The first time I met Henny Machlis, z”l, I was a 20-year-old student spending a semester at Tel Aviv University in 1990.
Despite being based in Tel Aviv, I was eager to explore Jerusalem, the place I perceived as the spiritual side of Israel. I soon learned that one could get invited for regular Shabbat meals by showing up at the Western Wall on Shabbat, and a kiruv (Jewish outreach) professional like Jeff Seidel — an American expat whose mission was to bring disconnected Jews closer to their heritage — would be waiting to send hungry students like me to experience a traditional Shabbat dinner or lunch at an English speaker’s home in Jerusalem.
My friend Mindi and I were sent to the home of Rabbi Mordechai and Henny Machlis, a couple originally from Brooklyn that opened their home each Shabbat to guests from a variety of backgrounds. In 1990, they had eight kids. Coming from a nonobservant background where two kids was the norm, I was stunned that she was able to cook such a delicious meal with so many young children present and remain so calm. About 20 of us sat around the table; I remember the kugels as being especially tasty.
The following summer, I was selected to participate in a young Jewish students’ leadership program, this time spending six weeks in Jerusalem. Once again I returned to the small apartment on Ma’alot Dafna, where I was happy to discover that Henny remembered me from the previous year.
Fast forward 15 years, when I found myself in a Brooklyn catering hall at the wedding of my son’s Chabad preschool teacher. During those years, I had married and gradually taken on Jewish observance, to the point where I was keeping Shabbat and Kashrut and living in my own (modern) Orthodox community. A few rows away, I saw a woman praying with intense emotion as the ceremony got underway. This guest was none other than Henny Machlis, who, it turns out, was the aunt of the groom! Full of excitement, I approached her after and told her how much I had enjoyed my meals at her home. She said I should visit her on my next trip to Jerusalem. While I had no concrete plans to return to Israel, I promised her that I would.
My opportunity came the following summer, when I turned 40 and had my own mid-life mini crisis. I arranged to spend a week in Jerusalem by myself in walking distance of the Machlises. By that point, the family’s ranks swelled to 14 children (and numerous grandchildren). But instead of cutting back on the number of guests, they were hosting some 200 people every Shabbat! That Friday night, I was tightly packed into their small living room, the Shabbat candles burning on the table behind me.
Around the room were students and backpackers; Americans, Israelis, and Europeans; religious Jews of all streams and unaffiliated Jews; and some non-Jewish tourists. There was even a homeless man making himself comfortable at the Machlis table, his head covered with a towel in place of a kipa or hat.
I reintroduced myself to the Machlises, who by 2009 were also running a Shabbat morning minyan at the Kotel, which I made sure to attend. After a kiddush in the Western Wall plaza complete with cake, I walked back with Henny to her apartment through the Old City’s Muslim Quarter, exiting at Damascus Gate and strolling another 20 minutes or so to her home. We had a long heart-filled chat, discussing the struggles of raising children. She said she would have had even more than 14 had God willed it. I was amazed at her calmness and stamina and also impressed at her ability to delegate the Shabbat preparations to her older kids, who had everything ready for us by the time we arrived.
Shabbat lunch was incredible, with delectable food options for everyone, including meat and vegetarian cholents, salads, and delicious pareve ice cream drizzled with chocolate sauce. More impressive than the food selection was the involvement of the guests, both men and women, in giving divrei Torah, including the towel-topped homeless man. I truly felt welcome and at home in such a diverse crowd.
Sadly, that was the last Shabbat experience I enjoyed at their home, although I did host a parlor meeting for Rabbi Machlis the following year while he was visiting the U.S. The Machlis Shabbat project was initiated by supporters of the family to raise funds so that they could continue hosting their hundreds of guests each week. It was the least I could do to help a family that had been instrumental in showing me a side of Judaism that was traditional yet tolerant, spiritual yet grounded, and above all, welcoming.
Despite being out of touch, I learned this year that Henny was quite ill and receiving treatment in New York. I joined the Facebook group of well wishers, and when it was clear that her health was deteriorating, began praying for her. I still feel guilty that I did not try to visit her during her hospitalization, and was devastated when she passed away on Oct. 16.
But I was touched to see a video on one of the tribute pages that had been dedicated in her memory. It showed her celebrating her youngest child’s bat mitzva this summer at a camp for children with special needs. Appearing radiant despite her illness, she spoke about the mitzva of Jewish women to bake and separate challah and shared her hopes for her daughter to grow up, get married, and have children of her own.
One of the many funeral posters plastered around Jerusalem following Henny’s death best summarized her life: “Rabot banot asu chayil, v’at aleet al kulana” (“Many daughters have attained valor, but you surpass them all,” Proverbs 31).
How does anyone honor such a holy woman? By baking challah, of course. I believe it is no coincidence that The Great Big Challah Bake sponsored by the Shabbos Project, an international gathering of women to bake challah in honor of Shabbat, took place while her family was still sitting shiva. In my community alone, 1,400 women and girls gathered at a local country club last Thursday night to knead and braid our own loaves and learn about hafrashat challah, one of the three unique mitzvot assigned to women in Judaism.
Just like at the Machlis home, the women came from different backgrounds within Judaism: Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform synagogues were represented, as were women with sheitels and tichels, women in jeans and no head coverings; Israelis and Americans. It was if Henny herself were there encouraging us to embrace Shabbat and this special mitzva. Needless to say, the challot that I baked never tasted so amazing.
May Henny’s memory be for a blessing.
Tax-deductible donations to the Machlis Shabbat project may be made at www.machlis.org/donate.php.