My husband and I had decided. Now was the time. We would become full time pioneers of travel! We would go wherever the wind took us, exploring and anticipating the next great adventure! So we proceeded to liquidate all of our possessions, including our big house in suburbia, for a classic, 27’ Airstream travel trailer. We were entering our retirement years and excited to take full advantage of this new season of freedom in our lives.
Leaving Seattle behind we traveled south to the coast of California. After tedious research we finally found a quaint RV/Mobile Home Park in Long Beach which had been operating since the 30’s and we felt very fortunate that they had room for us, since most of California did not embrace the likes of RV’ers, even prohibiting the once popular ability to catch a nights sleep in a Walmart parking lot. We expected to stay just long enough to visit family, then move on with our traveling adventures.
What we did not anticipate, however, was the need to assist in caregiving of my mother, who then was in her late 80’s and showing significant signs of dementia. So, we willingly made the decision to stay for an extended time while continuing to live in our home on wheels, with the idea that we could still do some weekend traveling. Meanwhile, we enjoyed the beautiful coast of my upbringing and spent quality time with my family. After a few months, a longing to discover a spiritual community crept in. Our journey into Judaism had been a slow and often challenging one, each of us with backgrounds of varied spiritual beliefs under our belts. Neither of us grew up in Jewish religious homes so our knowledge of traditions was clumsy at best. Attempts to be part of a synagogue in Washington had been unsuccessful, leaving us frustrated and discouraged. Our inability to read Hebrew, despite taking beginning Hebrew classes, kept us constantly challenged, as we stumbled through the pages of the siddur (Hebrew prayer book). Anyone with half a brain could tell we did not possess the smooth moves of a learned Jew!
During services we didn’t know when to stand up or when to sit down — and then there was that part when everyone turned around. Is this the place where we take a few steps forward? When do I step back exactly? Now it’s time to bow to one side, then the other side, okay — now we bow in the middle till we can touch our knees! We learned to sit in the back row which gave us a little warning so we could follow along, but oh my, how awkward we must have looked! Our main source of learning had been through teachings we found on the internet mixed with a few books here and there. We faithfully enjoyed studying the Torah portions each week, but our desire to find a Jewish community where we shared beliefs continued to be a missing piece to the puzzle, however, we were determined and up for the task, despite our lack of charisma or past successes! After all — we were pioneers now, we kept reminding ourselves! We knew that if we were to continue our journey in Judaism that we must tackle the scary hurdle of finding a group where we could learn and be accepted.
Despite my dear mother’s declining health, she had been attending a weekly class at the Jewish Community Center taught by a local rabbi. So I did a little detective work and discovered that a Rabbi Abba Perelmuter taught this class and also led a local Chabad synagogue called Shuel by the Shore. Well, I thought, that sounds like a friendly place! I approached my mother that week and asked her if she would like to attend an evening Shabbat service by the Rabbi she knew from her weekly classes. She immediately lit up with a big smile of approval, commenting on what a nice Rabbi he was! So, we decided to give this friendly sounding shuel and the nice Rabbi a try. Perhaps, I thought, with my mother in tow, she might provide a soft cushion for us to be welcomed.
The following Friday we arrived early to mom’s little downtown apartment and I helped her get all doll’d up with her favorite pink blouse and a string of pearls. She insisted on wearing some lipstick, which she would never leave home without. The location of the shuel was nestled between the Pacific Coast Highway and a lovely marina, within a vintage 1960’s hotel, appropriately named, The SeaPort Marina (which has since been bull-dozed making way for yet another strip mall). The hotel was a good city block long with multiple levels and several Palm tree lined courtyards woven throughout. Although looking a bit worse for wear, the entire complex could have been out of an old movie, which I later discovered was actually true, as many movies had been filmed there for it’s surreal vintage architecture and ambiance.
We walked through the enormous glass-lined lobby, following the signs to the upstairs meeting room. We had been careful not to arrive too early and definitely not late, so as not to draw attention to ourselves. Our less than positive past experiences still lingered in my mind as I felt a sudden surge of nerves rise within me approaching the shuel door entrance. With mom on my arm, I took a deep breath and proceeded. Instantly she recognized the Rabbi and with her arms suddenly extended wide she lunged towards him, moving in for a full blown bear hug! So much for not drawing attention! I panicked and involuntarily tried to apprehend her with my best blocking technique, looking more like I was having some kind of nervous convulsion, but it was too late. Even I knew that this was not the way Orthodox folks of the opposite sex greeted one another, but mom had reverted to the emotions of a little girl and she was just overcome with excitement! Oh well, I thought… it’s all over now. We will never be welcomed back here again! But surprisingly, Rabbi Perelmuter eloquently side-stepped while taking a few quick shuffles back, evading mom’s hug like a matador. And then, without missing a beat, he called out her name and welcomed her with a big smile. I, in turn, quickly steered her to a seat in the women’s section, wishing I could just crawl beneath it and become invisible. Someone handed us a siddur as the Rabbi greeted the crowd with a warm welcome. It wasn’t long and his jovial manner had everyone laughing and I felt a sense of comfort and relief for the first time since arriving. Mom was transfixed and a smile never left her face, as Rabbi proceeded, “…and without further adieu ladies and gentlemen, let us all turn to page forty four.” To my surprise, as I found my place in the siddur I discovered it was transliterated from Hebrew to English and even had instructions in small print for the gestures which were customary! Not only that, but this nice Rabbi told us what page to turn too! Was I dreaming? The melodies to the prayers were glorious to my ears as everyone sang, with the Rabbi keeping beat by pounding the bimah enthusiastically with his fist. Soon, one, then two, then all the men joined Rabbi and danced around the bimah together! The joy was tangible.
The service continued with Rabbi interjecting words of reflection; topping it all off with a “down to earth” sermon wrapped in a powerhouse of enthusiasm.
We were then all invited to an adjacent room where we said Kiddush over the wine and enjoyed an assortment of gefilte fish, chips and sliced fruit. Everyone lingered to chat and were very friendly, when I suddenly realized that my nerves had altogether vanished. Rabbi’s wife, Chanie, was quick to make us feel welcome and after just a few minutes of conversation, I felt as if I had made a good friend. Upon coming home that evening we felt a renewed hope and as I settled mom into bed for the night, she kept saying, “Oh, what a nice Rabbi!”
It was unanimous that we had found our new shuel home and we quickly began to anticipate each Friday evening. Within a few weeks, we felt it was time to confide with Rabbi of our past, so after service one Friday, my husband, Baruch, shared with him our lack of Jewish upbringing and our diametric past religious experiences (as if he hadn’t already figured that out), emphasizing our desires to become part of the Jewish community. Realizing that the Rabbi didn’t appear shocked and was still standing, Baruch asked humbly,
“Would it be permissible for us to continue attending Shuel by the Shore?”
Rabbi looked intently into Baruch’s face and opening his arms, said lovingly,
“You are welcome here.”
Those four words changed our lives. Looking back, it is clear that without the compassion and encouragement of Rabbi Abba and Chanie in our lives, we may have never had the confidence to proceed further into Judaism. The good people that we became friends with, including the amazing Perelmuter family, were the missing pieces to our puzzle! All the while we learned and grew in a loving and accepting environment, more than any book or YouTube channel could have ever achieved.
Our ultimate dreams were fulfilled when we made aliyah a few years later. We are thankful for the many opportunities we now have in amazing Eretz Yisrael, but there is never a Friday evening when I do not recall the words of Rabbi saying,
“Ladies and gentlemen, let us all turn to page forty four.”