It was a Friday night service and dinner that I will not soon forget. The story took place this past weekend in the lovely port city of Dubrovnik, Croatia, known as the ‘Pearl of the Adriatic’, where the thirteenth Congress of the European Federation of Sexology was held. My wife, Talli, who is well-known to Times of Israel readers as a prominent couples and sex therapist, was in attendance, and I had accompanied her for a few days of rest and relaxation.
Arranging for kosher food in European cities can be difficult, and Dubrovnik does not have an organized Jewish community. While there is a small synagogue and Jewish museum, the synagogue is used only for the High Holidays, and the museum, with its Torah scrolls behind glass, tells the familiar story of most Jewish communities during the Nazi period — one of death and destruction.
Various members of the Israeli delegation to the conference — doctors, therapists, social workers, and their spouses — had arranged to bring and share ready-to-eat kosher food for a special Shabbat dinner this past Friday night.
Friday evening, at 7 pm, the Israelis met in the serendipitously named ‘Asemon’ conference room, bringing an assortment of cold cuts, chips, rolls, tehina, nuts, wine, cake, grape juice, and Shabbat candles. The candles were lit, and we went outside to recite Kabbalat Shabbat and Maariv. We did not have 10 males among us, and we were a bit short of Siddurim, but the prayers were melodious and inspiring. Perhaps it was the sun setting over the Adriatic Sea and the surrounding hills. Or perhaps it was the fact that a group of Jewish people had assembled for prayer in a place that had not heard the strains of L’cha Dodi for many years.
8:00 p.m. We returned to the conference room, arranged the challot and wine, recited the Kiddush, and washed. I have eaten many sumptuous Shabbat meals, but there was something about the simplicity of the food and the combination of circumstances that had brought us together that made the entire evening special. And then, each person introduced himself. Not only did we have representatives from Jerusalem, Bet Shemesh, Eli, Raanana, and Ariel, but some had been born in far more exotic locales, such as Tunisia, Strasbourg, Czechoslovakia, and Holland. And as the conversation continued, people shared the unique experiences that they had encountered, growing up in these disparate communities. The entire evening was not only one of shared food, but of shared experiences.
The evening continued with words of Torah and song. Finally, at 10:30 p.m., after Grace after Meals was recited, everyone went their separate ways, some back to their rooms upstairs, while others had a longer walk of an hour and a half back to their hotels. My wife and I were tasked with waiting for the Shabbat candles to burn out, since in our haste, no provision had been made to put aluminum foil underneath the Shabbat lights. Oddly enough, the modest tea lights continued to burn for another two hours. As I sat in the now-deserted conference room, surrounded by empty glasses and burning candles, I was struck with the incongruity of the peaceful Shabbat meal being held in the downstairs conference room of a busy Croatian hotel while the majority of congress participants were enjoying a Friday night beach party on the Adriatic Sea.
The story is told about Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, better known as the Kotzker Rebbe (1787–1859), who asked his students, “Where does God dwell?” His disciples answered, “Why, everywhere, of course!” “No,” responded the Kotzker, “God dwells wherever we let God in.
Last Friday evening in Dubrovnik, I think, we let Him in.