity of our group is what really made the experience something to remember for a lifetime; it is something my family will never forget. For three plus hours we were in a room full of strangers, but left the dinner feeling like friends.”