Feeling my father’s presence

by Andrea Schneider

In 2015, my father became gravely ill. Our local rabbi was away, but another rabbi stepped into the breach and was a huge support to us at this difficult time. Though not remotely observant, none of us – least of all my father – were in favor of euthanasia, and Rabbi Glazer helped us through the experience of his natural death. I know in my heart of hearts that it is in the merit of this mitzvah, of being at one with Judaism’s focus on the sanctity of human life, that the events that followed transpired in my life…

My father passed away three days before The Shabbat Project in 2015. Rabbi Glazer invited us to what we assumed was a regular Shabbat Friday night service. It was anything but. Unbeknown to us, it was the annual Shabbat Project weekend. At the end of the service, another woman (her name was Karen) introduced herself and invited me for Shabbat lunch the next day. I declined. She asked me again. Again, I respectfully declined. After the third time, I had a strange feeling – like I was getting some sort of message from the universe. I accepted.

When I got home and told my husband, he was surprised. “Are you sure you want to go?” he asked me.

We arrived at the lunch the next day and were surprised to find 12 other guests of very diverse backgrounds. Karen was surprised I showed up after learning I was in mourning. The slight awkwardness of sitting down to lunch in a private home – a fairly intimate experience – with a group of people who were effectively strangers, quickly dissipated. Conversations found their groove. Interpersonal dynamics began to form and flourish. I was in a fog, but soon found I was enjoying myself despite everything that had happened. We all had different perspectives and different stories to share. It was beautiful.

After lunch, still with that faint glow from spending time in enjoyable company and from partaking of a hearty, home-cooked meal, I encouraged my husband to drive me to the classes that were on offer at the shul throughout the afternoon. The class was spirited, more of a discussion, with people adding their own thoughts and flavors to the mix. The ideas were really interesting.

More than that, I was happy to be surrounded by the people who were there. There was this gentle, supportive energy in the room; for some reason everyone felt like family.

We decided to stay on for the third meal, which was also really beautiful. At the meal, I met Robin Meyerson, Shabbat Project Arizona co-chair, and we struck up an immediate friendship. Robin invited us for lunch the following Shabbat. She only had to ask me once!

Throughout Shabbat, there was an inclusiveness and acceptance in the air, and I felt inspired by that. Perhaps most powerfully, I continually felt my father’s presence. I was in mourning, but it really felt like my father was still alive. I felt him there with me, guiding me to and through this Shabbat.

Since that fateful day, I’ve gradually taken more steps in my Jewish journey. At the beginning, I was afraid of making mistakes. But then I learnt to embrace the mistakes and to make this journey of mine one driven by love rather than fear.

One of the most profound Jewish experiences I had was at the mikveh. At first it seemed like a rushed, perfunctory act. I asked the supervisor to leave me alone in the mikveh for a few moments so I could experience it in solitude. I found myself floating in the warm water, diving to the bottom, feeling an inexpressible sense of comfort. Then I started to talk to my Creator in my own words and found peace. It was a genuinely life-changing moment.

Today, I’ve just finished koshering my home. And I am fully Shabbat observant. Robin and I have become close friends. We learn together on a regular basis.

As someone in the early stages of my spiritual growth, The Shabbat Project has been an amazing way to connect with others who are also learning and feeling their way forward, as well as those who have so much to teach.

Shabbat was exactly what I needed at that moment in my life – to feel connected to a larger, global family. I experienced the tremendous loss of one person, a very significant person, an irreplaceable person. But I filled this gap with a sense of belonging to an entire people. My long-lost family. A scattered tribe, so diverse, so culturally diffuse, that are somehow one. It gave me hope. And I knew that my father was pleased, wherever he was.

Andrea Schneider
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